Being An Oxymoron: A Liberal Evangelical
By Tony Campolo, Professor Emeritus
Eastern University, St. Davids, PA
A few weeks ago I was a guest on Steven Colbert's popular television show, The Colbert Report. He introduced me as an Evangelical who is liberal on social issues. Then he added, "He's a living oxymoron!"
Sadly, his words reflect the way Evangelicals are regularly perceived. Here in the United States, evangelical Christians have become so married to the Right Wing of the Republican Party that it is hard for those outside our faith community to imagine that a significant minority of Evangelicals have socially liberal politics. Yet over its history, evangelical Christianity has championed some of our country's most progressive social movements.
Charles Finney, the dominant evangelist of the nineteenth century, was a major player in the anti-slavery movement, and his revivals provided much of the impetus for the women's suffrage movement of that era. Back in those days, Evangelicals pulled their churches out of mainline denominations not because the denominations were too socially liberal on the race issue, but because they were not liberal enough. William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame, the darling of early twentieth century Evangelicals, was a pacifist who opposed America's involvement in war. I gladly take my place in his train.
The word liberal has become a political label of ill-repute among many Evangelicals. But if by social liberal, you mean someone who believes America should guarantee medical coverage for all of its citizens; fund the public schools in poor urban and rural communities at the same level as those in rich suburban neighborhoods; be committed to progressive environmental policies; give more than four-tenths of one percent of its federal budget to help the poor of other countries; and give up its militaristic adventurism-then I embrace the label with enthusiasm.
I'm one of those pro-life Christians who is convinced that the outrageous number of abortions each year are more due to right-wing economic policies than to Roe v. Wade. In a society where many poor women must work outside the home at a ridiculously low minimum wage just to survive, yet have no access to daycare for their children, we should not be surprised if they seek abortion when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Yet many of the Religious Right Christians who share my pro-life sentiments tend to oppose enacting legislation that would enable poor women to give birth and keep their children. No wonder one of our critics says, "Evangelicals are people who believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth." Too often it seems like we care about protecting the unborn, but we're not willing to provide for the born.
Recently, an African-American preacher in Philadelphia joined forces with the Religious Right and the White House when he spoke out against the nomination of "activist" judges to the Supreme Court who would interpret the law beyond what the framers of the Constitution intended. I wondered if this preacher thought about all the advances for minority peoples that were the fruit of activist judges. Liberal judges are the ones who integrated public schools with their 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Activist judges are the ones who obliterated policies that had allowed for racial discrimination in real estate sales, employment, and education. In reality, almost all of the progressive rulings that decimated Jim Crow went well beyond the intensions of the framers of the Constitution, many of whom owned slaves. Oh, how quickly people forget!
There are those on the Religious Right who argue that caring for the poor and needy is solely the responsibility of the church and should not be funded with taxpayers' money. Yet it is clear in Scripture that God holds governments responsible for playing a significant role in providing such care. Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah who warned: "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless" (Isa 10:1-2).
Also, Jesus declared that the day would come when nations would be judged by how they cared for the poor: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (Mt 25:31-32).
Allow me to add to my advocacy for certain liberal social policies a commitment to fiscal conservatism. This present government, so supported by most Evangelicals, has mortgaged the future of our children and our children's children. This is a consequence of funding the war in Iraq and giving gigantic tax breaks to the richest people in our country, as well as to huge corporations such as price-gouging oil companies. Our national debt increases by close to $2 billion each week, with the People's Republic of China being the major party picking up our loans. The communists will not have to bury us, as Khrushchev had hoped. Soon they will own us!
It has been said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the politician looks to the next election while the statesman looks to the next generation. Given that assessment, we have an absence of statesmen and stateswomen in Washington, D.C. when it comes to the national debt.
The Bible speaks more about justice that it does about anything else-except for love. But in the end, justice is nothing more than love turned into social policies. It is my own commitment to justice, inadequate though it might be, that makes me the kind of person I am. To that end this Evangelical is more than willing to be labeled a social liberal, even if it does make me a living oxymoron.