The Southern Baptist Convention’s “triumphalist” attitude after the victory of President George W. Bush is confusing the public about what it means to be a Baptist, evangelist Tony Campolo told a British newspaper.
Campolo, a featured speaker at this summer’s Baptist World Alliance Centenary Congress in Birmingham, England, told The Baptist Times that he fears Republican Party sympathies by Southern Baptists in the United States.
“Evangelicals and the religious right are seen as synonymous and that is to the detriment of our ministry,” Campolo said. “They have limited themselves to two social issues: abortion and gay marriage. These are important issues, but we must remember that there are 2,000 verses of Scripture that deal with poverty.”
Campolo criticized the way right-wing evangelicalism aligned itself with the anti-gay marriage and pro-war stance of the Republican Party in the last election, while failing to lobby for more tax cuts and welfare benefits for the poor.
“After the election, we have come across as anti-gay, anti-women, pro-war, pro-guns and indifferent to the poor,” Campolo said. “Is that what evangelical Christianity is all about?”
When people ask if Christians are “left or right,” Campolo said, “We should say ‘on what issue?’ On abortion we are right; on aid to the poor left.”
Referring to Bush’s advocacy of capital punishment, Campolo said rather than supporting his right-wing viewpoint, Christians should be strongly against the use of death as a form of punishment.
“Doesn’t the Bible say a great deal about the poor people, jubilee, the environment, justice and our judicial system?” he asked.
Campolo stressed that the blurring of political and religious spheres is at present a purely American phenomenon.
“When I talk about evangelical Christians and this issue, I am talking about the U.S.,” he said. “When I go elsewhere I find there is a great nervousness among leaders toward the U.S. and the Southern Baptist alliance with political figures. That is a marriage that needs to be made into a divorce.”
Campolo said British evangelicals, for example, are more interested in fostering social justice. “You have a more holistic theology,” he said. “I feel much more at home in the U.K. than I do in the U.S.”
Campolo said he was “greatly sadden[ed]” by Baptist relations in the U.S., particularly last summer’s split in the Baptist World Alliance. The Southern Baptist denomination withdrew membership from the organization, and Campolo said he is unconvinced by the SBC leaders’ denial that the denomination intends to set up a rival organization to the BWA.
Campolo predicted the convention’s eagerness to exert an international presence will affect the spread of Christianity over the next 20 years, tarnishing its image because of its association with right-wing politics. But it is only a matter of time, he said, before “thoughtful converts” realize that the Bible addresses a broader range of issues.
“The next 20 years are going to be glorious years for those on the religious right,” Campolo said. “But a reaction will set in over the next quarter of a century that may hurt Christianity in all its forms.”
“It will create disillusionment, and there will be a departure from churches,” he predicted. “In the short term, they win; in the long term, they lose.”
Campolo said he realizes his words may alienate portions of the worldwide Baptist family, but he sees it as his duty as a Christian and as a sociologist to speak out.
“I want to engage the non-Christian world,” he said. “Without raising these serious questions, I lose my legitimacy for speaking to those I need to speak to most.”