Evangelist seeks social justice, preaches conversion

Toledo Blade, Aug. 2, 2003

The Rev. Tony Campolo is a religious leader who defies religious stereotypes.

An educator, evangelist, author, and high-profile counselor to President Clinton, Dr. Campolo is part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part cerebral social activist.

“What creates a certain anomaly for me is that I am thoroughly evangelical and preach a Billy Graham message of being converted, which is often ignored in mainstream churches,” said Dr. Campolo, who will speak at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Toledo Aug. 9.

“Mainline churches have done a good job of articulating social justice issues, but have not done as effective a job in bringing individuals to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,” he said in a recent interview.

Dr. Campolo, an ordained Baptist minister with a doctorate in sociology from Temple University, is working hard to build bridges over any gulfs that may exist between the two branches of Christianity.

He gives about 400 lectures a year, usually speaking twice each day. He has written 28 books, including the best-selling … It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming, and he is founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.

In addition, Dr. Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Penn.

“The students at Eastern have a saying: ‘God is everywhere, and Tony Campolo is everywhere but here,’” he said with a laugh in a recent interview from his university office.

While his blend of fundamentalism and intellectualism may seem unwieldy to some, Dr. Campolo’s ministries are based on the simple premise that religious conversion leads a person to seek social justice.

“Conversion is not basically so that you can go to heaven when you die,” he said. “The purpose of conversion is so that you can go through the kind of personal transformation that will enable you to be a different kind of a person here on Earth and to become an instrument of God for changing the world.”

EAPE, which he founded more than 30 years ago, exemplifies Dr. Campolo’s dualistic approach. The organization has established programs in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Africa, Canada, and the United States, where it teaches reading, writing, and arithmetic to children and helps poverty-stricken adults open and operate small businesses.

“We believe that the programs we sponsor and the education that we do in economic development only works because it is faith-based,” he said. “Any economic development program that does not facilitate a change of consciousness, which I believe is what spiritual conversion is really all about, is going to fail.”

He said he has opted not to pursue federal faith-based grants for his programs because of the governmental strings attached. While the government wants to fund private, faith-based programs, he said, at the same time it prohibits the groups from sharing their faith, citing the need for separation of church and state.

“We want that spiritual dimension to be present in all that we do,” Dr. Campolo said. “One of our affiliates tried to get a government grant and when they analyzed the program, they said they couldn’t give the agency any faith-based funds because the program was too faith-based. We framed that letter. They’re good people, but they just don’t get it.”

Among EAPE’s major efforts has been the establishment of 95 schools in Haiti, where the illiteracy rate is 80 percent, Dr. Campolo said.

“We’re working with children who are in virtual slavery, who are living with families that are not their own. They are called restavecs, and a restavec is a slave child who comes from a family that is so poor that the family has to give the child away. And there are about a quarter of a million of them in Haiti. We know that if they can learn to read and write and do arithmetic, they can escape from that.”

He recently returned from South Africa, where EAPE is helping residents of impoverished townships to set up micro-industries.

“We generally reject the trickle-down theory of economics and we go with Jesus, who said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Small works grow from the bottom up,” he said.

Despite his lack of interest in the government’s faith-based initiative grants, Dr. Campolo believes there are cases where separation of church and state is necessary.

He said, for example, that the Ten Commandments should not be displayed in public courtrooms.

“I believe that when the Ten Commandments were written, there is a specific reference to the God of the Jews and Christians, and, perhaps depending on whether they want it to be this way, also the God of the Muslims. At any rate, it’s a specific God we’re talking about.

“In a pluralistic society, you cannot say to people who worship another God, let’s say people who are Hindu, or let’s say people who are Buddhist, that you have to put our God above your God when you come into the courtroom, which is what the first of the Ten Commandments says [‘You shall have no other gods before me.’]

“I think that is religious oppression,” Dr. Campolo said.

Some commandments dealing with morality, such as those that forbid lying and stealing, apply to all humanity, but the ones that speak of covetousness treat women “more like property than persons,” he said, which he personally finds unacceptable. (In the New Testament, he added, Jesus and Apostle Paul show that men and women should be treated as equals.)

On the subject of homosexual marriages, Dr. Campolo said he believes gays and lesbians should be guaranteed the same civil rights as any citizen.

“I don’t think that binding commitments that gay people make to each other should be called marriages, because that distorts historically what marriage meant,” he said. “But I think gay people should be entitled to the same legal rights and the same opportunities that people in all American society are entitled to.”

As long as homosexuals pay taxes, he said, they should receive the same employment, educational, and legal rights as heterosexuals.

“Basically I would argue that in the United States, we have to be careful that the church upholds its traditional biblical values, but at the same time guarantees the rights of people who differ from the church. A democracy is not a society where the majority rules; a democracy is a society in which it is safe to be in the minority.”

Dr. Campolo said his views have not been well-received in many church circles.

“I’m under a great deal of fire,” he said.

The evangelist said he has continued his counseling relationship with former President Bill Clinton.

“He is upbeat. He feels that he is involved with some very challenging work,” Dr. Campolo said. “He’s working very hard right now on his book. I’ve got to tell you that in addition to whatever political ramifications it might have, it’s a very entertaining book. He’s got a lot of great anecdotes and a lot of great stories from when he was a boy all the way to college. I think that the American people will get a better feel for where this man is coming from and the kind of person he is after they read this book.”

Dr. Campolo said Mr. Clinton’s book should be published in about a year and that many people don’t realize that the ex-president is still facing “enormous” legal bills from his court trials.

“When people say, ‘Hey, he’s really a making a lot of money on these speaking engagements,’ I assure you: He needs the money, as strange as that may sound.”

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