Changing the wind?

Written by Steve Holt : July 21, 2008

Did you catch Al Jazeera’s special on U.S. politics and religion a few days ago?

Probably not. AJ generally isn’t included in most of our cable packages, and definitely doesn’t pass the bunny-ear test.

The videos of the special, titled “Inside USA: Christianity, Politics and Power,” are available in two parts on YouTube and certainly worth the 25 some-odd minutes it takes to view them.

I was struck at how different AJ’s questions were from U.S. news organizations. It seems as if the U.S. media can’t get beyond, “Yeah, but which candidate are you going to endorse?” (see Shane Claiborne’s Monday post on the God’s Politics blog). Al Jazeera, however, went a bit deeper in its questioning.

Right off the bat, while describing the rise and fall of the Moral Majority over the last 30 or so years, the story put front and center the glaring hypocrisy of Christian compliance and participation with a U.S. political system where money and lobbying rule the day. It is suggested that the church’s identity as following Jesus and politics’ propensity for greed and underhanded tactics are inherently incompatible. We’ve certainly seen that this is the case on the Christian Right over the last quarter-decade.

The thrust of the story, however, is what we’re all hearing quite a bit about in these days leading up to the November election: the changing political face of Evangelicalism. No longer are “Christian” and “Republican” synonymous, they say and write. Rising up is a movement of Christians asking different questions and seeking different politics to answer them.

But Al Jazeera’s report seems to cut through some of the apparent hypocrisy on the Evangelical Left as well, an insight rarely seen outside a few underground blogs, podcasts, and, of course, zines like Jesus Manifesto.

Host Avi Lewis interviews Tony Campolo in the second part of the piece. Strolling through the green lawns of Campolo’s Eastern University in Philly, Lewis almost immediately addresses the conflict of interest in Campolo’s political action and endorsement.

Lewis: You’ve written strongly about ending partisan politics in the church, calling on church leaders to end partisan affiliations. But then you endorsed Hillary Clinton before she dropped out.

Campolo: Yeah, and I think that as individuals, outside of the church, we’re able to do that. There’s a big difference as an individual speaking as a representative of a religious body, and calling upon the members of that body to support a particular candidate or party. And an individual standing up and saying, “This is who I am—“

Lewis: But you’re a leader. You have followers, you—

Campolo: I realize that that has implications —

Lewis: And you’re clearly a Democrat.

Campolo: Obviously. Everybody knows that.

Lewis: And you’re hoping that more Evangelicals will vote Democrat this time.

Campolo: I certainly do.

And with that, the damage is done. Viewers are seeing what Lewis and Al Jazeera had already recognized: That much of the “Religious Left,” of which Campolo, sojourners founder Jim Wallis, and author Brian McLaren are the elder statesmen, is succumbing to the very same pitfalls and trappings as the Religious Right. Campolo dichotomizes the “individual Christian” from the “public Christian,” suggesting that if he simply states that he’s endorsing a candidate as an “individual outside the church” and not as a respected leader, ordinary followers will be able to tell the difference.

Indeed, the public face of our faith is the only witness we have to a broken world crying out for release from its dead-end power plays. Campolo does nobody any good by playing by the same old dead-end rules. Lewis calls him on this a few minutes later in the interview:

Lewis: I’m just having trouble understanding how Evangelical moves in the political arena, which you strongly support and hope go in a slightly different way politically than they have, are different from having Christian values turned into government policy, which is an exclusive version of religion in public life — not a catholic one with a small “c.”

Campolo: Let me say this: There is a lot of common ground. Whether you’re Jewish, whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re Christian, you would agree on this: That helping the poor is a divine order. That we are compelled by Scripture, whether you are going to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, or the Koran, you’re compelled to respond to the needs of the poor. Let’s start there. And furthermore, when I deal with my agnostic friends, even my atheistic friends, they say caring for the poor is essential. Fine, can we start there? Can we start with caring for the environment, which all religious traditions ask us to do? Are there a number of things we can hold in common? …Sometimes, I think it’s about time Christians start getting back to what the Bible says instead of listening to the pulpit. And that’s why certain Evangelicals like myself and Jim Wallis say, “Let’s go to the Bible.” So in short, we sound like Billy Graham, saying, “It’s about time we look at what the Scripture says instead of what the spokesperson for the Religious Right are telling us.”

Right before this portion of the interview, Campolo had referenced Jim Wallis’ oft-quoted metaphor about how politicians change their views based on the direction of the wind, but the mandate for politically active Christians is to change the wind.

Do Campolo’s words sound like a wind change?

No, his words – along with much of the conversation surrounding progressive Christianity – reflect slightly different wind direction (as the interviewer points out), but the same wind nevertheless. Like Lewis, I too had a hard time understanding how what Campolo is advocating is any different than the strategies of the Religious Right: Seeking to build up a movement to bring about godly principles through legislative means. What Campolo also fails to recognize here is that the Religious Right uses Scripture every bit as much as progressive Christians to justify its political action.

What is needed, and what a few crazies on the margins are calling for, is a “third way” – a solution to our global crises and biblical mandate that subverts rather than joins the “powers and principalities of this dark world.” What is needed is a “back to the Bible” campaign showing that Jesus’ movement of love spread not through political coercion or leveraging power, but by sacrifice, martyrdom, and simple acts of charity.

I wish Shane and Psalters were given a little more face time in the Al Jazeera report, because they are leading this campaign. But alas, I suppose most viewers really only want to hear about who’s endorsing who in “politics as usual.”

I guess this love movement is going to have to stay underground for a bit longer.

Author Bio:: Steve Holt is a disciple, writer, husband, and proud father to an apricot mini poodle, and he lives and conspires in East Boston, MA. You can find his musings about faith, culture, and mission at

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Viewing 9 Comments

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    Al Jazeera and BBC are two of my preferred news sources - the average quality of the articles are quite good. I tend to use three or four different news sources when looking at a hot topic...the differences can be quite telling.

    I do find it interesting how one thing is said but another is communicated. I read God's Politics by Jim Wallis and loved it, particularly the concept of a 'moral center' that was neither 'left nor right'. However what was communicated via Sojourners was that the 'moral center' was U.S.-Democrat, mostly, which was unfortunate.
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    I have seen Campolo et al. as the prove that christianism is not the same as "righ-fundie-republicanism"... but I agree with you that endorsing politicians (no matter their political view) is still a form of Caesarism. I also love with this you say: "movement of love spread not through political coercion or leveraging power, but by sacrifice, martyrdom, and simple acts of charity".
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    Personally I think there IS a difference between today's "Christian left" (for lack of a better term) and the last 30 years of the religious right.

    That being said, I think this article is extremely important because a generation from now, there may be no difference.

    It seems to me that in 2008 in the United States, one could argue that genuine Christian values would dictate that we should vote for the Democratic candidate in this particular instance as the slightly better option between two flawed choices. But that is a slippery slope and only a misstep away from sliding all the way down into the mire of being identified with a political party.

    I don't see how a follower of The Way can be very comfortable with ANY of the major players in American politics, but as citizens we can still make informed choices in the voting booth and cast votes in the hopes of minimizing the damage our country does in the world.

    For me personally, I openly endorse Obama in this election, but I don't have the influence of a Tony Campolo (or even a well-liked pastor) so it's not as big a deal. But I'm also completely aware of Obama's many flaws so to paraphrase Cornell West, today I'm an Obama supporter, but the day after the election I will be his biggest critic.

    And that's where I think we on the so-called religious left can differentiate ourselves from the Pat Robertson's of the world.

    Just my $0.02.
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    new guy -
    Thanks for the comment. You may be right regarding the situational nature of choosing to or not to vote in 2008. That's exactly the point David Fitch makes in his post today ... check it out. He said something very similar to you:

    I must admit, after staunchly disagreeing with pres. Bush's approach to war and economy these last eight years, it might be incumbent on us all to vote for the preserving of the world from more American government induced violence and injustice.

    You may also be interested in these words from Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, who has traditionally been categorized as one who urges Christians to escape the political process. This is his attitude in 2008:

    “I’m told I’m supposed to be a 'sectarian fideistic tribalist,’ is the description of me, asking Christians to withdraw from the world. I wouldn’t mind withdrawing, but hell, we’re surrounded. There’s nowhere to go. The question is how to just keep going through, and you’re going to take some losses. So we have to be wilely as serpents on these matters. I’m not asking you to withdraw from politics. I’m just asking you to be there as a Christian."

    Read the whole thing, though.

    Thanks for the comments, folks.
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    Thanks for the great post. I really like it. I'm glad I'm not the only one who read/watches AJ. Thanks.
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    "What is needed is a “back to the Bible” campaign showing that Jesus’ movement of love spread not through political coercion or leveraging power, but by sacrifice, martyrdom, and simple acts of charity."
    I agree. This is the way (by simply being the Body of Christ in the earth) that we are called to display the righteousness of God in this world, this is our political statement and political activism, endorsing and being ambassadors of the coming King! “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor.5:21) “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” (1 Jn 3:7) YOU ARE THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IN HIM, IF YOU ARE… RIGHTEOUS. This is displaying the "norm" set by the King of Kings, the object of our devotion.
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    It's interesting how people believe that their political party will be the one to take them to the destination they want to go. I'm not sure how people can put so much confidence in a bunch of lying self servers. It's become all about the power not the service and every time we elect a new president abuse of power inevitibly occurs. Politics in this country are the biggest sham since Hugo Chavez conquered Venezuala. Does Tony Compolo honestly think his interests will be served by his selected politicians--get real. The first shall be last and the last shall be first... Until are "Christians" and politicians get a clue in this it will continue to be corrupted business as usual. Boycott now, your vote means squat.
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    Steve Holt!

    Good post. Good questions.
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    My name is Jarrod Cochran. I am a pastor, writer, and activist within the progressive Christian movement. I want to speak out and say that I completely agree with Mr. Holt's assessment. Though I have great respect for my friends, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren; I feel that by publicly endorsing political candidates, they seem to be doing the same thing that we have criticized the Religous Right for doing.

    What happened to the type of Jesus-following that caused us to be subversive, world-changing, and radical? When we publicly endorse a candidate it's almost as if we are saying "The politics of the kingdom of God as laid out by Jesus' Sermon on the Mount/Plain are great ideas to strive for, but very unrealistic. So, I publicly endorse (whomever's name) because they are the next best thing and a more tangible reality."

    As a minister, writer, and public speaker, I would never use my position to tell someone who to vote for - or even tell them to vote (what better way to state that you believe the whole system is corrupt than by refusing to be a part of it?). When we publicly endorse candidates, we are indeed telling people who to vote for.

    A left version of the Religious Right is just as wrong. We need radicals, not just politics as usual. When I declare that I belong to the progressive Christian movement, I am saying that I don't belong to some religious political initiative on the right or the left; I belong to a movement that is honestly seeking to follow that radical, controversial, empire-toppling rabbi from Nazareth.

    My thoughts and prayers are with Tony, Jim, and Brian. I love them, but must respectfully disagree with the path they have chosen to travel. It has often been said of the political voting system, that between the candidates you vote for "the lesser of two evils." Well, regardless of whether you voted for the lesser evil you're still voted for evil. Jesus himself said that we cannot serve two masters. Jesus is my master and he upsets the status-quo. My political alliegance is to him alone.


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