Dear Reverend Campolo,
A lot of my friends are big fans of yours, so I picked up your book Letters to a Young Evangelical with great interest. I knew I’d probably wind up disagreeing with you, but I thought I’d learn something all the same. Back during college, a good number of my evangelical friends were liberals, and we spent countless hours arguing about politics. Sometimes it was frustrating, but more often I learned a great deal”like, for instance, how important it is for Christians to fight against poverty and racism. So I expected that reading your book would be much the same. At the least, I thought, I would be challenged to see things differently.
That’s why I’m so disappointed. You start off by accusing conservative Christians of uncritically baptizing the Republican agenda, and you claim to offer a biblical outlook that “transcends party politics.” But then you turn around and support nearly every plank in the Democratic party’s platform. I tried to keep track: You make an argument (liberally peppered with Bible verses) for the Democratic position on abortion, gay marriage, tax cuts, trade policy, Iraq, nuclear disarmament, school vouchers, racial profiling, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, capital punishment, and global warming.
I have no problem with politically liberal Christians, but why do you claim to be beyond party politics when you so clearly aren’t? Do you really expect us to believe that Jesus just happens to have the same politics as Nancy Pelosi?
But maybe I could give you a pass on that. Like I said, I learned a lot from my liberal Christian friends at school, and I’m glad to be challenged in my beliefs. Or, I should say, I would have been if you had taken more trouble to actually challenge them. Too often you simply dismiss the conservative position as “chauvinist,” “homophobic,” “militaristic,” “appalling,” “sexist,” and “hypernationalist.” You know well that most young evangelicals are politically conservative. Do you think that means we aren’t worth engaging in discussion?
I’m generalizing, I know. So let me give you some examples. “Looking at the 2006 federal budget,” you write, “you would have to conclude that the folks currently in Washington do not have much of a heart for the poor.” This, you say, is in part because the federal government has made “dramatic reductions in expenditures for medical care and prescription drugs for the poor and elderly, along with draconian cuts in spending on after-school programs for needy children. At the same time, the new budget provides major tax benefits for the richest people in our society. That’s wrong!”
No, Reverend Campolo, I think you are wrong. Are you looking at the same federal budget that I am? Congress expanded Medicare by adding a prescription-drug entitlement that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and federal education spending has gone up as well. Perhaps you ought to update your old lecture notes.
The way you repeat the standard Democratic talking point on “tax cuts for the wealthy” isn’t very helpful, either. Many economists”Martin Feldstein at Harvard, for instance”have long argued that top-bracket tax cuts actually help create jobs for the poor by stimulating the economy. You criticize capitalism for operating under the “greed principle.” But many Christians”Michael Novak, for example”contend that the best way to help poor people is precisely through promoting free-market capitalism.
Perhaps they are wrong. (Although, in recent decades, millions of people have been lifted from poverty in China and India by just these means, which makes it look as though they are right.) But you do not seem interested in engaging your fellow Christians in this sort of argument. Instead, you prefer to say that they simply do not have a “heart for the poor.”
bortion and gay marriage are big issues in your book, too, which only makes sense. Many evangelicals care deeply about these topics. But your goal, you write, is to help young people like me “understand that there’s a much broader variety of opinion within our community than you might think.” You say that most evangelicals believe “something miraculous” happens to make unborn babies human from the moment of conception, but you argue that “there is no way to prove that they are right.” Additionally, you write that some evangelicals think making abortions illegal “will do little to solve the problem,” because then “abortions will be performed in back alleys by butchers, or with coat hangers by pregnant women themselves.” And what’s more, other evangelicals argue that “what makes [us] human is interaction with one or more other humans,” which means that without this social interaction, unborn babies aren’t really human beings yet. For your part, you say you are “firmly pro-life,” but if that is true, I have a hard time understanding why you spend most of a chapter parroting Planned Parenthood’s arguments in favor of legalized abortion, and why you choose to dismiss the mainstream pro-life Christian position as “faith” in “something miraculous.”
As for gay marriage, you write that you are a conservative on this issue as well. But then you make an extended argument for the opposite position, ending with this clincher: “If you are going to be Red-Letter Christians, it is important for you to recognize that there is no record in the New Testament of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality.” And, you add, “Evangelicals spend far too much time worrying about gay marriage.”
In truth, we do tend to worry about gay marriage”but we worry that it will contribute to the decline of marriage overall, which you say is “absurd.” Government, you argue, should “get out of the marrying business completely.” This seems like an odd position to take, especially for someone who cares about education and poverty. Surely you know what, say, James Q. Wilson has written about how strong marriages help children succeed in life, and how good marriages are becoming less common among the poor. Wouldn’t it make sense for government to encourage healthy marriages? And if it turns out that legalizing gay marriage would contribute to the problem, wouldn’t that be a strong argument against it? It may be that Maggie Gallagher is wrong to contend that gay marriage will weaken marriage overall, but surely that does not make people like her into “homophobic” activists out to “deny gay and lesbian couples basic civil rights.”
The trouble, in the end, is this: You say that you intend Letters to a Young Evangelical to be advice for young Christians. I understand that talking points and rhetoric have their place; that’s how politics works. But shouldn’t you have spent more time introducing young evangelicals to the riches of the Christian faith? You do give some good advice about the importance of prayer, Scripture reading, evangelism, and accountability groups, and I appreciate that. You also say some wise things about avoiding the excesses of Pentecostalism, Left Behind eschatology, and fundamentalist legalism. All that is good, but even so, I still wondered why you spent so much of your book criticizing Republicans. George Weigel took great care to introduce his readers to the fullness of Catholic Christianity in his Letters to a Young Catholic , part of the same series to which your book belongs. You spend a whole chapter talking about global warming and nuclear disarmament, but you never try to help young people understand the Trinity or the Atonement. Why is that?
The last chapter of your book was the most troubling of all. As you did in Adventures in Missing the Point , the 2003 book you co-wrote with Brian McLaren, you raise questions that are supposed to make us young evangelicals think. You wonder about why “so many young people who remain evangelical” and “want intimacy with God” are “dropping out of organized religion.” These young progressives, you say, “read religious books and pray but find churches boring and irrelevant,” and are offended by churches that don’t accept gays and “relegate their non-Christian friends to Hell.” You also muse about how “many young evangelicals view premarital sex as no big deal,” which leads you to ask: “Is the moral code that we older people believe was dictated by Scripture pass? What are we older folks to make of all this?”
In the end, I really don’t know what to make of all this. I think that, at heart, you’re a pastor”I think that you honestly do care about saving souls. But some of what you say is seriously misleading, and you continually cast doubt on church teachings. By the end of the book, I think your average reader will be brimming with anger toward the religious right and fired up mostly about progressive politics. The danger, I think, is that they will wind up progressing right out of the Church. I can’t believe that you actually want that to happen. But if you don’t, I really don’t understand why you wrote this book.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at FIRST THINGS.