How evangelical tribal gatekeepers operate: ‘I want you to go after Campolo’

First, as background, let me share a bit from Adam Phillips’ personal testimony at ecclesio:

In April 2001, I wandered into that Starbucks with a brand new copy of Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, grabbed a cup of dark roast coffee, sat down and devoured the pages. My life was forever changed. (My copy was the 1997 20th anniversary edition; the original edition came out in 1977).

Page after page, Sider details the economic divisions in the world, the real life effects of poverty and hunger on children, public policy and Biblical and theological reflection on the church’s role in fighting hunger, poverty and disease. He even opens the book not only asking questions why we have “1 Billion hungry neighbors” but analyzing the “uneven distribution” of the world’s wealth.

I’m glad to read of the impact that book had for Phillips and his faith. In 1997, I was working for Sider and his nonprofit organization, Evangelicals for Social Action. I played a small role in the copyediting of that 20th anniversary edition of Rich Christians, and I’m very proud to have been a part of that and of most of the work I did for Ron there at ESA.

The decade I spent at ESA also involved working closely with many of the other folks profiled in David Swartz’ new book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, particularly with Tony Campolo, for whom I helped write radio commentaries, and with Jim Wallis and the folks at Sojourners.

Swartz identifies people like Sider, Campolo and Wallis as “the evangelical left.” Others refer to them as “progressive” evangelicals. The truth is, though, that they’re very conservative on many issues — mostly the genital issues that serve as tribal litmus tests for evangelical social conservatives. But because those three men are outspoken advocates on behalf of the poor — demanding substantial personal and political support and action in uncompromising terms — they’ve also been relentlessly attacked by defenders of the status quo and the theological apologists for wealth.

Which brings us to this astonishing post from Ben Irwin, “Putting down the hatchet.”

Irwin tells another story from 1997. I remember this story. I was there, but on the receiving end, and it’s fascinating to hear his account from the other side:

Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK … my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative, religious lobbying group located just eight blocks from the White House. We were on the front lines of the culture war.

“This guy was a thorn in our side; something had to be done.”

… A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. The topic: how to eliminate public funding for one group we all particularly despised. The stakeholders at the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly discredit or otherwise embarrass someone important associated with this particular group.

For one fleeting moment, it occurred to me: everyone around this table, myself included, would have argued passionately that our political agenda was shaped by our religious convictions. Yet those same convictions seemingly held no sway over the means we used to advance our agenda.

Personal attacks.

Public humiliation.

Character assassination.

A few weeks later, I was given an assignment: write a booklet defending what we thought was the traditional view of biblical sexuality against the alternative view being promoted by supporters of the gay Christian community.

One day, as I was in the middle of this assignment, my boss met me in the hall and handed me a manila folder. The tab read, “Campolo, Tony.” My boss looked at me and said, “This is for the booklet. I want you to go after Campolo.”

Tony Campolo is one of the best-known progressive voices within the church. For my colleagues and me, though, the fact that he was a progressive voice with evangelical credentials beyond dispute was no minor source of irritation. People like Campolo didn’t make sense to us; they weren’t supposed to exist. We saw them as walking contradictions. Campolo held the same view of sexuality as most evangelicals, yet he was a proponent of gay rights. He often criticized his fellow evangelicals for, as he once put it, “being tempted into hysterical animosity against gays and lesbians.”

This guy was a thorn in our side; something had to be done.

So I took the folder back to my desk and opened it. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot to work with — a few pieces of correspondence between Tony and my boss (which mainly served to illustrate how deeply my boss disliked Tony), a few news clippings … and a photocopy of a flyer purporting to be from a group called Queer Nation, advertising a “demonstration of support” in honor of Dr. Campolo.

It wasn’t much, but it was all we had to work with. So “guilt by association” it was. If your actions earn the praise of a radical group like Queer Nation, we reasoned, then you can’t be up to much good.

So the booklet was published. My employer shipped thousands of copies to supporters across the nation.

Irwin’s role in this story, and where that led him, is fascinating and encouraging, so please read the rest of his post.

 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Campolo was also “tried” for heresy in the ’80s for, if I recall correctly, saying that Jesus could be in people who had not said the evangelical sinners prayer.

    I’m a big Campolo fan. Don’t agree with everything he believes, but he was the first American evangelical who gelled with me, and Christianity needs more of his passionate advocacy on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. I was delighted to learn about his support of same sex marriage in recent years. For a guy in his 70s in his religious mileiu to be open to having his mind changed is no small thing. 

  • http://politicsproseotherthings.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel

     How much you wanna bet that the sort of assholes described above were part of Camplo’s changed position on gay marriage?

    So thanks assholes. Might not’ve been able to do it without you. 

  • Sigaloenta

    What’s interesting about Irwin’s story is that it successful Evangelism.  IRwin writes that he was

  • Jim Roberts

    Exactly this. If you get into a competition over who’s the more awesomer believer, no one wins and the cause of Christ suffers.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    How evangelical tribal gatekeepers operate: ‘I want you to go after Campolo’

    The stuff described in the write-up? and the language used?

    Reminds me of, like, some Don ordering a Mafia hit on someone else.

  • Carstonio

    they’re very conservative on many issues — mostly the genital issues
    that serve as tribal litmus tests for evangelical social conservatives

    That’s disappointing, because those genital issues are about social justice just like poverty issues. These are inequalities of power between the sexes and among the sexual orientations. Many of the civil rights movement’s leaders were influenced by their religious beliefs to fight inequalities of power among the races, and the evangelical left should learn from their example and condemn those other inequalities of power.

  • Carstonio

     I had the same thought, particularly of the baptism scene with Michael’s vows are interspersed with assassinations of the heads of the rival families.

  • LL

    See, this is why atheists believe that most people who identify as religious are insincere. Because you (many of you) will throw aside the things that supposedly make you better than us (ethics, a sense of decency, caring about/loving others) when it suits your purposes. And you’ll do it to each other as viciously (or more so) as you will to “outsiders.”

    Every time a religious person attacks another religious person for his/her perceived lack of fidelity to whatever the list of stuff you all agree on is, an atheist becomes more convinced that most of you are hypocritical assholes. 

    The thing is, the list of stuff you all are supposed to agree on is unimportant to atheists. We don’t care about your position on abortion or gays or taxes. Our measure of what kind of people you are is based on how you treat other people. If you act like an asshole, it doesn’t really matter what you think about anything else. The assholishness colors all of it. Just like it would for all of us unbelievers. 

    Now, I don’t agree with this guy that you can’t fight back. I don’t think being a decent person means turning the other cheek. But you can’t be a decent person and fight back with lies. You can fight back with the truth and still be Christ-like, but you can’t be Christ-like with lies. I do know that much. Apparently, a lot of so-called Christians have yet to figure that out. They tell themselves they’re not lying. But repeating a lie is the same thing as telling a lie in the first place. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    this is why atheists believe that most people who identify as religious are insincere. Because you (many of you) will throw aside the things that supposedly
    make you better than us (ethics, a sense of decency, caring about/loving
    others) when it suits your purposes.

    In my experience the majority of people who espouse secular values are similarly inconsistent in their application. Certainly I am.

    That said, I’m not sure how important what you’re calling “sincerity” here really is.

    On balance, I would rather continue to espouse values that I endorse but am inconsistent about applying, than to only espouse or endorse values that I never violate. If that makes me a hypocritical asshole, I suppose I can live with that.

  • aklab

    Another interpretation is that people tend to be insincere when it suits their purposes, and that many religious believers are also people.  

    It’s like the old argument, “if there was no religion millions of people wouldn’t have been killed in religious wars!” “Oh yeah?  Stalin was an atheist and he killed millions!”  The problem isn’t that atheism or religion causes wars, it’s that people cause wars based on whatever pretext is handy.  

    And while I agree that assholishness colors all of it, I’d add that someone’s “position on abortion or gays or taxes” is a form of how they treat other people.  

    Signed, a formerly religious-but-still hypocritical asshole :)

  • Antigone10

    Definition of HYPOCRITE
    1: a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion
    2: a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings

    Dictionary.com

    See, here’s the thing.  I’m a nonbeliever (even with a name like Antigone).  Do my actions contradict me state beliefs or feelings?  Yes, all the time.  Like, I have a belief that you should be gracious to people on the road, and that it will flow a lot more smoothly if we all give each other the benefit of the doubt.  Yet, I have flipped people off, I have cut people off, and I have, in moments of impatience yelled at people in their car.   I’m sure that other Christians have also flipped people off, cut people off, and yelled unkind things about their sight.  How do I know this?  They identify with nifty little Jesus fish.  And I’m sure that most of them also believe you should give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to traffic, and are embarrassed by their behavior in moments of weakness.*  And I know this, because they repudiate their behavior.   They are ashamed by it, they try and do better, and they (like me) work to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  And if that was the level of hypocrisy we were dealing with, I’d say “Hey, we’re human.  We’re not perfect, and being considerate takes practice.   And we’re going to fail at it at times.”  I try and fix it by counting to 10 and saying things like “Maybe that person is going to be late for work if he doesn’t speed”, Christians say the “Prayer for dealing with traffic.**

    But, that’s not what I see happening with a lot of values the Christians say they have.  Like, say, “Spreading the Good Word”.  If your stated value is that you want to share people your faith and convince them (either because what you have is so awesome or because you want them to avoid hell), then it actually becomes important to learn what is useful in convincing people, and what just makes you a nuisance to someone else (or a flat-out asshole).  If the ACTUAL goal is to spread around the good news like brownies, you listen, demonstrate “Christian values” to the best of your abilities, and allow it to take the time it needs.  If the goal is NOT to convince people, but rather to score points for your tribe, you drop poor-artwork ridden comics with hellfire themes under windshield wipers.  

    And that’s the most benign example of hypocrisy I can think of from the Christian***side of the aisle.   When we start getting into to things like “OH, I don’t hate gay people, just the sin” but your actions are exactly the same as someone who hates gay people I’m going to call that hypocrisy.  In theory, lying is a sin, but you sure aren’t making it so that liars can’t see their loved ones from hospital beds, so you clearly think that this sin makes a person “worse”.  And then, when you have someone going “Gay people are evil, they shouldn’t be married!  We should love them so they’ll be straight!” and you, yourself, are caught being ‘intimate’ with a member of the same sex, spouting the same “gays are bad” story all I can THINK is “hypocrite”.

    TLDR-  I believe sincerity not when a person reaches perfection, but when a person is making an obvious attempt to practice what s/he preaches, with corresponding actions.  Many religious people, who supposedly have Jesus backing them up, still don’t even look like they are trying.  

    *There’s a joke that I heard in church for years about a Christian woman being arrested by a cop because she had a Jesus fish, she was yelling at a traffic light, and he KNEW she couldn’t have been a Christian and the care must have been stolen.
    ** I promise you, this exists.
    *** Most Christians.  I still am not going to eat the brownies, but people like Fred sure have made them look tasty.

  • Anton_Mates

     

    See, this is why atheists I believe that most people who identify as
    religious are insincere….Every time a religious person attacks another religious person for
    his/her perceived lack of fidelity to whatever the list of stuff you all
    agree on is, an atheist becomes I become more convinced that most of you are
    hypocritical assholes. 

    The thing is, the list of stuff you all are supposed to agree on is
    unimportant to atheists me. We I don’t care about your position on abortion
    or gays or taxes.

    Fixed that for you.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Remind me what your religious affiliation is, Anton? Because if you’re an atheist and you disagree with LL, that constitutes proof that LL does not speak for all atheists, but if you’re religious in any way then you need to cite your sources.

  • Carstonio

     Don’t make the issue about religion versus atheism. Any group is capable of the ruthlessness Irwin describes, and religion doesn’t make a group more prone to it.

  • Anton_Mates

    Yep, atheist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667708632 Kenneth Raymond

    I share LL’s perspective on this so the proper revision would at least be “some atheists.”* Mostly because hypocrisy really does matter to me, and it’s what has turned me further away from religion than anything else. The whole thing where religious people, by and large, tend to claim a higher morality and then willfully harm others.

    Not even just having a moment of weakness and slipping up, but willfully violating their precepts about what’s moral because they’ve sufficiently othered someone and think it’s okay to hurt someone outside the tribe. That kind of crap pisses me off. I know I’m not perfect, I know I slip up and fail to meet the moral ideals I espouse, but damn if I’ll do it willfully. “That which you hate, do not do,” and boy howdy do I hate hypocrisy, especially around morality.

    And also on the point of assholishness in general. A charming asshole is still an asshole.

    *Though I tend to vacillate between atheism, agnosticism, and Discordianism – the last largely because sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something intelligent about the universe and it’s laughing at me.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    “See? This is why so many atheists think religious people are insincere.”

    Because… you ignore any number of examples of Christians who succeed in letting their beliefs inform their behavior and so try very hard not to be assholes in the name of Christ (see our gracious host, above)?

    Because you somehow think the latest asshole in the name of Christ is a representative of all human religious thought?

    Because you think self-proclaimed Christians being assholes in the name of Christ tells you something about (non-exhaustive list follows) Hindus, Pagans, Ba’hai, Jains, Jews, Muslims, and adherents to any number of religions that predated the arrival of Christians on their native soil…?

    It gets very tiring to have my religion erased by both atheists and assholes-in-the-name-of-Christ talking like “religion” means “Christians,” as tiring as I think it is for Christians like Fred to constantly be erased by all the media attention on the assholes-in-the-name-of-Christ. But I think if I were an atheist, I’d find it just as tiring to hear other atheists presuming me complicit in the Total Logic Fail of “Socrates is a liar, ergo all men are liars.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667708632 Kenneth Raymond

    Because you think self-proclaimed Christians being assholes in the name of Christ tells you something about (non-exhaustive list follows) Hindus, Pagans, Ba’hai, Jains, Jews, Muslims, and adherents to any number of religions that predated the arrival of Christians on their native soil…?

    It tells me something about any group that makes claims to higher standards of knowledge and oneness with the universe based on their tradition, claiming to be better people or more in line with what their divinity wants, who then demonstrate that their “higher standard” is just as mean-spirited, if not more so, than a representative sample of any other demographic group. There are horrible Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, and on and on just as there are horrible Christians.

    But for members of a society where Christianity is culturally dominant and privileged, it’s not unfair to use Christian moral hypocrisy as emblematic of general moral hypocrisy of those in power. It’s especially problematic with the religious because they more often than not make those claims of divinely-backed superior morality and declare that it trumps every other moral standard. You complain about erasure, but frankly you’re still part of the culturally privileged group who aren’t going to be erased any time soon by the criticisms of an atheist. Atheists and other groups in the US have much more to fear about being erased than you do, so your complaints there ring a bit hollow and self-serving to me.

  • AnonymousSam

    Who’s your target audience for this post? Because it doesn’t seem to apply specifically to many of the people here, and yet you address them as a collective “you.” When you then go on to label the collective “you” as insincere, unethical, lacking a sense of decency and being hateful toward others, I feel a great deal of hateful libel has been spewed onto people who’ve done nothing to deserve it.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    It’s like the old argument, “if there was no religion millions of people
    wouldn’t have been killed in religious wars!” “Oh yeah?  Stalin was an
    atheist and he killed millions!”  The problem isn’t that atheism or
    religion causes wars, it’s that people cause wars based on whatever
    pretext is handy. 

    There’s quite a few atheists who’d respond to that with “Stalin wasn’t a true Scottsman atheist!” (Bill Mahr, I’m looking at you.)

  • http://feygelegoy.com/ Feygele Goy

    @rraszewski:disqus I actually heard a lecture a few years back from Minnesota Atheists that suggested that genocides committed by Mao and Stalin didn’t count, because they were cults of personality, so they shouldn’t count as atheists.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If Mao and Stalin worshipped themselves, then that makes sense, but whoever’s asserting it needs to cite their sources.

  • http://feygelegoy.com/ Feygele Goy

    I’ve actually heard a number of interviews and lecutures, and debates from that organization that I found interesting, compelling, insightful, etc.  That one in particular, just came off as pontification and relgious-bashing.

    I don’t think the speaker ever got to explaining why Stalin should somehow count as having his own religion.  Best I recall was that the speaker was using a wishy-washy definition for religion: “*Baseball* is a ‘religion’ for some people!”  I personally don’t find that idea to be useful for any meaningful discussion.

  • Carstonio

     Maoism and Stalinism obviously didn’t prove that atheism leads to totalitarianism and genocide, but they aren’t religions masquerading as ideologies either. They do resemble fundamentalist religions, but that’s only because both types of organizations are founded on authoritarianism and tribalism. Saddening that both anti-theists and fundamentalists are focused on pinning their opponents’ flags on those murderous regimes, instead of just condemning authoritarianism in general no matter what face it wears.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     That’s pretty much word-for-word what Bill Mahr said on his show about three episodes back.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I’ve seen it discussed quite a few times in the 1960s – 1980s that Communism in the USSR and China contained quasireligious elements to them, as though the leaders realized they had left a void in suppressing traditional religion, and so needed to create a substitute people could believe in.

    It is not in principle so different from 1984, where The Party captures quasireligious impulses and directs them into fawning worship and adulation of Big Brother as the pseudophysical Godhead, and Ingsoc as the living doctrine by which all should live.

  • Tricksterson

    Considering that the society of 1984 was based on COmmunist Russia and Big Brother on Stalin (the physical description of Big Brother is very close to Stalin’s appearance was his supposed nemesis Goldberg’s to Trotsky) that’s not surprising.

  • Madhabmatics

    Yo as someone who is not a Marxist-Leninist, but is pretty intimately familiar with it, I’d like to clear some things up.

    It’s really common for people to say “But Marxism-Leninism doesn’t really have anything to do with atheism, it’s playing to the religious impulse, they are actually secret theists that just worship a really handsome dude who looks good in a suit” but that is making a pretty serious category error that the Soviets and several other movements recognized, but which have basically been ignored in modern discourse because acknowledging it would basically be admitting that we are all living more ideological lives than we admit. Soviet philosophers were pretty smart dudes + ladies and I think it’s time someone listened to their voices instead of desperately trying to paint them as not really being committed to materialist atheism.

    Here was what the Soviets knew that we ignore now: “Atheism” is not a single thing. There are different types of atheism. Different paths to atheism lead to different results. A person who embraces disbelief through the skeptic movement of the 2000s is not really the same kind of atheist as a Marxist-Leninist, and this was a matter of great consternation to philosophers back when people didn’t get embarrassed to admit that they had an ideology. If I take a person from this comment section and put them in a room with a positivist, they both will certainly disbelieve in a divine entity, but that disbelief has different origins and different effects.*

    If you really want a concrete example of this, all we have to do is look at someone like Sam Harris, who has his own problems running into this “Of course we don’t have an ideology” wall. He was a poster-child of modern “atheism” until he made the mistake of saying that maybe Parapsychologists should be taken more seriously. Now, this isn’t an offense against “atheism” as a disbelief in divine entities – but it is an offense against a particular atheist ideology – namely, the ideology of the skeptic movement. If you bring up Harris, you will frequently be told that he is a bad example because – like Lenin or Stalin – he is obviously infected with religious thinking. He isn’t, though. Mesmerism, past lives, etc, do not require belief in a divine being. But giving them credence is a sign of not being skeptical enough.

    So why does Sam Harris get dogged on as being a bad atheist when he doesn’t believe in divine beings? He’s a bad skeptic, but an atheist, so why does his atheism get besmirched?

    The answer is because – unless we are taught to recognize our ideologies for what they really are – we don’t see ourselves as having them.

    You know how sometimes white people go “Yeah, there is no white culture” and everyone goes “white person, you are full of shit, if there is no white culture then why are you doing a bunch of white people shit that none of the rest of us tend to do?”

    It’s the same way with ideology. We all live with our ideologies, but it’s important to us as westerners to think that we are all independently arriving at positions that have nothing to do with our culture, or our friends, or the people we interact with.  We aren’t ideologues – ideologues are the wild street preachers, the trots with their newspapers, the dominionists calling for theocracy. We could never have an ideology, that is for unreasonable people.

    The reason people think that the Soviets were actually secretly religious is because we are used to thinking of the other as having an ideology, and our positions being normal. When we conflate the modern skeptic movement with atheism, it’s easy to look at other atheist ideologies and say “Well, they aren’t like us, so they aren’t real atheists.” So what are they like? Well, they have a position and a way of thinking and want to order the world according to that mode of thinking, who else does that? Not us, we have nothing in common (as we talk about this as part of a community) – but those dominionists, they have a mode of thinking and kind of agree with each other, that reminds me of the soviets.

    The mistake is thinking that the similarity is based on vague definitions of “religious.” It’s not. It’s because they are both ideologies – they are both something we don’t believe we possess.

  • Madhabmatics

    tl;dr anyone who thinks that the Soviets were not serious about atheism needs to read Soviet philosophers writing about their views on non-Soviet atheist movements, which they wrote about often and colorfully.

  • Robert Freid

    You also forget that Ampleforth was in the Minestry of Love because he forgot to change the word “God” to “dog” in one of Kiplings poems… Also Winston Smith admitted to being a “religious believer” among the crimes against the Party he supposevly comitted when they were interrogating him.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    That was what bothered me the most. The fact that a completely innocent mistake is somehow taken for rebellion against the state of Oceania – the sheer arbitrariness and pettiness of that is offensive in a way that all the indignities and torture of Winston never reach, because Winston is at least legitimately guilty of rebellion.

    ‘These things happen,’ he began vaguely. ‘I have been able to recall one instance–a possible instance. It was an indiscretion, undoubtedly. We were producing a definitive edition of the poems of Kipling. I allowed the word “God” to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!’ he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. ‘It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was “rod”. Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to “rod” in the entire language? For days I had racked my brains. There WAS no other rhyme.’

    Incidentally, the book is available via Project Gutenberg in Australia, as the book has finally fallen out of copyright there.


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