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

How evangelical tribal gatekeepers operate: ‘I want you to go after Campolo’ November 15, 2012

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.


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