Book Review: Red Letter Christians, by Tony Campolo
Anyone who is looking for a balanced view of the issues of faith and politics should be a little nervous when the book they are going to read holds the endorsements of Shane Claiborne, Brian Mclaren, and Jim Wallis, three of the most far left activists in American Christianity. Put that with the author’s own reputation as the patriarch of the Religious Left, and expectations for balance are all but gone. However, Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians is one of those rare exceptions where, despite the author’s own political bias, the reader is treated to a balanced, charitable, and scripturally supported treatise on Christian civic engagement.
Campolo has long been an advocate of social justice and a progressive political agenda. But in Red Letter Christians he widens his focus to address a myriad of topics, ranging from war and Palestine to gun control and campaign finance reform. The title is taken from a growing movement on the Religious Left to redefine themselves as “Red Letter Christians,” indicating their marching orders come from the words of Jesus (usually printed in red) in the New Testament. While the implication is clearly that their political opponents do not listen to Jesus—as Wallis and Claiborne have often stated—Campolo’s tone is neither accusatory or condescending, with the only exceptions being the chapters on gun control and gay rights where his ideology clouds his ability to present a balanced argument.
It is precisely the issue of balance, however, that leaves the reader with an uplifting and beneficial experience. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Campolo’s chapter on the war in Iraq. Instead of participating in the shallow mudslinging of calling George W. Bush the anti-Christ, Campolo shows a great deal of charity towards the former president, while still maintaining a stance of opposition to the invasion. It is in such a manner throughout the book that Campolo is able to argue for a liberal political agenda, but in a manner that is uplifting and God-honoring.
After a careful reading a few discrepancies in his political philosophy will emerge. As with many social justice proponents, his advocacy for the global poor is at times contradictory to his protectionist position on the domestic economy. And his support for “creation care” and protecting forests does not seem to mesh with his concern for the global poor, many of whom are finding that cutting down trees can lead their families out of poverty. Many would find his support of a flat tax to be contrary to his emphasis on protecting those in poverty, but here Campolo cleverly argues that a flat tax would allow the government to more fairly tax the population, thus bringing in more tax revenue, thus creating the opportunity for increased funding of social programs. It is precisely this refusal to be pinned down to a strict leftist agenda that makes Campolo so persuasive.
The main purpose of the book, however, cannot be boiled down to issues analysis or legislative advocacy. Rather, at its heart, Red Letter Christians is a call for Believers to engage politics in a manner that represents the glory of our Savior. Campolo refuses to divorce social advocacy from spiritual activity, instead arguing that, “both the salvation of individuals and the transformation of society are Kingdom non-negotiables.” Anyone looking for a thoughtful, left-leaning perspective on faith and politics will find Campolo’s arguments intriguing to say the least.