Red Letter Christians, book review part 1

At my church, we are having a class reviewing the book “Red Letter Christians,”a more recent explication of Christian left thought, in line lines of Jim Wallis’ book “God and Politics.”  I was interested in this class because I though it would be fun to see if the leftist movement has actually moved at all.  It hasn’t.  It still uses the same pejoratives, the same cant, and it is still intellectually lazy and dishonest.  In this first part, I will discuss the first two chapters.


In chapter 1, Rev. Campolo describes the beginnings of the “red letter Christian” movement.  He talks about being out with his other leftist friends and deciding that they didn’t want to be associated in the public mind with those icky Evangelicals, even though they were, er, Evangelicals.  They were at a radio show and the radio personality suggested the name “red letter Christians.”    Of course, this has two parts, the “red letter” part, and the “Christian” part.  The definition of “Christian” they give is pretty straightforward and theologically conservative, in that they (claim to) believe in an historical Jesus who died, was resurrected, in the virgin birth, in the Holy Ghost, etc.  They also believe they are part of the “catholic Church,” which is an interesting but tangential issue — since it is not clear that the” Catholic church” would consider them part of the “catholic Church.”  I guess capitalization makes all the different.  But that’s not really important to the book, and the universality of believers is a topic of its own.  The second part of “Christian” is a bit problematic.  They emphasize the “red letters” because they believe that the scripture should be viewed through the lens of the teaching of Jesus.  Of course, this doesn’t distinguish themselves from other Chistians at all, and it’s a bit arrogant to make that claim.  We are all “red letter” Christians by that defintion.  Finally, they believe that Jesus is “alive and present to each and every person.”  Again, with the exception of hard core theologically liberal Christians, that’s no distinction at all.

Ignoring the jab at other Christians in the second issue above, the next issue is what makes them “Red Letter.”  To them, this issue is “social justice,” which to them means merging the state with the Church, or at least using the state to achieve Church ends.  Thus, let us be clear here.  When it comes to separation of church and state, these guys make the Moral Majority look like pikers.

Not too surprisingly, once Campolo switches into political mode, the straw men, hyperpole, dissembling, and cheap shots start coming fast and furiously.  First, he characterizes the Evangelical community as focusing “almost all their attention” on abortion and gay marriage.  This is, of course, a lie and a straw man.  It’s necessary for the rest of the book, of course, because its the only way to avoid the problems with the “Red Letter” position.  Instead of having to show that the “solutions” he proposes are actually solutions that would work, he simply has to show that, unlike his opponents, he “cares.”

He begins tearing straw from his straw man immediately.  First, he implies that Evanglicals would not have opposed slavery, and uses Wilberforce as an example.  Of course, this is simply untrue.  It is also untrue that the abolition of slavery was some sort of government intervention into a realm that previously had not had government intervention.  Slavery was an institution established, regulated, and enforced by the government.  What Wilberforce was doing was *opposing* a government institution, not creating one.

He then contrasts “Red Letter” Christians with other Christians in that “Red Letter” Christians are concerned with poverty, while, apparently, conservative Christians are not.  Again, this is a lie.  In fact, it is the conservative Christians who provide most of the independent charity and do most of the work in their communities.  But, of course, to Campolo, unless it’s done *through the government,* somehow it doesn’t count, or won’t work.  The most amusing thing about this section is that he presents the example of Camden NJ as the example of where the government is most needed.  He notes:

  • One out of every seven houses has been abandoned over the last decade. Conditions in the city are so bad that those who could, got out of town—even though buyers for their property could not be found.
  • Only 13.6 percent of families with children under 18 are headed by married couples.
  • In a city of 80,000, there are only two emergency rooms.
  • Crime is rampant—year after year, Camden registers the highest per-capita murder rate of any city in the nation.
  • More than 10,000 outsiders drive into the city each day to buy drugs.
  • If you are a 15-year-old male, there is a nearly 40-percent probability that you will spend two years in jail before you are 30.
  • Recently, both the mayor and the district attorney were arrested on charges of ties to the Mafia.
  • The school system is in shambles—there was so much inefficiency and corruption in the administration that the state’s board of education had to intervene and take over.
  • Less than 50 percent of those who attend the two major high schools in Camden ever graduate,13 and there is no telling how many of them are functionally illiterate
  • Various industries that once provided jobs are gone. Campbell’s Soup, RCA, Whitman’s Candies and Sheaffer Pens have all moved out. The downtown stores are closed and banks have relocated. The unemployment rate in Camden now stands at approximately 15 percent,

Campolo then asserts that those who think that these things can be fixed from a libertarian perspective are simply wrong.  The only answer is more government intervention. And anybody who doesn’t agree is sinning — because they don’t care.

But wait.  Let’s look at these ills.

  • Why did those businesses and corporations leave?  Because they were evil and just for fun got together and decided that they wanted to screw the people of Camden?  No.  Because interventionalistic government policies made it impossible to exist there and work at a profit.  That which is unsustainable will not be sustained indefinitely.  Campolos’ answer — more of the same.  It’s those evil corporations to blame, not the government.
  • Why the great rate of out of wedlock births?  Could it be because the *government* encourages it through its welfare structure? Is it because the *government* funds messages that destroy marriage?  Nah.  The answer?  More of the same!  And if you don’t think so, you’re a sinner!
  • Why are there only two emergency rooms?  Could it be because of *government* regulation of health care?  I suspect that Rev. Campolo has never tried to set up a medical institution.  The answer?  More of the same!
  • Why is there crime?  Could it be because the *government* promoted criminality through its prison system, horrible laws, bad enforcement, and circular door policies of catch and release?  Could it be because the *government* makes it a crime to defend yourself?  Nah, of course not.  The answer?  More of the same!
  • Why is there corruption?  Could it be because the *government* has too much power and is too seductive a target for those who want to exploit citizens?  Of course not.  The answer?  More of the same!
  • The school system is in shambles?  Hmmmm…. Who runs that?  Well, no matter, it’s not the *government’s* fault.  More of the same!

And of course, if you don’t think that *more government* is the answer, the you are a *sinner.* because *you* *don’t*  *care.* Throughout this (and throughout the book) Campolo simply refuses to see that anything *bad* can come from the government. There is *no* such thing as an unintended consequence.

It continues.  Too many Americans don’t have medical coverage.  Could it be because the *government* has created an artificial economy and artificial scarcity?  Of course not.  The answer?  More regulation and more government involvement!  More of the same!  The economy is in shambles.  Why?  Not enough government, of course.

And then comes the *Big Lie,* and the recurring theme of this book.  People who disagree with “Red Letter” Christians don’t simply disagree on methods, they are evil.  Here’s the key:

There are Evangelicals who argue against environmentalism, claiming that global warming is a myth (or at least grossly exaggerated), and that environmental concerns distract Christians from those matters that should fully occupy our moral and political attention: gay marriage and abortion. They seem to have ignored the biblical assertion that God didn’t create land and sea to be abused..

How stunningly deceitful.  Note the propaganda — people who are skeptical of the global warming alarmists are “against environmentalism,” and believe that the land and sea are created to be abused.  They are, in his words “selfish.”  Please.  I hate to tell you this, but there are people who can be skeptical of scientific claims without hating mother Gaia.  And not abandoning one’s intellect in the worship of mother Gaia is a *sin* against her, er, Him, er whomever.  Whatever, the key is that we need more government, and any accusation about those who disagree is fair game, right?

This book is not about Jesus, it is not about theology, and it is not about “Christianity” per se — as will be very clear later in the book when Campolo throws Christ under the bus completely when he finds biblical positions uncomfortable.  Then he suddenly becomes a *big* fan of separation of church and state.  No.  This is simply taking popular secular leftist positions and wrapping them, rather badly, in the flag of Christianity.  It is a sham.

But wait!  There’s more!  In chapter two, Campolo gives us his utopia, taken from the book of Isiah — housing, health, love of the earth, etc.  What Campolo ignores is that the system of freedom that he despises (and condemns for using resources) is the system that has done best to provide these things.   Campolo notes that the Evangelicals he calls sinners who don’t care suggest that this is best done through personal transformation.  He notes that the center of this, to Paul, was the church.  But then he takes the fatal steps — he contends that government, as a “principality and power” should be subject to the Church, and should be the method through which the Church operates.

There is, in fact, no biblical basis for this — in fact just the opposite.  Campolo refers to Ephesians 6:12, for instance, where Paul states “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Indeed.  Paul knew that autocratic governments were necessarily corrupt, and he knew that the true Church would always strive against it.  Paul was *not* saying that the way to strive against the dark powers of the world was to become one of them.  Campolo’s idea of creating a theocracy has a long world history that shows it is doomed.  Paul knew that.  Jesus knew that.  Campolo ignores it.

It is extremely telling that Campolo refers to Ephesians 3:`10 to make his point, where Paul notes God’s  “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. ”   Note that Paul points out that the church is to show the rulers what God’s will is.  Campolo changes the text a bit to claim that we “are supposed to bring all ‘rulers and authorities’ into subjection to God’s will.

There’s a nontrivial difference between making the will of God known and bringing to “subjection.”  I guess the “red letters” just weren’t strong enough for Campolo.

Campolo then decides to rake conservative Christians over the coals by assigning all of the evils in American history to them.  Of course, this is revisionistic and silly.   In fact, it was *conservatives* who lead in early civil rights legislation.  People forget it was *Republicans* who passed the 1964 civil rights act against the wishes of the Democrats.  It was *libertarian conservatives* that supported sufferage.  And on and on.  His defintions are circular. If he want’s to (correctly) include libertarian conservatives among conservatives, then he should be honest about their history.  And if he wants to be honest, he should be honest about racism on the left.  His selective history is pathetic.  Of course, much of this is tautologic — “liberal” and “conservative” are malleable definitions.  His litany is a tautology, not a study of history.

Next, Campolo has a section about “authority over power,” in which he destroys his own position.  In spite of saying just the opposite a few paragraphs before, he now claims that Christians should not seek power, but instead seek to “influence” power.  This is nonsense.  The fundamental assertion of Campolo in this book is that Christ is best served through coercion. Now he claims that he doesn’t want power.  It’s nonsense.  He wants the government to control all of these issues, and do so through the barrel of a gun, claims that his goal is to bring the government into “subjection” to God’s will, but then doesn’t want to take responsibility for it?  Please.

Finally, he has a section called “Knowledge over Ignorance,” in which he claims that the best way to accomplish this is to be knowledgeable and speak in a credible manner.  But he abandons this immediately.  Neither in these sections (nor in the following) does he speak with “knowledge.” He simply makes appeals to authority, and claims that people who don’t agree with him are “sinners” because they don’t care about the poor.  His only contribution to “knowledge” is his distaste for patriotism.

Fundamentally, Campolo’s mistakes are simple.  First, wants to “help” people, but he’s not all that concerned that people be helped.  The difference is important.  He focuses on Christ’s command that we “help” people — and he sees that the only good way to do this is through the government.  He does not address the problem that government *causes* most of the ills he sees, and that more government intervention will make it worse. He doesn’t address the effects of diverting resources away from Church efforts into government efforts. He doesn’t address the issue that these efforts will be used for things that are singularly *opposed* by Christians.   That’s the message of Camden.  That’s the message of Detroit.  That’s the message of California.  That’s the message of Haiti.  That’s the message of communism.

The difference between “Red Letter” Christians and those evil conservative Christians is one of narcissism.  For “Red Letter” Christians, it’s all about them.  They feel good by “helping” others, even if that “help” causes irreparable harm, enables evil, and promotes misery.  Conservative Christians are interested results.  At the end of the day, are people better off or worse off.    I am reminded, once again of the conversation recorded in Der Spiegal about aid to Africa:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa…

Shikwati: … for God’s sake, please just stop.

SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid..

To “Red Letter” Christians, the promotion of poverty and despair is just the price the poor have to pay — for the privilege of allowing Campolo and his ilk to play their utopian and utilitarian games. It’s not about the poor, it’s about making people in the religious left feel good about themselves.  It always has been.


Second, he lacks faith.  One might think that Jesus would have set up an institution through which He would do his work.  One that he wanted an exclusive relationship with.  One that is intimate.  Almost as if it were, I don’t know, his bride.  But you know, brides can be a problem.  They don’t always do what you want, and sometimes they don’t “respect mah authoritaahhh!”  And you know what men do when they can’t get what they want from their wives — when they need that rush of something a bit stronger and different in their love lives.  They get a wandering eye.  And that’s what Campolo has done.  He is a theologic philanderer.  And like philanderers, he thinks it’s fine to keep the wifey for family get togethers and public events, to keep the house and raise the kids.  But when you want the fun stuff, you go down the street to the woman who will do all the nasty little things wifey won’t do.  Campolo has decided that the Bride of Christ isn’t enough.  He’s decided that Christ needs a piece of ass on the side.  John the Revelator noted the same thing on the other side of the street.  He called her the “Whore of Babylon.”  That’s not politically correct, of course, so I suppose we should stick with the “Sex Worker of Pennsylvania Avenue.” But the principle is the same.  Oh, sure, Campolo really fantasizes about a threesome.  But as in most such things, the reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy, and is often disastrous as a long term arrangement.

Campolo ignores that using the government for his purposes fundamentally removes the one thing that makes a Christian a Christian — free will.  Campolo’s biggest problem is simply a lack of faith.  He does not believe that the Church an implement his grandiose plans.  Jesus isn’t enough.  You need the government, because governments work by coercion..   For Campolo, it’s no longer “What would Jesus do?”  The question is “What shall we say Jesus would *force* you do do against your will?”  And if you don’t agree to “subjection,” then you will be destroyed.  Because you are a sinner, and deserve it, and that’s what government is for.