Tony Campolo called his Red Letter Christian (RLC) movement “embryonic” and assessed, “we just can’t get this thing off the ground” during a gathering at Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina on October 2, 2019. The gathering was part of RLC’s #GoldsboroRevival, hosted alongside the Rev. William Barber II and Repairers of the Breach.
During the revival, Campolo, who co-founded the RLC movement with Sojourners editor Jim Wallis fifteen years ago, offered a few interesting explanations for why he believes the RLC movement has yet to gain prominence in the United States.
“We’ve got to start putting our money where our rhetoric is,” declared Campolo, who shared that for the first time, RLC recently broke even financially. He then bluntly urged his audience to donate funds to the movement. “If you’re really with me, you’ll give us the support that we need to keep going,” he said. “The money coming into the fundamentalist Evangelical community is huge, and we don’t have it.”
Money isn’t the only reason for RLC’s continued infancy, according to Campolo. During Q&A, he offered this insight:
“One of the other things that the Religious Right has on people like us, is that they know the Bible better than us. I mean this very seriously. They have memorized Scripture. They can quote chapter and verse.”
The former spiritual advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton then shared an anecdote about Jerry Falwell Sr., with whom he had a cordial relationship. The two would debate on the CNN political debate show Crossfire. According to Campolo, the late Falwell would easily defeat mainline Protestant pastors who argued from a philosophical perspective. Falwell, on the other hand, would simply quote Scripture.
“We don’t quote [Scripture] often enough,” Campolo continued. “We make all these philosophical arguments for justice. No book speaks to justice better than the Bible.”
According to Campolo, the RLC movements in England and Germany are growing, with 57 RLC-associated churches meeting in bars throughout Frankfurt.
When asked by an audience member what the disconnect might be between Europe and the U.S., Campolo blamed geography, in part. “Here in the United States, the country is so large, it’s hard to get a national movement going when the country is as big as this one.”
Another problem for RLC, observed Campolo, is the lack of progressive media networks on the airwaves. “The reality is there’s a whole network of radio stations, 1500 radio stations, that are broadcasting Religious Right ideology twenty-four hours a day.”
Campolo continued, “Interestingly enough, as we’ve introduced this [movement] here in the United States, we’ve gotten some very, very positive feedback. But not a movement.”
In April 2018, RLC garnered considerable attention for hosting its “Lynchburg Revival” in protest of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. and other pro-Trump Evangelicals. I attended the Lynchburg Revival and wrote that the gathering resembled more of a left-wing political rally than a revival. I also expressed my frustration with some of the speaker’s disrespectful rhetoric aimed at military men and women. (You can read Campolo’s cordial response to my post here.)
Perhaps some of my criticisms were taken seriously because this year’s Goldsboro event more closely resembled a revival. There were sermons. Scripture was read by several speakers. Songs were sung by a fantastic local choir whose lyrics acknowledged Christ’s forgiveness of sins and lost souls delivered out of the darkness. Even so, I was not surprised when left-wing political rhetoric crept its way into Tuesday evening’s sermon.
While teaching on Exodus 1:15-22, where two Egyptian midwives disobeyed Pharoah to save the lives of Hebrew babies, the Rev. Traci Blackmon praised a list of President Barack Obama’s policy achievements. The United Church of Christ (UCC) official didn’t mention that Obama is the nation’s most vocally pro-abortion president in history.
I can appreciate Campolo’s ability to examine his movement’s shortcomings and urge his followers to do better. He’s at least honest when he says they’ve yet to achieve a Red Letter Revolution. I do believe, however, there is one glaring problem with his movement that he failed to consider, at least in Goldsboro. Liberal mainline Protestantism is declining drastically across this country. And the RLC movement will not be revolutionary so long as it continues recycling liberal mainline Protestantism.
What I heard in Goldsboro sounded very similar to so many of the liberal mainline Protestant events that I’ve attended over the past six years. A heavy concentration on identity politics and less focus on the Gospel’s call for salvation, repentance, and soul-winning. The crowd looked the same too: overwhelmingly Caucasian, gray-haired mainline Protestants. United Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina even offered a welcoming prayer. Sure there were a few young people like myself sprinkled in the mix, but they too were mostly white.
RLC seeks to achieve diversity and attract young people disenchanted with Evangelicalism by amplifying Jesus’s words. A nice-sounding endeavor. But a repackaged version of liberal mainline Protestantism will likely have the same declining fate.