Why Tony Campolo’s LGBTQ Reversal is Evangelicalism’s Tipping Point

Tony Campolo at the Redline conference in 2008. Image via TonyCampolo.org

That crashing sound you heard Monday morning was waves of change breaching the levees of the evangelical Christian world when one of its most venerable icons, the Rev. Tony Campolo, came out in favor of full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

While his name may not be as familiar outside the evangelical bubble as his contemporary, the Rev. Billy Graham, Campolo, 80, is undeniably a pillar of the evangelical world and has been for close to 60 years.

Both Campolo and Graham, 96, are best known and beloved first and foremost as preachers largely unencumbered by overt denominational or political biases. Like Graham, Campolo also has been a spiritual counselor to U.S. presidents and has played the role of public pastor in times of national sorrow and joy. (Since I first heard him deliver a version of it during chapel when I was a student at Wheaton College in 1989, I cannot recall a single Holy Week passing without hearing his classic “It’s Friday But Sunday’s Coming!” homily at least once.)

Graham and Campolo, both Baptist by tradition and creed, have been among the leading voices of mainstream evangelicalism, and their influence spans several generations. Together they helped shape the direction and expansiveness of the church as it attempted to navigate H. Richard Niebhur’s Christ and Culture paradigms and be in the world but not of it in the midst of ever increasing pluralism.

So when Campolo posted a statement on his web site this week announcing that he had changed his mind about homosexuality and was “urging the church to be more welcoming” to LGBTQ people, it was a big deal.

A very big deal.

In his statement, Campolo, a sociologist who earned a doctorate from Temple University, said in part:

As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice and I have seen how damaging it can be to try to “cure” someone from being gay. As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. When we sing the old invitation hymn, “Just As I Am”, I want us to mean it, and I want my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to know it is true for them too.

Rest assured that I have already heard – and in some cases made – every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage…Obviously, people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one.

However, I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.

Quintessential Campolo, ever the straight-shooter.

Clockwise from top left: Graham, Campolo, Stewart, Letterman. Images via The Billy Graham Association, TonyCampolo.com, The Peabody Awards, and CBS.

Clockwise from top left: Graham, Campolo, Stewart, Letterman. Images via The Billy Graham Association, TonyCampolo.com, The Peabody Awards, and CBS.

Funny, passionate, and emotive, Campolo, who for years was a sociology professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania while traveling the world teaching and preaching, is the evangelical world’s Jon Stewart to Graham’s more reserved, buttoned-down David Letterman. He has no poker face, wears his heart on his lapel like a prom boutonniere, and is known to weep, spit, and/or sweat profusely while he preaches. (Maybe that makes him the DeVito to Graham’s DeNiro?)

When Campolo came to preach at Wheaton, as he often did, we would joke about handing out rain ponchos to those seated in the front row a la the audience at one of watermelon-smashing comic Gallagher’s shows.

Campolo is messy and unbridled. That is part of his vast appeal in a religious milieu that is too-often concerned with the appearance of perfection. In certain quarters of the Big Top tent that is evangelicalism in the United States, his passion for social justice (and for life in general) has been less than welcome.

He is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for beginning speeches to Christian audiences this way: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Campolo has been labeled a heretic by some (he is the only living evangelical leader to have undergone an actual heresy trial), but perhaps not quite as often as he’s been called a prophet by others.

Either way, Campolo, like Graham, is a revered elder of the American church writ large, even if he has more of a propensity toward the social gospel than Graham. While he generally eschews partisan politics (save for his unsuccessful run for Congress as an antiwar Democrat in 1976), particularly in the life of the church, unlike Graham, Campolo is an unapologetic progressive and long-time critic of the so-called “Religious Right.”

“What scares me is that Christianity in America today sees nothing wrong with being allied with political conservatism,” he told The Progressive magazine 10 years ago. “Conservatives are people who worship at the graves of dead radicals. Stop to think about that. The people who started this country, George Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, these were not conservatives; these were the radicals of the time. In fact, conservatives always look back on people who they despised and make them into heroes. If you were to listen to the religious right today, they would make you believe that Martin Luther King was one of their flock. In reality, they hated him and did everything they could to destroy him.”

A prolific author—some of his nearly 30 books include titles such as 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to TouchFollowing Jesus Without Embarrassing God, and Adventures in Missing the Point—in more recent years Campolo has become best known as one of the leaders of the influential Red Letter Christian movement, which seeks to counter the incursion of partisan politics into evangelicalism by focusing on  the “radical, counter-cultural teachings” of Jesus as set forth in scripture, and by “embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

“I think that Christianity has two emphases,” Campolo has said. “One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society—to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives.”

A few years ago, when a few progeny of preachers from Campolo and Graham’s generation began to speak out in favor of LGBTQ inclusion, I wondered aloud whether American evangelicals were on the cusp of a “great gay awakening.” Then, as now, I think the answer is, clearly, yes.

“Only time will tell whether more evangelical leaders—Emergent, emerging or otherwise—will add their voices to the chorus calling for full and unapologetic inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church,” I wrote. “But I’m sensing a change in the wind (and the Spirit.)”

Statistics, anecdotal evidence, and prevailing cultural mores testify that the winds have changed, even as Campolo’s statement arrived on the heels of Billy’s son Franklin Graham’s latest facepalm move against LGBTQ civil rights, nevermind ecclesial inclusion.

In his statement, Campolo explained how he arrived at this watershed moment:

Because of my open concern for social justice, in recent years I have been asked the same question over and over again: Are you ready to fully accept into the Church those gay Christian couples who have made a lifetime commitment to one another?

While I have always tried to communicate grace and understanding to people on both sides of the issue, my answer to that question has always been somewhat ambiguous. One reason for that ambiguity was that I felt I could do more good for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by serving as a bridge person, encouraging the rest of the Church to reach out in love and truly get to know them. The other reason was that, like so many other Christians, I was deeply uncertain about what was right.

It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.

One of the greatest influences on his change of heart and mind, Campolo says, is his wife, Peggy, with whom he has famously held a series of public debates over the years on the subject of LGBTQ inclusion.

“One reason I am changing my position on this issue is that, through Peggy, I have come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own,” Campolo wrote. “Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end.

“We in the Church should actively support such families. Furthermore, we should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight,” he said.

Campolo ended his missive with these words:

I hope what I have written here will help my fellow Christians to lovingly welcome all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the Church

To which I’ll add a benediction borrowed from the vicar of the Episcopal parish I used to attend in (Wheaton’s neighbor) Glen Ellyn, Ill., that had, some years ago, survived a painful split over LGBTQ-related concerns:

“And what part of ALL do you not understand?”