Tony Campolo and David Neff: From Evangelical Left to Post Evangelical?
Can Evangelicals who are liberal politically continue to affirm orthodox Christian teaching about marriage and sex?
Likely the tension will increase as two prominent voices, one a longtime social justice activist, the other a former Christianity Today editor, announced their affirmation of same sex couples.
“I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church,” declared a news release from 80 year old Tony Campolo, a longtime popular speaker, Democratic Party activist and sociology professor at Eastern University in Philadelphia.
Quickly responding to Campolo on Facebook was retired Christianity Today editor David Neff, who cheered: “God bless Tony Campolo. He is acting in good faith and is, I think, on the right track.”
Campolo’s stance was hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed his career, often aligned with Sojourners mobilizer Jim Wallis. Less predictable was the annoucement from Neff, although he in recent years became more associated politically with the Evangelical Left.
A rambunctious and emotive stage speaker often prone more to rhetorical hyperbole than precision, Campolo argued for same sex couples based more on personal experience than theology or empirical data. For years he and his wife Peggy have publicly debated each other on homosexuality, as she touted the liberal stance and he ostensibly affirmed the traditional Christian position.
But it’s clear his heart was not in it. Campolo typically emphasized his distress over “homophobia,”as in his widely read 1993 book, Twenty Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch, always recalling the abuse and suicide of a homosexual classmate, while reluctantly admitting that Scripture and Christian tradition disapprove homosexual behavior.
Over the years Campolo performed a minuet on the issue, dancing up to the boundary, and sometimes seeming to cross it. This would prompt the threat of Evangelical speaking cancellations, often followed by his quick public clarifications insisting that in fact he had not really crossed the boundary.
In his recent pronouncement, Campolo explains about his past minuet that he “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.”
Campolo says almost nothing new to explain his supposed shift. Through his wife he’s “come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own,” since they “have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight.”
Repeating what he’s said for over 20 years, Campolo reports he’s “concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice,” and, “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.” This hymn is intended as an invitation to repentance, but Campolo seems to interpret it as affirmation of the moral status quo.
He doesn’t bother to offer any substantive theological arguments, which he dismisses as a sort of nuisance, having heard “every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage.” Besides, “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.”
So Campolo the social justice crusader and sociologist, uninterested in engaging 2,000 years of continuous Christian teaching, relies on progressivism to make his case. The Church was wrong about women as teachers, wrong about divorce, wrong about slavery, but it turns out we all know better now, and so too on same sex marriage. Let the nuptials begin!
Other than supporting Campolo, Neff has so far offered little rationale for his new public stance, telling his former employer, Christianity Today: “I think the ethically responsible thing for gay and lesbian Christians to do is to form lasting, covenanted partnerships. I also believe that the church should help them in those partnerships in the same way the church should fortify traditional marriages.” CT responded in an editorial that it was “saddened” by its former editor’s stance and offered a robust defense of natural marriage, also noting that sexual liberalism is confined in official Christianity to declining denominations in the West.
Neff in recent years has inclined leftward, especially in his former role on the executive board of the National Association of Evangelicals, backing ostensible “compromise” abortion language from Democrats to ease passage of Obamacare, denouncing nuclear deterrence and enhanced interrogation through projects funded by leftist philanthropies like George Soros and the Tides Foundation, endorsing Jim Wallis’s “Circle of Protection” around federal entitlement programs, and joining the Evangelical Immigration Table for mass legalization of illegal immigrants. Campolo and others on the Evangelical Left were also aligned with Neff on these causes.
Of course none of these political stances leads inexorably to support for same sex marriage. And Neff, unlike Campolo and most on the Evangelical Left, did sign the 2009 Manhattan Declaration in defense of natural marriage. Maybe he will eventually explain why he made the big shift in six years.
But Neff’s and Campolo’s full embrace of same sex behavior indicates that theological and ethical orthodoxy may become increasingly difficult and rare for religionists on the political Left. As they quit the historic consensus on the Christian teaching now under most assault, they likely will be joined by a growing cadre of post-Evangelicals who prefer cultural accommodation to traditional Evangelical counter cultural witness.