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A New Movement in America Gets a Name

By Tony Campolo.

This is an unusual article for Ministry Today! Nevertheless, we felt it would be of interest to readers and invite your feedback on the author's defence of this new movement. Thoughtful and courteous responses will be included in the next edition of Ministry today

In the early 1900s, modernistic theological ideas flowed across the Atlantic from Germany and permeated the Protestant churches of America.  These new ideas stemmed from scholars in a new field of biblical criticism which called into question the authorship of many of the books of the Bible and suggested, in no uncertain terms, that much of the Scripture was invented by human agents rather than being the result of revelations from God.  In short, the Bible was no longer considered by these literary critics to be what Christians had long assumed - that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was an infallible guide for faith and practice.

Adding to this special field of “biblical criticism” were modernistic theologies that came from the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ernest Troeltsch and David Strauss. Such scholars synthesized Christianity with the prevalent philosophies of secular naturalism and, in the process, cut the miraculous essentials out of the Christian faith in order to make Christianity more acceptable to those that Schleiermacher called its “Cultured Despisers.”  Everything from the virgin birth to the divinity of Christ was called into question, and in the place of the old theologies, they provided new emphases for Christianity which exalted what came to be called the “social gospel.”  With anything supernatural and mystical being called into question, these “modernists,” as they have been called, reduced Christianity to a secular ideology that called Christians to do social justice work in the world, but offered little in the way of propagating the belief that, in addition to the struggle for social justice, there was either a trustworthy Bible or a resurrected Christ who saves sinners through a personal transforming relationship.  Christianity was reduced to a set of ethical principles that would guide humanity into a glorious future in which evil would be outgrown by humanity and cast aside as an outworn garment.[1]

For many modernists, history was an evolutionary process in which God was an immanent force, driving society ever onward and upward until the Kingdom of God would one day become a social reality solely through the efforts of energetic moral engineers.  Of this modernistic theology with its social gospel, H Richard Niebuhr wrote that it preached a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.[2]

In opposition to these modernistic movements, a group of Christian scholars produced a set of twelve books called The Fundamentals.[3]  These books defended the traditional doctrines that are outlined in the Apostles’ Creed.  They were respectable and balanced in their understanding of how Scripture was to be appreciated and how the Church had to make room for the miraculous if the Bible was to maintain a semblance of validity.  Funded by two wealthy Californians who were in the oil business, three million copies of these books were published and sent to every clergy person in the United States.  Those Protestants who adhered to the teachings set forth in these books came to be called Fundamentalists!  Their movement during the early years of the 20th century was an effective effort to defend traditional Christianity against the onslaught of modernism, both in the field of Biblical Studies and in the field of theology.  Fundamentalism held the fort against attacks that would have destroyed what most Christians considered to be the essentials of the Christian faith.  For that effort, the rest of the Church universal should be ever grateful.

Difficulties arose, however, as Fundamentalists, in the middle of the 1930s and then for the next three decades, developed a separatist mindset because they felt that the American culture had become secularized and thus opposed to the things of God.  Not being sufficiently equipped with scholars who could stand up against their modernist opponents, they retreated into a sectarian world of their own where they could maintain their own worldview, unthreatened by rationalistic religious thought.  In addition, Fundamentalists became increasingly legalistic.  They would not involve themselves in certain forms of entertainment such as going to see motion pictures.  Dancing and smoking were viewed as serious sins, and the use of alcoholic beverages was viewed as a horrific practice.[4]  They reduced Christian ethics to personal pieties and lost sight of a God who was at work in the world through people who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, could be agents of change transforming the world that is into what it ought to be.  What was worse is that they became intensely judgmental of any who did not adhere to their subcultural values, labelling such persons as “worldly.”

During the 1950s, Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist in modern history, along with Carl Henry, a prominent conservative theologian and co-founder of the Evangelical publication, Christianity Today,[5] began to employ a new name that provided some distance from what they viewed as the undesirable qualities that had come to be associated with Fundamentalism.  Holding to the doctrines set forth in the Apostles’ Creed, maintaining a high view of Scripture, and believing that conversion came as individuals surrendered to an invasion of Christ’s Spirit, they added to these convictions a commitment to work for social justice.  Shying away from the label “Fundamentalist,” they affirmed a new label and called themselves “Evangelicals.”  They differed from those who regarded concerns for social justice as expressions of the “social gospel” expounded by modernists, and preached a holistic gospel that embodied the old theological emphases of Fundamentalism along a the commitment for social transformation.

Evangelicals, according to Henry and Graham, were to be Christians who had a social conscience and were committed to movements that would end such evils as racism and poverty.  They were to be people who would invade every sector of society and in each of those sectors declare the Lordship of Christ while working for progressive changes.  Furthermore, they were to engage the academic world with the conviction that on a “level playing field,” Christianity could stand up to any ideology that secular humanism possibly could offer.  They were convinced that the time for retreating from the secular world was over and they endeavored to abandon the anti-intellectualism and the legalism that for many of its critics had become the hallmarks of Fundamentalists.

For almost forty years, most Evangelicals would utilize their new label and would feel comfortable with their new identity.  Things changed, however.  Over the last decade-and-a-half, many Evangelicals have become dissatisfied with the label because Evangelicals increasingly have become married to the conservative wing of Republican Party.  In the public media, the label “Evangelical” has come to be associated with right wing politics and, as the Barna researchers have discovered, is associated with being “hypocritical, judgmental, and homophobic.” 

In the minds of outside observers, Evangelicalism is now associated with the radical right of Republicanism.[6]  This is so much the case that for a person to announce that he or she is a Democrat is likely to be defined as being outside the Evangelical community.  It is almost as though “Evangelical Democrat” has become an oxymoron.  Sadly, to go onto university campuses such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, and to be announced as an Evangelical, is to immediately have red flags raised by campus secularists. Upon being identified as an Evangelical, it is assumed that one is pro-war, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-environmentalism, pro-capital punishment, pro-gun, and certainly a part of the Religious Right. Hitherto, many Evangelicals have attempted to stave off such categorizations, but it hasn’t worked.  That is why these Christians who once identified themselves as Evangelicals came up with a new label.  Reaching across the religious spectrum, from Pentecostalism to Roman Catholicism, they declared “We are no longer calling ourselves Evangelicals.  We are going to call ourselves Red Letter Christians.”[7]  The red letters, of course, refer to the red letters in the Bible which, in many editions of the Scriptures, highlight the words of Jesus.  Those who call themselves Red Letter Christians are quick to point out that their faith and especially their lifestyles are to be defined, so far as possible, by the teachings of Jesus. 

Red Letter Christians recognize that the ethic of Jesus, especially as it is set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, is a higher ethic than anything that can be found in the Hebrew Bible.  Following Jesus’ words that his followers should abandon the old teaching of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and committing to love their enemies and overcoming evil with good, most of them have become advocates for non-violent resistance.  Most Red Letter Christians oppose capital punishment, given that Jesus taught his followers in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

The primary focus of Red Letter Christians, however, is on what Jesus had to say about the poor.  They emphasize that the only description that he gave of Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46) was a declaration that all men and women one day will be evaluated on the basis of whether or not they fed the poor who were hungry, naked, and sick and visited those who were imprisoned.  They are prone to take quite literally the red letters that tell them that it is harder for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10.25).  Consequently, Red Letter Christians strive to embrace a simple lifestyle that requires that their money no longer be spent on those unnecessary luxuries promoted by our consumerist society, but rather spent wisely to meet personal needs and invested carefully on behalf of the poor.[8]

It is acknowledged among Red Letter Christians that the teachings of Jesus make his followers into counter-cultural persons who recognize that discipleship requires radical changes in their lifestyles. They recognize that the lifestyles prescribed by middle class America have been largely responsible for depleting the non-renewable resources of the planet, led to the polluting of the oceans and the air, and necessitated the exploitation of underpaid workers in Third World countries.  Following the teachings of Jesus, they claim, would counteract these societal evils. 

Red Letter Christians recognize that they must not only be involved on the micro level as they live out the teachings of Jesus, but that they must also be intensely involved in politics.  They are quick to declare that because Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and that no single political party can espouse all the values that Jesus proposed, that non-partisan political action is needed so as to not make Jesus captive to any specific ideology.  They advocate that Red Letter Christians should invade all political parties and in each become “the leaven” transforming those parties, insofar as that is possible, in accord with the teachings of Christ.  In America, when asked, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” they are prone to answer, “Name the issue!”

There are those who have been critical of this new movement.  Some have said that Red Letter Christians hold up the red letters of the Bible as though they are superior to the black letters.[9]  To those who make that accusation, Red Letter Christians contend, “You’ve got us right!  Not only do we believe that the teachings of Jesus are superior to anything else in the Bible, but we point out that Jesus himself said that his teachings were superior.  If you read the Sermon on the Mount, you will find that, time and time again, Jesus declared that the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud have been replaced by a new ethic.  Over and over he told his disciples that he was giving them new and higher commandments than they had heard “of old.”  Furthermore, we believe that no one can understand the black letters of the Bible unless he or she first comes to grips with the Jesus who reveals Himself in history through His words and deeds.  Unless you understand who Jesus is and what he did through His life, death and resurrection, the rest of the Scriptures won’t really make much sense.  Can anyone really understand the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah or the twenty-second Psalm without knowing about Jesus and what he did and said?  Is there any way of understanding the allusions to Jesus that are found all through the Hebrew prophets unless you understand what was revealed through Christ’s words and deeds?”

Red Letter Christians are not about to water down the teachings of Jesus in order to present a prescribed lifestyle that can be synthesized with American upper-middle class affluence.  They represent a new movement among Christians which rejects the “easy believism” that reduces Christianity to the mere affirmation of theological propositions.  They acknowledge, as Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Something more is needed.”

Because traditional Evangelicals, more often than not, have been steeped in the theology of the Pauline Epistles long before they scrutinized the teachings of Jesus in the red letters of the Bible, they tend to see Jesus through the eyes of Pauline theology.  Red Letter Christians, on the other hand, do just the opposite - they advocate that we read Paul through the eyes of Jesus; that we get steeped in the Gospels before we go to the Epistles.  While they do not see contradictions between these two perspectives, they claim that there is a difference in what is emphasized.  If Christians are into the red letters first, they contend, they will be committed to a new lifestyle before they grapple with the sophisticated theological concepts set forth in Pauline teachings.  It is not that doctrine is, by any means, diminished in importance, it is just that Red Letter Christians put the emphasis on living a Christ-like life.  They raise the bar when it comes to obedience to the things that Jesus said and expected of His followers. [10]  It is to Christ’s counter-cultural lifestyle that Red Letter Christians make a strong commitment.

Any who want to learn more about this growing movement should go to the Red Letter Christian website at  There is even a way, via that website, to sign up if you want to be identified with them.

[1] For a brief survey of developments in Biblical criticism and theology in Germany, go to Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1953, pp. 1119-1130.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, Harper Torchbooks, 1959, p. 193.

[3] The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, Testimony Publishing Company, Chicago, 1910.

[4] William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1950, pp. 410‑413

[5] Carl F.H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1947.

[6] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Harper Collins, 2005, New York, NY.

[7] See, Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical, Basic Books, 2000, pp. 6-8.

[8] For a review of some political perspectives of this movement, go to Tony Campolo, Red Letter Christians, Regal Press, 2008.

[9] “When Red is Blue,” Stan Guthrie, Christianity Today, Oct. 2007.

[10] For a survey of this radical lifestyle, consider Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006.

Tony Campolo

Evnagelist and Social Campaigner

Ministry Today

You are reading A New Movement in America Gets a Name by Tony Campolo, part of Issue 51 of Ministry Today, published in March 2011.

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