Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK…my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative, religious lobbying group located just eight blocks from the White House. We were on the front lines of the culture war.
When I arrived in May of that year, I was assigned to work in what they called the Cultural Studies department. As it turned out, there was only one culture we studied, and we didn’t “study” it so much as try to eradicate it (motivated, no doubt, by the irrational fear that they were trying to do the same to us). It was, as you might have guessed, the gay rights movement.
A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. The topic: how to eliminate public funding for one group we all particularly despised. The stakeholders at the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly discredit or otherwise embarrass someone important associated with this particular group.
For one fleeting moment, it occurred to me: everyone around this table, myself included, would have argued passionately that our political agenda was shaped by our religious convictions. Yet those same convictions seemingly held no sway over the means we used to advance our agenda.
A few weeks later, I was given an assignment: write a booklet defending what we thought was the traditional view of biblical sexuality against the alternative view being promoted by supporters of the gay Christian community.
One day, as I was in the middle of this assignment, my boss met me in the hall and handed me a manila folder. The tab read, “Campolo, Tony.” My boss looked at me and said, “This is for the booklet. I want you to go after Campolo.”
Tony Campolo is one of the best-known progressive voices within the church. For my colleagues and me, though, the fact that he was a progressive voice with evangelical credentials beyond dispute was no minor source of irritation. People like Campolo didn’t make sense to us; they weren’t supposed to exist. We saw them as walking contradictions. Campolo held the same view of sexuality as most evangelicals, yet he was a proponent of gay rights. He often criticized his fellow evangelicals for, as he once put it, “being tempted into hysterical animosity against gays and lesbians.”
This guy was a thorn in our side; something had to be done.
So I took the folder back to my desk and opened it. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot to work with—a few pieces of correspondence between Tony and my boss (which mainly served to illustrate how deeply my boss disliked Tony), a few news clippings… and a photocopy of a flyer purporting to be from a group called Queer Nation, advertising a “demonstration of support” in honor of Dr. Campolo.
It wasn’t much, but it was all we had to work with. So “guilt by association” it was. If your actions earn the praise of a radical group like Queer Nation, we reasoned, then you can’t be up to much good.
So the booklet was published. My employer shipped thousands of copies to supporters across the nation. When I returned to college for the fall semester, I gave my political science advisor a copy.
One day, he met me in the hall and stopped. “I read your booklet,” he said. “That part about Campolo… that was a hatchet job.”
It wasn’t angry or accusatory. Just matter of fact.
All I could say in reply was, “I know.”
My advisor never said another word about it. I still got full credit for the internship. But his words stuck with me.
And you know what the worst part was? That flyer — the one we used to go after Campolo — turned out to be a fake. My employer had to print a retraction in which they tried to say we had only mentioned Campolo to illustrate how gay activists take advantage of well-meaning, too-softhearted-for-their-own-good Christians.
But that wasn’t what my boss told me when he handed me that manila folder. That wasn’t what led me to write what I did.
“I want you to go after Campolo.”
This was no kindly-intended warning. It was a hatchet job.
A lot has changed in the last 15 years, including some of my personal and political views. (Let’s just say I don’t think my old employer would ask me back.) But what I learned from this experience is that if you’re a Christian — left or right, it doesn’t matter — and if your religious convictions lead you into political activism, do not bring Jesus into it unless you’re prepared to let him shape not only the causes you support, but the way you go about it — and above all, the way you treat your political adversaries.
Just because everyone else plays dirty doesn’t mean we get to. It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus told us to do good to our enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. When we’re insulted or attacked, we don’t have the luxury of retaliation; we’ve cast our lot with a Savior who refused to fight back when he was attacked. We don’t have the right to seek power for ourselves and those who think like we do, because our teacher — our example — relinquished any claim to power so that he could become the servant of all. And guess what? He calls on us to do likewise — to repay insult with kindness, evil with good.
Yes, even in politics.
After I graduated college, I was still bothered by what I had written. Even though a retraction had been printed (albeit a dishonest one), I still felt the need to set things right. So I wrote to Dr. Campolo, introduced myself, and apologized.
The response I got back was unmitigated grace and forgiveness. Not one hint of malice or resentment. He actually thanked me for reaching out — me, the guy with the hatchet in his hand.
Tony Campolo modeled for me what it looks like to allow Jesus to shape your political engagement — not only the causes you choose to support, but the way you go about it.
So this election day, may we — left, right, and everyone in between — engage (if we so choose) in spirited, vibrant conversations with those on the other end of the political spectrum.
May we stand up and speak out for the causes that are dear to us.
But may we always remember that on the other side of every issue, every debate, every election is a human being made in God’s image and loved just as dearly as we are.