Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK… my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative Christian lobbying group in DC. We were located just eight blocks from the White House, and 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 I soon learned, there was only one culture we studied: the gay rights movement. And we didn’t “study” it so much as fight it tooth and nail.
A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. On the agenda: figuring out how to discredit one particular one group we all despised. The stakeholders around the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly humiliate or otherwise embarrass an important official associated with this group.
For one fleeting moment, it occurred to me: everyone around this table, myself included, would have argued passionately that our political values and beliefs were shaped by our religious convictions. Yet these convictions apparently held no sway over the means we were willing to use to advance our cause.
A few weeks later, I was given an assignment: write a booklet defending what we believed was the orthodox view of biblical sexuality against an alternative view being promoted by the gay Christian community and its supporters.
One day, as I was in the middle of this assignment, my boss met me in the hall and handed me a manila folder with Tony Campolo’s name written on it. He looked at me and said, “This is for the booklet. I want you to go after Campolo.”
Tony Campolo is perhaps one of the best-known progressive voices in the evangelical church. The fact that he was a progressive with impeccable evangelical credentials was a source of endless irritation for my colleagues and me. People like Campolo made no sense to us. They were walking contradictions; they weren’t supposed to exist. Theologically, Campolo held the same view of sexuality as we did, yet politically he was a supporter of gay rights. He often criticized people like us for “being tempted into hysterical animosity against gays and lesbians.”
Campolo was a thorn in our side; something had to be done.
So I went back to my desk and opened the folder. To be honest, there wasn’t much to work with. A few pieces of correspondence between Tony and my boss (which mainly served to illustrate how deeply my boss disliked him), a few news clippings… and a photocopy of a flyer purporting to be from a group called Queer Nation. It was advertising a “demonstration of support” in honor of Dr. Campolo.
It wasn’t much, but it was all I had to work with. So I went with “guilt by association.” If his actions earned the praise of a radical group like Queer Nation, I reasoned, then he can’t be up to much good.
A few months later, when I was back at college, the booklet was published. My former employer shipped thousands of copies to supporters across the nation. I made sure my political science advisor got one. (Though he was a registered Democrat, he had gone to bat for me in landing this internship.)
One day, he met me in the hall outside his office. “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. And it was true.
All I could manage to say was, “I know.”
My advisor never said another word about it. He gave me full marks for the internship. But his words have stayed with me ever since.
And you know what the worst part was?
That flyer — the one that gave us our pretext for attacking Campolo—proved to be a hoax. My employer had to print a retraction. In it, they insisted we only meant to illustrate how gay activists take advantage of well-meaning, too-softhearted-for-their-own-good Christians like Campolo.
Which was a lie.
“I want you to go after Campolo.” That’s what my boss had told me when he gave me that manila folder. That’s what motivated me to write what I did. This was no kindly-intended warning. It was a hatchet job.
A lot has changed in the last 15 years. (I don’t think my old employer would ask me back, for one thing.) But here’s what I learned from this experience. 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 option of retaliation; we’ve cast our lot with a Messiah who refused to fight back when attacked. We don’t have the right to seek power for ourselves and our allies, because our Lord relinquished his claim to power so he could become the servant of all. And he expects his followers to do likewise, to repay insult with kindness, to return evil with good.
Even in politics.
After I graduated college, I was still troubled by what I had done. Yes, a retraction had been printed (albeit a dishonest one), but I still felt the need to set things right. So I wrote to Dr. Campolo, explained who I was, 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 when you allow Jesus to shape your political engagement—not only the causes you choose to support, but the way you go about it and how you treat your political adversaries.
So this election day (and every day), may we—left, right, and everyone in between—have 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, and every election is a human being made in God’s image and loved by him every bit as dearly as we are.