Tony Campolo’s surprise reaction when his son came out as a humanist

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Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical leader who has counseled President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy of Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical leader who has counseled President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy of Tony Campolo

(RNS) Bart Campolo decided he was no longer a Christian after being injured in a bike accident in 2011. But he waited until last Thanksgiving to break the news to his father, Tony, an influential evangelical leader and author who is famous for having been a spiritual adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Tony Campolo, front, with son Bart Campolo. Photo courtesy of Bart Campolo

Tony Campolo, front, with son Bart Campolo. Photo courtesy of Bart Campolo

Following the family dinner, Bart sat his parents down and explained that he was now an agnostic humanist. His father’s response was surprising.

“You know me. I am not afraid you’re going to hell because the God I believe in doesn’t send people to hell for eternity for having the wrong theology,” Tony responded, according to Bart. “I’m sad because Christianity is my tribe, and I liked having you in my tribe. ”

Looking back now, the elder Campolo said he doesn’t remember what he said, but describes the conversation as “upsetting” and “traumatic.” Even though Tony says he believes in hell and “Jesus is the only way to salvation,” he won’t speculate on his son’s eternal destiny.

“I leave judgments in the hands of God,” Tony said. “I don’t know what’s going on in Bart’s heart or mind or soul. I have faith in God and I have faith in prayer, and I have confidence that this thing is not over until it’s over.”

The two remain close despite their theological differences and speak on the phone regularly. They are even co-authoring a book together that Tony says is tentatively titled, “A Painful Dialogue Between an Evangelical Father and His Agnostic Son.”

Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical leader who has counseled President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical leader who has counseled former President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy Tony Campolo

But Bart’s rejection of his father’s faith shouldn’t come as a total shock to those who’ve been watching his life and ministry.

“I passed just about every stage of heresy on my way to apostasy,” Bart said. “It wasn’t until I exhausted every option for staying a Christian that I gave it up.”

The younger Campolo recounts becoming a Christian in high school. He says he was drawn by the sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world.

“All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction,” Bart said.

His first step away from orthodoxy occurred while doing inner-city ministry near Philadelphia. Bart encountered a girl who had been gang-raped at age 9 and who rejected Christianity after her Sunday school teacher said God could have stopped the act but allowed it for a reason.

Bart decided that if he was going to remain a Christian, he had to believe that God did not authorize that child’s rape and was not in control of the world. He began to imagine God as engaged in a battle with good and evil rather than a cosmic marionette pulling the universe’s strings.

The next rejection occurred as a student at Haverford College in 1981, when two of Bart’s roommates came out to him as gay. Though evangelical Christian teachings repudiated same-sex orientation at the time, he chose instead to jettison the biblical verses that spoke negatively of homosexuality.

“I decided I was going to make room for gay people in my theology, and I became very open about the fact that I would ignore certain Bible verses and underline others,” he said.

Having rejected the sovereignty of God and authority of the Bible — two cornerstone Christian beliefs — he was already substantially outside the evangelical fold. But then Bart committed what many would call an unpardonable sin: He became a universalist. He simply couldn’t fathom a God who would condemn his nonbelieving friends to hell for eternity.

“I was only interested in a God who would save everybody,” Bart said. “It didn’t matter that the Bible had some verses that said something different.”

This unholy trinity of Christian rejections sent Bart into a spiritual tailspin. He was thrown out of conferences and churches for preaching unorthodox beliefs. Then he published an article in “The Journal of Student Ministries” laying out his scandalous theology. After vicious pushback and cries of “heresy,” the article was pulled.

“I started rejecting the supernatural stuff, the orthodoxy. I no longer believed God does miracles or that Jesus was raised from the dead or that other religions were false,” he said. “My Christianity had died the death of a thousand nicks and cuts.”

But it wasn’t until the biking accident in 2011 that Bart lost whatever remained of his tattered faith. “While recovering, I thought, ‘When this body dies, I think that will be the end of Bart Campolo. I don’t think I will be going anywhere. I don’t believe in eternal life in that way anymore.’”

Today, Bart serves as the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. He is only one of a few individuals in such a role on a U.S. campus.

The university’s humanist community is neither orthodox nor theistic, but he believes it will still be a place of hope. Bart said he wants to create a humanist community that Christian people can celebrate — what he calls “a church for people who don’t believe in God.” He wants to create experiences with inspirational talks, uplifting music, service opportunities, and perhaps even potluck suppers.

“One thing I learned from Jesus was that if you want to gain your life, you have to lose it for the sake of the gospel,” Bart said. “I may have a different gospel now, but I want to give my life to it. I still have good news to share.”

As it turns out, you can take a man out of the ministry, but you can’t always take the ministry out of a man.

(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service. He is author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.)


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  • David

    1 John 2:19

  • Sally

    I worked for a summer almost 20 yrs ago with Bart to bring the gospel (of the perfect life, the shedding of His blood, the substitutionary death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) to inner-city children. I pray that Bart would see that his bike “accident” was maybe a surprise to him but not a surprise to God. That God uses trials, circumstances in our lives to test our faith, to show us more of Who He is, and what and Who is truly in our hearts…We can either through the trial, cling to the Only One Who is the only Name under heaven by which we must be saved and by His grace alone are conformed to The image of our Lord Jesus, or we go through a trial left to ourselves trying to only use earthly wisdom alone and thinking and acting in the flesh pull away, possibly get angry at God, not only suppress the Truth about God and our own hearts , but actually reject His Son -therefore rejecting the Father’s plan, the entire plan of the Trinity. In the latter choice, one is left only with one’s pride, facing eternal consequences of hell should they not repent of transgression against our Holy Creator. The very Creator who did and now gives Bart the very breath and life he is apparently using at this time to in a sense shake his fist at the Almighty Who has the power over all His creation to save or to condemn for His glory. I fervently pray for Bart’s heart and repentance and salvation-by His grace, the good news of Jesus Christ Who we all are in desperate need of every day. I dearly want Bart to see his need for Jesus and call upon Him for salvation and join those who will one day sing His praises forever -it could be today. For Bart to decide to be this humanitarian not for God is making a religion to Bart and he knows that is well written in the book of Romans from God to His created subjects.

  • David

    How gracious and true your words are Sally. I pray also for the thousands of youth and others who have heard and read Bart Campolo’s false gospel and believed a lie.

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  • cynde

    Thank you so much Sally for sharing your story about Bart’s former life. How very very sad to hear of this but no surprise…with Tony as his dad..

  • Neo

    The state public school system will do that to people.

  • Ulricii

    I don’t know why you say that Bart is “in a sense” shaking his fist at the Almighty. It seems to me you are projecting anger into his stance in place of the unease he says he experienced at each stage of the journey from Christianity to humanism.

    Are you reading anger into his remarks because you find an angry humanist easier to deal with than one who says he’s at peace with himself? Somebody’s angry here and I’m not sure it’s Bart/

  • david

    Barts father, Tony, had been one of the most influential people in my life. I am saddened by the negative comments about him. Tony has always caused me to want to be a better follower of Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians, on the other hand……

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  • Jen

    Well said, Ulricii
    There is a myth perpetuated among evangelical christians that anyone who is not one of them, or stops being one of them, must be “lost”, “angry”, “spiritually bereft”, “searching for something” etc.

    There is a popular evangelical tool called “Two Ways to Live” which perpetuates this black-and-white thinking. Essentially it says you’re either with God or not with God, and the only way to be with God is to accept the evangelical christian belief that everyone is a sinner, deserves to be punished, but Jesus’ took the punishment on everyone’s behalf when he died on the cross.

    Given that there is hardly anything about this world, about this life, that is so black-and-white, I find this rhetoric very difficult to swallow. So apparently I’m out.

  • kb inseattle

    It’s not a ‘popular evangelist tool’, but a fact that Jesus states:
    Mat_6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

  • kb inseattle

    1Jn 2:22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
    1Jn 2:23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
    1Jn 2:24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.
    1Jn 2:25 And this is the promise that he made to us–eternal life.
    1Jn 2:26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.

  • Jeff

    KB inseattle…What you don’t understand is….no one is serving another one when you’re a humanist and that’s why christians don’t understand the rest of us. You just used another “evangelical tool” of reason to defend your religious beliefs, you just don’t get it.
    For me, I don’t believe in the religious claims of a god or gods…it has nothing to do with “despise the other” I’d have to believe that your god was real to do that despising and that’s impossible since I don’t believe in your god claims.

  • KB, David, it seems you are responding with biblical references, instead of actually addressing, or even trying to understand the journey that brought Bart out of the fold, and brings so many out. People are leaving the faith in droves throughout this country and to simply spout verses instead of trying to understand it will only hurt your cause.

    That having been said, I can’t help but see a few very applicable verses you missed:

    “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you … Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” — (Deut.13:6-10)

    Tony has to be the first. Wait everyone, Tony gets first crack.

    Or maybe this one?

    “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.” (Deut. 21:18-21).

    Either way – start gathering those rocks.

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone? That was the ‘old’ law?

    Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

    Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

    Matthew 5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

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  • Ron Ball

    I have corresponded with Bart briefly over a few years. He lived here in Cincinnati until recently. Bart did a good work here. He lived in a very bad neighborhood and showed the people there love. I lived near there as a boy and can tell you there’s not much love spread around there. The point? None really. I am a five point fundamentalist and remain so. It ain’t over yet though.

  • Carey

    My former boss is a personal friend to both Bart and Tony. Following Tony’s tenure as Chaplain to President Clinton, my boss relayed a story as told by Bart. It seems Bart was a bit skeptical of the relationship between his Dad and the President. One day Tony brought him along on one of his visits to the White House. After a wait he was surprised to see the level of congeniality and friendship between the two when Clinton finally emerged. This struck me as fascinating that Bart questioned the claims of his Dad. Personally I think the level of doubt is healthy. But that’s just me.

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  • Tim Guy

    some day you may look back on posts like this with deep sorrow for having been apart of brain washing so many people.