by William Trollinger
It has been well-documented that the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president – and the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for him – has produced consternation and soul-searching within a segment of American evangelicalism. Some disaffected evangelicals (particularly, evangelicals of color) have disavowed the label. More than this, the evangelical attachment to culture war politics seems to be accelerating the disaffection of younger Americans, as the percentage of Americans under the age of 30 who are white and evangelical has dropped to 8%.
But there are those who are working to rescue evangelicalism from the clutches of the Christian Right. One such group is the Red Letter Christians (RLC), a name that refers to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are in red. Founded by evangelical activists and authors Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne,
The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount . . . What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said.
A few weeks ago the RLC held revival meetings in Lynchburg, Virginia. The choice of location was not a coincidence, as Lynchburg is, of course, home of Liberty University, a Christian Right citadel that is presided over by Trump apologist Jerry Falwell, Jr. Lynchburg’s “Red Letter Revival” nevertheless included the participation of a number of Liberty students, including one frustrated undergraduate who complained that Falwell’s administration “exhibits ‘toxic Christian nationalism.'”
Tony Campolo gave the altar call, an altar call strikingly different from what one typically hears at evangelical revivals:
Are you ready to say I’m going to commit myself to Jesus? I’m going to be committed to the poor? I’m going to stand up for the refugee? I’m going to speak for those who feel oppressed by our society?
While the RLC is committed to resisting the Christian Right’s appropriation of evangelicalism, it is also determined not to participate in the culture war binary of us vs. them. In this spirit, revival organizer Claiborne invited Falwell to join with him and other RLC leaders in a prayer meeting.
Falwell’s response was to threaten Claiborne with arrest and a $2500 fine if he stepped foot on the Liberty campus. Falwell prohibited the student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, from covering the event:
Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for – publicity. Best to ignore them.
Ignore them. Keep them off Liberty’s campus. Threaten arrest if necessary. Really?
What is so frightening to administrators at this well-funded and politically well-connected institution about this relatively small group of Bible-believing, Jesus-following evangelicals?
Jerry Falwell, Jr. is not the only Christian Right leader spooked by the Red Letter Christians. More on this in the next post.