The Positive Prophet
It's Friday, Sunday's coming, and evangelist Tony Campolo is speaking ten times between now and then.
He avoids speakers' bureaus, has no standard speaking fee, and arranges most of his speaking engagements himself with his wife. And as he flew from Honolulu to Harvard last April 6, Tony Campolo faced an itinerary placing him on a podium more than 410 times by the end of the year—down from about 500 a few years ago. Then the right side of his body went numb. Tony Campolo, 37,000 feet in the air, was having a stroke.
In its aftermath, his speaking schedule has been trimmed back—in theory, anyway (see "Tony Talks Too Much," p. 38). He has supposedly limited himself to 350 events a year, but the number is already creeping up. He even managed to sneak in a few sermons while recovering from the stroke in Hawaii.
"There's a lot of factors that tend to seduce me into speaking more than I should, and I wish it was all noble," he says. "People need money, people need volunteers, but also this is a lot of fun. I love doing this. I enjoy the interaction with people. I feed off of that. They really turn me on."
He turns them on too—with a few exceptions. In classic Campolo form, he began on a positive note recently at a Wheaton College debate. "Following September 11 a year ago, a healthy patriotism swept across this country," he said. "It wasn't the kind of patriotism we saw at the L.A. Olympics, where we waved our fingers in the faces of the rest of the world and said we're better than you are. Instead it was a chastened and humbled patriotism, a patriotism that said we're proud of our values. We're willing to embrace the ideals that gave birth to our basic institutions."
Then came the critique. "But in the last year I have seen those values, I have seen those ideals compromised. Perhaps the thing that was most disturbing was when I found out that this administration had proposed and actually allotted funds to establish a department in the Pentagon which would have no other function than to spread lies about our enemies," said Campolo with typical hyperbole. "It not only violates the Bill of Rights, it violates my sense of morality." (The Pentagon quickly scrapped plans for the Office of Strategic Influence when criticism mounted last February.)
He was debating conservative activist Gary Bauer, who responded, "I know this is hard for you to believe, but the enemy is not John Ashcroft, the enemy is Osama bin Laden."
"I'm not sure about that," said Campolo, drawing gasps and not a few boos from the audience. "When you start taking away the rights of the American citizens, when you undercut the Bill of Rights in order to pursue security, I think you become more dangerous than bin Laden. I think that if this country goes down, it will not be because of the enemies that are outside this country. I think that if this country goes down, it's because those within the country undercut our basic rights, undercut the principles that gave birth to this institution."
This is Campolo's modus operandi: when he's not using humor to drive his points home, he uses hyperbole. He comes in as the insider, but he enjoys shocking his audience, too ("I have three things I'd like to say today," he famously began many speeches in the 1980s. "First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a s—. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said s— than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.") But the hyperbole and shock are inevitably followed with cogent arguments, along with reams of Scripture.