Recently a book editor from Mississippi contacted me. She wanted permission to reprint a question-and-answer telephone interview I conducted with Baptist minister Will D. Campbell for the Herald-Leader in 1992.
Frankly, I didn't remember the interview.
That's odd, because I know clearly who Campbell was. He ranked among the more controversial and remarkable Christians of the 20th century. His memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, won a National Book Award.
Ordained a Southern Baptist minister at 17, he was a campus minister at the University of Mississippi in the 1950s, when his belief in civil rights made him a lightning rod — and perhaps the leading white minister in the struggle for black equality.
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He escorted children to school through mobs in Little Rock, Ark. He was the only white person present when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.
Next, he ran into trouble with liberals, too, because he decided that poor whites, including racists, also were victims of what he saw as bad government and economic injustice. He said they were equally as deserving of Christian mercy as black people, and he set out to love them as well.
Afterward, some people referred to Campbell as a "Christian anarchist."
Anyway, the kindly book editor in Mississippi emailed me a copy of my long-forgotten Q-and-A with Campbell, which she'd found in his archives.
As it turned out, our talk occurred during the George H. W. Bush-Bill Clinton presidential election battle, which included Vice President Dan Quayle's Murphy Brown dustup. (Quayle called out Brown, a sitcom character played by Candice Bergen, for becoming a single mother on the show and setting a bad example for viewers.)
I was taken by how prescient Campbell's remarks were, on subjects as far-flung as religion's influence on politics and vice versa, gay rights, and pre-9/11 government surveillance.
Campbell passed away in 2013.
You might enjoy these condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Question: When will the current religious climate — which you apparently see as dictated by the Religious Right — change?
Answer: I can't predict that. There's nothing as dangerous as religion when it gets out of hand. I think that is precisely what is happening now.
I don't like to call names, but Bush is the one that has courted that bunch. He goes on their programs and speaks to them and encourages them, and his convention was a pep rally for them. And that's dangerous.
That's saying, "Let's make God and Caesar one."
That was never Paul's intention. It wasn't the Anabaptists' intention.
They didn't question the authority of the state. They just said, "We answer to a higher power. We don't live under law. We live under grace."
Q: Do these religious battles mirror the splintering of society generally?
A: There always have been religious wars, and, of course, that again goes back to the danger of religion when it gets out of hand.
I'm not a religious person. I don't think Jesus was a religious person. It seems to me he tried to destroy religion.
But I would make a sharp distinction between religion and Christianity. ...
Sloganeering is not what Mr. Jesus was about. That was not his message. He challenged the religious establishment at every hand, and that's why they killed him.
These people are — I don't say they're not religious because they certainly are religious — but it's a legalistic religion. It's not a religion of grace and mercy. It's a religiosity of legalism and moralism. If there's one thing the New Testament is not about, it's not about legalism.
Q: What is the greatest evil in our society today?
A: If you say "the" sin, I don't know. I think I know what "sin" is, but I don't know what "a" sin is.
We've catalogued these things. And generally, the thing that bothers me is we turn to the secular society to define what is the greatest sin.
Right now, one of the greatest sins among the religiosity is homosexuality.
As I said to a young priest once — an Episcopal priest — he kept saying, "The Scripture's very clear on this matter." And finally I got a little weary of it and said — he wanted to be called Father, you know, because he was a very high-church Anglican — I said, "Well, the Scripture is very clear on a lot of things. When you were a lad, did you ever spill your seed upon the ground? The Scripture's very clear on that matter."
"Well, I'm sure I've done many reprehensible things," (the priest said).
I said, "I'm not talking about that. I'm just asking you a question. The Scripture's very clear on that. Incidentally, the Scripture's very clear when it says call no man Father, you know."
The Scripture may be clear on a lot of things, but the Bible is not a handbook of rules and regulations. It's a book about who God is.
Somebody asked me what I thought after Quayle went after Murphy Brown. I said, "Well, we should remember that if Murphy Brown had been around 2,000 years ago, she might have been the mother of our Lord."
If he wants to talk about family values, he'd better go to some other book.
My God, the first family in history, the mamma called the daddy one day over at his office, said: "You'd better come home. One of the boys has killed the other one."
Adam said, "Well, why can't we go back to the way things used to be?" She said: "There ain't no used to be. We're it. We're starting this mess."
Q: What does radical Christianity have to say to America?
A: Be free. Be a human being. That's what Jesus was about, was freedom.
We've put ourselves in this technological concentration camp, and it's of our own doing, and we're no longer free. We're run by the society, by the rules, by the law, by computers and all the rest.
I go through an airport security system and everybody knows that I take Metamucil or chew Beech-Nut tobacco or drink cheap whiskey. Because they open up my suitcase for the world to see.
That's just one trivial example of how we've enslaved ourselves and call it the democratic process.
Christianity is about human freedom and what it means to be human. And not to be a robot.