Question: "What are Red Letter Christians?"
Answer: The name “Red Letter Christians” refers to the words of Jesus, which are printed in red in many editions of the New Testament. Red Letter Christians are a group of liberal Christians whose desire is to counter the political influence of conservative Christians. In the past thirty years, the voice of evangelical Christianity has been fairly prominent in the political process, much to the chagrin of secularists, non-evangelicals, and liberal Christians. As conservative Christians networked in such groups as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and American Values, popular figures within liberal Christianity began to feel disenfranchised. They deemed their faith to have been “hijacked” by the religious right.
Framers of the Red Letter movement include Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine; Shane Claiborne, an activist and leader in the New Monasticism movement; Richard Rohr, a well-known Catholic writer; Brian McLaren, an emergent church leader; and Tony Campolo, a popular speaker and author of Red Letter Christians: a Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics. These men desired to counter the voice of evangelicalism in the political world.
The group chose the name for a couple of reasons: first, to stress that its political philosophy is based on Jesus’ teachings—a “What Would Jesus Do?” approach to governmental policy. Second, to appear apolitical—the appellation “Red Letter Christians” avoids the political connotations of labels such as “liberal” and “progressive,” and it facilitates the group’s claim that it transcends politics. Of course, the founding of the Red Letter Christian movement was politically motivated, and the organization is inherently political, as it supports various (liberal) government policies.
Red Letter Christians resent what they see as the religious right’s fixation on abortion and homosexual rights. Since Jesus did not deal with those two issues, they say, we should not make them more urgent than other issues. Instead, Red Letter Christians focus on political policies affecting poverty, global warming, racial discrimination, the role of the military, capital punishment, foreign aid, and public education.
Red Letter Christians believe that moral values should be a major subject of dialogue within American politics but that conservative Christians have embraced the wrong values. Red Letter Christians seek to redefine moral values according to their interpretation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and other “red letter” passages. They plan to spread their message via websites, blogs, candidates’ forums, debates, and printed voter guides.
All politics aside, there are some problems associated with the Red Letter Christian movement. The first concerns the group’s open theology. Bringing together various faith backgrounds is very tolerant and progressive, but theologically untenable. Founders of the movement include those who believe that we must earn our way to heaven and those who distrust the inspiration of the Word of God.
The second problem involves the group’s piecemeal approach to Scripture. To concentrate on certain parts of the Bible to the exclusion of others is unbalanced and dangerous. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Epistles, for example, were written to instruct us on the practical outworking of Jesus’ teaching and are just as inspired as Jesus’ own words. Paul’s words should not be considered inferior, as the term “Red Letter Christians” implies.
A third problem relates to their interpretation of Jesus’ words. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was not trying to write national government policy. He was presenting Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law (Matthew 5:17) and the Savior from sin for all who would believe in Him. He clearly separated Himself from all political movements and paradigms when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
While it is true that Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and we need public discussion on all moral values, not just abortion and homosexuality, we must handle God’s Word honestly and guard against those who undermine the sufficiency of Scripture and the sacrifice of Christ.