Dealing With Babylon

Tony Campolo July/August 2004

In the days of the early church they looked at the government—they looked at the dominant societal system, the dominant political economic system, and had a name for it. They called it Babylon. You say, "Are you suggesting that the United States is Babylon?"

I contend that if you read the biblical book of Revelation carefully, you will see that what the writer is trying to do is to convince us that whenever the church finds itself in a particular political economic system, then, of course, that system must be referred to as Babylon. If I were in Mexico, the Mexican system—the Mexican government—would be Babylon. If I were in France, the French government would be Babylon. If I were in Germany, the German government would be Babylon. You say, "You're calling the U.S. government Babylon?" Yes. And let me just say it's the best Babylon on the face of the earth. I mean, if you've got to live in Babylon, don't you want to live in this one? This is the best Babylon that's ever existed in time and history.

The system is out to seduce—specifically, the system is out to seduce the church. And that's exactly what's going on right now with faith-based initiatives. It has become the most threatening seduction that I've ever seen come down the pike, because religious groups all over America say, "We could do so much more if we just had the money." The truth is that we do have the money. We shouldn't be looking to government for the money.

The real reason I am for separation of church and state is that unless there is clear differentiation between church and state—unless we make sure that Babylon has not seduced us into its corner by means of money—we will lose our prophetic edge. Separation of church and state isn't important only because it keeps the government from influencing the church. Separation of church and state is crucial if the church is going to influence the government. If we take money from government, it's as simple as this: whoever pays the fiddler calls the tune. If they are paying for our programs, they will be able to dictate what our programs are all about, and that is already happening.

A newspaper I picked up in Canada told of a man who previously worked with World Vision and is now working with faith-based initiatives in Washington. And what he is now saying is that NGOs, particularly those that are working in developing countries, had better realize that if they criticize U.S. government policy concerning those areas, their funding will be cut off. I'm quoting now. "These religious groups have to wake up to the fact that they are now an arm of the U.S. government." The Canadian newspaper article asked, "Does he not realize the incongruity?" When he was working with World Vision, he was constantly criticizing the Clinton administration for not doing more for North Korea, which was going through a famine. When he was working with the NGOs, he thought the church had a perfect right to critique the state and to call it into judgment. But all of a sudden, when you get seduced by the system, your ability to critique the system has ended.

This has to be said—this has to be said loud and clear—and I've got to tell you that the faith-based initiatives are scary. A friend of mine submitted an application for funding for a faith-based program. We have saved the letter we got back from the government. Because, when they looked over the program, which had an extensive tutoring operation in one of the most needy sections of one of the most desperate cities in America, the comment was this: "We cannot give you any faith-based funding because your program is too faith-based." That was the actual wording!

They say, "Can't you draw a line between the social services on the one hand and the proselytizing"—as they call it—"on the other?" And my answer is no. In all that I do, Jesus is proclaimed—even when I don't speak the name of Jesus. I'm with Saint Francis, and I hope you are, too: that in all we do, we proclaim Christ, and sometimes we use words. But if you're asking me to promote a program that is devoid of conversion implications, you've got the wrong guy. Because, while I do not use social programs to convert people, I do make conversion part of all that I try to bring to people who are in desperate need, because I believe that people do need Jesus.

There's another place we have to be careful. My friends in the religious right know how to push emotional buttons. And they are playing big on this one. "Are we going to let them take the Ten Commandments out of our courts?" You know that a lot of courts, particularly in Alabama, have the Ten Commandments sitting right behind the judge. And there's been a case in which there's been a call to remove the Ten Commandments. You say, "There's nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments." Yes, there is! The first of the Ten Commandments is this: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." And I always ask my good evangelical fundamentalist friends a very simple question: "Does the God referred to in that commandment specifically relate to the Judeo-Christian God? The God that was incarnate in Jesus Christ?" They all say, "Of course." And then I ask, "Is it right in a pluralistic society to have Hindus, to have Buddhists, to have Sikhs, walk into a courtroom and be asked to say, 'Your God is above the gods that I worship'? Is that fair? Is that right—in a pluralistic society?" And I ask the question: "Does the first commandment, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me,' specifically refer to the Judeo-Christian God that we worship?" If it does—if it doesn't, then the Ten Commandments are relatively meaningless in the church—we have no right to impose our God on people who worship other gods, as false as I might personally believe those other gods to be. Freedom of religion requires this, so watch out for that Ten Commandments thing.

There is this to be said: that we live in a day and an age when those of us who are out to defend religious freedom have to speak loud and clear because, following September 11, the religious freedom of Muslims is being seriously threatened in our world. They are sending spies into mosques so that people can spy on what is being said there. And we're not saying a word. Oh, we screamed bloody murder when, in the Soviet Union, spies were sent into churches to check on what preachers were saying. We were all upset when nations in Africa were sending spies in to make sure that nothing was said from the pulpit that was subversive to the government. And we were really ballistic when they spied on Bishop Tutu and all of those who championed freedom in South Africa, when the apartheid governments were sending spies into Black churches. We thought that was outrageous. Well, if it was outrageous to send spies into churches, then it is also outrageous to send spies into mosques. And I have to tell you, there are those who say, "Yes, but in the name of national security we may have to abridge certain religious freedoms."

I always remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, "If, in fact, you sacrifice freedom in order to enhance security, you will end up with neither." What an important phrase to be reiterated at this point in history. This has to be said with great force, with great effectiveness. I'm worried about the whole abridgment of the Bill of Rights—the Patriot Act—which allows telephones to be tapped, asks mail carriers to check the mail that gets delivered to your home to make sure that no subversive material is brought in. And then we are told to call in, reporting on people that ought to be reported on—without having to give our name. I don't know whether you see the implications of that; I certainly do. To ask postal workers and television repairers to spy on American civilians in the name of national security is scary indeed. You say, "But there are real dangers." Freedom is always dangerous. Please understand that.

There is no such thing as a free society that does not live in a precarious state. And if you want to be freed from that precarious condition, then you'll have to give up your freedoms. And please understand, that's dangerous. When the question was asked, "Who makes the prayers in the public schools?" I was intrigued. Whenever I'm confronted in a discussion about prayer and public school and the reading of Scripture, I always ask the very serious question—your question— "Whose prayer?" And I always get the same answer: "Well, the prayer most people would pray. The Bible that most people would read from," which is intriguing. Because if you're a Baptist in Utah, does that mean that your kid has to go to school and listen to regular readings from the Book of Mormon? Is that what's implied? Or what about if your child is from Hawaii, where the dominant religion now is Buddhism? Or are we going to, in fact, have children listen to the Hindu Upanishad? After all, that is the dominant religion of that particular state. Come on, now! You've got to recognize that there are implications in this theme that is so easily propagated.

Of course, there's a lot of double-talk, isn't there? The double-talk goes like this: "We don't believe the framers of the Constitution ever really meant for the church not to be involved in government, and we have a right to be there praying and reading the Scriptures and. . . " You know the bit. The interesting thing is that, following the war on Iraq, we face a very serious problem. There will be a democracy established. At least that's what President Bush says is going to happen. And we now know that if there is a democracy, a Shiite government likely will be elected, which will curtail the freedom of the 1.5 million Christians who presently live in Iraq. Their ability to propagate, to evangelize, will be restricted. You might say, "Well, they never had it." Of course they did. As a matter of fact, I met Mr. Aziz in a green room before doing a television show one day, and we got to talking, and I began telling him about Jesus, not realizing that he himself was a Christian. And he said, "Would you come to Iraq and conduct evangelistic services? My church would love to have you." And I did get the invitation.

Stupidly, I didn't accept it because I had some other engagement that I didn't want to cancel. I should have gone. But the truth is, they could hand out Bibles; they could preach; they could do all kinds of things. They had a tyrant running the country. But this can be said—the church had freedom. I'm not sure that's going to be the case in the future.

Adlai Stevenson said it well. "A democracy is not a society that does the will of the majority." Let me repeat that: "A democracy is not a society that does the will of the majority. A democracy is a society in which it is safe to be in the minority." That's a great definition of a democracy.

I contend this: that religious freedom is not the right of the majority to impose its spiritual commitments on the rest of the society, but it is a society in which people who have minority opinions find that it's safe to exist in that society and to propagate their beliefs.
Babylon is out to seduce us. Every Babylon is out to seduce! Every Babylon is out to seduce the religious institutions into its fold, because no government feels more legitimated than when, in fact, it has religious legitimation.

We have made God into an American. And we have created a situation in which we believe that God is, in fact, ordaining America to establish Pax Americana around the world. We feel we have a right to invade countries and impose our values on other peoples. I've got to tell you something; it's frightening.

I listen to some of our Christian brothers saying terrible things. Leading evangelists and television evangelists are saying such things as "Muhammad is a terrorist"—saying such stupid things as "The man was a pedophile." Don't these people understand how this plays out for our missionaries who are trying to serve Jesus Christ in Muslim countries? Do you know what happens when a television evangelist makes a statement like that and it spreads from coast to coast and makes the front page of every newspaper in America? Don't you know that it also makes the front page of the newspapers in Saudi Arabia and in Malaysia, and that Christian missionaries who have been trying to be friends with Muslims suddenly are looked upon as enemies?

I've got to say, the time has come for us to not only propagate religious freedom here but also sit down and carry on Christian-Muslim dialogues on the issue of religious freedom. We don't have to sit down with the Muslims and say we all believe the same thing, we all worship the same. . . yada yada yada. All that syncretism drives me up a wall. I'm not asking us to compromise our convictions, our beliefs, our doctrines. I am saying that we want all peoples in all places of the world to enjoy the same kind of religious freedoms that we have here in the United States. We've got to watch out for the seduction of Babylon. But we've got to, in fact, guarantee that the New Jerusalem has a right to exist in all the Babylons of the world.

Another issue: Babylon demands worship. I worry about the merging, rather than separation, of church and state. I tell you this—I've done this with my students at Eastern University where I've taught for so many years—I said, "I want you to run a sociological experiment in your church. With your pastor's permission, remove the cross from the front. And then sociologically evaluate the reaction of people. Then put the cross back; wait two weeks. Two weeks later, remove the American flag. And check the reactions." The experiment always succeeds. People react much more violently to the removal of the American flag than the cross! You can't stand up and say, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, civilized nor barbarian. We are a movement that transcends national commitments," and then put a national symbol up front to be reverenced. That becomes part of the idolatry of our society.

In his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Emile Durkheim made the following points:
1. A group of people operating in time and space will develop certain traits and values that will make them quite distinctive.
2. They will symbolize those traits with some animal. Strong as an. . . ox. Wise as an. . . owl. Sly as a. . . fox. We have this tendency to associate social traits with animals. It's called totemism. From whence we get the totem pole.
3. The people in the tribe begin to worship the animals.

But now Durkheim springs his trap. If people end up worshipping a deity that is nothing more than an incarnation of their own traits and values, what are they really worshipping? Themselves. And so it's Durkheim's conclusion, as any sociologist will tell you, that religion is nothing more than a group of people worshipping a symbolic incarnation of their own traits and values—that it's nothing more than the group worshipping themselves.

I was in a little gathering of students—you know I get to speak at a lot of schools, and they asked me to come and speak at this school—and it was incredible, because they were saying all these nice patriotic things, which I loved. They were good things, because I do love this country. Somebody would say something wonderful about America, and the children would all say in unison, "America will live forever." Another good statement was made, and then they repeated, "America will live forever." I hope this country lives a long, long time; but no system lives forever. There will come a time when this Babylon, like every other Babylon on the face of the earth, will fall.

I always say to my students, "Someday the system will fall. I pray, and I work for its continuance, but it will fall one day. And if this system does fall, how will you react?" The answer, of course, depends on where you have invested. Have you invested your life in the system that passes away? Because the Bible says all systems pass away. Or have you invested in the kingdom that is everlasting? Our task is to get young people to invest their lives in the kingdom of God and, as citizens of the kingdom, to recognize that they live in Babylon as ambassadors from the strange and distant land called the kingdom of God.

Excerpted from an address at the Religious Liberty Council Luncheon, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 27, 2003. Tony Campolo, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. His teaching career has also included 10 years at the University of Pennsylvania. This much-in-demand lecturer and author (nearly 30 books) is also associate pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Article Author: Tony Campolo