Why I Left/Why I Stayed

Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo
Conversations on Christianity
between an
Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son


Tony Campolo is a well-known Evangelical preacher. His son Bart was on his way to replicate his father’s career when in middle age he sat down with his parents after the Thanksgiving meal and explained to them that he no longer believed, that he was now a Secular Humanist, that he loved them and loved the course he had been on, but that was now over. The fact they survived the next moments says a lot in itself.

Why I Left/Why I Stayed is their explanation to one another of where each stands, and a challenge to where the other stands. The chapters are written alternately, first Tony and then Bart through to the last chapter which is co-written. Peggy , the wife/mother writes the Forward. The last sentence in the book co-written by Tony and Bart is: “Without her, there would be no us.”

Peggy was not planning to be the wife of a noted Evangelical preacher. She was in love with Tony when he was pursuing studies in sociology. Then he caught the Jesus bug. As he began ministry, and they began marriage, she had to up her game from tepid to at least dutiful. She did the job. But not with certainty. Her Forward is loving, understanding and illuminating.

After Bart at the age of nineteen had left home, Peggy in the course of being a minister’s wife (much is expected that is not in the job description nor paid for) had her own epiphany, in a spirit flooded moment she lived a new reality and in it she found Jesus. She regrets that it was too late for her children to have the advantage of her awakening. In the forward she expresses deep understanding and support for both son and husband. And some sadness that her son no longer follows the Christian path.

For the most part, father and son deal with each other with care, love and understanding. Bart, while rejecting the belief system has reverence for the experience that that system brought him. He was gung-ho up to the time he was not, and has praise for the gift of his beginnings. (He suggests for others informing their parents that they are leaving the fold that they start with a lengthy description of how much they value what they were given.) As a Secular Humanist Bart is doing what he had been doing before, spreading the gift of love among his followers, just not the gift of Jesus. He is even a chaplain and a person of importance in religious circles. They both are clear that while one might regard some ideas of the other as foolish neither regards the other as a fool.

Bart points out that the effect that Tony has with his ministry is based not on the supernatural, but on his being a terrific orator and a skilled practitioner of group dynamics. You don’t need Jesus to do it. Bart is doing it without Jesus. Tony replies, “Of course.”

Tony says that this is the way humans do things, convincing speech, love among individuals nourished by group activities, songs, personal revelations, touch. He agrees that it’s not magic. God works in you through other peoples’ hugs.

In another place Tony muses that Bart lost his faith because he stopped preaching Jesus. He says that we humans rely on words supporting and explaining belief. Preachers are sustained by their own sermons. Preachers preach first of all to themselves. Stop preaching and belief will weaken. (This from an Evangelical! What are they doing over there?)

They both seem to see this decision to believe or not as rational. At one point Bart challenges Tony by saying that he has decided to believe and then sought reasons for that belief, and Tony responds by saying, “Of course. And you decided not to believe and then you sought reasons for not believing.”

“Deciding” seems to me rational. It implies a thought process ending in a conscious decision. My own experience, which I think similar to Bart’s was I “noticed” that I no longer believed and then called myself an atheist and went to First Unitarian for a few years. And then I noticed that I was always the most hopeful person in the room, and realized that while I had discarded the God I had learned about in the seminary, I still believed in something, so while I was identifying what that was, I called myself a theist and went to St. Paul’s on the Hill.

The arguments are hopeless. Faith happens deep in the psyche and it will not be arguments that change things; it will be some deeper realization kicked off by some accidental happening that allows the deeper reality to be noticed. (Ask Peggy how she got there.)

I agree with almost every challenge to belief that Bart makes. I removed the Trinity from my belief system in seventh grade as Sister Uestelle was teaching it. (I had taken to heart the story of the little boy who announced that the emperor had no clothes. It was not appreciated.) Yet I am confident in an unnamable mystery beyond my mind’s grasp and therefore beyond argument. That’s why it is called Faith. Remember the Jews did not casually use the name of God because that would imply that they understood who and what God was. So I enjoy books by people like me that describe our new God, but with the children of Abraham my assent to the particulars goes only to “Maybe,” “Works for now.” “Interesting hypothesis.”

The words do not make much difference and I regret to report, this book is mostly about words except for one person. That is why, while I like and respect the boys, I have fallen in love with Peggy. I do not agree with her theology, (for instance I do think Jesus filled with the spirit; I do not think him divine) but I do trust her Faith.