'No-God' movement gains steam with Tony Campolo's son at its helm

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) -- College students at the University of Southern California who want community without church, good without God, and support without what their new leader calls "supernatural stuff" -- now have a new place to go.

After breaking away from the Christian church about five years ago, Tony Campolo's son, Bart, is leading a flock of atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers as a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.

Former United Methodist youth minister Bart Campolo – son of Baptist Evangelist Tony Campolo has a new gig: He's now a humanist chaplain at USC.

USC already had more than 50 religious leaders ministering to students of various faiths, said Varun Soni, dean of the school's Office of Religious Life. So it seemed only right, he added, to bring some in last fall for non-believers seeking spiritual guidance.

"Many of our students who identify as religious find the answers to those questions through God," Soni said in an Associated Press article. "But we realize that not everyone does, and we want to be a resource to our entire university community."

More than 41,000 students attend USC.

Harvard in Massachusetts, Yale in Connecticut and Stanford in California were among the first institutions of higher education to hire humanist chaplains, but Campolo, ten years after humanist community-building began at Harvard, is making up for lost time.

"How do you live a good life? If this life is the only one you have, how do you make the most of it?" These are some of what his flock of atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers ponder. Campolo calls them the "Big Questions."

Campolo broke away from the Christian church about five years ago, he said. Belief in Christian tenets hadn't been important to him, but being part of the community was.

"I wanted to be around people who pursued kindness, goodness, love and social justice, and [Christianity] seemed to be the only game in town," Campolo said. "All the dogma of supernatural stuff and stories, that was not the attraction for me. That was the price of admission. For me, the attraction was being part of a community that was reaching out to people who were hurting."

Church for him growing up in the home of a Baptist pastor and evangelist was a place where like-minded people could gather for fellowship, to pursue moral justice, to help one another, and to try to live good lives, Campolo said.

That's the kind of ambiance he's bringing to USC's Student Secular Association.

Members say Campolo's previous experience in Christianity has brought them interesting speakers and motivated them to get involved helping people who live in Greater Los Angeles.

One recent effort involved supporting low-wage workers and other marginalized people who live in the inner-city community surrounding the USC campus.

"Bart has given us ideas I never would have imagined," said Allison Rosen, the group's president. "It's been really great to have his insight."

Tony Campolo, who will celebrate his 80th birthday Feb. 25, last year shut down the ministry he'd grown over the last 40 years, the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE). It was a ministry that spawned 22 others -- all now independent -- and called on the senior Campolo to minister to then-President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky debacle.

"My son made it clear to me that he didn't want to be responsible to carry on the old man's work. I think I can understand that," Tony Campolo said. "My son's theology has drifted to the left when EAPE is definitely evangelical."

In an article last October published by the Religion News Service, the retired evangelist said about the news that his son now embraces humanism, "I leave judgments in the hands of God.

"I don't know what's going on in Bart's heart or mind or soul," the elder Campolo told RNS. "I have faith in God and I have faith in prayer, and I have confidence that this thing is not over until it's over."