Red Letter Christianity: Liberation Theology and Trumpism Amongst Evangelicals

By Todd C. Couch

Following the rise of the Religious Right during the 1980s, the term “evangelical” became synonymous in U.S. culture with conservative politics.[1] U.S. Evangelicals came to be understood as right-wing theocratic ideologues, rather than a community with core theological convictions.[2] Yet, Evangelicals are not a monolith. Progressive Evangelicals have begun to organize in harsh rejection of what they argue is the intentional misuse of evangelical theology by the Religious Right to gain political power and influence.[3] At the forefront of this movement is a collective aiming to revolutionize the modern understanding of Evangelicals through an intentional practice of liberation theology – a broad theological tradition in which the Biblical text is interpreted through ordinary people’s experiences. They exhibit their theological principles by advancing social projects, supporting human welfare, and promoting hope in situations of oppression and deprivation.[4]     

Adopting the term “Red Letter Christians” (RLCs), this decentralized multinational collective of authors, clergy, and social justice advocates draw on the teachings of Jesus, often highlighted with red ink in many Bibles, to construct a revolutionary consciousness grounded in evangelical theology with an emphasis on social justice.[5] RLCs interweave Evangelicals’ desire to proselytize with liberation theologians’ structural analysis grounded in the experiences of the oppressed.[6] Specifically, RLCs utilize liberation theology pioneer Gustavo Gutierrez’s framing of inequality as social sin[7] to expand their understanding of salvation to include both the personal and social. Influenced by U.S. liberation theologian Ronald Sider, RLCs propose that spiritual redemption must accompany larger efforts focused on structural liberation.[8]  From RLCs’ perspective, authentic salvation requires one to engage in “Biblical activism”[9] on behalf of the marginalized. It is only through these acts of “divine obedience”[10] that movement founders Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne argue holistic salvation may occur, allowing one to be viewed as taking the “radical teachings of Jesus seriously.”[11] Campolo and Claiborne claim thousands across the globe, primarily in North America and Europe, belong to the Red Letter Christianity movement (RLCM). However, its decentralized structure and lack of formal membership present issues with obtaining an accurate estimate of the movement’s size.

RLCs utilize an array of tactics to challenge social structures to address the needs of the marginalized including voting campaigns, non-violent protests, and political rallies. Notable examples include the multi-city Red Letter Revival Conference,[12]  nationwide protests for immigration reform,[13] and multi-state efforts to abolish capital punishment.[14] Another example is RLCs organized support of the impeachment of Donald Trump, [15] a marked departure from the larger Evangelical embrace of the 45th President.[16] An examination of the specific ways RLCs articulated their support of impeaching Donald Trump is needed to better understand what separates RLCs from other Evangelicals and the implications that may have on the future of the larger Evangelical fold.  

Research for this essay included a study of physical and digital media created by RLCs.[17] The analytic process resulted in the identification of strong messaging focused on the requirement of authentic Christians to explicitly reject the “social sins” promoted by the Trump administration. Expressing a biblical interpretation grounded in the experiences of the marginalized, RLCs argue Donald Trump’s social policies are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus in that they devalue God’s creation and thus constitute social sin. This is significant in that it illuminates the ways in which RLCs’ use of liberation theology has created a consequential rift within the Evangelical fold. Due to the grounding of their theology in the conditions of the oppressed and a deep belief in scripture as a tool for holistic salvation, RLCs find themselves forced to break from other Evangelicals. Two examples of RLCs practicing liberation theology within their commentary on and ultimate rejection of Donald Trump are explored below. 

Framing the Trump administration as broadly endorsing of dehumanizing policy, RLCs view their rejection of Donald Trump as a theological issue fundamentally connected with authentically following Jesus. As youth minister and RLCM member Michael Kipman argues, “One simply cannot be a follower of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus and also support Donald J. Trump and his policies… The Jesus of the scriptures was downright divisive regarding his willingness to stand up against bigotry and religious hypocrisy, and equally steadfast in his commitment to standing in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed…if we are unwilling to do the same, how dare we call ourselves followers of Christ?[18] Kipman’s statement reflects a larger pattern observed in the data in which RLCs’ failure to explicitly reject Donald Trump’s policies and stand with the marginalized calls one’s desire to follow Jesus into question. Influenced by the writing of Ronald Sider and Gustavo Gutierrez, Kimpan expresses the belief common amongst RLCs that holistic salvation requires the intentional praxis of standing with the oppressed and striving for “liberation and humanization through radical, transformative social and political change.”[19] Because they ground their theology amongst the marginalized, RLCs view themselves as mandated to stand with the oppressed, something framed as at odds with supporting Donald Trump. “If we take him [Jesus] seriously,” RLCM member Craig Watts,  states, “we will leave Trump behind.”[20]

Further illustrating liberation theology’s influence on RLCs messaging about Donald Trump is an assumed specific obligation on white Christians to denounce the Trump administration. Urging for moral resistance in the face of wide-spread white Evangelical support of Donald Trump, journalist and RLCM member John Gehring argues: 

White evangelical leaders who claim to be pro-life have become flatterers and courtiers, crass apologists for a man whose demeaning rhetoric and dehumanizing policies betray the gospel. I refuse to be one of those white Christians who either cheerleads for this administration’s institutionalized cruelty, or a Christian who conveniently turns away from the moral stench. At a time when President Trump doubles down on nativism and racism, white Christians have a particular responsibility to challenge his abuse of power. Silence is complicity. Being a faithful Christian sometimes means breaking the rules. Moral disruption is a sacred act when the status quo is sinful…we face a stark choice between moral resistance and the cowardice of complicity. [21]

Gehring’s statement illustrates the fundamental belief amongst RLCs that those holding power and privilege possess a particular responsibility to leverage their social resources in sacred acts of moral disruption offered in solidarity with the marginalized. Black liberation theologians such as James Cone frequently highlight the need for white Christians to leverage their privilege in the interest of structural change as a form of praxis.[22] Further, Gustavo Gutierrez suggests that through leveraging privilege “salvation and transformation of the very foundation of dehumanizing societies”[23]may occur. Informed by Cone and Guiterrez, RLCs assert white Christians must separate themselves from white Evangelicals’ support of the Trump administration if holistic salvation is to be experienced. Failure to do so would constitute sin[24] and make them culpable in the suffering of God’s creation. 

With the embrace of liberation theology, RLCs are transforming Evangelicalism. Their practice of liberation theology results in the development of a revolutionary consciousness interconnecting the spiritual and material worlds. As RLCM member Mae Elise Cannon states, “The spiritual and material are necessary components of the good news of salvation. Proclaiming Christ without responding to the [structural] needs of those who are poor and oppressed is inadequate.”[25] This is a significant departure from the Religious Right in that RLCs view structural equity as a theological matter inherently connected to following Jesus. Due to this development, RLCs have created a consequential riff within the larger Evangelical fold that is revolutionizing what it means to be a modern Evangelical. Though the exact size of RLCs’ community is difficult to assess, the grounding of its theology within the experiences of the marginalized places it in direct opposition to the prosperity gospel/mega-church models dominating much of U.S. Evangelical life. Yet its founders find hope in the theological tension. “We may not think that this Red Letter Christian movement will ever become a dominant form of religious life,” writes founders Campolo and Claiborne. “However, we are convinced that in one form or another it will continue to be a positive irritant to the church.”[26]

Dr. Todd C. Couch is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. His research focuses on sociological theory and the influence of race and religion on social movements.

Title Image: A handmade sign from a protest against the prison industrial complex. Source:

Further Reading:

Rowland, Christopher. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. New York: Orbis Books, 2016.

Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2016.

Campolo, Tony and Shane Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.


[1] Tony Campolo, Red Letter Christians (Venture: Regal, 2008), 15.

[2] Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), xi.

[3] Campolo, Red Letter Christians, 9.

[4] Christopher Rowland, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[5] Brantley W. Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 13.

[6] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 2016), 83–105.

[7] Gustavo Gutierrez, “The Task and Content of Liberation Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 19–38.

[8]Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

[9] Michelle Higgins, “Michelle Higgins: Continuing the Activism of Jesus,” Red Letter Christians, January 15, 2016,

[10] Campolo and Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution, 152.

[11] Campolo and Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution, 11–15.

[12] “Red Letter Revival,” Red Letter Christians, August 12, 2020.

[13] Jack Jenkins, “Love Knows No Borders: At Least 30 Faith Leaders Arrested in Border Protest,” Red Letter Christians, December 14, 2018,

[14] Allyson McKinney Timm and Shane Claiborne, “To Affirm the Death Penalty is to Reject the Christian Gospel,” Red Letter Christians, May 10, 2022,

[15] Alex Wong, “Red Letter Christians Mark Sunday as National Day of Prayer for Trump Impeachment Inquiry,” The Christian Post, October 11, 2019,

[16] Gerardo Martí, “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States,” Sociology of Religion 80, no. 1 (2019): 1–8.

[17] Data was collected by systematically organizing available content on the RLCM’s website, Facebook page, and Spotify account. The data collection process resulted in the identification of 1,121 unique primary data sources consisting of 3 books, 100 podcast episodes, 900 blogs, and 118 Facebook videos. Source were reviewed once more for mentions of Donald Trump and the Trump administration. This resulted in the identification of the 480 sources that serve as the basis for this paper. 

[18] Michael Kimpan, “Why One Cannot Follow Jesus and Support Trump,” Red Letter Christians, July 18, 2019,

[19] Zoe Bennet, “Action is the Life of All: The Praxis-Based Epistemology of Liberation Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 39–54. 

[20] Craig M. Watts, “Trump Christianity and the Abandonment of Jesus,” Red Letter Christians, July 26, 2018,

[21] John Gehring, “It’s Time to Revive Religious Civil Disobedience,” Red Letter Christians, July 19, 2019,

[22] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 2020).

[23] Gustavo Gutierrez, “The Task and Content of Liberation Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 28.

[24] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 84.

[25] Mae Elise Cannon, “Biblical Justice is the Gospel Manifested,” Red Letter Christians, April 25, 2020,

[26] Campolo and Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution, 258.

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