Last week, a document called the “Evangelical Manifesto” was released (you can read it here). It is, as the Web site states, an “open declaration of who Evangelicals are and what they stand for.” The Steering Committee for the manifesto includes Timothy George, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw and David Neff. Signatories include Leith Anderson (president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Stuart Briscoe, Leighton Ford, Justo Gonzalez, Max Lucado, Mark Noll, Alvin Plantinga, Ron Sider, Kevin Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf, and lots of other Evangelicals you may or may not have heard of.
There are three headings to the document: We Must Reaffirm Our Identity, We Must Reform Our Own Behavior, and We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life. Each section contains some things that are, to my mind, both controversial and uncontroversial. An example of the uncontroversial, from the first section, is: “Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News Jesus of Nazareth.” All right. But then, the document continues:
Evangelicalism must be defined theologically and not politically; confessionally and not culturally. Above all else, it is a commitment and devotion to the person and work of Jesus Christ, his teaching and way of life, and an enduring dedication to his lordship above all other earthly powers, allegiances and loyalties. As such, it should not be limited to tribal or national boundaries, or be confused with, or reduced to political categories such as “conservative” and “liberal,” or to psychological categories such as “reactionary” or “progressive.”
This is a complaint against the politicization of Evangelicalism. And it doesn’t end there. You can read passages of this sort in the second two sections. Here is an example from the second section:
We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation. We believe it is our calling to be good stewards of all God has entrusted to our care so that it may be passed on to generations yet to be born.
And here is a broader criticism from the third section:
Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left. Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church – and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons.
The authors of the Evangelical Manifesto are concerned that Evangelical Christianity has become politicized, and even though both right and left are mentioned, it seems they are especially critical of the Religious Right for doing this. The response of the Religious Right was not long in coming. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said that “it was like it was written for ivory tower Christians, like they want to rid the world of evil but don’t want to get involved in the issues to do it.”
I don’t think that criticism sticks. After all, a manifesto is not a concrete policy proposal. A manifesto is a public statement of intentions or opinions, and it seems nitpicky to criticize a document for failing to do what it was not intended to do.
But what is more troubling than the criticism is the possibility that there will be a power struggle to be the “public voice of Evangelicals” between the authors of the manifesto and others. Perkins was not asked to sign the manifesto, and a spokesman for James Dobson said that he and his board had “numerous problems and concerns” about it. Even though I wholeheartedly agree with the authors of the manifesto that Evangelicalism has become too politicized, I hope that the publishing of it doesn’t do more harm than good. Even though I think that the identification of Evangelicalism with one political party – or the limitation of Evangelicalism to a few choice issues like abortion and gay marriage – is harmful to the spread of the gospel, I think that how these issues are addressed publicly is very important. After all, Evangelicals who are part of the Religious Right are no less sincere in their beliefs than I am.
So on the one hand, I think that the identification of Evangelicalism with a political position can alienate non-Christians and make them hostile to Christianity unnecessarily. But on the other hand, I think that criticism of the Religious Right without dialogue can serve to alienate sincere Evangelicals from one another. I pray that we Evangelicals can find a way out of this impasse.