Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 1

Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 1

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am finally getting around to commenting publicly on “A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment,” otherwise known as “An Evangelical Manifesto,” published by a group of leading evangelical thinkers in 2008.

If you have not yet read any of it, please go to www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com. There you will find “An Introduction,” “An Executive Summary,” and the Manifesto itself.

This is not, of course, the first or only such statement about evangelical identity and commitment published by evangelical spokespersons (always self-appointed, of course, as there is no evangelical headquarters like the Catholic Vatican to issue such). Others, perhaps with different purposes, come to mind such as “The Chicago Call” and “The Gospel Celebration.” Three friends and I drafted one entitled “The Word Made Fresh: A Call for a Renewal of the Evangelical Spirit.” It was signed by about 110 evangelical scholars and leaders.

Whenever I read a declaration such as An Evangelical Manifesto I wonder first about its purpose. What motivated it? I look at the list of steering committee members and recognize some of them (I don’t know all of them) as what I would call “centrist evangelicals.” Indeed, the Manifesto makes a major point of criticizing both fundamentalism and liberalism. Some of its wording might be interpreted as implying criticism of progressive or postconservative evangelicals, but there is no explicit mention of them.

The drafters of the Manifesto make clear they are speaking only for themselves, not all evangelicals. “We speak only for ourselves, yet not only to ourselves” (italics not added). However, they assert that they are a “representative group of Evangelical leaders.” My immediate question, of course, is whether all evangelicals are represented among them? I suspect partisans of both the evangelical left and right (politically and theologically) will not feel represented by them. One telling and slightly snarky comment in this regard is “Evangelicals have no supreme leader or official spokespersons, so no one speaks for all Evangelicals, least of all those who claim to.” However, I agree. I am always dismayed when someone goes on a television talk show (this used to happen on “Larry King Live”) and claim to speak for all evangelicals.

So what is the Manifesto’s purpose? The steering committee addresses this question with a statement of its two-fold purpose. First, it addresses the “confusions and corruptions that attend the term Evangelical” and second, it seeks to clarify where the drafters stand on “issues that have caused consternation over Evangelicals in public life.”

In other words, I discern (hoping to be not too mistaken), the Manifesto was motivated by the media’s and others’, including some evangelicals’, distortions of the concept “evangelical” especially as a result of evangelicals’ involvements in politics and social issues. The drafters say they “are troubled by the fact that the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term Evangelical have grown so deep that the character of what it means has been obscured and its importance lost. Many people outside the movement now doubt that Evangelical is ever positive, and many inside now wonder whether the term any longer serves a useful purpose.” They go on from there to spill a lot of ink attempting to recover a positive meaning for “evangelical.” I suspect that an implicit, if not explicit, purpose is to recharge the gravitational center of evangelicalism without explicitly expelling anyone from it. They may think of their definition as setting boundaries, but I regard it as renewing the center (since I don’t believe in “evangelical boundaries”).

One question that immediately arises for me is whether it is too late to rescue the evangelical movement from total and final dissolution. It seems to me that the drafters want to do that. I have argued here (on my blog) that I will not give up the label “evangelical,” but I have also hinted that I fear the “evangelical movement” is dead. What do I mean? Evangelicalism as an ethos is certainly alive and well and, generally speaking, I like the way this Manifesto describes it. (I will point out some areas where I demur from it in another post.) However, it often seems that evangelicalism as a cohesive movement exists no more except, perhaps, as an affinity group.

Returning to the perceived purpose of the Manifesto: It seems to me the drafters probably were motivated by evangelicals’ alliances with political ideologies and parties and by the media’s tendency to identify “evangelical” with one particular socio-political platform. They emphasize throughout the Manifesto that evangelicalism is a theological identity, not a political, social or cultural one. They mention the “culture wars” and evangelical involvement in them and call evangelicals to step back and away from ideological alliances and partisan political activism without abdicating responsibility for the common good. “We Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, or nationality.”

All of this seems primarily a slap at the so-called “Religious Right” as evangelicals have not been as politically involved with the so-called “left” (socially and politically) in the last few decades. And examples the drafters of the Manifesto give of the correct type of evangelical social and political involvement are mostly from the nineteenth century (e.g., William Wilberforce). They explicitly mention that evangelicals should be engaged in socio-political involvement in the “public square” on behalf of the poor and oppressed without aligning with any one political party or platform.

Of course, that’s a tricky business. Evangelical Hauerwasians (I know quite a few especially among the younger crowd) would argue that Christians ought to avoid political involvement altogether, except, of course, in terms of being the “politics of Jesus” within the church and speaking prophetically to politicians and policy-makers in the public square. The drafters leave somewhat unclear exactly how they envision proper evangelical socio-political involvement. But they make clear that do not believe evangelicals should abandon the public square or responsible engagement in shaping the social order there. There is in the Manifesto an implied critique of both approaches to public square engagement and involvement—one that allies evangelicalism too closely with a particular party or platform and one that abandons it altogether.

Stepping back and taking a larger, “bird’s eye view,” of the Manifesto’s purpose, I would say it is to call evangelicals back to regarding evangelicalism as primarily theological and not political and to avoiding all forms of triumphalism—especially in socio-cultural-political involvement.

With all of that I concur. I applaud the spirit and purpose of the Manifesto, at least as I understand it. Evangelicals need to work harder to avoid equating our ethos (let alone a movement that probably no longer exists) with any particular social or political identity and program or with any nation or culture. Even those who very publicly support a particular party, platform or socio-political ideology need to make clear that they do not represent all evangelicals and that their support for a party, platform, or ideology is not the only validly evangelical one.

Next, in Part 2, I want to discuss the Manifesto’s argument that evangelical identity is theological and its particular approach to describing an evangelical theological consensus. Just to whet appetites and lure you to read on I’ll say now that I wish the drafters had elevated spirituality (“conversional piety”) as high as theology in terms of defining authentic evangelicalism. The theological consensus they describe is fairly generous and inclusive, but I suspect a person could sign on to it and still not be truly evangelical in the way I mean it (as an ethos that is defined as much spiritually as theologically if not more so).

  • Brent Hinkle

    Roger, I am interested in what you have to say about this manifesto. I use it extensively in a DMIN course I teach at Anderson Univeristy’s School of Theology. (In the course the final project is based upon your book, “Reformed and Always Reforming.” Yes, that is a bit of a kiss-up.)

    I especially want to hear what you think about the discussion of the “liberal revisionist tendency” mentioned on pages 8 and 9. In my classes I use the five charges leveled by the authors against the liberal revisionist tendency, as charges that a fictitious “High Council of Evangelicals” brings against Rob Bell. Students will play witnesses such as Al Mohler, D.A. Carson, Phyllis Tickle, Richard Mouw, Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren, etc. (When they are not testifying they function as the High Council.) In the end I have the students vote on Bell’s guilt in relation to the charges–first as the High Council and second as themselves. (The vote comes out differently every year.)

    My question is whether or not you think these charges hold water from an evangelical perspective. I know you despise wanting to place boundaries, but are these charges fair boundaries (obviously written with emergents in mind) of evangelicalism?

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t read them as aimed at emergent church folks. I read them as aimed at true theological liberals. I know some of the leading framers of the Manifesto and they are not particularly critical of Bell (although I’m sure they are worried about some of the directions he may be taking). Sure, they are probably quite critical of McLaren (as are other progressive/postconservative evangelicals such as Scot McKnight). No, I thought those indictments were about true liberals like John Shelby Spong and his ilk.

  • John Metz

    Roger, I look forward to reading your review in subsequent posts. It seems the Evangelical Manifesto made a splash when it was released but then disappeared from site.

    • rogereolson

      Like most such “open letter” type statements. We evangelicals, like the larger public, have very short memories. But I think the Manifesto is worth a second look.

  • http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com Craig Bennett

    I refuse to sign and ascribe to any manifesto other then that of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. For myself, they are the crux of faith and I don’t wish to go beyond the centrality of Christ.

  • John I.

    I think that the manifesto misses the mark by defining evangelicals only by theology. Praxis is, has, and should be a very important aspect of the definition. Evangelicals are also defined by their devotional practices vis a vis Jesus, their social action, and their belief and praxis that Jesus’ followers are known (to the Father, other Christians, and the unsaved) by their practical acts of love.

    It seems that the manifesto is rather dead in the water, as its website has not really been updated since 2008, and there has been little to no news concerning it since then.

    • rogereolson

      See my Part 2 of the review today. We agree.

  • John I.

    To clarify my comment, it’s not that the manifesto ignores the praxis of evangelicalism, but that it does not recognize praxis as a fundamental aspect of the definition of “evangelical” that should occur in the same sentence as theological belief. “Theology” has become associated so heavily with ones mental life that it has no resonance in relation to praxis even though one can argue that love in action is part of evangelical theological beliefs.

  • John I.

    I also note that the manifesto is heavily embedded in American culture and history (American fundamentalism and culture wars, etc.). Consequently the manifesto really only speaks to American evangelicalism, and to its appearance to those outside of America. It would be better titled “An American Evangelical Manifesto”, or “Manifesto for American Evangelicals”. I also think that it deals with European evangelicalism and cultural attitudes superficially.

    • rogereolson

      The steering committee must have been sensitive to this as they appended a note to the Introduction about its reception in Germany.

  • K Gray

    Once I used the term ‘evangelical’ in discussing a church initiative on sharing the gospel. One person did not like the term and asked why I used it. Puzzled, I said I was referring to believers sharing the gospel. It was kind of a whoa there, wait just a minute type of interruption. After some thought, this person allowed that ‘evangelical’ was probably an ok description of our proposed activity. I guess this person was used to reading/hearing bad things about ‘evangelicals’ and could not think of the term in the sense of people sharing the gospel.

    • rogereolson

      To avoid that confusion, I use “evangelistic” when talking about such endeavors.

  • rumitoid

    Tempest in a tea cup. Much todo about nothing. How Evangelics wish to define or re-define themsleves has nothing whatsoever to do with being a follower of Christ. The very act of trying to fit following Christ to the agenda of some committee is laughable. Evangelicals are quick to call themselves the “defenders of truth.” Pathetic. Their political ideology betrays them. But wait! They promise not to engage any longer in the practices that have divided a nation and left the Church in tatters. Thank you…but your ilk cannot help yourselves. Away from the safety and assurance of the enclave, You will naturally resort to the previous ugly judgmentalism that has becomeour trademark. You cannot be trusted for anything but the stewardship of fear.

    • rogereolson

      Your words turn back against you. You are the one guilty of “ugly judgmentalism.” The authors of the Manifesto are not and never have fit your stereotype of evangelicals. You have ignorantly bought into a media-promoted caricature of evangelicalism. Thank you for illustrating how non-evangelicals can be worse than most evangelicals in being intolerant and judgmental.

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