Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 3 (Final)

Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 3 (Final)

Once again I want to emphasize my general sympathy and agreement with this statement of evangelical identity and call for correction of confusion about the meaning of evangelicalism. One purpose of the Manifesto is express the need for evangelicals and others to learn to live in a pluralistic world “with our deepest differences,” which are religious in nature, without coercion or indifference. The Manifesto says “We wish to state what we mean by Evangelical, and what being Evangelicals means for our life alongside our fellow citizens in public life.”

The authors of the Manifesto reject any totalizing definition or description of “Evangelicalism” (even though I think they risk that themselves with some statements such as that “Evangelicals adhere fully to the Christian faith expressed in the historic creeds of the great ecumenical councils of the church and in the great affirmations of the Protestant Reformation and seek to be loyal to this faith passed down from generation to generation”). They say “Evangelicalism has always been diverse, flexible, adaptable, non-hierarchical, and taken many forms.” I like that statement; it’s true both descriptively and prescriptively. Yet I worry that some wording of the statement may seem to undermine it.

The Manifesto criticizes two “opposite tendencies to which Protestantism has been prone: liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism.” The language in this section is standard neo-evangelical polemics and I agree with it. However, it leaves room for deciding who belongs in these categories. The statement does not name names.

I also agree with this statement in the Manifesto: “Far from being unquestioning conservatives and unreserved supporters of tradition and the status quo, being Evangelical means an ongoing commitment to Jesus Christ, and this entails innovation, renewal, reformation, and entrepreneurial dynamism, for everything in every age is subject to assessment in the light of Jesus Christ and his Word. The Evangelical principle is therefore a call to self-examination, reflection, and a willingness to be corrected and to change whenever necessary.” That is exactly what we who wrote and signed “The Word Made Fresh” meant and called for. And yet at least one of the steering committee members of this Manifesto not only refused to sign it but chided us for writing it. The sentence above expresses precisely what I mean by “postconservative evangelical,” but the same member of the Manifesto’s steering committee (and I assume one author of it) criticized me for calling it “postconservative” even though I had explained carefully what that meant and did not mean. (For example, it does not mean “anything goes.”)

It seems to me the real heart and soul, the burden, of this Manifesto appears in the section entitled “We Must Reform Our Own Behavior.”  It’s a long section of the statement that explains why evangelicals “are ourselves in dire need of reformation and renewal today.” In a one sentence paragraph the authors say “We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior.”

Now, I need to express a thought about that wording in a sidebar type comment. Consider this that. I’m always a little bemused by such declarations of confession and repentance expressed in the first person when they are clearly aimed at others. I seriously doubt that the steering committee members, authors, of the Manifesto mean themselves with “we.” In my own humble opinion, for what it’s worth, I think one or two of them perhaps should mean themselves (about certain behaviors in certain, specific situations). But I doubt they do mean themselves. Why just say “We confess that some Evangelicals have betrayed…?” The “we” implies that all evangelicals are included. Yes, of course, we all need to confess and repent, but the context makes clear that this is not intended as that kind of call for blanket confession and reformation. End of sidebar.

So, what kinds of behaviors do the authors of the Manifesto decry that point to the need for reformation and renewal of behavior? “All too often we have attacked the evils and injustices of others, such as the killing of the unborn, as well as the heresies and apostasies of theological liberals whose views have developed into ‘another gospel,’ while we have condoned our own sins, turned a blind eye to our own vices, and lived captive to forces such as materialism and consumerism in ways that contradict our faith.” That’s pretty hard hitting. So are the rest of the paragraphs that being with “All too often….” I think most of it needed to be said, heard and heeded—by some evangelicals. There’s something for everyone in these many calls for reform.

The focus of this final part of my review will be on the section of the Manifesto entitled “We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life.” This seems to me to be a, if not the, major reason for the Manifesto’s creation and public dissemination. It is a very lengthy section including many subheadings and points. I would express the gist of it this way: Evangelicals have too often allied themselves uncritically with political and social ideologies and causes and, while remaining responsible citizens in the ‘public square,’ working for the common good, sometimes using political means, ought to maintain a healthy independence from political parties, platforms and causes. The call is for maintenance of a prophetic distance from power without withdrawal from the socio-political fray. It sounds very Niebuhrian to me.

This paragraph ought to cause many participants in the Religious Right to say “Ouch!” “All too often we have abandoned our Lord’s concern for those in the shadows, the twilight, and the deep darkness of the world, and become cheerleaders for those in power and the naïve sycophants of the powerful and the rich.” But I have to ask again what good statements like this do if nobody and nothing is named? Who would recognize themselves in that or admit that is what they have done? Still, it’s worth putting out there. Many, if not most, readers will know who are meant.

The Manifesto continues by criticizing “certain positions in public life that are widely confused with Evangelicalism.”  First, the authors repudiate both the privatization of faith (“Quietism”) and the politicization of faith. Evangelicals have a duty to “engage with politics” without ever equating our faith with “any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality.” Again, in a pithy, one sentence paragraph the Manifesto’s authors say “The Evangelical soul is not for sale. It has already been bought at an infinite price.” Many would say it’s too late. It has already been bought with a finite price by being co-opted into specific political movements and social agendas. In my opinion, evidence of that is the firing of an evangelical executive merely for expressing sympathy with the idea of civil unions for gays (which is not the same as “gay marriage”).

The Manifesto then continues by criticizing the wider society of “the United States and Western civilization” for two opposite confusions. One is the “sacred public square” and the other is the “naked public square.” These correspond on the larger scale, of course, with the politicization and privatization of faith among evangelicals. According to the Manifesto, the “public square” should be civil and free. “A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and a right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land.” Amen. But what does that mean for, for example, posting the Ten Commandments in public spaces such as courthouses? So the Manifesto rejects any idea of a particular faith or ideology dominating the public square; it should be pluralistic.

But then the Manifesto goes on to criticize the idea of a “naked public square” (using the language of the late Richard John Neuhaus who was an obvious influence on the Manifesto—indirectly if not directly). While the public square should not be dominated by any religion or ideology, neither should religious voices be excluded.

At the end of the Manifesto, under the subheading “Invitation to all,” the authors say “We urge our fellow-citizens to assess the damaging consequences of the present culture wars, and to work with us in the urgent task of restoring liberty and civility in public life, and so ensure that freedom may last to future generations.” They condemn, among other things, a Constantinian attitude thinks Christians ought to create a Christian theocracy in America (or anywhere) in which only Christian beliefs and values have authority. But they equally condemn secularists who would exclude Christian beliefs and values from gaining a hearing in public conversations about policy.

Overall and in general, I sympathize with the motives and aims of the Manifesto. I think it deserves a much wider reading and conversation than it has gained so far. The steering committee members are influential evangelical intellectuals and leaders whose voices in these matters deserve serious attention. I think their concerns were valid and still need to be heard and heeded.

On the other hand, here are some qualms that remain (for me). First, although the Manifesto includes language about devotion and life the emphasis (in defining evangelical identity) falls on doctrine. I think that needs to be balanced with greater emphasis on experience and behavior.  Second, the language, though polemical, lacks “punch” because nobody will see themselves criticized in it. People it is meant to criticize will point at others. I include myself. Such statements lack power without specific naming. (I realize, however, that in today’s litigious society naming names is very risky.) Third, I have sympathy for and empathy with Christians who have given up on participation in the “public square” in any direct, political sense. I do not sympathize with Quietism. I think prophetic speech to those in power is a Christian duty. But it seems too late to expect the gospel to have any real impact on public policy. And active participation in the public square that requires using the reigns of power can be corrupting to authentic Christian faith and life. I am not personally ready to advocate a Christian abdication of power for the good in society, but I fully understand those who do (except powerful prophetic speech).

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  • K Gray

    Naming names seems like a continuation of the culture wars – the public stone- throwing of which we are so very weary. Naming [others’] names would, IMO, be inconsistent with the humble and charitable spirit of this statement — the very spirit which gives it some power.