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Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 1

Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 1 January 27, 2013

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).

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