An Evangelical Manifesto

An Evangelical Manifesto May 14, 2008

On May 7th, a group of influential Evangelical leaders and teachers published a remarkable document, An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration Identity and Public Commitment, that deserves a nod, I think, from all Christians concerned about the living of their faith in public life. The Manifesto is divided into three parts:

1. We Must Reform Our Identity
2. We Must Reform Our Own Behavior
3. We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life

While Parts 1 and 2 are interesting and helpful for gaining an understanding of how some influential Evangelicals view their movement and internal relations, Part 3 is a section well worth your time to read. I found this part helpful in articulating my own understanding of how faith ought to be infused into public life.

Below are snippets that I think really make this document special and monumental. I have limited the breadth of my comments, as I think the document’s clarity and force need little help in delivery.

Our first task is to reaffirm who we are. Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. (Evangelical comes from the Greek word for good news, or gospel.) Believing that the Gospel of Jesus is God’s good news for the whole world, we affirm with the Apostle Paul that we are ―not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation. Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally. (p. 4)

The identity outlined in this paragraph ought to be adopted by all Catholics, especially in terms of how to conduct themselves in the world. Our theological identity must found our political and social identities and actions.

Fourth, as stressed above, 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.” (p. 8)

A topic frequently discussed at Vox Nova, especially when it is labeled and dismissed as a “liberal” or “progressive” blog. But much bigger than Vox Nova is our orientation as Catholics in the world. While some of our political or social ideas may resemble those found within purely political groups, our ideas should emanate out of a theological and faith commitment, which ultimately shows that they are not coextensive with, or subservient to, conservative or liberal policies.

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. (pp. 13-14)

Like the Catholic Church teaches, the Manifesto calls Evangelicals to see the world theologically–as a whole with interconnecting issues–rather than ideologically. This means that the responsible Christian does not allow any one issue to shape his/her political outlook. Ultimately, single or double issue politics corresponds to a fragmented view of the world, which owes to the lack of faith that all things, all actions are united in our Lord Jesus Christ. While some issues are clearly more important and pressing than others within a given generation, these issues cannot produce a forgetfulness of the corollaries that give rise to them.

We must find a new understanding of our place in public life. We affirm that to be Evangelical and to carry the name of Christ is to seek to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the kingdom of God, to bring these gifts into public life as a service to all, and to work with all who share these ideals and care for the common good. (p. 14)

First, we Evangelicals repudiate two equal and opposite errors into which many Christians have fallen recently. One error has been to privatize faith, interpreting and applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. Such dualism falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular, and causes faith to lose its integrity and become ―”privately engaging and publicly irrelevant,” and another form of ―”hot tub spirituality.”

The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right in recent decades, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes ―”the regime at prayer,” Christians become ―”useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form. Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.

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. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality. In our scales, spiritual, moral, and social power are as important as political power, what is right outweighs what is popular, just as principle outweighs party, truth matters more than team-playing, and conscience more than power and survival. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness. The saying is wise: ―The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing. (p. 15)

When I read this, I think of how Catholics are often treated as “useful idiots” in some quarters of the Republican and Democratic parties, whether its dangling the carrot of abortion or waving the flag of economic equity.

We repudiate on one side the partisans of a sacred public square, those who for religious, historical, or cultural reasons would continue to give a preferred place in public life to one religion which in almost all most current cases would be the Christian faith, but could equally be another faith. In a society as religiously diverse as America today, no one faith should be normative for the entire society, yet there should be room for the free expression of faith in the public square.

Let it be known unequivocally that we are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths, including the right to convert to or from the Christian faith. We are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society. We are also concerned about the illiberalism of politically correct attacks on evangelism. We have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose on anyone beliefs and behavior that we have not persuaded them to adopt freely, and that we do no not demonstrate in our own lives, above all by love.
We repudiate on the other side the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. Often advocated by a loose coalition of secularists, liberals, and supporters of the strict separation of church and state, this position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens who are still profoundly religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are and shapes the way they see the world. (p. 16-17)

In contrast to these extremes, our commitment is to a civil public square — a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land. (p. 17)

As this global public square emerges, we see two equal and opposite errors to avoid: coercive secularism on one side, once typified by communism and now by the softer but strict French-style secularism; and religious extremism on the other side, typified by Islamist violence. At the same time, we repudiate the two main positions into which many are now falling. On the one hand, we repudiate those who believe their way is the only way and the way for everyone, and are therefore prepared to coerce others. Whatever the faith or ideology in question communism, Islam, or even democracy, this position leads inevitably to conflict. (p. 18)

We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve. Unlike some other religious believers, we do not see insults and attacks on our faith as ―”offensive” and ―”blasphemous” in a manner to be defended by law, but as part of the cost of our discipleship that we are to bear without complaint or victim-playing. (p. 18)

What a timely reminder! Do we want to coerce the law and media to curb “anti-Catholicism,” or do we emulate our Savior? Martyrdom–bloody or non-bloody–grows the Church.

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