Evangelical (You bet) Manifesto (not so much)

I’ve just begun to digest the Evangelical Manifesto , a twenty page, eloquently written statement about what it means to be an evangelical, spearheaded by such luminaries as Dallas Willard, David Neff—editor and chief of Christianity Today, and Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. It comes complete with study guide. The first half of the manifesto is a basic rehashing of Christian doctrine—kind of like the Nicene and Athanasian Creed but without all that pesky Latin. The second half however reads like a cross between an apology and a Christianity Today op-ed on church, state, and the sins of the evangelical right.

Of course it’s the last part that’s getting all the press. Seizing on the mea culpa and ignoring the theology, USA Today has the headline: “Manifesto Aims to Make ‘Evangelical’ less Political”. The LA Times sports the headline: “Group of Evangelical Christians writes Manifesto urging the Separation of Religious Beliefs and Politics.” Talk about missing the point. I plan on taking several of my blog posts to comment on individual sections of the manifesto (where it will become clear, I hope, what my opinion on the manifesto is) but suffice it to say, the manifesto is doing no such thing, LA Times.

Within the Manifesto there is a decidedly ambiguous 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 all of human issues that must be engaged in public life.

The writers then go on to affirm traditional marriage as a holy institution and the sanctity of unborn lives. Several people have done more bad interpretation than the LA Times (if that’s possible) by reading into this admittedly vague statement. One blogger opines that the Kyoto treaty is not as important as the unborn. Well of course but only because the Kyoto treaty is a useless attempt at power politics, not because the unborn will somehow suffer more than they do now because Evangelicals decided to engage in the environmental debate.

I read the statement about “single-issue politics” as saying that when it comes to our influence on politics and culture, we shouldn’t all too easily be associated with a single issue like abortion or gay marriage. If evangelical is associated more with “pro-life” than “Bible believing followers of Jesus” then we are pitching too low. Instead, what I suspect will happen is that well meaning evangelicals will lump what the manifesto says and how I interpret into the following: “The fight against abortion and gay marriage isn’t as important as other political issues.” As I used to tell my students, I never have a problem defending what I said. I hate defending what I didn’t say. So if you quote me, get it right. I’m claiming: “If evangelicals are known only for our disapproval of abortion or any other single issue, we are not being good stewards of our influence and mandate.”

However I have no idea if that’s what Os Guiness meant or not since the manifesto is long on the “evangelical” and a little short on the specifics. I’m also in the process of digesting all of Guiness’s interviews on the subject. I’ll get back to you. All in all, on my first reading, I tend to agree with Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College who asks in the Wall Street Journal, “Come On, You Call This a Manifesto?” Manifestos are supposed to be sharp, terse, and to the point. They are calls for specific action. They don’t come with study guides. That being said, there is much food for thought here. Consider this statement about faith and reason that is a breath of fresh air:

We therefore regard reason and faith as allies rather than enemies, and find no contradiction between head and heart, between being fully faithful on the one hand, and fully intellectually critical and contemporary on the other.

Hear Hear. And criticize the manifest does:

‘The new kind of faith’ turns out to be what the skeptic believes already, and there is no longer anything solidly, decisively Christian for seekers to examine and believe.

So I guess Brian McClaren won’t be signing on anytime soon. I think I’m okay with that. And just in case, the crowd over at Mars Hill missed what the Manifesto thinks about some of the trends:

In short, for all their purported sincerity and attempts to be relevant, extreme proponents of liberal revisionism run the risk of becoming what Soren Kierkegaard called ‘kissing judases’ – Christians who betray Jesus with an interpretation.

Ouch!

Not all is clear here however. I believe it was Doug Wilson who pointed out that there is a curious contradiction in the manifesto. The manifesto seems to deplore the warring that occurs in the culture conflict and yet calls for evangelicals to engage in a civil public square where:

…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.

But the question is, if Christians engage with a culture that conflicts not just in sentiment but in worldview, can we not expect a culture war? Can we not expect hurt feelings, half-truths spread about Evangelicals, generalizations, etc? Wasn’t there something about the cross being “foolishness” and a stumbling block? Again I don’t think the manifesto is suggesting otherwise, it’s just not clear what a civil public square is supposed to be.

But then again, this only means that the manifesto is living up to lots of other historic attempts to encapsulate Christianity and its relation to Christendom. It provokes thought. It provokes hopefully civil debate among evangelicals. And that is also a vital part of a faith that doesn’t see any disparity between faith and reason. Stay Tuned dear readers for part II coming up in a few weeks.


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