Expanding the Evangelical Tent: Revisiting the Evangelical Manifesto

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Now that the dust has settled from the May release of a 20-page so-called “Evangelical Manifesto,” it appears the document has caused barely a ripple across the church or culture. Several theologians, writers, academicians and a marketing guru joined together in a three-year effort to redefine what it means to be an Evangelical. These men started from the questionable view that the term “evangelical” has become a negative, pejorative word and that deep “confusions and corruptions” keep the label from serving what they consider to be a useful purpose in today’s world.

Believing that the meaning of “evangelical” has been “obscured and its importance lost,” these scholars set out to refurbish the term and in the process delineate its meaning for a new generation of believers. Their enlightened understanding of “evangelical” is necessary, according to the drafters, to save them from being “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of the label. The authors emphasize that evangelicals living in a global era face the challenge of “living with our deepest differences” that are “ultimate and irreducible.” They offer no explanation as to why they think today’s differences pose more of a challenge than previous eras.

Ostensibly, the Evangelical Manifesto has two goals: (1) to provide clarity in doctrine and (2) to promote civility in the public square.

Clarity in Doctrine: Ironically, perhaps the major weakness of the Manifesto is that it lacks theological clarity – this in spite of the fact that its authors are considered to be in the highest ranks of Evangelical thinkers and who state at the outset that “Evangelicals form one of the great traditions” of the faith and who assert that the term should be defined “theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.” Indeed, while the authors are scholars and theologians, I agree with Albert Mohler’s careful assessment that the document is theologically weak. The Manifesto is especially concerned about anti-intellectualism which seems fair enough, coming from such heavy thinkers. That said, however, it is puzzling that these writers apparently thought it unnecessary to flesh out areas where such attitudes have diluted Evangelical theology.

Now the declaration (rightly) criticizes the “entertainment” and “entrepreneurial” aspects of some Evangelical congregations, and the authors (rightly) criticize the “vapid spirituality” and the “feel-good gospels” that promote “passing fashions” through “religious happy talk.” Indeed, while these criticisms are valid (I have often written and spoken about the soft sentimentality that too often substitutes for real faith among believers), the Manifesto implies more than a little disdain for the activists in the public policy arena who apparently embarrass the supposedly more sophisticated thinkers who dwell in the ivory towers.

The Manifesto is elastic enough to let anyone ascribe his or her own meaning to its tenets. Evangelicals are “Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” While true, and while the authors affirm that Evangelical distinctions are drawn from “Biblical truths,” this statement could be endorsed by many who do not identify as Evangelical. The document declares that Evangelicals “are those who have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is ‘the way, the truth, and the life,'” but it stops short of declaring that “no man comes to the Father” any other way than this “narrow way” (which is THE defining tenet of Evangelical theology.) In fact, the authors declare unequivocally that the “Evangelical principle” is not “unique to us.” Further, their seven “foundational” beliefs are counted only as basic truths “for us” and that no leader, creed or tradition is ultimately decisive “for us.” For them, being Evangelical, according to the Manifesto, is “a way” of being “devoted to Jesus Christ.”

The declaration rightly holds that those “who follow Him” have a “radically new view of human life and a decisively different way of thinking and acting.” True enough, but how does an Evangelical work that out in real life? These academics do not address that issue, though those who work in public policy – who are roundly criticized in the Evangelical Manifesto – confront that challenge every day.

In the midst of the vague generalities, there are some strong, clear statements that challenge Evangelicals to deeper, truer faith. The Manifesto declares that our faith is an “enduring dedication to His lordship above all other earthly powers, allegiances and loyalties” and that “Evangelicals sometimes have to make strong judgments about what is false, unjust and evil.” Most laudably, the document calls Evangelicals to “recognize the primacy of the authority of Scripture” and to “innovation, renewal, reformation, and entrepreneurial dynamism” in our “commitment to Jesus.”

Larry Ross, the public relations/marketing guru, author, and moderator of the panel which introduced the document at the National Press Club, called the Manifesto a “Rorschach test.” Perhaps calling it “a mirror” would be a more accurate description since the text is sufficiently general as to allow the reader to personally “see” in it a reflection of their own ideas as to significance and meaning, to idiosyncratically superimpose his or her own ideology. No wonder such a wide variety of signatories endorsed the declaration. Instead of clarity, the Evangelical Manifesto may produce even greater confusion about what it means to be Evangelical. Further, with its expansive inclusion of certain peripheral issues about which there is no clear consensus across the ranks of Evangelicalism (indeed, there are, for example, sharp divisions over what should be the proper interpretation of the Biblical command to “subdue the earth”), this document is no “Mere Christianity for Evangelicals.”

Civility in the Public Square: The second half of the Evangelical Manifesto is devoted to Evangelical behavior, which the authors believe conflicts with our distinctive beliefs – especially in the public square. There is no question that we have earned some of the criticism; Barna polls confirm that Evangelicals in very important ways, in contrast to their beliefs, live and behave no differently than non-believers. The Manifesto declares: “All too often we have set out high, clear statements of the authority of the Bible, but flouted them with lives and lifestyles that are shaped more by our own sinful preferences and by modern fashions and convenience.” Too often we “carry on our Christian lives in a manner that has little operational need for God.” It is true that we have often “been seduced by the shaping power of the modern world, exchanging a costly grace for convenience, switching from genuine community to an embrace of individualism, softening theological authority down to personal preference, and giving up a clear grasp of truth and an exclusive allegiance to Jesus for a mess of mix-and-match attitudes that are syncretism by another name.”

While these observations and the calls for renewal are needed, and while we agree that Evangelicals should not be “equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity,” there are logical inconsistencies in the Manifesto when it calls for engaging in politics and standing for what is right at the same time that it decries political involvement. The authors set up a “straw man” argument by contrasting the “sacred” and “naked” public squares with the preferred “civil” public square where all can “enter and engage” within a “framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths, too.”

The Manifesto blames the “culture wars” for “creating a powerful backlash against all religion in public life.” In fact, this statement is the only indication in the text that foreshadows the angry tone and hostile spirit of the authors that was on display at the National Press Club when the Evangelical Manifesto was released to the public. The moderate tone of the Manifesto text contrasts starkly with the drafters’ harsh comments at the National Press Club.

At the panel introducing the Evangelical Manifesto, it became very clear that the document was released to counter the influence of the “religious right.” The authors claimed that “political zealots” with their “strident voices” and “emotional responses” were harming Evangelicalism. All the panelists agreed that they were tired of having “to apologize for our faith.” They accused the religious right of expressing “truth without love.” Os Guinness professed to be “embarrassed” and “ashamed” – even “revolted” – “by some Evangelicals and by the image of Evangelicals today.” John Huffman, distinguished Presbyterian minister and Chair of the Christianity Today board, told about his kids being repulsed by “right wing Christians” and asking him, “Are you one of those?” Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary, called his fellow Evangelicals, “mean-spirited, homophobic, and narrow-minded.” Ironically, in the midst of such accusatory rhetoric, the panelists called for “tolerance” and stated that they were willing to “work with atheists” and others in the public square. Something is woefully amiss here.

The authors, too, seemed to want a single personality style. Mouw called for a “gentle” and “reverent” Evangelicalism. He also repeatedly asked for a commitment to the “common good” – an end attainable only through persuasive efforts in the public square.

There was also an undercurrent of competition at the press conference. The authors seemed to be staking their claim to leadership of the Evangelical movement. Indeed, Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. noted the Manifesto needed to call for Biblical unity, not just demand a “shot at the microphone.” His concerns were borne out by comments at the press conference. David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, declared that the “politically visible, public folks aren’t necessarily the leaders” of the Evangelical movement. Mouw agreed and added that he “refused to give over the Evangelical label to those ideological people.” A reporter asked during the Q-and-A if the problem was “bad branding” of the term “Evangelical?” Os Guinness heatedly replied, “It is not bad branding; it is bad reality. Evangelicalism is badly off base at its heart.”

Many of those who want to redefine Evangelicalism are leftist Democrats who want to convince Evangelicals – who have gravitated toward the Republican Party because of its avowed conservative platform (pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family positions) – that it is okay to vote Democrat, hence the Manifesto’s attempt to focus attention on other concerns beyond (or, rather than) conservative issues like abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage,” in favor of issues like global warming and social justice. Indeed, the point is to convey the impression that the “religious right” doesn’t care about the environment, poverty or justice. The end result is muddied waters, where Biblical beliefs and behavior are not nearly as important in determining your religious identification as embracing the appropriate hot-button causes.

Finally, in evaluating the Manifesto, it must be frankly stated that it is, first and foremost, a political document – as described so effectively by Frank Pastore, who defined politics as “theology applied.” With fully 25 percent of the voting public self-identifying as Evangelical, a significant voting bloc is up for grabs in the upcoming 2008 elections; any document attempting to “expand the tent” for that voting bloc is, by its very nature, a political document.

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