On May 7, 2008 a group of Evangelical leaders released a manifesto designed to help define and reform Evangelicalism in the United States.
The composers and charter signatories include seminary presidents, scholars, and pastors and since its release it has been signed by celebrated authors (Jim Wallis), noted theologians (Miroslav Volf), seminarians (Aaron Tiger), and moms (Kathy McDonald).
The response in the media has been mixed. Some outlets have seen the text as primarily a vindication of the Evangelical left, while others have suggested that the manifesto advocates a firm separation of faith and politics. The LA Times story begins, “A group of prominent U.S. evangelical Christians is urging other evangelicals to step back from partisan politics and avoid becoming “useful idiots” for any political party.” The Tennessean characterizes the the manifesto’s writers as attempting “to depoliticize their movement and restore its religious roots.” CNN suggests that the manifesto may demonstrate a renewed openness to Democratic candidates and issues by many Evangelicals, and hints that the timing of the manifesto may help the Democratic nominee for President.
Perhaps it is to be expected that media outlets accustomed to covering politics and politicians would concentrate on the document’s political ramifications, but the manifesto itself is only partly concerned with discussing the proper relationship between politics and faith. The manifesto declares a two-fold purpose, “first to address the confusions and corruptions that attend the term Evangelical in the United States and much of the Western world today, and second to clarify where we stand on issues that have caused consternation over Evangelicals in public life.” The text itself is divided into three sections.
The first section aims to reaffirm Evangelical identity. Interestingly, the authors elect for a largely doctrinal affirmation, circumscribing Evangelicals as “Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” This description is unlikely to cause much controversy, though the text goes on to specify further what that Good News is and how Evangelicals are called to respond. Missing from the discussion of Evangelical identity is any sustained discussion of the particular historical trajectories in the United States and Great Britain that flowered into the contemporary Evangelical movement. Though Evangelicalism has for many decades transcended nation and linguistic boundaries, additional historical perspective might have clarified the question of Evangelical identity for some readers.
The second section is a call for a reformation in behavior among Evangelicals. It is evident that the authors of the manifesto intend this middle portion to act as the heart of the document. The accompanying study guide suggests sustained prayerful analysis of this section by study groups, and it is in these middle paragraphs that the manifesto makes a classically Evangelical plea. The innovative edge to the document emerges as the litany of confessions goes beyond those sins that Evangelicals for generations have become accustomed to confessing, and moves to reject sins such as anti-intellectualism, identity politics, and becoming “cheerleaders for those in power.”
The third section has garnered the most attention in the media. It calls for a new conception of the role of Evangelicals in public life. The text forwards a reconsideration of Evangelical alliances that frequently sacrifice the Evangelical calling for the sake of political expediency. The obvious subtext is that the relationship between Evangelicalism and the “religious right” has become far too cozy, and the perceived need to differentiate the “Good News” from right-wing politics is one of the factors motivating the manifesto’s composition. It is worth noting, however, that the final section of the text is entitled, “We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life.” Public life is not coterminous with political life. The manifesto does not call for a retreat from public life, but rather for a fuller and more responsible engagement in civil society. The twin evils of secularism, in which religious ideas are excluded from public discourse, and religious extremism, in which a particular set of religious ideas are given exclusive hearing, are both rejected as faithful options for Evangelicals.
The composers of the manifesto have also published a short summary, and a study guide for church groups, both of which are available at http://www.evangelicalmanifesto.org/ along with the text of the manifesto. The website includes press release materials and a video of the press event where the authors of the manifesto spoke to and with the assembled media.
Read the LA Times story.
Read the Tennessean article.
Check out the CNN piece.