This week a group of scholars and theologians released the “Evangelical Manifesto” at the National Press Club. It is a thoughtful, ambitious, if somewhat uneven, treatise and I wonder if the decision to premiere the document in Washington D.C. was necessarily a wise one.
It might have received a more serious reading (which it deserved) had it been unveiled at Wheaton or Taylor, or some other Evangelical college of distinction. After all, a doctrinally freighted statement like, “All too often we have been seduced by the shaping power of the modern world, exchanging a costly grace for convenience,” is not the type of claim that most journalists are equipped to assess without calling their contacts at the local seminary.
It is perhaps for this reason that media coverage of the text focused on the desire of the group to “depoliticize” faith or “take religion out of politics.” I think it’s a bit more complex than that. In fact, it’s a lot more complex than that and the lesson to theologians and intellectuals should be clear: if you willfully insert your message into the meat grinder of the national media it will come out unappetizingly reprocessed.
The Manifesto strikes me as much more a statement about the plight of contemporary Evangelicalism than a treatise on politics. In the following short and brutally incomplete contribution (which I hope to continue in my next post), I want to identify some of the themes I see in this text with special attention to how they interface with what we are encountering this election season.
To begin with, I am increasingly noticing a tremendous upswing in what we might call “critical self-awareness” in Evangelical America. Many are forthrightly acknowledging that others may justifiably view their political initiatives with great suspicion.
Now, one of the ticks of Evangelical theology is an all-pervading sense of sinfulness. This has interacted with the aforementioned image concerns in a most interesting (and helpful) way. For, the Manifesto recognizes that mistakes have been made and must be rectified (may New Atheists follow their self-critical example).
Does this mean that the Manifesto counsels the full-scale evacuation of Evangelicals from politics? I think the answer here is no. Rather it wants to disassociate Evangelicalism from political partisanship.
The document it is not endorsing the type of flight from this world which Fundamentalists famously (and perhaps disastrously) executed in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial. Instead, it advises the maintenance of a cautious, independent and critical attitude towards American party politics.
For these reasons it decries the tendency of Evangelicals to become “useful idiots” for either the Republicans or Democrats. In its own words: “we are fully engaged in public affairs, but never completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity.”
The reference to national identity is fascinating as the document takes pains to view Evangelicalism as a global movement. “We are therefore a small part,” it opines, “of a far greater worldwide movement that is both forward looking and outward reaching.” This explicit embrace of the international dimensions of Evangelicalism stands in stark contrast to the America-First, ultra-patriotism of the Religious Right.
This leads me to another important point. The authors of the Manifesto clearly want to give Fundamentalists the old heave-ho. They write: “Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world. As a reaction to the modern world, it tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian.”
It follows that a strong internal reaction against the rhetoric, tactics and policies of these sub-Christians is discernible (though the text is a bit muddled as to whether Conservative Evangelicals deserve sub-Christian status as well).
As such, it is not surprising to find that many Evangelicals want to diversify the “issues palette” beyond abortion and gays. (This does not mean, however, that they are necessarily pro-Choice or affirming of gay people).
I noticed this tendency at last month’s Compassion Forum. In a similar vein the Manifesto refers to the environment, poverty, the ills of materialism and consumerism, racism, disease, illiteracy, the importance of science, the importance of the arts, and so on.
In sum, its marching orders are not “turn your back on D.C./Babylon!” but “approach D.C./Babylon as a follower of Jesus Christ, not as a Republican or Democrat.” Politics, argues the Manifesto, is a necessary, but not sufficient, vehicle for the improvement of the Evangelical soul.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
May 9, 2008; 4:01 AM ET
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