May 15, 2008
The unveiling of “An Evangelical Manifesto,” drafted by theologian and social critic Os Guinness with the affirmation of a nine-person steering committee, nearly all of whom we might readily identify with the religious left, has caused no small stir among those whom we might readily identify as with the religious right. Some of its critics have concluded the document is the religious left’s “broader agenda” come to life, an attempt to solidify a moderate to liberal political agenda in the evangelical conscience. Suffice it to say it is a document with a clear articulation of the gospel in the Reformation tradition exhorting evangelicals to more faithfully live out the gospel in the culture as politically engaged followers of Jesus Christ.
Almost immediately the “Manifesto” was judged (condemned?) on the basis of who did or didn’t sign it. Within hours of its release the “I follow James Dobson” crowd was pitted against the “I follow Jim Wallis” crowd (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12) in complete contradiction to the spirit of the “Manifesto” expressed in its call for both sides to please stop screaming at each other. (I’ll leave it to the reader to ascertain which side is screaming loudest.)
It’s somewhat pathetic, isn’t it, that rather than making our initial judgments on the merits of the Manifesto we choose first to skip the document altogether and go straight to the signatories to ascertain whether or not we will agree with its contents? This tendency is precisely what ails the evangelical movement. Loyalty to personality has replaced commitment to principle. Whether I allow my name to be seen with yours is determined more by your view of global warming, which may be different from my own, than it is by the distinctives of the gospel. It also betrays an inability to think for ourselves.
Two primary reasons come to mind as an attempt to explain why conservative evangelicals are skeptical about the “Manifesto.”
For one, it calls into question our own allegiance to an entrenched political philosophy that has been extremely effective at electing conservatives yet equally ineffective at implementing substantive cultural change. As a case in point, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land in spite of 35 years of conservative evangelical political engagement. During this same time one state has legalized same-sex marriage while nine others provide the legal rights afforded married couples to same-sex unions, stopping short of calling it marriage. America has seen no substantial change in rates of divorce or the abortion rate. Sexual promiscuity is still encouraged in our public schools through “health clinics” and condom distribution. Our children still have unfettered access to the most virulent forms of pornography in the name of “freedom of expression.”
What have conservative evangelicals to show for our political efforts in terms of real change? The “Manifesto” forces us to face up to some very inconvenient truths and we naturally recoil.
Secondly, many conservatives panning the “Manifesto” may be doing so because they weren’t included in the three-year process of drafting the document. Given the documents’ call for a move away from left vs. right distinctions, it is somewhat unthinkable that Dr. Guinness and his nine person steering committee could not acquire representative voices from among prominent politically engaged evangelical conservatives. However, in a recent interview with Albert Mohler, Os Guinness readily admitted that he should have sought his input by sending him a copy of the “Manifesto.” The fact that Dr. Mohler’s insight was not sought, along with others who share Dr. Mohler’s worldview, is disappointing, but shouldn’t be the document’s death-knell. (The fact that the steering committee included no African-Americans and no women should assuage the fears of many conservatives that the Manifesto is committed only to being politically correct.)
My own view is that “An Evangelical Manifesto” has been the subject of an often ill-tempered criticism by many people, some of whom immediately wrote it off by reading into it an assumed liberal political agenda. The “Manifesto” is clear that it isn’t taking sides:
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.
Contrary to the assessment of some conservative commentators, nowhere does the “Manifesto” condemn evangelical political engagement. Rather, it rightly points out that political engagement, while certainly the duty of every Christian citizen, is not the priority of the Church. In calling for the Church to rise above the din and the noise of politics, some have characterized the “Manifesto” as a demand for Christian withdrawal from the political process. Some read Guinness’ call for “civility” as a call for compromise on the issues important to conservatives, a ruse to get us to drop our guard on abortion and same-sex marriage while the liberals change the priorities to global warming and AIDS/HIV. This erroneous conclusion misses the point of what civility means in the marketplace of ideas.
In reality the “Manifesto” pricks our consciences by pointing out that the place of the Bible in the pulpit as the authoritative word for moral and spiritual change in the culture has been drowned by pro-family political action committees to which the Church has abdicated its prophetic office. We declare in our creed that we have no king but Jesus, yet betray by our actions that our hope is firmly rooted in the outcome of the next presidential election. We have taught our people how to vote (and for whom to vote) all the while leaving them clueless as to how to pray (and for whom to pray). While we frantically sort through labels to determine whether we are on the right, left or middle we are deaf to the Word which calls us heavenward (cf. James 3:13-18).
Nothing I have said here should be interpreted as suggesting the “Manifesto” is above thoughtful analysis. My chief concern is with the “interpretation of suspicion” we have imposed on the document. We have allowed our prejudices against some who signed it to call into question the integrity and intentions of those who wrote it.
No one connected with the drafting of the “Manifesto” claims for it a divine imprimatur, as if Dr. Guinness had just returned to us with face aglow from Sinai having received the “Manifesto” on tablets written with God’s own finger. It is, after all, a human document with equally human short-comings. But so was Luther’s 95 Theses. History gives witness to the truth that statements rooted in Scripture endure while those committed to a political agenda quickly fade. History will judge where the principles articulated in “An Evangelical Manifesto” have their roots.