It may turn out to be the stuff worthy of mention in half a news cycle or it may be a lasting point of historical reference. In terms of its political significance, I expect it will be the former. In terms of the long history of evangelicals trying to situate themselves within what they view as the larger culture, I expect it will have at least a minor place in any future discussion of our religious and cultural circumstance.
“An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment” was rolled out at the National Press Club on May 7. I will have a more thorough discussion of it in the forthcoming issue of First Things, but a few brief reflections may be of interest.
It is a long twenty-page statement, with the first half devoted to the Christian beliefs that make one an evangelical, and the second to putting as much light as possible between the signers, on the one hand, and the “fundamentalists” and conservative activists with whom they do not want to be confused, on the other. The theological section is more or less unexceptionable, and I expect some of the seventy or so charter signers were chiefly interested in making a clear public witness to their evangelical faith. They were also, and understandably, concerned with the excessive “politicizing” of the public perception of evangelicalism. It was utterly predictable, however, that the manifesto would be viewed not as a theological but as a political statement.
All the media attention went to the second half that deals with politics. Typical headlines for the inside-the-pages reports were: “Evangelical leaders say their faith is too politicized” (Associated Press), “Manifesto aims to make ‘evangelical’ a less political term” (USA Today), and “US evangelicals call for step back from politics” (Reuters). More precisely, the manifesto calls for stepping back from “the religious right” and, more precisely yet, from the “single issue” politics of abortion and family concerns.
Not surprisingly, most of the big names of American evangelicalismRick Warren, James Dobson, Charles Colson, Tony Perkins Richard Land, et aliawere missing from the manifesto. A few declined to sign. Most were not asked. They are, for the most part, the evangelicals from whom the drafters of the document were trying to distance themselves. More leftward evangelicals, such as Ronald Sider and Jim Wallis are, understandably, boosters of the manifesto. Wallis is, of course, a key player in the Democratic party’s “religious outreach” efforts. He modestly describes his political preferences asin a book by that titleGod’s Politics. So much for depoliticizing religion.
Alan Wolfe of Boston College, a prolific commentator on the religion-and-public-life scene and an assertively nonreligious partisan of conventional liberalism, puts the matter bluntly: “American evangelicalism has been maturing for the past three or four decades. An Evangelical Manifesto enables everyone interested in politics and religion in the United States to see and evaluate the results. And those results tell us what we have been learning throughout the 2008 presidential campaign: the age of Karl Rove truly is over.”
As I say, there is much that is admirable in the manifesto, especially in its theological affirmations. But mainly it comes across as a striking instance of evangelicals approaching their cultural betters with hat in hand and pleading to be liked, or at least less disliked. One is reminded of the brilliant book of some thirty years ago by sociologist John Murray Cuddihy: No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste. In it he argued that prominent Jews, Catholics, and liberal Protestants made their bid to be accepted by an elite culture in which “Protestant taste” had been stripped of any Christian particularity. The main thing left in the secularized version of Protestant taste was the commandment to give “no offense.” The yearning of these socially aspiring religious leaders, said Cuddihy, was to be accepted. Among their strategies was to sharply distinguish themselves from the great unwashed of their tribes who were clearly unacceptable and who, truth to tell, didn’t give a fig about being admitted to the parlor. “I may be a Jew, but I’m not that kind of Jew.” “I may be a Catholic, but I’m not that kind of Catholic.” “I may be an evangelical, but I’m not that kind of evangelical.” In the last case, that kind of evangelical refers to fundamentalists and politically conservative activists.
I have no doubt that some who signed the statement simply wanted to affirm the important truth that evangelical Christianity is defined by the lordship of Christ and not by political partisanship. Issuing what is inevitably perceived as a politically partisan manifesto is an ill-chosen means for achieving that purpose. Only the naive or disingenuous among the signers will express surprise that the media depicted the manifesto as an election-year effort to drive a wedge between conservatives and what is portrayed as a more authentic evangelicalism. Whatever the good intentions of some signers, the reporters got the story right.
An Evangelical Manifesto