The Evangelical Manifesto: What It Means

An important new statement says theological principles should trump policy preferences.

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Worshippers gather for a service led by Dr. James Dobson, a child psychologist and founder of Focus on the Family.

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Charging that the word "evangelical" has been hijacked by politics, a group of prominent evangelicals last week announced the publication of a 19-page manifesto asserting that theological principles should be more important than any policy preferences in defining a movement that now claims roughly 4 out of 10 Americans. But while the drafters of the manifesto hoped to raise evangelicalism above the political fray, some reactions to the document are already revealing a strongly political tenor.

The document, drafted over three years by nine evangelical theologians and writers, is largely the brainchild of social critic Os Guinness, whose most recent book, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It, develops many of the same themes on religion and public life that are addressed in the manifesto. Initial signers included almost 80 pastors, theologians, activists, and others representing a fairly broad spectrum within the movement, from Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine, on the liberal end to James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, on the more conservative. But the absence of many leading conservative evangelicals from the list of original signers, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson, supports what some observers are already saying about the manifesto: that it is a strong rebuke to the religious right.

Not so, say the drafters of the document, who claim that they seek to move evangelicalism out of fealty to any one political camp. Using faith "to express essentially political points" leads to Christians becoming " 'useful idiots' for one party or the other," the document reads. And more pointedly, the manifesto goes on to say that "it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left."

Yet it is hard not to hear both in the document itself and in the words of the drafters a somewhat harder critique of the right's influence on evangelicalism—perhaps understandably, given the prominent role of the religious right in bringing evangelicalism more to the center of public life and debate in the past four decades. "Those on the right say that they aren't acknowledged for what conservatives have accomplished, whether in the Supreme Court or the battle to preserve the historic meaning of marriage or in keeping the debate over abortion alive," says Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also reports that some conservative activists see the document as an overly academic criticism by "those who critique those who do."

Speaking for his fellow drafters, Guinness insists that they were not trying to repudiate the substance of what the religious right has fought for but instead the manner in which its leaders often fought. "The issues of life and marriage are crucial," he says, "but the appeal to fear or hatred is not a Christian approach."

Far from calling on evangelicals to withdraw from public life, the manifesto urges them to fight for issues deriving from Christian beliefs in a way that preserves a civil public square and that never "equates" them with any party or party ideology. It also takes issue with partisans of either the "sacred public square" in which any religion is given a preferred place or the "naked public square" in which religious perspectives are entirely excluded. The civil public square, the manifesto says, "is a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too." The authors of the document add that secularists are just as entitled to this space as any believers are.

If all that seems to suggest a reasonable middle way, why are some leading evangelical thinkers not adding their names to the manifesto? Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he was not invited to sign—an oversight, the manifesto authors say, but not an intentional slight. Now that he has read it, Land says that he agrees with 90 percent of its contents but still will not sign. A crucial 10 percent, he says, suffers from language that is "at the very best imprecise or at the very best obtuse," problems that he finds typical of most documents written by committees.