Friday, September 12, 2008

Discussing "An Evangelical Manifesto"

The following is excerpted from the "Executive Summary" of An Evangelical Manifesto ( I encourage you to read the whole document, if you can. After first staking out a theological understanding of the term "evangelical" ( a definition I found sound and unremarkable), the document goes on to say:

"Second, we wish to reposition ourselves in public life. To be Evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the good news of Jesus. Fundamentalism was world-denying and politically disengaged at its outset, but Evangelicals have made a distinguished contribution to politics—attested by causes such the abolition of slavery and woman’s suffrage, and by names such as John Jay, John Witherspoon, Frances Willard, and Sojourner Truth in America and William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury in England. Today, however, enormous confusion surrounds Evangelicals in public life and we wish to clarify our stand through the following assertions:

"First, we repudiate two equal and opposite errors into which many Christians have fallen. One error is to privatize faith, applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. Such dualism falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular and causes faith to lose its integrity. The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, Christians become the “useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology. Christian beliefs become the weapons of political factions.
Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, economic system, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, or nationality. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness.
"Second, we repudiate the two extremes that define the present culture wars in the United States. On one side, we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life. In a diverse society, it will always be unjust and unworkable to privilege one religion. We are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths. We are firmly opposed to theocracy. And we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose beliefs and behavior on anyone. We believe in persuasion.
On the other side, we repudiate the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. This position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, who are still profoundly religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are.
"We are committed to a civil public square – 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 as well. Every right we assert for ourselves as Christians is a right we defend for all others. "


Brian Emmet said...

Sorry the post is so long, but I felt this section needed to be read and reflected on as a whole piece. We can break it down into smaller chunks if you like.

Bruce said...

I've downloaded the PDF of both the manifesto and the study guide. They downloaded quickly.

First impressions: I've admired several of the signers/authors for some time: Timothy George, Os Guiness and Dallas Willard. Not all the time but mostly, I've respected their work in the past. Several of the other guys have good credentials.

smokin joe said...

I pretty much agree. I especially agree with the comments 4 paragraphs down that refer to politicized faith as an 'ideology' and as you know from our past conversations, I am strongly opposed to any attempt to seek or advocate theocracy.

I don't know who will be elected President this election year (and I am starting not to really care, I just want it over with) but I am grateful that there are Evangelicals now working with both parties rather than being exclusively identified with the Republican party.

smokin joe said...
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John M. said...
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Brian Emmet said...

Last two conversations have been v-e-r-y s-l-o-w to develop. My take is that the topics have been ill-chosen or ill-framed (and since I was the Post-er, that suggests I may have lost something off my fastball). Once we get our teeth into something, we do OK, but we haven't found something worth a lot of gnawing in the last little bit.

Comments, suggestions?

smokin joe said...
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smokin joe said...

Brian, I deleted my comments because i felt that they were taking us on a tangent away from this discussion about the Evangelical Manifesto.

I have a suggestion, why don't you email Robert Grant and LeRoy Curtis (since he originally sent us the link) and ask them if they have any input on this discussion? I'll do the same with some of my contacts and lets see if we can get a beneficial discussion going on this topic. I do think the Evangelical Manifesto has content that needs to be discussed.

Brian Emmet said...

Will do.

Dr. Sam said...

I was giving the Manifesto a cursory reading. I have a distaste for the word "repudiate." It is such a strong dualistic word. The word itself is reactionary... which is just another form for creating juxtaposition among the brethren. Simply my two cents.

smokin joe said...

I agree, Sam, that the word ‘repudiate’ gives a negative cast to their points. I am reminded of when Mother Teresa was invited to attend an anti-war rally that she refused: she said “if you want to hold a ‘pro-peace’ rally I will go, but not to an ‘anti-war’ rally.”

How would you reword it? I think the basic points are sound, that Christians should attempt to avoid two opposite errors; a) politicizing the faith by indentifying God and morality with only one political party, and b) withdrawing into passivity and making no attempt to bring morality into the public sphere.

I really admire what Rick Warren did recently with his public forum on leadership and his interviews with McCain and Obama. He called both of them his friends (some evangelicals in recent years have gone as far as identifying members of the opposing party with the devil—which makes me shudder) and he announced that he would not endorse either candidate … but rather ask good questions to help inform people of faith and let individuals make their own choice.

So would a word like ‘caution’ or ‘highlight’ work better than ‘repudiate’?

Brian Emmet said...

Sam, thanks for your comment. Sam and Joseph, I'd like to hear a bit more: does "repudiate" never/rarely serve a useful purpose, or is it in specifically political contexts, or...? Some kinds of dualism are clearly toxic to the Gospel, e.g., the dualism between the "physical" and the "spiritual," but would the same apply to the "good" and the "bad"? Not arguing, just asking.

steve H said...

After returning from vacation last Tuesday, I have been tried to get reoriented and caught up. I am interested in reading this document and entering the discussion. Simply looking at the names of those who signed it makes me think it will be well thought out.

Randy R. said...

Sorry to be so quiet. I hope to read the document in its entirety. Based on the excerpt that Brian posted, it looks interesting. I have read a number of works by O's Guinness and had the privilege of hearing him in person with a small, intimate group of pastors about 8 or ten years ago. Based on what I have read and heard, the post from Brian sounds very much like him. Interestingly, when I heard him in person, he stated that he believed that the Roman Church TODAY most looked like what believed the early church would have looked like at the end of the First Century. I believe that he was primarily referring to the work of the church; i.e., "orthopraxy."

Rex Miller said...

I think more definition of terms is needed. If getting involved means participating in campaigns and voting for one or the other candidates - then that is a fairly narrow definition. It ignores the "political illusion" that one is making a true choice (as Ellul has argued).

If getting involved means taking care of our neighbors and serving the poor, the widows and orphans - then that is a choice that makes a difference.

I have not seen any dialogue about the principalities that drive our political system that we as Christians are called to speak to.

Perhaps the voices of Stringfellow and Schaeffer should be re-read.

Brian Emmet said...

William Stringfellow! It's been years since I heard that name, but I agree w/ Rex that his work might provide the church with some useful tools for understanding our times.

As I read the Manifesto, it seems that the major effort is to loosen the automatic assumption that being Christian = voting Republican, which is fine as far as it goes. Which isn't very far: at this point, we either vote Rep or Dem, so as we move away from the Rep and towards the Dems, does this mean we're moving closer to God's will? Seems we run into the same problem of equating "God's position" with a political party.

smokin joe said...

I am not familiar with Stringfellow. Could one of you introduce him to us?

I think you are misreading the point of the Evangelical Manifesto Brian. Its not about identifying more with the opposing party ... its more about distancing ourselves slightly from both parties and identifying less with political parties more with the kingdom of God -- without withdrawing into passivity.

I think Rex touched on this when he talked about the 'illusion' of a choice ... vs real involvement through acts of service.

I think Rick Warren did a good job of modeling this ... he did not leave the Republicans and join the Democrats (as McLaren did--which of course is his right) but he treated both civilly and created a forum where the leadership values of both candidates could be examined.

I think the Evangelical Manifesto is respoinding to the dawning awareness that evangelicals have been manipulated for political purposes by a political party and we have lost credibility and influence as a result. We have had the "illusion" of a democratic choice.

steve H said...

Joseph, where did you find that the manifesto had been signed by these people: Timothy George, Os Guiness and Dallas Willard?

I recognized a number of names of signatories, but missed these.

steve H said...

Wake up, Humble! I thought I saw those names when I first looked at the website, Joseph. Now I see they are they are on the steering committee who drafted it! Sorry about the dumb question.

smokin joe said...

no problem. I am somewhat familiar with Timothy George from his frequent contributions to FIRST THINGS magazine.

steve H said...

Sure wish I could figure out how to delete posts -- might not look as inept as I really am. It was Bruce, not Joseph, to whom my "dumb question" should have been addressed.

I have no issues with the "definition" part of the manifesto.

I do have questions about the "assumption" that a society can long endure based on pluralism. "In a society as religiously diverse as America today,no one faith should be normative for the entire society, yet there should be room for the free expression of faith in the public square" (p. 16).

Does that mean that we should have Islamic, Jewish, and Christian prayers in one service as was done following the 9/11 attacks? Does that mean that no prayers should open Congress sessions and the Supreme Court? Does that mean not hanging the 10 commandments in a court house at all, or does it mean hanging the "commandments" from several religions.

"In contrast to these extremes, our commitment is to a civil public square — 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"(p.17). While I don't fault the sentiment here, I don't know that fallen man is "reasonable" enough to even agree on what is just and free for multiple faiths.

Enough for now.

Bruce said...

About picking topics, it helps if it matters much (to us) if the writers are right. Like when Paul argues against circumcision, he says that his opponents ought to go whole hog (nod to my rural friends) and castrate themselves. He's trying to sell us on the importance of his position.

Is the Manifesto very important? What if they are right? What if they are wrong? Do we need to change our ways?

John M. said...

I am interested in this conversation and the manifesto, but at this point both my PC and my laptop cannot access pdf files. As soon as I get this fixed, I can actually read the document. I am following the conversation, though.

Brian Emmet said...

Backing up a bit: William Stringfellow was a Christian attorney (and I think a gay man, but I may have that wrong and it is really germane here)who was published in the late 60s/early 70s. I see from amazon that much of his work is being reprinted. Those of you who know him better should correct me, but my impression is that he was something of a forerunner to Jim Wallis (although there is more to his thought than just that). I don't remember the title, but he had a book that looked at Romans 13 and Revelation 13 (both of which deal with Christians' relationship to their political government). At least part of Stringfellow's thesis was that Christians tend to apply Romans 13 to the here and now, but relegate Revelation 13 to the apocalypse/end times. He would maintain that is a mistake; we need to allow both passages (along with others) to inform our political participation.

To Joseph's point that I'm misreading the Manifesto: I agree that an automatic assumption that either party better represents "God's position" is necessary, and that large swathes of evangelicalism have been in thrall to the GOP. However, although our political participation needs to involve far more than voting, we do have the responsibility and the right to vote. And we will vote according to a hierarchy of issues...and one party or the other will be closer to our convictions. Is this an illusion?

Bruce said...

Hierarchy of issues--that's spot on. Likewise in church matters, we have hierarchy of doctrines.

If all we ever do is vote as an interest group, our fine tuning doesn't go very far. If our work touches a lot of things, like foreign policy, medical care--everything that the House and Senate have committees for--then we can work with some interests sometimes, and other interests other times. Libertarians do that, education lobbyists do that, the Congressional Black Caucus does that.

I remember Stringfellow, but not much--I thought he was a Union Thological style classic religious liberal and political extreme leftist. So I never took him seriously.

steve H said...

Stringfellow--hadn't thought of him in years. I tried to read some of his stuff back in the days when I was reading the Post-American, which became Sojourners (Jim Wallis), and John Howard Yoder. I didn't get much from Stringfellow then, but I think he did sow a seed in me toward seeing that the principalities and powers tend to be at work behind "systems." (Wikipedia has a fairly good introductory article on Stringfellow).

What's that got to do with this discussion? For one thing Wallis (who would be to the left of most of us on many issues) is a charter signatory on the Manifesto. For another, I'm currently seeing the need to listen to some of the guys (like Wallis, Yoder, perhaps Stringfellow, and Stanley Hauerwas--whom I am now reading) because they raise some questions that I have tabled for 25 years or more.

Although I don't start from their presuppositions and am not likely to adopt many of their positions, the questions they raise are stirring me to consider again the radical challenge of the gospel and the cost of discipleship.

Perhaps that's something that this Manifesto can help us with--to think outside some of the boxes we may have developed over the years.

smokin joe said...

Good points Bruce and Steve. I agree Steve, that it is really good for us to wrestle with questions from people who we likely don’t agree with, especially fellow believers with different or opposing points of view. I recently got a book by John Howard Yoder also, although I have not read it yet. I have found myself recently moving away from a Kissinger-Reagan view of IR back toward my Anabaptist roots.

Brian, I probably overstated my case when I implied that you were “misreading” the evangelical manifesto. Sorry about that. My point was that I don’t hear in the manifesto a call to leave one party in order to move over to the other party. What I heard in the manifesto is a call to evangelical leaders to be less “partisan.” It is one thing to belong to a party, but it is another thing to have a ‘party spirit’. The two best examples that occur to me of national evangelical leaders providing moral leadership without becoming partisan are Billy Graham and Rick Warren. We can all think of other national leaders who have taken a much more partisan stance.

What do I mean by partisan? Things like demonizing the opposition, or suggesting that God is on the side of one particular party. Now God may certainly come down clearly on the side of a particular moral issue, say abortion, or pro-life…but that does not equate to God endorsing a political party or a platform. And many conservative evangelicals who embrace a ‘pro-life’ position regarding women’s reproductive issues, do not follow through consistently in other areas such as torture, war, or capital punishment. In this regard, the Catholic Church has been much more consistent.

People of faith are influenced by a range of issues and contexts in their political views and choices. Such things as social class, occupation, age, race and gender come into play as well as “Christian vs. secular.” Black Christians are often more concerned about social justice issues and government protection of the weak (which certainly has abundant scriptural support) than middle or upper class whites who may be more concerned about the free market and a business-friendly economy. Who is to say ultimately that one “hierarchy of values” in a political platform is more godly than another? That comes down to the individual choice. The hierarchy of values that appeals to a believing business man is likely to be very different than the hierarchy of values that resonate with a blue-collar black worker or a female college professor. Each should be encouraged to engage their political choices prayerfully and scripturally, and each should attempt to be godly leaven in their own political party.

The way I read the Evangelical Manifesto is that they are saying that the kingdom of God is much higher than political partisanship, and indeed, higher than national identity. Christians should be responsibly involved in the political process, but Christian leaders must be careful about moving away from a role of prophetic, moral conscience, to a role that is frankly political and partisan.

Brian Emmet said...

Next section is up in a new post--not to derail this conversation, but to continue it with some additional material, which in fact dovetails with where our discussion was headed.

Bama Stephen said...

I'm a bit late to the conversation, but I have found the commentary valuable. The issue confronting us is the advance of the Kingdom of God, and how it manifests practically here on earth. I would assume we all are passionate about extending the Kingdom, and we would probably agree that this has a very tangible, practical application. We've been camping out in Isaiah 58-61, Luke 4:16-19, Matthew 5-7, and Matthew 25 as our guide here at Covenant Church of Mobile and CSM Publishing.

At the same time, we might not all have the same "hierarchy of issues" in terms of how we see these verses being applied, and we may not all share the same perspective on certain historical issues. Part of the intrinsic problem with politics in the real world is that it all too often requires a choice between the lesser of two evils, while our faith continually calls us upwards to a more pure and powerful expression of the Kingdom.

While I agree that the Kingdom should not be politicized, I do not grant moral equivalency between certain political and practical positions staked out by the two major parties (all apologies to Bob Barr and Ralph Nader).