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An Evangelical Manifesto: How One Subgroup of Evangelical Christians Is Attempting the Redefine the Very Term "Evangelical"


Thursday, May. 15, 2008

How does one remove a frequently-used word from the discourse of politics and cleanse it of its negative meanings? It sounds impossible, if not outright foolish, but a group who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, and who have published "An Evangelical Manifesto," wants to do just that.

Their goal is immensely difficult, if not impossible. But this move still may bode well for the future of discourse involving religion.

What the Word "Evangelical" Has Meant in American Politics Over at Least the Last Sixteen Years

The problem the group faces is obvious: In recent history, a subset of Christians often defined as "evangelicals" has striven and then achieved extraordinary political power, and their acts and history have come to define the word's very meaning.

The seeds were planted by the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, two groups that were cultivated during the Clinton Administration (which pandered to and used to its advantage evangelical Christians as well as other religious groups). Then, those seeds burst into full flower under the favorable sun of the Bush Administration. Outside the evangelicals' own universe, they were best known for their grasping and manipulation of national political power.

At no time was their power more apparent than the weekend when Congress reconvened and the President returned to Washington solely to enact the Terri Schiavo law, which I have discussed in a prior column. The law itself did not fulfill their dreams of controlling the country's debate over the morality of end-of-life care, but it did show their hand in a way guaranteed to swing the pendulum against them. (There is nothing Americans like less than seeing any one interest in control of their government, and religious organizations and coalitions are no exception.).

The Attempt to Take Back the Word "Evangelical" and Redefine It

Since then, the group of evangelicals who have together penned the Manifesto has awakened to the reality that the label they have used for their set of beliefs has been dirtied by the political maelstrom and brouhaha of Washington. They want the term back, and they want it to mean what they say it means.

A Steering Committee -- composed of Dean Timothy George from Samford University's seminary, David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, and author Os Guinness, among others – has thus led the production of a 20-page document, the apparent purpose of which is to wrest "evangelical" from the mud, cleanse it of its negative connotations, and return it to public discourse, freshly re-defined by the Manifesto's authors.

This is a movement that needs a miracle. Not only is the term "evangelical" deeply mired in the Bush Administration's sorry politics of religion, but the document itself also makes clear that, despite the attempt at redefinition, the political priorities that put the evangelicals at the feet of powerful politicians in the first place still remain primary. These priorities favor state control of women's decisions regarding pregnancy (or, as the Manifesto's authors call it, defense of the "unborn," a term so precious only those who make decrying abortion a political priority would ever use it) and oppose gay marriage.

There are two points in the document, though, that make it possible that the movement, and the Manifesto, may create some positive change away from a status quo that is worse.

The First Positive Sign: Looking to the Common Good to Solve Social Problems

In one of the more refreshing and promising statements by any religious entity or leader in recent memory, the authors of the Evangelical Manifesto have urged their readers – which they hope include fellow believers and nonbelievers alike -- to look beyond the single horizon of one's own faith to questions of the "common good." This is striking, important, and laudable.

The very fact that the Manifesto's authors are addressing their concerns to all, and not just other evangelicals, or other Christians, or other monotheists, is remarkable in and of itself in light of our recent history of Christian triumphalism and fractured politics. Their decision to draw readers' attention beyond the level of the individual, the organization, and the identity politics to a shared, common horizon is truly newsworthy.

This is a transformative position. While they do not say it precisely in this way, and readers may want to consult the Manifesto for themselves, here is the message I interpret them to be sending: No one need leave their faith behind, but everyone can, in searching for the hard answers to the most intractable questions, admit that they may well see through a glass darkly and be capable of benefiting from the views of others.

This is an invitation for all to sit at the same table. Given the current perception that the only ones seated at the table of power in Washington are a certain category of Christians, this inclusive statement is both liberating and unifying.

The Second Positive Sign: Acknowledging that the Public Square Properly Includes Voices of Faith, Reason, and Their Opposites.

One of the most divisive elements in recent political and religious discourse has been the false dichotomy between faith within and outside the public square. It is a nonsensical divide: On one hand, faith is a perfectly appropriate basis for individuals to justify their positions to others in the public square and in this highly religious society; it is simply unavoidable that faith will be cited as justification. But any single faith, in and of itself, cannot be sufficient to make public policy or to persuade others to agree.

The Manifesto thus appropriately calls on its readers to set aside notions of Christian or religious dominance in the public square, and, instead, to foster a debate between all speakers, religious or not. And it invites nonreligious, as well as religious speakers, to debate what is good for all of us. They are so right when they make the following point: There is an absolute right to believe whatever one chooses. Yet the possession and exercise of that right does not make whatever one believes inherently the correct position. What a breakthrough for this sentiment to come from evangelical leaders!

The old-fashioned value I would have liked to see invoked in this portion of the Manifesto is "humility," because it is the opposite of the self-righteousness that gets in the way of solving shared problems and because it is the antidote to narcissism, which is the foundation of identity politics. While humility was not expressly invoked, it did seem to be part and parcel of the Manifesto's affirmative spirit.

A Promising Statement of Respect for Others, But an Overly Aggressive Attempt to Redefine a Long-Used Term

Of course, it would be misleading to treat the Manifesto as solely addressed to the political culture, because it also is a self-affirming set of theological maxims. One can only defer to the theological claims made within it; indeed, for those who do not share their faith perspective, they may read like an unbreakable code. Yet to the extent the Manifesto takes on politics, it embraces a more reasonable perspective than has yet been adopted by those who are called evangelicals – one that is welcome.

As much as I find several points in the Manifesto promising though, its tone and apparent purpose give me pause. It would have been perfectly appropriate for the authors to declare publicly their shared transformative vision, without attempting to control language they do not and cannot own.

How can one subgroup of evangelicals, who candidly admit more than once that they are not all evangelicals, and cannot speak for all evangelicals, dictate the definition of "evangelical" in the public square? Why would they want to? They even drop a footnote purporting to dictate that "evangelical" must be capitalized, just like Christianity and Judaism. It is ironic in the extreme for this group to call for a more open-ended, shared public debate characterized by mutual respect, and then to open the discussion by purporting to dictate linguistic parameters. This assertion of control unfortunately undercuts the higher goal of bringing everyone to the table to work on the common good.

Marci Hamilton is Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent book is Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children(Cambridge 2008). Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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