On Wednesday, a group of high-profile, centrist evangelicals unveiled “An Evangelical Manifesto” at the National Press Club in Washington, D. C. A nine-person steering committee is responsible for the contents of the document (including Timothy George, David Neff, Richard Mouw, and Os Guinness). There are also scores of notable “charter signatories” (including Mark Bailey, Darryl Bock, J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and others).
The document aims to reclaim the term “Evangelical” from popular distortions.
The writers say that the term “evangelical” is widely misunderstood in the culture today, and they want to eliminate erroneous views of what it means to be an evangelical. So their purpose is two-fold: “We wish to state what we mean by Evangelical, and what being Evangelicals means for our life alongside our fellow citizens in public life and our fellow humans on the earth today” (p. 4).
To that end, the “Manifesto” has three parts, each of which is stated as “mandates for Evangelicals”:
1. We Must Reaffirm Our Identity
2. We Must Reform Our Own Behavior
3. We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life
I have mixed feelings about the “Manifesto.” I have the highest regard for some of the framers and charter signatories. For instance, Timothy George is a fellow Southern Baptist with whom I have long felt a kindred spirit (though I know him mainly through his writings). Nevertheless, even though there are certainly some aspects of the Manifesto that I heartily agree with, there are others that are less than satisfying.
On the positive side of the ledger, the “Manifesto” insists that “Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally” (p. 4). I enthusiastically endorse this way of approaching evangelical identity. D. A. Carson has recently delineated the problems with defining evangelicals by purely historical or sociological criteria (listen to the talks here), and I think he is right on the money. If evangelicals aren’t defined first and foremost by the evangel for which they are named, then the term becomes meaningless. For this reason I am grateful for a statement that roots evangelicals both in the Great Tradition of orthodox Trinitarian and Christological affirmations and in some of the distinctives of the Protestant Reformation.
The “Manifesto” also calls on evangelicals to repent of their own sin and inconsistencies in the way that they have lived out the gospel in the world. Who could disagree with that? Not me.
Nevertheless, it is precisely the Manifesto’s recipe for “reforming our own behavior” that becomes problematic. The Manifesto calls for “an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage” (p. 13). The blanket dismissal of “single-issue politics” is what concerns me. Yes, the Manifesto says that “we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, . . . nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman” (p. 13). But the document also seeks to raise other “public square” issues as if they have the same moral urgency as abortion and marriage. I for one am unwilling to tell evangelicals that they should treat the Kyoto Protocols with the same moral urgency with which we address the abortion issueâ€”especially when it comes to evangelical engagement in electoral politics. Abortion and marriage are transcendent moral issues, and evangelicals should treat them as such.
I am especially concerned about single-issue politics in this high political season in which we presently find ourselves. In November, Americans will go to the polls to elect a president who is likely to appoint at least two Supreme Court Justices. Those Justices will determine whether Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land for the next generation or whether it will be finally overturned. Roe v. Wade has presided over the legal killings of over 50 million babies since 1973. When I step into that voting booth in November, I will not pull the lever for a candidate who will continue the immoral regime of Roe v. Wade, no matter how much I like his views on the Kyoto Protocols or balancing the federal budget. And I will make the case with all my might that other evangelicals should do the same. Saving the babies takes priority over saving the environment and the budget. That “single-issue” determines my vote, even though I think the other issues deserve my attention as well.
Some will say that I am not interpreting the Manifesto according to the framers’ intent. That may be the case. But I am not so sure that the responsibility for misinterpretation lies solely with a misunderstanding on my part, for the document is so vague on this point that it is open to such a reading. I offer three lines of evidence in support of this. First, it is notable that leading pro-life evangelicals have chosen not to sign the manifesto (e.g., James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Charles Colson, Albert Mohler, Richard Land, just to name a handful). Have they concluded that the Manifesto leaves no room for evangelicals who treat abortion and marriage as transcendent moral issues? Second, media coverage has already interpreted the Manifesto as an attempt to get beyond abortion and gay marriage. Third, Jim Wallis recently expressed to Christianity Today his desire to demote abortion and gay marriage on the list of evangelical priorities in the public square. Yet he is a charter signatory for the Manifesto. How can this be unless he has interpreted the Manifesto in precisely the way I suggested above?
I share Alan Jacobs‘ concern that “the chief goal of this document is to establish the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.” Do the framers want readers to conclude that those who treat abortion and marriage as special priorities are fundamentalists? I don’t think the framers would claim that as their intention, but that may nevertheless be the unintended consequence of a document like this one.