In the most recent issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus has sharp criticism for “That Evangelical Manifesto.” Actually, sharp isn’t a strong enough word. The sting of Neuhaus’ essay is not so much his critique of the Manifesto’s substantive proposals, but his analysis of the motivations underlying it. Neuhaus thinks the Manifesto is an attempt by some evangelicals to gain acceptance with the broader culture.
In one of the more scathing sections of the article, Neuhaus critiques Os Guinness’ Christianity Today essay “A Gentle Plea for Civility.” Guiness is largely responsible for the wording of the “Manifesto,” and “A Gentle Plea” was a part of the initial roll-out of the document. Neuhaus writes:
“‘A Gentle Plea for Civility’ perhaps, although ‘A Poignant Plea for Acceptance’ might be more accurate. The posture is that of presumably more-sophisticated evangelicals coming hat in hand to their cultural betters, humbly requesting that they be exempted from the opprobrium heaped on their vulgar and unruly cousins, the ‘religious right’ and the ‘fundamentalists.’ To prove that they have earned an exemption, they eagerly join in the heaping of opprobrium on those in the evangelical family from whom they so desperately want to distinguish themselves. This is unseemly. It is also futile. The bid to be accepted as full participants in a ‘civil and cosmopolitan public square’ on the terms by which their secular betters define civility and cosmopolitanism is precluded by the very fact of being evangelicals.
“The document cannot plausibly present itself as evangelical without affirming the belief that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that marriage is between a man and a woman, the homogenital sex is morally wrong, and a host of other things that Christians traditionally believe and that secularists condemn as narrow, fanatical, and dangerously bigoted. The affirmation of liberal political pieties will not earn the signers and exemption from the disdain in which evangelicals, along with other serious Christians, are held by those whose approval these evangelicals so earnestly seek.”
Neuhaus’ assessment in the conclusion is trenchant:
“There are many and complex dynamics involved in the production of something like ‘An Evangelical Manifesto.’ Its theological affirmations are largely unexceptionable. Its call for cultural engagement and the cultivation of honesty and civility in argument is admirable and is always needed in our typically raucous public life. Whatever the good intentions of many of its signers, however, the manifesto is finally an appeal for the good opinion of the cultural despisers of evangelicalism. It is an election-year invitation for evangelicals to demonstrate, by embracing what is depicted as a more comprehensive and nuanced political agenda, that they are not that kind of evangelical.
“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.”
What are the political implications of the “Manifesto”? Neuhaus sums it up:
“With the help of those signers who genuinely want to depoliticize evangelicalism, those who make no secret of their desire to move evangelicalism toward the political left got what they wanted.”
One other item worthy of note is Neuhaus’ remarks about “single-issue” politics.
“There is much to be said for the manifesto’s critique of ‘culture wars’ and ‘single-issue politics.’ Unless, of course, the culture really is under attack and the single issue is, for instance, the killing of millions of unborn children.”
This last part gets to the heart of my critique of the Manifesto. The Manifesto effectively de-prioritizes the abortion issue and no longer treats it as a transcendent moral concern. So I add a hearty “amen” on that score.
You really should read the rest of Neuhaus’ article. It is outstanding. I would point out, by the way, that his editorials in “The Public Square” section of First Things are often worth the price of the journal. This one certainly is.
My Previous Posts on “An Evangelical Manifesto”
(HT: Justin Taylor)