On May 7, a much-anticipated document, An Evangelical Manifesto, was officially revealed to the public. The organizers press release declared the Manifesto to be a three-year effort to reclaim the definition of what it means to be an Evangelical a term that, in recent years, has often been used politically, culturally, socially and even as a marketing demographic.
The Manifestos Steering Committee included among others: Timothy George, dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; Os Guinness, co-founder, The Trinity Forum ; Richard Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary and David Neff, vice president and editor in chief, Christianity Today.
I saw the Manifesto for the first time that same Wednesday afternoon when I stepped off a plane in Washington, D.C. I have done my best to read it carefully in the days that have followed.
Subtitled A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment, the Manifesto declares that the deepest purpose of the Manifesto is a serious call to reform an urgent challenge to reaffirm Evangelical identity, to reform Evangelical behavior, to reposition Evangelicals in public life, and so rededicate ourselves to the high calling of being Evangelical followers of Jesus Christ.
All of these purposes are laudable goals. Let me say at the outset that I am in full agreement with at least 90 percent of what An Evangelical Manifesto has to say. I certainly agree that Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.
So why am I not going to sign An Evangelical Manifesto? As usual, the devil is in the details. As I grow more mature in years I am more and more aware of just how wise Billy Grahams policy is of never signing statements you havent written yourself.
Hopefully, one is clear and concise when stating ones own beliefs. We have all heard the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Once you commence authorship by committee, the verbal horse soon morphs into the written form of a camel.
What are my problems with the statement? Let us begin with a basic, foundational theological question. The Manifesto affirms that Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. That is surely true, but it is also hopefully true of all the many followers of Jesus who would never call themselves, or desire to be called, Evangelicals.
The Manifesto then enunciates several beliefs that Evangelicals have prized above all and that they consider to be at the heart of the message of Jesus and therefore foundational for us. The Manifesto then asserts that the only ground for our acceptance by God is what Jesus Christ did on the cross and what he is now doing through his risen life, whereby he exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence, bore the penalty for our sins, credited us with his righteousness, redeemed us from the power of evil, reconciled us to God, and empowers us with his life from above.
When I read that statement I say, Amen. Then I ask myself, Why foundational for us instead of ending with foundational? And why our acceptance rather than the only ground for acceptance by God?
Could this be an attempt to qualify the most basic of all evangelical foundational beliefs, Jesus assertion that I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6)? I could not help but notice that when the Manifesto quoted this verse several paragraphs earlier in the document, the drafters omitted the last half of the verse: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. Why?
Is this just verbal imprecision, or is it something more? I know the majority of the drafters and the original signees, and I know that they are exclusivists people who believe that for all men everywhere there is only salvation in personal faith in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16). However, I know at least one original signee to be a non-exclusivist. The question must be asked, and asked clearly and directly does An Evangelical Manifesto believe that salvation for all men everywhere is through personal faith in Jesus and only Jesus?
Further, can someone believe something other than exclusivism concerning salvation and still be an evangelical? This evangelicals answer to that question is, and always will be, No!
When the Manifesto turns to calls for reform of evangelical behavior, I certainly find much with which to agree. I have made many very similar criticisms of evangelicals over the years. In fact, I have said that given the burgeoning growth of evangelicalism in America over the past 40 years, that at this point, we must acknowledge that we have been influenced by society as much, or more, than we have influenced it. Indeed, instead of being the salt and light we have been commanded to be (Matthew 5:13-16), too often we have been salted and lit by the society around us.
I certainly agree with the critique of the rampant consumerism and materialism which provide kindling and fuel for the prosperity gospel, which in truth is not only not evangelical, but a false gospel.
However, if the Manifesto can take time to denounce consumerism by name, why cant it take time to specify the sins of premarital and extramarital sex? When evangelicals, who proclaim the sanctity of marriage, have the same rate of divorce as the general society, they have indeed shamed the Gospel they proclaim with their lips, but deny with their libidos.
Are these sexual sins considered too politically incorrect to criticize? Are they considered too much about personal morality? We know, and should acknowledge, that the landscape of our society is littered with the sexual revolutions victims evangelicals among them young and old, adult and child, male and female.
Lastly, the Manifesto turns to finding a new understanding of our place in public life. I agree, and have said publicly many times, that as Christians and evangelicals we should never be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity. I have often said that our ultimate allegiance is to God, never any candidate or political party.
However, the Manifesto acknowledges and lauds the impact and influence of prominent evangelical political reformers such as William Wilberforce and movements such as the abolition of slavery and womens suffrage. The question must be asked, How did Wilberforce end the slave trade? He was a Member of Parliament, and he used the political process to end the slave trade.
Just so, the abolitionists used the political process to end slavery. If the mid-19th-century Democratic Party tried to be pro-choice on slavery while the abolitionists, President Lincoln, and the Republicans were adamantly anti-slavery, did the slavery issue become a partisan issue? If so, whose fault was that, the pro-slavery and pro-choice party or the anti-slavery party?
If these men and groups had stayed above the fray, beyond the reach of the rough and tumble political process, their goals would have been reached, if ever reached completely, over a much longer time frame and after much additional suffering by those being victimized by societal evil.
Also, given the central thrust of the Manifesto, I was quite startled to read that In our scales, spiritual, moral, and social power are as important as political power . I must disagree, and wholeheartedly so. I cant believe that this is what the Manifestos authors intended to say, but it is what they said. Spiritual power is, and always will be, more important than political power, however noble its motives and causes.
There is an additional statement in this section of the Manifesto that cries out for clarification. In the midst of an eloquent plea for freedom of conscience and religious liberty, the Manifesto declares that we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose on anyone beliefs and behavior that we have not persuaded them to adopt freely .
In documents of this kind, proponents have a particular responsibility not to be misunderstood. At best, this statement betrays a startling lack of clarity and specificity. Once again, is this just verbal imprecision?
As an evangelical Christian I am also a citizen who has an obligation to be salt and light in society and a right to expect the divinely ordained civil magistrate (the government) to punish those who do evil (Romans 13:1-7). Consequently, it is my duty as a Christian to work to persuade my fellow citizens to enact laws which will coerce the behavior of those who are victimizing and brutalizing others against their will. I do want to support the government coercing the behavior of slaveholders, of pedophiles, of rapists and of murderers. I am not content to allow pedophiles and rapists to continue their bestial behavior until I have persuaded them to stop.
I dont think the Manifesto intends to say this, but I can assure you that secularist adversaries in our society will pounce on this statements lack of clarity to assert that some evangelicals have renounced any legislation of morality.
The Manifesto also calls upon evangelicals to champion a civil public square rather than a naked (secularist) or a sacred (government acknowledgment of the majority faith) public square. This is very similar to my call for principled pluralism in The Divided States of America? In that book I argued for a public square that maximally accommodates and welcomes all religious persuasions, as well as no religious persuasion, to say whatever they choose to say. I argue in that book that the government should be an umpire in the public square, making certain that everyone has the right to speak, without the majority intimidating and silencing minority views.
In such a model the government is not to be a sponsor, coach or cheerleader for a particular religious or political viewpoint nor is it to be a censor or suppressor of any religious or political viewpoint.
Finally, I cannot help but ask one last question: When the Manifesto calls for evangelicals to engage and work with all who share these ideals and care for the common good, are they unaware of the pervasive extent to which this is already occurring, and has been occurring for many years?
For example, I have had the privilege of working with extremely broad coalitions across religious and political lines for various pieces of legislation such as: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993); the International Religious Freedom Act (1998); the Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003); the North Korean Human Rights Act (2004); as well as various child pornography enforcement policies. Currently pending legislation where evangelicals are involved in extremely broad religious and political coalitions include: the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1431); the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act (H.R. 3887); and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (S. 625), also known as The Kennedy-Cornyn Bill.
An Evangelical Manifesto is an eloquent document with substantial things to say most of which I affirm. However, given the concerns outlined above, I have to say, regrettably, I cannot sign this document.
This column was first published by Baptist Press.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.