13 May 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto

The news about Pastor Hagee (see below) made me decide it was time to deal with an item I downloaded last week. It's called "An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment." It was issued last week amid a mild media fanfare touting the document as a repudiation of partisan politics.

First of all, it's not "the Evangelical Manifesto." The authors are well aware that they don't and can't speak for everyone covered by that amorphous term, which they then attempt to define. Disagreement is inevitable, and in parts of the document the authors seem to ask for it.

The authors try to establish their bona fides early, affirming their commitment to "right belief and right worship" and "to submit our lives entirely to the lordship of Jesus and to the truths and the way of life that he requires of his followers, in order that they might become like him, live the way he taught, and believe as he believed." This is predictable stuff, and as far it concerns religious doctrine, we can pass it over without comment.

The Manifesto gets interesting when the authors attempt to distinguish Evangelicalism from both "liberal revisionism" and "conservative fundamentalism." Liberalism here means "an exaggerated estimate of human capacities, a shallow view of evil, an inadequate view of truth, and a deficient view of God" that becomes "sometimes no longer recognizably Christian." Once again, this is nothing new, but the critique of fundamentalism is less familiar, to me at least. Check it out:

The fundamentalist tendency is more recent, and even closer to Evangelicalism, so much so that in the eyes of many, the two overlap. We celebrate those in the past for their worthy desire to be true to the fundamentals of faith, but Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world. As a reaction to the modern world, it tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian.

Christian Fundamentalism has its counterparts in many religions and even in secularism, and often becomes a social movement with a Christian identity but severely diminished Christian content and manner. Fundamentalism, for example, all too easily parts company with the Evangelical principle, as can Evangelicals themselves, when they fail to follow the great commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves, let alone the radical demand of Jesus that his followers forgive without limit and love even their enemies.

This is mild scolding compared to the following:

All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing principles. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk, each of which is indistingishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.

So much for megachurches, the prosperity gospel, and so on. On a related note, "all too often we have attacked the evils and injustices of others, such as the killing of the unborn ... while we have condoned our own sins, turned a blind eye to our own vices, and lived captive to forces such as materialism and consumerism in ways that contradict our faith."

As for politics: "We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life." These Evangelicals will still oppose abortion and gay marriage, but at the same time "we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness." They urge Evangelical congregations to be "never completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity."

They don't want "to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence [emphasis in original], the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form."

This is an important point to make as repercussions from the Rev. Wright scandal continue to be felt. The danger of American denominations turning into Chinese-style "patriotic" churches should have been obvious to pastors all over the country once the establishment damned Wright for playing a traditional prophetic role. The Manifesto seems right on the mark when it affirms an Evangelical duty "never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality."

The authors seem to recognize that religion needs to be dissociated from the state. They trace state-sponsored oppression by Christians to the Emperor Constantine, and remind their readers that "We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth." This was actually the attitude many Evangelicals held before the Cold War, when fears of "atheistic communism" led churches to seek shelter under the shield of the state. The present Manifesto doesn't reject war altogether, since Evangelicalism encompasses both pacifists and "advocates of just war," but it states firmly that "Jesus's Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror's power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve."

* * *

Why have I spent so much time on the opinions of superstitious folk? The answer is: because the Wright controversy and its implications for the presidential campaign has convinced me that we can't demand absolute agreement with our own views from those we want to join us in a political cause. It's foolish to reject people who espouse some things we oppose, as long as they don't contradict the larger agenda; similarly, they may deny what we espouse, so long as the disagreement doesn't undermine the immediate cause. Intellectual correctness in a mass movement might be just as futile as "political correctness." We shouldn't automatically reject conspiracy theorists, for instance, as long as they're willing to join us in a common effort for the goal we seek. I'm not going to reject an ally because he believes in God if the goal has nothing to do with establishing a religion. In this Evangelical Manifesto I found things I could agree with regarding our society and culture, along with things I oppose absolutely. Unless I want simply to impose my will on the world and have everyone agree unconditionally with my little red book of ideas, I see no reason why different bodies of opinion can't cooperate when their interests intersect. These Evangelicals have made it clear that they don't want to impose a theocracy on America -- which may be why some others have criticized the Manifesto. Because of that, they may end up having a more positive impact on society, but that remains to be seen.


crhymethinc said...

These people should be held to the same standards that the advertising sector is held to. They should have to be able to prove that whatever they're "selling" is true and factual, and when they can't prove that their beliefs have any basis in reality, they should be open to civil law suits.

Get over it, you superstitious sheep --- there is no god, your religion is a collection of antiquated beliefs, lies and superstition. And until you can prove your deity-of-choice is real and does exist, keep your religion to yourself.

Samuel Wilson said...

Unfortunately, the advertising sector seems to get away with much more than used to be the case. Commercials routinely ascribe supernatural attributes to products or the people who use them. We're all supposed to wink and say that of course no one takes these claims seriously, they're just thrown in to get the ad talked about, etc. but it tends to throw your analogy out the window.
In any event, you seem to have missed the point of the post, unless you wish to affirm that you will never accept a believer as a collaborator in any political project not directly relevant to religion.

crhymethinc said...

My comment didn't neccesarily have anything to do with your post, it was aimed at anyone who brings their religious "beliefs" into a political or intellectual situation. Anyone who blindly judges others based on what their own particular book of lies tells them. Anyone who is more comfortable with unquestionably accepting superstition because accepting the facts would prove them wrong. People like that have no place among reasoning human beings. They should not be accepted until they learn the difference between fact and belief. And until they learn to keep their religion a personal matter between them and their imaginary deity.