About a week ago a group of American Evangelicals released a 20-page document called “An Evangelical Manifesto”. Subtitled “A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment,” the document seeks to lay out basic Evangelical convictions, offer some warnings, and present a way ahead for Evangelical Americans (and others).
When I first read it, I thought to myself, “This reads a lot like something Os Guinness might have penned”. Thus it came as no surprise when I later found his name on the nine-man steering committee for the Manifesto. How much he and the others actually contributed to this document is unclear, but the Guinness footprint certainly looms large over the entire 20 pages. Indeed, given that Guinness lives near Washington DC, where this Manifesto originated, it is likely that he is its major author, if not source of ideas.
Since I have been a long-time fan of Guinness – going back to when he was associated with Francis Schaeffer and wrote his seminal volume, The Dust of Death (1973) – I have read most of his books and enjoyed most of his commentary. The English-raised Guinness always has incisive, intelligent and profound observations that are well worth reading. Of course that does not mean I agree with everything that he says, but for the most part he is very high up on my list of favourite Christian thinkers and writers.
So with his imprint looming so strongly throughout this document, it is to be expected that I find it to be mostly quite sound and informative, with only small areas where I might find something to quibble about. Indeed, much of the document states what most Evangelicals would have also stated.
The document begins with seven foundational beliefs of Evangelicalism, which stress all the accepted Evangelical emphases: the uniqueness of Christ and his atoning work for us; the necessity of new life by spiritual regeneration; the trustworthiness of God’s inspired Word; and so on.
It then lists seven defining features of Evangelicalism, including the importance of Jesus Christ as the object of our devotion; that the Christian life must be expressed not just in our creeds, but in our deeds and worship; and that we should not unduly and unnecessarily restrict Evangelicalism to just one church or denomination, but see that God is bigger than any one church. That is, there should be both unity and diversity in the Evangelical movement.
And it asks us to avoid unnecessary extremes, such as liberal revisionism on the one hand and fundamentalist conservatism on the other. The authors put it this way: “Called by Jesus to be ‘in the world, but not of it,’ Christians, especially in modern society, have been pulled toward two extremes. Those more liberal have tended so to accommodate the world that they reflect the thinking and lifestyles of the day, to the point where they are unfaithful to Christ; whereas those more conservative have tended so to defy the world that they resist it in ways that also become unfaithful to Christ.”
Next the document speaks of reforming our behaviour. It rightly notes that our walk has not always matched our talk. Too often we Evangelicals “have betrayed our beliefs by our behaviour”. Much of the rest of the document applies this to how Evangelicals are to live in the public arena, and how we can avoid mistakes along the way.
It warns of turning the Gospel into a purely political affair; of becoming too obsessed with single-issue politics; and of getting too bogged down in the “culture wars”. It does agree that the various political and social issues which both left and right champion, be they issues of justice and poverty, or marriage and family, are important, and must not be neglected. But it warns against overly politicising the gospel.
It is here that I would offer a bit of adjustment, by teasing all this out more, and making some qualifications and amplifications of what is being said. Of course for the most part I agree with what is being encouraged here. As is clear from this site, I too have warned in various articles that Christianity is ultimately above any political or ideological camp.
True Christianity cannot be reduced to a political platform, or to a social agenda. Sure, Christianity must be expressed in all the realms of life, including the social, cultural, political and legal, but no one earthly position must be baptised as the one true Christian position.
Faith in the Public Arena
Of course there will always be disagreements among Evangelicals as to how their faith should be expressed in the public arena. This too I have written about at length elsewhere on this site. But it is worth examining further.
The document argues that there are three main ways that Christianity interacts with the public realm. One is the “sacred public square” model in which the church overtakes and subsumes society, as in a theocracy. The next is the “naked public square” model in which the secularists drive Christianity out of public life altogether. The third – and preferred option, according to the authors – is the “civic public square” model in which all sides are allowed to make their case in this debate, and let the best man win.
I broadly agree with this. After all, in a democratic, multicultural and pluralistic society, the first two options are not desirable. (Discussion about the desirability of the first option can certainly be debated among believers and be further teased out – but I will not here take this up.) So a type of religious freedom where all views can compete in the public square does seem more or less to be the way to go here.
But such an approach does not leave me without concern. Indeed, I heard this scenario expressed before, even with the exact same terminology. Yes, I had heard Os Guinness discuss this several years ago at a lecture he gave in Melbourne. I went up to him after his talk and shared a few concerns with him. What follows is roughly what I discussed with him.
I said that I agreed that in a pluralistic society, the third model may be the best we can aim for, but I did ask if he was being perhaps a bit too cavalier with all this. That is, what if tomorrow 51 per cent of the citizenry vote to make illegal all Judeo-Christian thought, values and expression. Do we just say, “oh well, the people have spoken, and that is the end of the matter”?
What about millennia of Western achievements largely brought about by the Judeo-Christian worldview? Do we just allow it to be undone like that? After all, much of Western civilisation is in fact Judeo-Christian civilisation. So many of the benefits and blessings that we enjoy in the West are directly due to the Judeo-Christian presence and influence.
I reminded him of the stirring words of TS Eliot, and what happens when we allow our Christian heritage to slip through our fingers. His quote is worth repeating here at length. “I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it. . . . It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning.”
He continues with this important consideration: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”
I put these fears of Eliot to Guinness. Is not all of this worth fighting for? Indeed, is that not part of the reason why the culture wars are raging? I forget now his exact reply to me, but I suspect it would have mirrored what is said in the Manifesto.
I tried to explain to Guinness that the culture wars really are tied up with what Eliot was talking about. I suggested that it was the militant secularist lobby that really started this fight. By seeking to eradicate religious influence in the public square, by seeking to ban one thing after another – be it school prayer, the Ten Commandments, etc. – Evangelicals were left with a choice: Either just allow this anti-Christian agenda to continue until it has accomplished its nasty purposes, or rise up and be counted.
And the various attacks on morality also demanded a response; be they the assault of the pro-abortionists, the homosexual lobby, the sexual liberationists, and so on. Believers not only wanted to stand up for their faith, but to protect their families, and fair enough. Some issues are too important to just allow the other side victory by default.
Of course there are different ways these battles can be fought, and yes at times the so-called Religious Right has done things wrongly, or not very biblically. But God-given institutions like marriage and family, and bedrock values like the sanctity of life are too vital to just allow the secularists to have their way.
And it is not just the secularist jihadists who are at war with Christians and want to take over the public arena. Militant Islam with its intent to spread Sharia law over the globe is another pressing concern, and one which we must be aware of and engage with.
So this is one important area in this document where I would like to have seen the discussion further addressed, and more fully explored. Again, the document does try to get the balance more or less right here, even though it perhaps goes a bit into the anti-culture wars discussion too much. It does recognise, for example, that both sets of concerns in this debate must be heard:
“Once again, our choice is for a civil public square, and a working respect for the rights of all, even those with whom we disagree. Contrary to medieval religious leaders and certain contemporary atheists who believe that ‘error has no rights,’ we respect the right to be wrong. But we also insist that the principle of ‘the right to believe anything’ does not lead to the conclusion that ‘anything anyone believes is right.’ Rather, it means that respect for differences based on conscience can also mean a necessary debate over differences conducted with respect.”
No attempt at getting some kind of broad-based consensus on Evangelicalism – what it is, what are its values, how it should be expressed, etc – will be perfect, and that is true of “An Evangelical Manifesto”. It has things mostly right, and believers will differ here and there. But it is a helpful step in the right direction in the debate about who we are, how we define ourselves, and where we should be headed, as Evangelicals.