WASHINGTON (ABP) — If the authors of “An Evangelical Manifesto,” released May 7, aimed to inspire conversation and self-reflection among their kindred, they certainly succeeded.
Among Baptists at the intersection of faith and public life, the conversation and reflection have included both praise and critique of the document itself — from the left and the right. Southern Baptist critics on the right, including Al Mohler and Richard Land — complained mostly about what they consider the document's omissions, such as a condemnation of sexual immorality.
The 20-page statement, initially endorsed by about 75 prominent evangelical pastors, scholars and writers, delivers a barely concealed rebuke of the methods and rhetoric of the Religious Right from many either within its own ranks or very close to it.
The document specifically denounces what it describes as the “two equal and opposite errors” of privatizing faith and politicizing it.
The manifesto emphasizes that evangelicalism should be primarily a theological identity rather than a political or theological one. It calls on conservative evangelicals to contribute to a more civil public discourse rather than simply adding ammunition to the culture wars.
The manifesto also calls on evangelicals to broaden their social advocacy beyond the classic issues of abortion rights and sexuality into other areas, such as the environment, poverty and international human rights.
Its initial endorsers included a broad range of evangelical leaders — such as popular author Os Guinness, who spearheaded the effort, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Muow and Christianity Today Editor David Neff.
The first signatories also included a wide range of Baptists, such as Bethel University President George Brushaber, Liberty Theological Seminary President Ergun Caner, Mercer University professor (and Associated Baptist Press columnist) David Gushee, and Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George.
But even before it was released, some conservatives denounced the document for leaving out the most politically prominent evangelical leaders, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Land, in a May 13 opinion column for the SBC's news arm, said he was “in full agreement with at least 90 percent of what [the statement] has to say” but that details — such as what he called theological imprecision — would prevent him from signing it.
He also took issue with the authors' decision to offer a specific critique of rampant consumerism and materialism in some parts of evangelical culture without offering a similarly specific critique of sexual immorality or other sins.
“[I]f the manifesto can take time to denounce ‘consumerism' by name, why can't it take time to specify the sins of premarital and extramarital sex?” Land asked. “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.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a prominent conservative social critic, took similar issue with the document's finer points, while praising its overall thrust. His overarching criticism was that the manifesto lacked specific proposals for how evangelicals could increase civility in public discourse and engage in public affairs without appearing as if they were attempting to hijack the government for purely theological ends.
“There can be no doubt that far too many evangelicals have confused the gospel with a political agenda — and even with the Republican Party,” wrote Mohler, in a May 12 entry on his AlbertMohler.com blog. “But what the document never makes clear is how to hold to deep moral and political convictions, based in biblical principles, without running the danger of identification with a political agenda — at least to some extent. Does the manifesto suggest a Gnostic form of political engagement?”
While praising the document's call for civility — much of which echoes the thrust of Guinness' most recent book, The Case for Civility — Mohler said it didn't lay out a plan for engaging civilly when debating principles of the highest importance.
“[N]either Guinness nor the manifesto can construct the framework for civility that Guinness brilliantly imagines. This is due to the fact that we are now dealing with the very fundamental questions of existence that the manifesto acknowledges; the questions that, in the end, will shape the civilization,” Mohler wrote.
“Issues such as abortion and marriage are not only important, but urgent …. The manifesto is wonderfully prophetic in calling for civility, but it never explains how civility can survive a policy conclusion — or how civil parties to a conversation about ultimate things can speak the truth and always be considered civil.”
Guinness, in a written response sent to an Associated Baptist Press reporter, welcomed Mohler's praise for the document but said his criticism was misdirected.
“Would that Dr Mohler's simple agreement with [a] hotly contested statement in the manifesto be heard widely by supporters of the Religious Right! What even the pope now acknowledges about the errors of Christendom, and most thoughtful Christians confess sadly about many expressions of faith on both left and right, has been rejected by many as a statement of unfaithfulness and a pandering to the left,” he said.
Of the accusation that the manifesto calls for a political engagement that is “Gnostic — disconnecting knowledge from physical action — Guinness said: “God forbid, and why so? The manifesto calls for evangelicals to be ‘fully engaged' in politics but never ‘completely equated' with any party or ideology. In other words, Christian engagement that is faithful always requires the same steps as any other Christian engagement in any other field, such as economics or academic scholarship. It requires: 1) discernment (what actually is the truth of the matter and the facts of the case?), 2) assessment (from a biblical standard, is it true or false, right or wrong, wise or foolish?), and 3) engagement (where it is true, right, and wise, we use it gratefully; where it is false, wrong, and foolish, we resist it wholeheartedly). There is nothing Gnostic here.”
As for a lack of specificity about what the statement means when it extols “civility,” Guinness said it should “not be confused with niceness, etiquette or squeamishness about differences, and it is most certainly not a recipe for any syncretistic form of interfaith dialogue.”
Instead, he said, “A civil public square is a carefully constructed framework of the ‘three Rs' — rights, responsibilities and respect — within which people of all faiths are free to enter and engage public life but with a due respect for the rights of all others too.”
It's like the sport of boxing, which uses a set of long-established rules to structure a fight, Guinness said. “So a civil public square is not a grand, ecumenical love-in, at the end of which everybody agrees about everything. It is a political framework that acts like the ring within which important differences are ‘fought out' robustly but always civilly,” he said.
Baptist critics with a different view of the relationship between church and state, meanwhile, also expressed agreement with the overall thrust of the manifesto but criticism of some of its finer points.
“From the perspective of the [Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty], this is a welcome contribution to the ongoing conversation about religion in public life and an important declaration of a Christian commitment to religious freedom,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Washington-based BJC in an e-mail message. “The statement rejects the idea that Christianity should be treated preferentially [by government entities] and commits to a ‘civil public square' to include all perspectives. By doing so, the signers seem to be signaling a greater willingness to reach across dividing lines and work toward common ground than many would assume.”
The document uses familiar terminology to describe two views of the proper place of religion in public life — so-called “sacred public square” versus the “naked public square.” That framework has been described by some who have supported government endorsements of religion in the past but denounced by some religious supporters of strict church-state separation as a false dichotomy.
In the case of the manifesto authors, Hollman said, “the utility of their statement on … religious expression in the public square is limited by their failure to define terms. Whether the word ‘public' is being used to mean ‘government-sponsored' or simply ‘outside one's home and church community' has significant practical and legal implications.”
Guinness said he was closer to Hollman's view of church-state separation than many religious conservatives. “Every term and label has been abused by someone. But that said, no such suspicion should be read into this,” he said. “I have been a constant critic, for example, of the president's ‘faith-based initiatives,' though that argument is no part of the manifesto.”
Melissa Rogers, professor of public policy at the Baptist-related Wake Forest University Divinity School, welcomed the statement's robust defense of religious liberty. But, in a May 8 post on her blog (melissarogers.typepad.com), she added: “A philosophical commitment to this principle is good; a pledge to act on that commitment is better. The next step is to pledge to go to bat for this principle in some specific debates about policy and law over the next year. If more evangelicals take this step, the cause of religious freedom will be advanced in important ways.”