An Open Letter to the Evangelical Community: Unified, Divided, or Conquered

Posted: May 14, 2008 12:02 AM
An Open Letter to the Evangelical Community: Unified, Divided, or Conquered

Last week several prominent evangelical scholars and leaders unveiled a document called The Evangelical Manifesto. The work sent a shockwave through some evangelical circles. The shockwave is partially based upon misconceptions and misinformation. Some leading evangelicals felt attacked. Others were alarmed by the unique political timing of this “non-political” document.

Confusion about The Manifesto can be demonstrated by the following titles of articles, which appeared in papers across the nation. Cathy Grossman, of the USA Today staff, entitled her recent article, Manifesto aims to make 'evangelical' less political. Rebecca Trouson of the LA Times ran a similar article stating, Group of evangelical Christians writes manifesto urging separation of religious beliefs and politics. Kathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, Evangelicals try to reclaim their good name - Manifesto warns not to attach loaded labels to theological term. Finally, Mark Kelly of the Baptist Press released a document entitled ‘Evangelical Manifesto' Targets Stereotypes.

The theologians and religious leaders who drafted The Manifesto attempted to clarify the definition of the term "evangelical" and remove the popular fallacy that evangelicalism is a political ideology. While I applaud the efforts of the writers, the work in its current form stops short of giving guidelines for appropriate cultural involvement that can accomplish historic, positive cultural change. My colleague, Tony Perkins, (president of the Family Research Council and co-author of the book Personal Faith, Public Policy) made this statement last week, “The signers of The Manifesto may want good government and a godly environment, but they do not want to take the steps necessary to achieve those goals.”

This statement by Tony Perkins implies that the emphasis that Os Guinness (the senior architect of the manifesto) made about “civility” smacks of Ivory Tower rhetoric instead of a realistic assessment of the rough and tumble mindset of contemporary activists. I agree with Alan Jacob’s article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Come On, You Call This a Manifesto? Jacobs a Wheaton College professor states that a true manifesto typically issues a clearer call to action.

Perkins, Jacobs, and I agree with the writers of the manifesto on one important point. We believe that evangelicals should not be owned by any political party. In fact in our recently released book, we apologize for the religious right’s over-identification with the Republican Party. In order to be a conscience to the nation, it is imperative that objectivity and a clear biblical perspective of contemporary issues be maintained. The Church should be the ultimate swing vote. In order to function in that role, evangelicals will need a clear road map for involvement.

The manifesto authors are correct about how bible-believing evangelicals of all races have been stereotyped. As an African American who has resented the fact that the media has coroneted Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson as “black Christian spokespersons,” I understand that some leaders have a need to re-define themselves and express their opinions. They rightfully point out that the evangelical community is not a political or ideological monolith. No one person is a spokesperson for the entire group. We have no pope, presiding prelate, or singular governing structure that gives direction to our involvement in the culture.

Guinness and company may believe that their words, works, and faith tradition have been marginalized based on the widely held misconceptions. Historically, ministries with the largest media voices or PR machines have determined the moral or faith discussion in the nation. Cynics may see The Manifesto as part of a large master plan designed to wrest the cultural microphone from the hand of biblically conservative Christian activists. The truth is all Christians have been used by both parties. Black and Hispanic Christians have succumbed to an inordinate affinity with the Democratic Party. What we need is biblical clarity and biblically consistent public policy. Janice Shaw Crouse makes an important point in her article Muddying the Evangelical Waters. She suggests that some Christians influenced by The Manifesto may value a “let’s just get a long approach” so intensely that they will not stand their ground on the urgent issues of our day. “They are prime candidates to embrace a less controversial and less demanding perspective and set of beliefs,” she states.

Only time will tell whether the document will encourage or discourage evangelical activism. In addition, it is not clear what the timing of The Manifesto will mean in this election cycle. Both Democratic candidates have been outspoken about matters of faith, while in a strange role reversal, Republican John McCain has been reticent to share any details about his spiritual journey and personal, religious worldview.

In conclusion, let me repeat that The Evangelical Manifesto addresses important issues for the 21st century church. The architects of the piece are some of the brightest minds and most accomplished leaders of the church today. Unfortunately, an unintended byproduct of the work is that it has excavated a few long-term hurts, relational rifts, and doctrinal differences.

My hope is that The Manifesto’s advocates, signers, and supporters will fight to maintain the unity of the faith - instead of just claiming their shot at the microphone. Biblical unity does not simply yield political power and lobbying strength. Biblical unity unties the hand of God to route the enemy.