The term "evangelical" has been bandied about for years by politicians, the media and the general public. But what does it mean to be an "evangelical"? The term has long been cloaked with ambiguity. One of the primary problems is that it is used to signify both a religious group and a political group, yet neither group has any official identity. The public has only some vague idea that evangelicals are "the Jesus people."
A group of prominent, self-proclaimed evangelicals, including Os Guinness, Dallas Willard and John Huffman, is attempting to clear up this ambiguity with the recently released "Evangelical Manifesto." They argue that evangelicals need to define themselves for themselves, rather than letting the media or politicians define them. They then go on to provide a definition of what it means, in their collective opinion, to be an evangelical, and they invite all evangelicals who agree to sign the Manifesto.
The document seems to have two primary purposes: to define evangelicals theologically and to call us to retake our proper place in the public sphere. The three-year effort that went into the Manifesto should be an encouragement to all evangelicals, even those who disagree with the stance of these writers. They are seeking to set theological limits on evangelicalism, and they are trying to correct the sometimes harsh voices of the culture wars by urging evangelicals to present their arguments civilly.
Rather than spending time finding nits to pick with the lengthy document, it would be better for evangelicals to think long and hard about our relationship to culture. Most of us would admit that evangelicals on both the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum sometimes fail to maintain the proper relationship to culture. Conservatives often err by rejecting culture and trying to isolate themselves from it rather than putting in the effort to reform culture from the inside. Liberals, on the other hand, often err by embracing culture to the point where they "politely" hide their beliefs.
Evangelicals need to remember the importance of both what we say and how we say it. We need to be bold and firm in proclaiming our beliefs, while simultaneously presenting these beliefs civilly and respectfully. The authors of the Manifesto reference Augustine's understanding of the relationship between the City of God and the Earthly City. Christians have a higher end in sight than the present world, but we do have a duty to work with the citizens of the Earthly City for the common temporal good. This balance between the present and eternity is difficult, and it is all too easy to ignore the Earthly City or to try to establish the City of God on earth, but Christ left us with no illusions that our tasks would be easy.
It is important to recognize that the authors of the Manifesto are not so much commenting on the specific political positions evangelicals should take, as on the relationship evangelicals should have to the general public sphere. The authors are calling evangelicals back towards a careful, charitable and respectful public discourse with those with whom we disagree, including atheists, people of other faiths, and even our fellow believers. Such careful discourse is the duty of every evangelical, regardless of their political opinions.
Evangelicals are called to be respectful and charitable in the public sphere, but we are also called to be firm in preaching truth. Both can be achieved, but we should not be surprised when presenting the truth, even respectfully, sometimes stings the ears of those who listen. Evangelicals will continue to be called judgmental or mean-spirited, regardless of their approach to politics, but our attempts at respectful civil discourse are not to please other men, but to please our heavenly Father.
The Evangelical Manifesto presented a clear call to evangelicals to define themselves and their place in the world. We ought not bristle at such a call, for it is our duty to examine ourselves humbly when we receive the admonition of fellow believers. We would do well to examine the theology preached from our pulpits and the principles we advocate in politics, to ensure that both are presented truthfully and civilly. We ought to be, after all, people of good will. Nevertheless, let no one confuse our good will with a lack of will. Truth matters, whether people acknowledge it or not.