The strikingly new note in the Evangelical Manifesto is that it intends to be conciliatory. In affirming that they totally identify with their faith, the writers quickly declare that their purpose is “not to attack or exclude.” This seems to reverse the very impulse that brought the religious right to power politically. By erasing the line between faith and the voting booth, evangelicals absolutely excluded anyone who believes in a secular Constitution and its separation of church and state. They also vehemently attacked candidates who didn’t share their viewpoint.
What’s changed? We get a clue in another phrase — “the global era” — which points to the promotion of environmental issues among younger evangelicals, who see themselves as stewards of God’s creation. If you want to save the planet, it helps not to attack the bulk of humanity that worships a different God. Beyond that, the manifesto reflects a willingness to be less intolerant. That’s good news from a sector of the American public that made intolerance their marching banner in the past. Can one go even farther and see right-wing Christians through their own eyes, as the most moral and “value-centered” among us? To redefine the evangelical movement, it takes two parties, one to offer the new definition, the other to accept it.
Acceptance is the real sticking point here. I was struck by a right-wing Christian being interviewed on CNN several years ago who said, “As long as you hate us, we aren’t going away.” To me, that provides the first incentive to redefine evangelicals. As long as they remain embattled, defensive, and disdained, their tactics of attack and exclusion won’t go away. Second, the fact that conservative Christians form a reactionary voting bloc isn’t, in and of itself, unconstitutional. To push a religious agenda may seem contrary to the spirit of the American republic and the intent of the founding fathers. Yet we all have a duty, within limits, to tolerate other viewpoints, even when intolerance is part of that viewpoint. The renunciation of intolerance by the religious right would indicate that tolerating them wasn’t in vain.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to take the Evangelical Manifesto at face value. It moves away from a political definition to a religious one. That’s helpful if it’s sincere. When the writers declare that “Evangelicals are one of the great traditions in the Christian Church,” one must admit that this is correct. An evangelical is basically a proselytizer, and Christianity wouldn’t exist except for the fact that converts joined en masse in the Roman world thanks to fervent missionaries preaching the “good news.” What is being proselytized today is more aggressive, narrow-minded, and unloving than pure Christianity as taught by Jesus, but was there ever a time when the faith was pure? Christianity has been dogged from the time of St. Paul by heresy, unbelief, radical extremes, and delusional theology. History has swept in periods of violence and swept them away again.
Accepting the olive branch offered by the manifesto can only be provisional at this point, however. Looking over the seven points of essential doctrine, each takes a dogmatic position that millions of other Christians don’t accept.
1. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, as the only full and complete revelation of God and therefore the only Savior.
— Many forms of Protestantism have relaxed the demand to see Jesus as the only son of God, and the ecumenical movement in Catholicism opened the door for other faiths to be given respect and validity.
2. The death of Jesus on the cross, in which he took the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God.
–This point depends on the concept of original sin and the fall of man, which is no longer fully accepted in liberal Protestant circles. The redemption of all human sin through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has been met with widespread doubt, given the fact that the Kingdom of God didn’t descend on earth and sin continues to flourish.
3. Salvation as God’s gift grasped through faith. We contribute nothing to our salvation.
–This point, which demands rebirth in the holy spirit as the only way to salvation, contradicts the broad Protestant social movement toward good works (endorsed even by Pope Benedict on his recent American visit) and returns to a quasi-medieval belief that the elect are chosen by God and the non-elect damned to hell. Yet if our good works can’t contribute to salvation, why should our bad deeds affect it, either?
4. New life in the Holy Spirit, who brings us spiritual rebirth and power to live as Jesus did, reaching out to the poor, sick, and oppressed.
–Here the benefit of good works is acknowledged, even though they contribute nothing to salvation. It is presumed that after salvation has occurred, good works follow as a duty set down by Christ’s example. Yet many Christians (not to mention many unbelievers) do equal if not greater good for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed without demanding fealty to Jesus in return.
5. The Bible as God’s Word written, fully trustworthy as our final guide to faith and practice.
–In a scientific age that has delved into the vagaries of how the gospels were written, how they changed and evolved, and how deeply they contradict one another, holding to total faith in the divine source of scripture strikes many other Christians as irrational and needlessly arbitrary.
6. The future personal return of Jesus to establish the reign of God.
–This point, at least, is agreed upon by all but the most lenient Christian denominations. But by insisting that the Second Coming will occur in our lifetime, evangelicals put enormous pressure on every true believer to adjust to the end of days. This pressure grows desperate at times and seems to have no basis inn rationality.
7. The importance of sharing these beliefs so that others may experience God’s salvation and may walk in Jesus’ way.
–“Sharing” is more or less a code word for “fervent conversion of unbelievers,” which is a nettlesome practice in any religion whenever it becomes too aggressive. Most people would define the evangelical movement largely by this tenet. In a secular society it’s widely perceived that evangelism has already gone too far (as in the Air Force academy, where peer pressure from fundamentalist cadets has created an ethos in which fighting for Jesus is the only way to view military service, and those who don’t follow along are constantly proselytized).
In the end, the new manifesto has to be read in context. On the face of it, the document is more zealous and dogmatic than secular Americans and most mainstream Christians would endorse. (Is it really an issue that other faiths have to be given at least some toleration? Or are we fighting theological Crusades all over again?) But given the extremes to which evangelicalism went in the age of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, any attempt at reconciliation is welcome. One still expects that fundamentalists will vote overwhelmingly on the right and that abortion, school prayer, homophobia, and the flag will irrationally dominate their agenda. Even so, the recognition that there is a world elsewhere inhabited by other faiths and beset by environmental threat is healthy. Can one say that the Bush administration went even that far?