Evangelical leaders banded together last month to issue a statement calling for an end to the politicization of religion.
“We are not uncritical of unrestrained voluntarism and rampant individualism,” the signers say, “but we utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth.”
In their “Evangelical Manifesto,” the signers also criticized the excesses of the Religious Right and call for “an expansion of concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage.”
“Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left,” the Manifesto asserts. “Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church – and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons.”
The document, unveiled at the National Press Club May 7, adds, “Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality.…The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness.”
Elsewhere the statement says, “We are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society.”
Os Guiness, a leading crafter of the Manifesto, told U.S. News & World Report, “The issues of life and marriage are crucial, but the appeal to fear or hatred is not a Christian approach.”
Some observers say the 19-page document indicates that a lot of evangelicals are desperately worried that their “brand” is in trouble. Young evangelicals could bail out of the movement if it is increasingly seen as dominated by the likes of Pat Robertson, Richard Land, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.
Even Manifesto signers who agree completely with the Religious Right political agenda think the movement needs an image makeover. Some of them are also very concerned that evangelicalism’s ability to win converts is being hurt because of the movement’s bad image.
On the political front, it’s a mixed bag. Some may sincerely want a movement that is nonpartisan, civil in tone and more broadly based when it comes to issues. Others just think they can better achieve the overall agenda by broadening it. If Democrats maintain control in Congress and also take the White House, evangelicals will need a less partisan strategy to maintain at least some of their political power.
Prominent Religious Right leaders did not sign the document – and it’s unclear if they were even asked. At a press conference announcing the Manifesto, organizers said Dobson of Focus on the Family had been asked to sign but replied that his board opposed the idea.
However, Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, told the Associated Press he had not seen the Manifesto and was not asked to add his name.
Signers include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Mark Bailey, president of Dallas Theological Seminary; Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College; and Harold Smith, editor of Christianity Today.
The signers are diverse, politically. Some have long been identified with the moderate wing of evangelicalism; others have ties to the far right.
For example, Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters; James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy; and Stephen Strang, founder of Charisma magazine, added their names, and all three have been aligned with shrill right-wing political activities. “Moderate” evangelical Jim Wallis, who often works in Democratic circles, also signed.
The full text of the document can be read at www.evangelicalmanifesto.com.