08 May 2008

an evangelical manifesto

Yesterday marked the release of a document signed by nearly 80 prominent evangelicals: "An Evangelical Manifesto." It's subtitled, "A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment," drawing attention to its attempt to define what it is to be evangelical and to take a stand on how evangelicals might best engage with the public sphere. (And forgive the following if it's a bit murky - I was up until 1am last night grading!)

I have a lot of sympathies with the aims of the document and some of the positions it takes: the importance of cultivating civil discourse, refusing to politicize faith in a partisan way, rejecting "Constantinianism" as the way forward culturally in our present time, and so on. Moreover, the stress on the importance of orthopraxy hand-in-hand with orthodoxy is welcome. I can only concur with the document's confession of repentance from sin, worldliness, factionalism, materialism and consumerism, skewed priorities, and the like.

Yet, for all my sympathies, I'm not entirely comfortable with the document and couldn't see myself signing it.

Part of my worry, I suppose, stems from a strong distaste for term "manifesto." The term has such heavy political overtones to my ear, that it succeeds in undermining the intent of the document to move evangelicalism away from self-presentation in terms of a political agenda and confrontation. I can't believe that someone involved in drafting the document didn't say, "Whoa, do we really want to call this a 'manifesto'?!?"

I also wonder whether the document underestimates the complexity of the relationship of faith and theological commitments to a public witness in the areas of culture and politics. It speaks against the tendency "to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth." I guess I'm not entirely sure what it means to "politicize faith" or to "use faith" in this way.

Certainly, I think we can admit, some evangelicals have aligned themselves with partisan political identities and agendas in such a way that it plays into secular power games and leads to partisan loyalties that are insufficiently suspicious of temporal agendas or that place being a partisan too much on level with being a Christian. But how are we to discern when a point is an "essentially political" one that has "lost touch with biblical truth"?

I would hope that reflective Christians do enter into the public sphere, attempting prudentially to work out the implications of biblically shaped and informed ethical commitments for matters of policy. And different Christians will conscientiously come to different conclusions - they'll support different candidates, advocate different policies, discern different priorities, share different burdens, and so forth.

As Thomas Aquinas says, as we descend from general principles to particular applications, there is more room for a diversity of applications, not only due to sin or our own ethical blind spots, but also due to our finitude, lack of resources, and the variety of complex situations and callings in which we find ourselves (Summa Theologiae I-II.94.2).

Thus, it seems to me, what we rightly object to as "politicizing faith" is not bringing faith to bear on politics, but rather the tendency to make exclusive claims for one's own way of bringing faith to bear upon politics - that a particular position on a particular issue is the Christian position on that issue, somehow straightforwardly entailed by trusting Christ for salvation or by the biblical witness.

Of course, there remains a "hierarchy of truths," in ethics and politics as much as in theology or creedal confession. Some issues within the political sphere do rise to a level of clarity where it is difficult to imagine the church being faithful to Jesus Christ and not taking a stand. Thus the confessing church in Germany publicly resisted National Socialism and bishops in Chile opposed the Pinochet regime's policies of kidnapping and torture.

Some Christians, however, have difficulty in recognizing that, say, one's view of the pactum salutis doesn't rise to the level of commitment to Chalcedonian orthodoxy or that drinking alcoholic beverages doesn't rise to the level of fornicating. Likewise, some Christians have difficulty in recognizing that one's position on, say, general immigration reform doesn't rise to the level outlawing child prostitution.

Yet, in America in particular, Christians come together around certain contingent affinities in terms of theology, liturgy, and practice. Thus, there are no "mere Christians," but always particular sorts of Christians, living and believing out of particular contexts, rooted in particular histories and traditions, even if some of the further concrete expressions of faith are held relatively loosely. Likewise, there are no "mere Christians" in the political sphere, but always Christians coming together along particular traditions of discernment and prudential application.

Therefore, rejecting a "politicized faith," it seems to me, has to do in part with how particularized identities as Christian - in terms of theology, worship, and discipleship - intersect with particularized trajectories of political engagement. While the former will certainly shape the latter, faith becomes "politicized" when we insist that those who share a common expression of faith should also thereby share a common political perspective.

If there is a proper doctrine of the "spirituality of the church," it is one in which the common life of God's people - drawn together in Christ through a concrete expression of faith centered on word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship - always takes a certain priority over political and cultural discernments, however much those discernments may flow from that common life relative to particular callings and affinities.

This isn't to say that a local parish within a time and place cannot discern a call to act publicly on behalf of those to whom it ministers or in relation to an issue of clear moral outrage. But it does mean that such a call remains subservient to our primary call to follow and trust Jesus Christ himself, as he comes to us in word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship. Furthermore, placing our identity as baptized people prior to other identities and parties is itself a profoundly political act in the way it reorients our relation to the sphere of temporal power.

These last comments, regarding how Christian faith always takes up a particular, concrete form of expression, points to my other main area of ill-ease with regard to "An Evangelical Manifesto": the way in which the document positions evangelicalism itself. It insists upon "Evangelical" as a proper noun (note the capital "E"), which refers to a movement that has become "one of the great traditions that have developed within the Christian Church over the centuries." As such "Evangelical," it insists, "must be defined theologically and not politically; confessionally and not culturally."

Yet, it seems to me that a "great tradition" - much less a confessional one - is precisely what evangelicalism is not. With no ecclesiastical structure, no shared liturgical practices, no common confession or creed, no legacy of catechesis, and with a tendency to transform itself every few years, evangelicalism does not strike me as a "tradition" at all.

Indeed, "An Evangelical Manifesto" goes on to note how evangelicalism spans across denominational lines and is "not limited to certain churches or contained by a definable movement." Moreover, it presents evangelicalism as a movement that has remained "diverse, flexible, adaptable, non-hierarchical, and taken many forms." It goes so far as to say that "to be Evangelical is earlier and more enduring than to be Protestant."

As for it's theology and confession, "An Evangelical Manifesto" provides a summary that is both less specific (no mention of "inerrancy") and more specific (being "faithful stewards of creation") than previous evangelical faith statements. Yet, with the possible exception of its doctrine of scripture, I don't see why this confession could not be embraced by a Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic or other Christian who wouldn't necessarily identify as "evangelical" - though, of course, such believers would want to say more about the character of their theology (as would I).

I'm afraid for all it's attention to "Evangelical" identity, what the document actually says is very nearly nonsense. How can some "thing" - a movement or ethos or what-have-you - be at the same time one of the "great traditions" of the church alongside Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and so forth, and yet be larger than any of those while nonetheless lacking the features that all those other traditions share in common?

Furthermore, I worry that by too easily embracing the identity of "Evangelical," we actually undermine some of the proper goals of the document, by privileging an identity that has been forged over the past century in largely political and adversarial ways. If so, then we play into the hands of the very trends that "An Evangelical Manifesto" is so keen to repudiate.

Also, let me be clear that I don't raise these questions about evangelical identity out of any kind of anti-ecumenical sentiment. Ecumenism is very important to me and should, I think, remain central to the church's mission in the world and our own commitment to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his one church (as always, Lesslie Newbigin is an indispensable resource on these matters). But an ecumenism that glosses over the specificities of various faith communities isn't going to get very far, it seems to me.

Having said all this, I still would commend reading "An Evangelical Manifesto" in its entirety (not just the summary statement), for much of what it says is good and right and profitable, providing insights and exhortations that orthodox believers within various American churches need to hear and heed.

Update: Jamie Smith voices some concerns about "An Evangelical Manifesto" that intersect helpfully with my own.

And from Alan Jacobs in the 9 April Wall Street Journal online, "Come On, You Call This a Manifesto?"