Voices

More on the 'Manifesto'

Evangelical document's content isn't the whole story

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

It was important and appropriate in our May 3/10 issue to include a summary-spread across four pages-of the "Evangelical Manifesto," a document carefully not released to the public until May 7. The manifesto was authored by an impressive list of evangelical leaders, and our editor in chief Marvin Olasky properly credited it as a work whose "confessions are credible, its hopes holistic, and its goals generous." I totally agree.

The part of the story that was harder to discern prior to the public release of the manifesto was the motivation of its backers. Why did they feel such a statement was needed right at this point in history?

Some observers were quietly suspicious. They thought that the publication of the manifesto at the peak of a U.S. presidential campaign suggested the document might be loaded with political freight.

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Others were suspicious about who the framers were-and who they weren't. Who, once the writing was done, was being asked to sign on-and who wasn't? Why were so many big-time leaders of the religious right so conspicuously absent? Why were there no African-Americans? Where were the women?

OK-let's get to the bottom line. The suspicions of many were that the framers of the Evangelical Manifesto were frankly embarrassed by names and reputations of those like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and D. James Kennedy, and wanted to stake out a new and much broader public identity for American evangelicalism. In forming that new identity, these folks would also make clear that it wasn't just abortion and homosexual rights that preoccupy the evangelical mindset. Typically liberal issues-like economic justice, for example, or global warming-also have their place on the evangelical agenda.

Yet early on these were just suspicions. How do you prove what someone's unspoken motivation might be? After all, even I had been invited to sign the document-which meant its framers weren't altogether scared of right-wingers! And a few of my trusted conservative friends signed on.

Through the early summer weeks, however, two streams of evidence grew-like the floods in Iowa-that the Evangelical Manifesto was indeed radically rooted in its authors' embarrassment by the religious right.

The first was the external perspective of wise people like Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the respected First Things, whose column entitled "Please, We're Not That Kind of Evangelical" nailed the point. And Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said bluntly: "Once all the self-description is out of the way, it turns out that the heart of the document is a kind of urgent appeal: Please don't call us fundamentalists or confuse us with them."

Most confirming, though, were the comments of the manifesto's main sponsors. In his very first words at the National Press Club in Washington, John Huffman highlighted the "strident voices among us" that he obviously wanted to drown out. And Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, was similarly tough in a National Public Radio interview during which he distanced himself from conservatives who "have a vested interest in promoting and using their religious leadership to promote a certain kind of political agenda."

When his host, Alex Cohen, mentioned "a rift between older conservative Christians who focus on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and younger ones who might be a bit more concerned about things like the environment," Mouw referred pointedly to an "alternative evangelical identity" that would let younger folks see evangelicals as something other than "narrow-minded, bigoted, and mean-spirited people."

The Richard Mouw I've always known is a gracious man-but that grace was little in evidence either in this interview or others featuring him and his manifesto colleagues. These folks have stressed the need for "civility" in public discourse, but where has civility gone when the manifesto itself refers to some fellow evangelicals as "useful idiots"? If the goal is to speak broadly for all evangelicals, why should its promoters start off by distancing themselves from some of the best-known wearers of the label?

All that has to do with the manifesto's treatment of fellow evangelical people. The document's implicit treatment of certain issues that have defined evangelicalism for the last generation will be the focus of my next column.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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