Evangelical Christians should be defined by their theology and not their politics to avoid becoming "useful idiots" of a political party, a group of leaders said Wednesday in a new statement.
The document, "An Evangelical Manifesto," reflects the frustration of some within a movement that claims about one in four Americans over how they are perceived by others and who can speak for them. The 19-page document declares that evangelicals err when they try to politicize faith and use Christian beliefs for political purposes.
"That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form," the document reads.
The statement, however, resisted calls to privatize or personalize the faith, saying their is an important place for evangelical voices in the public square.
"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 document says.
The manifesto, which at times upbraids evangelicals for contributing to their own image problems, comes about six months after a poll showed that many young people grade Christianity as being judgmental and hypocritical. Drafters of the new document said they knew other evangelicals who were "ashamed" or "reluctant" to describe themselves as evangelical.
A nine-member steering committee spent three years working on the manifesto. The document's initial 75 signatories are evangelical leaders from major coalitions, educational institutions and denominations. They include National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, best-selling author and megachurch pastor Max Lucado and the Rev. Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Critics claim some key names including conservative evangelical leaders such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Southern Baptist public policy executive Richard Land are missing from the statement.
The Rev. John Huffman, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif., said the statement's steering committee had conversations with Dobson, though his board recommended he not sign it. Dobson spokesman Gary Schneeberger confirmed this and said the board's reasoning was a private matter.
"Our umbrella is large," said Huffman. "Not all will sign it but we do feel we do need to bring our particular perspective."
Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Wednesday he had not seen the statement before it was released.
"People have a right to invite who they want to to their party," Land said, but he added that the question about religious involvement in politics is a "false dichotomy."
"It's not an either/or," he said. "It's both."
David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine and a member of the steering committee, said the media's equating "value voters" with evangelicals have contributed to the confusion about who evangelicals are. "If there's an election that this is about, it's the election of 2000, not the election of 2008," said Neff.
The document is intended to explain evangelicals to those outside their fold, as well as to challenge evangelicals to better represent their faith.
" We are troubled by the fact that the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term 'Evangelical' have grown so deep that the character of what it means has been obscured and its importance lost," the manifesto reads. "Many people outside the movement now doubt that 'Evangelical' is ever positive, and many inside now wonder whether the term any longer serves a useful purpose."
The statement calls for a reaffirmation of evangelical identity including the importance of sharing the belief that Jesus is the only Savior of mankind. It expresses concern that "a generation of culture warring" has created a backlash against religion in public life.
It also called for an openness to work with people of good will, including those of other faiths or no faith. The document also calls for reform of behavior within evangelical ranks.
"All too often we have set out high, clear statements of the authority of the Bible," it reads, "but flouted them with lives and lifestyles that are shaped more by our own sinful preferences and by modern fashions and convenience."
Others among the 75 initial signatories are Nueva Esperanza USA President Luis Cortes; Wheaton College President Duane Litfin; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine; and Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters.
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The manifesto's website has the document, signatories, and should soon have video of the press conference.
See also Os Guinness's article, "A Gentle Plea for Civility."
Evangelical leaders say their faith is too politicized (Associated Press)
'Evang. Manifesto' targets stereotypes (Baptist Press)
'Manifesto' vexes evangelicals (The Washington Times)
'Evangelical Manifesto' Aims to Depoliticize Religion (Day to Day, NPR)
Evangelicals try to reclaim their good name | Manifesto warns not to attach loaded labels to theological term (Cathleen Falsani, Chicago Sun-Times)
Interesting blog posts include:
An Evangelical Manifesto? (James K.A. Smith, Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank, part 2)
Thoughts on the Evangelical Manifesto (Joe Carter, The Evangelical Outpost)
Whither "Evangelicalism"? (Steve Knight, Emergent Village)
An seventh cackling (Jenell Paris, The Paris Project)