Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Manifesto? Really?

So I'm sort of in shock over this whole Evangelical Manifesto that's made its way onto the scene recently (some of the charter authors are pretty well known, and one is my old pastor -Stuart Briscoe from Elmbrook Church, one of the coolest pastors on the planet). It is, undoubtedly, evangelical, but not everyone is sure its really much of a manifesto (a postive response here). I'm in shock that these leaders have assembled themselves to write such a thing, to try and define a wildly diverse group of people, to try and give them common definition and common aim. It is a hefty task, and in some respects I think the manifesto fails to do what the authors intended (namely, the whole bit about who we are as evangelicals is not to my liking). But in other ways, I think it does what it should, and I'm going to talk about where I think the manifesto gets it right. To be truthful, I got bored with the actual manifesto, and I think the summary is better anyways, so I'm really going to be talking about the points brought up towards the middle/end of the shorter version. (I'm allowed to do this because I think readers are more likely to fully read the summary--6 pages instead of 20-- than the whole manifesto, esp given the intro of the manifesto)

One of the bigger parts in the actual manifesto (and the beginning of the summary) is the section about the evangelical "identity." I've already delineated my views on what it means for me to be an evangelical, and while I think the manifesto does a decent job (though not a great job), it's really not the part I want to focus on here. I do agree that it's important for evangelicals to be better understood; no one likes to be misperceived, after all. But that's not really where the manifesto packs its punch, nor really where it needs to be fighting. Yes, it's awesome that you want to the world to understand us better, but so what? The world will never fully understand us, and why do we have to painstakingly defend our identity? We don't. Rather, we need to do a better job of integrating our identity into our public lives, and that brings us to the part I liked.

From the summary:
First, we repudiate two equal and opposite errors into which many Christians have fallen. One error is to privatize faith, applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. Such dualism falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular and causes faith to lose its integrity. The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, Christians become the “useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology. Christian beliefs become the weapons of political factions. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, economic system, 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, or nationality. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness. (emphasis mine)

So the authors recognize two equally dangerous poles on the spectrum of faith in the public square. There are the personal believers, who keep faith at home and in their own hearts, never to be brought out into the open. This is just silly. If you really believe in an Almighty God and the grace of His Son then you can't genuinely compartmentalize your life. You can try, and some do, but they aren't being honest with themselves. You just can't be honest in that belief and then disown that belief when it's convenient. Sure, it would be easier for me to believe at home and check that belief at, oh I don't know, let's say the classroom door. It's certainly easier to be a philosopher these days if you don't own up to any sort of supernatural faith. But it's not honest, not if I really believe. I can't believe at home and not at school. That doesn't mean I proselytize at school, but it does mean I don't try and hide it. This goes for all public realms. If you ask me, I will be honest with you. When my faith points me to a certain decision, I will be true to that and will be open about it. If it comes up in discussion, or you seem interested in hearing more, I will tell you. I can't be a Christian on Sunday and not on Tuesday. I just can't. It doesn't make sense.

And then there's the other danger: the political Jesus freak. Being a Jesus freak is awesome. I wish I was more of one. But being a Jesus freak in order to support some other political party, ideology, etc is not cool. I think I've said something about this in earlier posts, and so did CS Lewis. You can't use God as a means. He is too freaking amazing to be the means to some other end. God is the end, the ultimate end. Peddling God for votes, or to engineer patriots, or to achieve some other ideological end is just wrong. Doing so belies a serious crisis of priorities. Even if you're not a ring leader, you too are culpable if let yourself be duped by one of these leaders. A politician waiving the banner of God might as well be waiving a huge red flag. Be careful, for there false prophets and swindlers running a muck with masks of holiness on their faces.

And my favorite bit:

...we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life. In a diverse society, it will always be unjust and unworkable to privilege one religion. We are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths. We are firmly opposed to theocracy. And we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose beliefs and behavior on anyone. We believe in persuasion. On the other side, we repudiate the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. This position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, who are still profoundly
religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are. (emphasis mine)

So again, two dichotomies: the sacred and the naked public square. This balancing act called for in the public life may be what led to charges from some that the manifesto is "insistently moderate." But you know what I say to that, three cheers for moderation!!! I see moderation as a virtue, and I also see that the Christian community, particularly the evangelical community, lacks said virtue. Sure, maybe this is nothing new to the secular readers, or non-evangelical readers of the manifesto (though I don't believe non-believers and non-evangelical Christians have got a firm grasp on this virtue either, and they really ought to heed the lesson too), but for most evangelicals this is a new call to action. It is telling other evangelicals that Christianity cannot be the ruling religion in America, or anywhere, because a country shouldn't impose religion on its people. This does not often come out of the mouths of evangelicals, so in that sense, it is as revolutionary as it is common sensical and obvious. At least, that's how I see it.

And then there's that other extreme, an extreme the evangelicals are certainly not guilty of. The second warning is for all those secularists (including religious secularists), who are trying to completely rid the public square of any trace of religion. This manifesto speaks to you as well. Stop it. You're not doing any good. Public life must leave room for people to express their identities, what makes them who they are. For many people, there will be a religious component to their identity, and making them take that off or deny it robs them of their voice. Everyone in a liberal democracy has the opportunity to express her voice, to persuade others to her cause, to be persuaded by others, to let her convictions influence her decisions. You can't ask a religious person to truly do this without any reference to who she is, to what she believes. There is a place for discussing religious values in the public square.

The manifesto summary calls for a civil public square, one that incorporates religion without letting it dominate: "We are committed to a civil public square – a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths as well. Every right we assert for ourselves as Christians is a right we defend for all others. " That sounds about right to me.

As I've discussed before, I think that religious values are important in public life, and I also believe that you can hold onto those values while still finding common ground for agreement with non-believers. It's a balance. It takes moderation. It requires compromise. This sounds simple, and it doesn't sound like a new idea. But in practice, it is new. Put into practice, it would be like a revolution, a good revolution. All the nay-sayers of the manifesto can complain about the defensive tone, the lack of relevance. But in the end, they're wrong if they think it's unimportant. Anything that calls upon religious and non-religious people alike to both embrace their beliefs and work through their differences together without forcing them to hid their convictions but also without unduly imposing thier beliefs on each other, well anything like that should be read by everyone. The way things are done now sucks. The way many religious leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. The way many secular leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. So calling on people to find the right balance, well I'd say that's a pretty good start.

One of the other charges against the manifesto is that it doesn't say how we can achieve the balance I spoke of above. Well, I think a good first step is talking about this balance, and having everyone agree that a balance ought to be our aim. Reaching agreement on this matter would be a monumental step. So I don't think the manifesto is as deficient in this respect as it has been charged with. What to do next, well I'm still thinking about that, and so are many other people much smarter than myself. I'll keep you posted. (This is where you should point me to good articles/books about this topic if you have any...thanks!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The media is what was muddying the water and lumping all evangelicals together. The manifesto is a public statement to define the term and to clarify that candidates can't say certain things to get the "evangelical" vote. Evangelicals are not determined by republican or democratic policies.

Os Guinness is actually VERY good. I have heard him speak and I do not oppose anything that I have heard from him.