Part 2 of series: An Evangelical Manifesto: Why I Signed
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Yesterday I began to explain why I joined the list of “charter signatories” for An Evangelical Manifesto: The Washington Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment. I summed up my rationale this way:
I signed because An Evangelical Manifesto expresses many of my concerns and convictions about the interaction of Christian faith and politics.
In yesterday’s post I began to lay out some of those concerns and convictions. Today I’ll continue the conversation.
The Manifesto repudiates “the two extremes that define the present culture wars in the United States” (Executive Summary [ES] p. 4). And what are these?”
“On one side, we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life” (ES p. 4). (Note: Had I written this statement, I would have reserved “repudiate” for views, not people.) Clearly, this is a critique of those who, arguing from the Christian roots of American history, would want Christianity to assume a privileged place in American society today. The Manifesto argues that our society is, and should be, one in which various religious traditions stand on equal ground.
“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” (ES p. 4). It is increasingly common these days to hear secularists and even some Christians call for prohibiting religious ideas in public conversation. According to this view, for example, presidential candidates have no business talking about their religious faith (or lack thereof). Religious people can participate in public matters, but without speaking of their religious convictions. It is extraordinarily narrow-minded of proponents of the naked public square to argue that people should not bring their deepest beliefs and moral convictions into public conversations.
So what does the Manifesto suggest instead of a sacred or naked public square?
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 (ES, p. 4).
The authors of the Manifesto want a seat at the table of social and political discussion. They don’t want to have to hide their religious convictions. And they’re willing to give the same opportunity to non-Evangelicals, whether they are otherwise religious or non-religious. The point is that all people should be included in the conversation, and should receive respect from their conversation partners.
Why does this even have to be mentioned in American society, with our long, long history of religious freedom and religious participation in public discourse? The Manifesto explains:
Third, we are concerned that a generation of culture warring, reinforced by understandable reactions to religious extremism around the world, has created a powerful backlash against all religion in public life among many educated people. If this hardens into something like the European animosity toward religion in public life, the result would be disastrous for the American republic and would severely constrict liberty for people of all faiths. The striking intolerance shown by the new atheists is a warning sign (ES p. 5)
In this generation of “culture warring,” there have been some leading Christians who have sounded as if they want to impose their religious convictions on others. I expect some have actually wanted to do this. Others have simply spoken unwisely. And many others have been misunderstood and misrepresented by the secular media, which have given the impression that Evangelical Christians want to impose that which they simply want the freedom to believe, practice, and advocate. (For an example of such misunderstanding and misrepresentation, see my series: The Great Commission and the “Christers”:
A Critical Examination of “The New Blacklist” by Doug Ireland.)
In my opinion, the Manifesto hits the nail on the head by referring to “understandable reactions to religious extremism around the world” (ES p. 5). Recently I was giving a lecture at Austin Graduate School of Theology. After my presentation, I was asked why I thought atheism has had such a run of popularity. I gave a few reasons, the most important of which pointed to the reaction to religious extremism. On September 11, 2001, our national consciousness was rocked by the unthinkable as we were attacked. Who was behind the attack? A particular category of religious extremist, sometimes called “Muslim fundamentalists.” This fact has led many to propose that the world would be better off without religion, or without any public expressions of religion, at any rate. They point, not only to Islamic extremism, but also to violence done by others. Christians get tarred with the brush of the Crusades and abortion-clinic attacks. And, of course, religion’s detractors almost completely fail to mention any of the positive things done in the name of religion (feeding the hungry, building hospitals, etc. etc. etc.). And they also neglect the horrors done in the name of secularism (Stalin’s genocide, for example) or try somehow to blame religion for secularist atrocities (as Christopher Hitchens does in god is not Great.) (Photo: Some oak tress in Austin, not far from Austin Graduate School of Theology.)
I would agree with the Manifesto that such anti-religious reactions are “understandable.” But to move from outrage over 9/11 to the conclusion that religion should be banned from the public square is a simplistic and unpersuasive position. Moreover, it is fundamentally opposed to the basic vision of our nation as a place of freedom, including freedom of speech and religion.
There is much more in An Evangelical Manifesto that I’m not going to comment on now. Once again, I’d urge you to read the whole statement (PDF version, 20 pages), or at least the Executive Summary (PDF, 6 pages) of the Manifesto that was prepared by the authors.
I’m going to close this post by quoting from the closing section of the Manifesto. Its invitations are well worth accepting:
We urge our fellow-Evangelicals to consider these affirmations and to join us in clarifying the profound confusions surrounding Evangelicalism, that together we may be more faithful to our Lord and to the distinctiveness of his way of life.
We urge our fellow-citizens to assess the damaging consequences of the present culture wars, and to work with us in the urgent task of restoring liberty and civility in public life, and so ensure that freedom may last to future generations.
We urge adherents of other faiths around the world to understand that we respect your right to believe what you believe according to the dictates of conscience, and invite you to follow the golden rule and extend the same rights and respect to us and to the adherents of all other faiths, so that together we may make religious liberty practical and religious persecution rarer, so that in turn human diversity may complement rather than contradict human well-being.
We urge those who report and analyze public affairs, such as scholars, journalists, and public policy makers, to abandon stereotypes and adopt definitions and categories in describing us and other believers in terms that are both accurate and fair, and with a tone that you in turn would like to be applied to yourselves.
We urge those in positions of power and authority to appreciate that we seek the welfare of the communities, cities, and countries in which we live, yet our first allegiance is always to a higher loyalty and to standards that call all other standards into question, a commitment that has been a secret of the Christian contributions to civilization as well as its passion for reforms.
We urge those who share our dedication to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed to join with us in working to bring care, peace, justice, and freedom to those millions of our fellow-humans who are now ignored, oppressed, enslaved, or treated as human waste and wasted humans by the established orders in the global world.
We urge those who search for meaning and belonging amid the chaos of contemporary philosophies and the brokenness and alienation of modern society to consider that the gospel we have found to be good news is in fact the best news ever, and open to all who would come and discover what we now enjoy and would share.
Finally, we solemnly pledge that in a world of lies, hype, and spin, where truth is commonly dismissed and words suffer from severe inflation, we make this declaration in words that have been carefully chosen and weighed; words that, under God, we make our bond. People of the Good News, we desire not just to speak the Good News but to embody and be good news to our world and to our generation.
Here we stand. Unashamed and assured in our own faith, we reach out to people of all other faiths with love, hope, and humility. With God’s help, we stand ready with you to face the challenges of our time and to work together for a greater human flourishing. (EM pp. 19-20)