This week, a select group of men (if there are any women involved, none have been identified) will issue a document they are calling “An Evangelical Manifesto: The Washington Declaration of Identity and Public Commitment.” We know just a bit about this embargoed document’s existence, not its content, because Warren Cole Smith, publisher of the Evangelical Press News Service, has written about the plan and process of producing the declaration that purports to represent American evangelical beliefs and values. Smith’s point in writing about the manifesto is that the timing of the release makes it a political document, and the closed group of people working on the content apparently excludes traditional conservative and pro-family evangelical voices.
Indeed, releasing the document appears to be staking a claim for new leadership with different emphases from the traditional, mainstream evangelical movement; the declaration’s authors appear to be making a power play to launch new public faces for evangelicalism. Perhaps they heard E.J. Dionne, Jr., a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, opine about what he perceives as a “waning influence of the traditional religious right” and hope to move into the perceived vacuum.
Likely, they also want to subtly shift the understanding of what it means to be “evangelical.” Several prominent self-identified “evangelical progressives” have written books and launched speaking and media campaigns in order to distance themselves from the issues of the religious right – painting themselves as more sophisticated and nuanced in their understanding of evil in the world. One branch created a “Deep Shift” to describe their “new paradigm” for making Christianity more palatable to the world. Others object to the “very narrow” depiction of evangelicals as conservative; they want the leftist social justice issues to be at the heart of “moral and political decision making.” While they object to the political activism of the religious right, their own “vocation” to use “political involvement as a vehicle for social change” is viewed as a mission and high calling.
“Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they are overwhelmingly Republican, without acknowledging that the Republican platform, which has been consistently pro-life, is congruent with the moral values of evangelicals whereas the Democratic platform is not. “Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they focus on individual sins and the two major moral issues of abortion and homosexual marriage, instead of focusing on what they call “structural sins” like poverty, war, oppression and destruction of the environment. Typically, when “progressives” talk about “broadening the evangelical agenda,” they mean making their so-called “structural sins” the priority instead of emphasizing the “personal sins” that concern traditional evangelicals.
Sadly, progressives often dilute the gospel message of salvation with their emphasis on so-called structural sins choosing to focus on the imperfections of American capitalism (which pale in comparison to those of every other economic system) and painting it as the ultimate evil (greedy corporations and underhanded bankers), and conspiracy theories abound. Though American capitalism has been the greatest engine for growth and human advancement in the history of the world, the United States, especially “Christian America,” is frequently blamed falsely for poverty and war, paternalism and exploitation, as well as racism and materialism. More recently, a presidential candidate leveled a charge of “legalized discrimination” against his country as an explanation for the long-term black poverty rates; he did not mention that economists agree that poverty in America can be attributed to “changes in family formation” because less than 40 percent of black children in America live in a married mom-and-dad family.
The “progressives” package their thinking in traditional Biblical rhetoric fusing traditional values with populist ideals and themes of the liberal left (like a Marxist-flavored version of social justice and racial reconciliation) and latching onto trendy secular causes like climate change, poverty, globalism, immigration and political correctness. If they talk about abortion at all, it is in the context of preventing the “necessity” for abortion. While they haven’t yet embraced homosexual “marriage,” they promote “civil unions” and condone “blessing” ceremonies in churches; like all evangelicals, they emphasize loving the sinner, but the leftists make no effort to distance their love for the sinner from the sinful lifestyle. In fact, instead of relying on Scriptural authority and theological clarity, one progressive has called for a five-year moratorium on pronouncements about homosexual behavior; instead, he wants dialogue, reflection and provisional comments until there is consensus.
The left is obviously targeting evangelicals by blurring the distinctions between liberal and conservative, producing an amalgam that will become as impotent and barren in the 21st century as most mainline protestant churches became in the 20th century. They criticize the religious right for thinking in terms of monologues instead of conversations; they decry absolutes and preaching, preferring instead, tolerance, narratives and communal interaction. Writing in Christianity Today, Amy Sullivan reported that in 2006, pro-choice and pro-gay rights gubernatorial candidates held informal listening sessions with evangelical voters and were able to garner almost 50 percent of the evangelical vote in their states. As a result, the major political candidates now have consultants to advise them on religious outreach to conservatives.
Since the 2004 election, over 10 percent of Evangelicals have switched parties, leaving the Republican for the Democratic Party. We also know that some self-described evangelicals hold liberal stances on issues like healthcare, war, gun control and the environment. Further, a significant number of evangelicals (according to George Barna’s polling) live no differently than their so-called “progressive” counterparts. These lukewarm believers (who critics say are less concerned about their salvation than their status and more concerned about money than morals) are easy prey for feel-good faith that puts few limitations on the believer – making no demands and establishing no boundaries. They are theological sponges – absorbing anything that “sounds” traditional and/or religious.
A very high priority of these ostensible believers is the avoidance of conflict. It seems a pillar of their faith for everyone to “just get along.” So, when serious, strict evangelicals have the temerity to take a strong moral stance on an issue that brings him or her into conflict with someone else’s position, this makes the nominally religious feel uncomfortable. They are prime candidates to embrace a less controversial and less demanding perspective and set of beliefs. As the Oprah phenomenon illustrates, there’s a definite market for those who prefer not to take positions but to accept whatever least common denominator makes the fewest demands, whatever position is politically smoothest with no rough moral edges.
Consideration of conservative policies and positions are taken off the table when it comes to leftist discussions of issues like “inclusion” and “diversity,” to say nothing about the sanctity of life or marriage.
The bottom line in terms of defining “evangelical” is that, according to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc., a leading Democratic research organization, three-fourths of all evangelicals describe themselves as “mainstream” – over 70 percent go to church once a week, nearly 70 percent believe the Bible is the Word of God, nearly 85 percent believe that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and over 70 percent believe that moral values in America have declined. On the social issues, 85 percent oppose homosexual marriage, 74 percent oppose civil unions, and nearly 70 percent believe that abortion should be illegal. Isn’t it ironic that we must look to a secular organization to cut through the rhetorical fog to clarify what it means to be an evangelical?
However, no amount of pious-sounding rhetoric about our common American values will obscure the policy litmus tests on the great moral issues of the day upon which our humanity hangs; nor should it. As Christ warned the Disciples, standing for truth is not the route to public acclaim. The term “evangelical” means a Biblical worldview and this dictates a philosophical/theological perspective on the timeless moral issues of Scripture. Those positions ought to be clear and unequivocal, rather than muddied by sophisticated rhetoric and clever obfuscation. The subtle danger is, as the old axiom states: “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”