Thursday, May 15, 2008

"evangelical" with a little "e"

The National Association of Evangelicals has put together a twenty-page document called An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment. This was released last week with predictable headlines: the Associated Press said "Evangelicals say faith is now too political" and led with the following:
Conservative Christian leaders who believe the word "evangelical" has lost its religious meaning plan to release a starkly self-critical document saying the movement has become too political and has diminished the Gospel through its approach to the culture wars.

The statement, called "An Evangelical Manifesto," condemns Christians on the right and left for "using faith" to express political views without regard to the truth of the Bible, according to a draft of the document obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

"That way faith loses its independence, Christians become `useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology," according to the draft.

I'm reminded of the American prophets Simon and Garfunkel who wrote, "Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest, doo-doo-doo ..." The full document says many things critical of both the evangelical right and the evangelical left -- notably, the paragraphs embracing the "useful idiot" statement --

The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right in recent decades, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. 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. Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.

Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left.

So the Manifesto is not a guided missile aimed at the Religious Right. Not entirely.

There is a great deal of truth in the document, and some things are stated very plainly. I appreciate the sensitivity to the perceptions of our brethren outside the American church, and the call to biblical orthodoxy is on target. There are rebukes to pandering and manipulative models of church growth, as well as narrowmindedness that leads to self-righteousness and undermines the call to reach out in love to a fallen world. All true and good to point out.

There are many statements that don't work biblically, though. In fact, one of the first problems in the document is a very light veneer of Scripture. It's not meant to be a Westminster Confession of Faith, rev. 1, but they could have taken it as an example of buttressing each assertion with relevant texts. It would have helped avoid some of the more obvious faults.

Take the statement on page 5, that Jesus "exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence". The only way that could be true is to say that Jesus reverses the course of individual believers, previously on a downgrade to hell; addressing humanity as a whole, no, the sin and violence continue as before.

On page 8, it says "The Evangelical message, 'good news' by definition, is overwhelmingly positive, and always positive before it is negative." But Jesus' message was fundamentally, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." That's a strong negative at the very start -- REPENT, meaning don't continue doing what you have been. I think they are trying to address the perception (reality) of legalism and judgmental attitudes, but I don't think the Gospel is best described as "a colossal Yes to life and human aspirations". Human aspirations are not the point here. Likewise, the final statement rings out with a commitment to unity for "a greater human flourishing" -- whatever in the world that is supposed to mean. Genesis 1:27-28 doesn't seem to be in view.

To me, it rings out "This statement was approved by a very diverse committee, and like a painter who worked himself into a corner, we couldn't quite figure out how to end."

The most glaring problem is the committee's attempt to separate "Evangelicalism" -- they proudly capitalize the term -- from fundamentalism. While rejecting liberalism in strong terms, they say that "Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world. As a reaction to the modern world, it tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian" (page 9).

That's an awful load to put on a large number of fellow Christians. Well, maybe sub-Christians, if that's what they think. I find it hard to imagine why Ergun Caner, the head of Liberty Baptist Seminary, one of the most fundamentalist of schools, would be a charter signer. Likewise, I'm perplexed to see Daniel Akins of Southeastern Baptist Seminary, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative resurgence, listed there.

They correctly identify a problem area among fundamentalists -- that in the zeal to be biblically right, it is easy to become judgmental, forgetting to love your neighbor as yourselves, not to mention loving your enemies. That's fair enough, there are pitfalls and lurking temptations in any human movement.

But the overall position that Christian fundamentalism is now and has always been "thoroughly world-denying and politically disengaged from its outset" (p. 15) is simply false.

On page 13 they call for "an expansion of our concern beyond single issue politics, such as abortion and marriage" and then, "a more complete understanding of discipleship that applies faith with integrity to every calling and sphere of life ... and that thinks wider than politics in contributing to the arts, the sciences, the media, and the creation of culture in all its variety" (p. 14). Yet I see that Jerry Falwell's ministries at Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church, for an example, not to mention the leadership and staff of Regents University and everyone's favorite fundamentalist bete noire, Bob Jones University, have invested decades building ministries to the poor and the poorly educated, programs for unwed mothers and recovering addicts, and training young men and women to take a self-consciously Christian worldview into the fields of science, journalism, law, the military, and the arts.

(By the way, I'm not ignoring the hauty sniff and dismissal of creationists, claiming their "anti-intellectualism" is sinful (p. 12). I'd suggest to the authors their arguments would have more cogency if they stop battering their fundamentalist straw man and actually consider that scientists -- not just theologians and passionate amateurs -- are fully engaged in this debate. Ditto the matter of anthropogenic global warming, hinted at but not explicitly named here. After all, the errors of churchmen who ignore the work of Christian scientists did not end with Galileo; the authors need to talk with more of them.)

I have not had time to read all the commentary washing about right now. My own reading of the document, though, tells me that I will be content to be evangelical with a small "e", just as I count myself fundamentalist with a small "f". This Manifesto is a patchwork of truth and trendiness that mainly seeks to innoculate the term "evangelical" from the toxic label "fundamentalist", triangulating between an obviously wide range of viewpoints and traditions on the committee.

The only thing that is consistently clear is that I'm not going to capitalize the "E" any more.

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