Law in Contemporary Society
-- GideonHart - 2 Apr 2008

A Misunderstood Manifesto

--By Gideon Hart

(#) refers to page numbers within the Evangelical Manifesto

Confusion in the Media

On May 7th a group of evangelical Christian leaders released a document entitled “An Evangelical Manifesto," described by its writers as “an open declaration of who Evangelicals are and what they stand for.” The LA Times described the Manifesto as “urging separation of religious beliefs and politics” and stated that it told evangelicals that they “err when they use their religious beliefs for political purposes.” A Reuters article characterized the Manifesto as a call to evangelicals to “step back from politics,” and an article on UPI stated the Manifesto was an attempt to “remove the term ‘evangelical’ from the realm of politics.” In my opinion these articles, and others like them, have not understood the Manifesto’s position on the proper relationship between politics and faith for evangelicals.

I think much of the confusion stems from the third section of the Manifesto, where it reads, “The other error, made both by 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,” and later, where it reads, “Christians on both sides of the political spectrum…have made the mistake of politicizing the faith…a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church” (15). When read alone, these lines do seem to suggest that the authors of the Manifesto are encouraging evangelicals to retreat from politics. However, that interpretation is difficult to sustain when those sections are placed in context. Rather than being a plea for evangelicals to retreat from politics or to insulate politics from religion, the Manifesto actually seems to encourage evangelicals to remain involved in politics, and to make their religious convictions part of their political identity. The document is cautioning against not involvement in politics, but against involvement in partisan politics. Additionally, the Manifesto calls for the creation of a “civil public square,” because, I believe, the Manifesto’s authors worry that the growing hostility towards religion’s role in politics will sever religion and politics in America. The document is not attempting to separate religion and politics, but rather, is encouraging behavior among evangelicals that will allow them to continue to publicly make political decisions based on religion.

A Retreat from Partisan Politics

As a first piece of its call to redefine the place of evangelicals in public life, the Manifesto very strongly discourages further involvement in partisan politics. The passages read by the media as encouraging abandonment of politics are actually a criticism of how evangelicals have become very closely associated with political parties. It reads, “Called to an allegiance higher than party…we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology” (15). This line, rather than telling evangelicals to abandon politics, instructs them to remain engaged in politics. The Manifesto actually criticizes those Christians who create a duality between politics and spirituality, writing that secularization of politics makes faith “privately engaging and publicly irrelevant” (15). Further, it instructs evangelicals to expand the scope of the political issues shaped by their religious beliefs, stating, “We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel” (13). Rather than being a plea for a withdrawal from the politics, the Manifesto encourages evangelicals to shape their political identity with their religion, but to do so in a way where they will not become fully equated with a particular political party or ideology.

Creation of a "Civil Public Square"

As a second piece of the Manifesto’s call to redefine the role of evangelicals in public life is a proposal for the creation of a “civil public square.” The authors envision a public square that neither favors religion nor secularism (16). The Manifesto describes a public discourse 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 too” (16). The authors want to create a public discourse that allows individuals to interact in “public square” from a religious perspective - a public square where individuals do not have to choose between stripping themselves of that identity or conflicting with individuals who are not religious. The Manifesto’s vision of a healthy public dialogue seems to stem from a fear that the current public backlash against the role of religion in politics will create “an American equivalent of the long-held European animosity toward religion in the public life” (17). Later, the authors condemn a “two-tiered public square” in which “the top tier is for cosmopolitan secular liberals and the second tier is for local religious believers,” (18) which, I believe, the authors worry is being created in America. The authors seem concerned that the growing hostility towards evangelicals' involvement in politics will make using religion in the “public square” unacceptable in the future. Rather than encouraging evangelicals to separate their faith and politics as the media claims, the Manifesto is actually attempting to build, by encouraging civility in the public dialogue, a “civil public square” in which it will remain acceptable to publicly make decisions based on religion.


To conclude, the “Evangelical Manifesto” has been widely misunderstood by the mainstream media. The sections of the Manifesto described as calling for a separation of politics and religion are actually cautioning against further involvement in partisan politics. In addition to actually encouraging evangelicals to make political decisions based on their faith, the Manifesto calls for the creation of a “civil public square.” This square will prevent, the authors hope, the severing of religion and public life -- safeguarding religion’s place in the public square for the future.

Eben: As I was revising my paper I began running into difficulty. My efforts either created another version of my last paper, complete with the same or similar defective first step, or if that step was removed, something resembling a report on how the Religious Right is splintering. Either way I was unhappy with the product. However, when I was researching for my revised version I came across many news reports on the recently released Evangelical Manifesto. When I read the Manifesto, my impressions were very different from the descriptions I encountered in many news articles. I felt this was a fertile direction for a revision because the revision stems from the subject of the original paper (the involvement of evangelicals in politics), but it is also different enough from the starting point to not inherit the same problems. I’ve focused on the third section of the Manifesto because the media has focused on the political messages in that section.



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r19 - 22 Jan 2009 - 01:15:45 - IanSullivan
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