US Evangelicals seek path beyond political sectarianism

By staff writers
May 9, 2008

A group of 70 major American Evangelical leaders have issued a manifesto which they hope will promote better conversation within their tradition, and a more positive public profile for evangelical Christianity in the United States.

They say that the one in four Americans who call themselves Evangelicals should be much more self-critical about involvement with party politics, and that they should seek not become "useful idiots" exploited for partisan gain.

The 'Evangelical Manifesto' is described as "an open declaration of who Evangelicals are and what they stand for" and "has been drafted and published by a representative group of Evangelical leaders who do not claim to speak for all Evangelicals, but who invite all other Evangelicals to stand with them and help clarify what Evangelical means" in light of “confusions within and the consternation without” the movement.

The document declares that the signers - who come from the moderate centre, left and right of the movement - are not out to attack or exclude anyone, but to rally and to call for reform.

Some parallels are likely to be drawn with the group Fulcrum in Britain, which aims to strengthen the Evangelical centre, though the British group is an Anglican initiative, whereas the American one moves right across the denominational and non-denominational spectrum.

The Manifesto examines the biblical and theological basis of historic evangelicalism, distinguishing it from both fundamentalist and liberal positions. It boldly states that Evangelicals "follow Jesus not Constantine", and contains some echoes of the post-Christendom understanding that has grown up in Europe - one which critiques the alliance of church with governing authority.

The Manifesto says that there is a biblical mandate to work for justice and peace in society, but not in ways that cause division or reduce the Christian social witness to a preoccupation only with issues of family, personal morality and sexual or reproductive ethics.

The manifesto has signed by leading and mostly centrist evangelicals, such as Leith Anderson, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals; Mark Bailey, president of the Dallas Theological Seminary; evangelical academic and author David Gushee; and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, author of the best-selling God's Politics.

Many of the more than 70 signatories have been critical in the past of evangelical partisan involvement that was seen as the crucial element behind President Bush's re-election victory in 2004.

Leading figures on the conservative Religious Right such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, did not sign the document, and his office said he had not been asked to sign it.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank that explores the relationship between religion and politics, said of the statement: "It's a sign of maturation of the evangelical movement ... It's an important theological document, but it will have limited political influence because it is making essentially a theological argument."

The document also highlights divisions that have been there for a while as some leading evangelicals attempt to redirect the movement's considerable energies toward areas such as action on global poverty and climate change.

Polls show growing numbers of evangelicals receptive to a wider social agenda and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been attempting to woo them in a bid to peel some away from the Republican camp ahead of the November election showdown with John McCain.
But analysts say most are still center-right politically, reports MSNBC.

The new statement, An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment, was released in Washington DC on 7 May 2008.

A primarily theological document, it declares: "We believe that being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives, secular as well as spiritual, public as well as private, in deeds as well as words, and in every moment of our days on earth, always reaching out as he did to those who are lost as well as to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the socially despised, and being faithful stewards of creation and our fellow creatures."

Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical social activist, commented: "On the question of public life, the manifesto recognizes that the political categories of left and right simply don't fit religion, and it is a big mistake to try to fit religion into them."

He continued: "The people I meet across the country are yearning for a moral center to our public life and political discourse, with a fundamental emphasis on the common good. They want to understand better the moral choices and challenges that lie beneath our political debates. More and more people want to see a common-good politics replace the politics of individual gain and special interests."

Click here to read the statement, view a study guide, and to see who the charter signatories are.

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