Defining Evangelicalism?

One of my favorite magazines is First Things edited by Richard John Neuhaus. While I have some rather serious theological differences with Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, I am nevertheless an admirer of his outstanding magazine. In the latest issue Neuhaus critiques the recently released An Evangelical Manifesto. I have already posted on the manifesto but Neuhaus’ article merits attention. His problems with the document very much reflect my own reservations.

Of particular interest to me was Neuhaus’ interaction with an article published in Christianity Today by Os Guinness entitled “A Gentle Plea for Civility.” Neuhaus writes:

“‘A Gentle Plea for Civility’ perhaps, although ‘A Poignant Plea for Acceptance’ might be more accurate. The posture is that of presumably more-sophisticated evangelicals coming hat in hand to their cultural betters, humbly requesting that they be exempted from the opprobrium heaped on their vulgar and unruly cousins, the ‘religious right’ and the ‘fundamentalists.’ To prove that they have earned an exemption, they eagerly join in the heaping of opprobrium on those in the evangelical family from whom they so desperately want to distinguish themselves. This is unseemly. It is also futile. The bid to be accepted as full participants in a ‘civil and cosmopolitan public square’ on the terms by which their secular betters define civility and cosmopolitanism is precluded by the very fact of being evangelicals.

“The document cannot plausibly present itself as evangelical without affirming the belief that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that marriage is between a man and a woman, the homogenital sex is morally wrong, and a host of other things that Christians traditionally believe and that secularists condemn as narrow, fanatical, and dangerously bigoted. The affirmation of liberal political pieties will not earn the signers and exemption from the disdain in which evangelicals, along with other serious Christians, are held by those whose approval these evangelicals so earnestly seek…”

“There are many and complex dynamics involved in the production of something like ‘An Evangelical Manifesto.’ Its theological affirmations are largely unexceptionable. Its call for cultural engagement and the cultivation of honesty and civility in argument is admirable and is always needed in our typically raucous public life. Whatever the good intentions of many of its signers, however, the manifesto is finally an appeal for the good opinion of the cultural despisers of evangelicalism. It is an election-year invitation for evangelicals to demonstrate, by embracing what is depicted as a more comprehensive and nuanced political agenda, that they are not that kind of evangelical.

“I have no doubt that some who signed the statement simply wanted to affirm the important truth that evangelical Christianity is defined by the lordship of Christ and not by political partisanship. Issuing what is inevitably perceived as a politically partisan manifesto is an ill-chosen means for achieving that purpose. Only the naive or disingenuous among the signers will express surprise that the media depicted the manifesto as an election-year effort to drive a wedge between conservatives and what is portrayed as a more authentic evangelicalism. Whatever the good intentions of some signers, the reporters got the story right.”

One of the things that confounded me about the Manifesto was the author’s need to distant themselves from those mean ole fundamentalists. Don’t misunderstand. I will not be an apologist for some of the aberrations within fundamentalism. (Although, anyone who has ever gotten on the wrong side of a liberal can make an equally compelling case for mean ole liberals.) Nevertheless, I am puzzled as to why an manifesto that is presumably evangelical is so egregiously thin theologically speaking. My only conclusion is that it less about theology and more about politics and public relations. That is why An Evangelical Manifesto will disappear with the passage of time.