The response to “An Evangelical Manifesto”-- which was released a week ago, with the endorsement of many prominent evangelicals, and is designed to “address the confusions and corruptions that attend the term Evangelical in the United States” and to describe the proper role of evangelicals in public life– seems to be a collective yawn. There have been yawns in the media (see Alan Jacobs’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed) and everyone I have queried personally has responded with an electronic yawn. But is everyone yawning for the same reason? I don’t think they are.
Many of those who would not call themselves evangelicals are likely to read the manifesto, if they do read it, to try to understand just who evangelicals are. The most obvious ways to define evangelical would be to develop a single theological definition that includes most of this jelly-like group, to attempt to identify the major subgroups of evangelicals, or both. “An Evangelical Manifesto” seems to adopt the first approach, providing a list of seven beliefs that evangelicals hold. Seven is already a bit on the cumbersome side– the best known definition, which is discussed in the first footnote of this article, has four.
And within a page or two, the manifesto adds further bells and whistles. It is also confusing at times. At one point (p.10), the document seems to disclaim any connection between evangelical and Protestant, but on the next page the signers suggest that they are all Protestants. It is not surprising that nonevangelicals looking for a simple explanation of evangelicalism are yawning.
The clear bete noire of the document is the close ties between many evangelicals and the Republican party. What about the implicit targets of this criticism, the evangelical leaders who are most tightly linked to the Republican power structure? One might expect them to take offense at statements such as this: “Called by Jesus to be ‘in’ the world but ‘not of’ the world,” we are fully engaged in public affairs, but never completely equated with any party [read: Republican party], partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity.” (P.14). But thus far they haven’t. Rather than lambast this call for unilateral disarmament, several of the most visible leaders have yawned too. Partly this may be a tribute to the mild language of the manifesto (it’s easy enough for anyone to say they aren’t completely equated with the Republican party); but I suspect that many of them also see this a simply another in a growing list of debates among evangelicals on social issues, and that they are saying, in effect: “There you go again.”
The last group of yawners is the sizable minority of evangelicals who agree that evangelicals have aligned themselves too closely with the Republican party in the past several decades. For these evangelicals, and I include myself in this category, the disappointment of the document is that it doesn’t give any guidance on just what a more God-honoring evangelical involvement in the political process would look like. What does it mean “never [to] be completely equated with any party [or partisan ideology]?” Abraham Kuyper, an early twentieth century theologian-politician who personally founded a political party, is a hero to many evangelicals (including this one). Was his founding a political party beyond the pale, or would Kuyper’s efforts be exempt? And is partisanship always bad? Partisan doesn’t necessarily mean uncivil, and surely there are benefits to taking a clear, sharp stand on important issues. These are the trickiest questions, it seems to me, but the manifesto doesn’t try to address them. I suspect this is why some of us who are the manifesto’s natural constituency have yawned too.
Perhaps there’s another reason for the yawning. It may be that no one is taking “An Evangelical Manifesto” seriously because no one else is. Yawning is, after all, contagious. But this also suggests that if any of the groups stops yawning, the others might too.