An Evangelical Manifesto: Timely or Timeless?

The unveiling of An Evangelical Manifesto, drafted by Dr. Os Guinness with the affirmation of a nine-person steering committee, nearly all of whom we might readily identify as firmly on the Religious Left, has caused no small stir among those whom we might readily identify as firmly on the Religious Right. Some of its critics have concluded the document is the Religious Left’s “broader agenda” come to life, an attempt to solidify a moderate to liberal political agenda in the evangelical conscience. Space will not permit even a cursory summary of the Manifesto’s salient points. Suffice it to say it is a document with a clear articulation of the gospel in the Reformation tradition, a call to evangelicals to return to living the gospel as a priority, and in the living of it, to impact culture through the power of the gospel as politically engaged followers of Jesus Christ.

Almost immediately the Manifesto was judged (condemned?) on the basis of who did or, more importantly to its detractors, didn’t sign it. Within hours of its release the “I follow James Dobson” crowd was pitted against the “I follow Jim Wallis” crowd (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12) in complete contradiction to the spirit of the Manifesto expressed in its call for both sides to please stop screaming at each other. I’ll leave it to the reader to ascertain which side is screaming loudest.

It’s somewhat pathetic, isn’t it, that rather than making our initial judgments on the merits of the Manifesto we choose first to skip the document altogether and go straight to the signatories to ascertain whether or not we will agree with its contents based on who affixed their names. This tendency is precisely what ails the evangelical movement. Loyalty to personality has replaced commitment to principle. Whether I allow my name to be seen with yours is determined more by your view of global warming, which may be different from my own, than it is by the distinctives of the gospel. It also betrays an inability to think for ourselves.

Two primary reasons come to mind as an attempt to explain why conservative evangelicals are skeptical about the Manifesto. For one, it calls into question our own allegiance to an entrenched political philosophy that has been extremely effective at electing conservatives yet equally ineffective at implementing substantive cultural change. As a case in point, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land in spite of 35 years of conservative evangelical political engagement. During this same time one state has legalized same-sex marriage while nine others provide the legal rights afforded married couples to same-sex unions, stopping short of calling it marriage. America has seen no substantial change in rates of divorce or the abortion rate. Sexual promiscuity is still encouraged in our public schools through “health clinics” and condom distribution. Our children still have unfettered access to the most virulent forms of pornography in the name of “freedom of expression.” What have conservative evangelicals to show for our political efforts in terms of real change? The Manifesto forces us to face up to some very inconvenient truths and we naturally recoil.

Secondly, many conservatives panning the Manifesto may be doing so because they weren’t included in the three-year process of drafting the document. Given the documents’ call for a move away from Left vs. Right distinctions, it is somewhat unthinkable that Dr. Guinness and his nine person steering committee could not acquire representative voices from among prominent politically engaged evangelical conservatives. However, in a recent interview with Dr. Albert Mohler, Os Guinness readily admitted that he ought to have sought his input by sending him a copy of the Manifesto. The fact that Dr. Mohler’s insight was not sought, along with others who share Dr. Mohler’s worldview, is disappointing, but shouldn’t be the Manifesto’s death-knell.

As an aside, the fact that the steering committee included no African-Americans and no women should assuage the fears of many conservatives that the Manifesto is committed only to being politically correct.

My own view is that Dr. Os Guinness’ Evangelical Manifesto has been the subject of an often ill-tempered criticism by many, some of whom immediately wrote it off by reading into it an assumed liberal political agenda. The Manifesto couldn’t be clearer that it isn’t taking sides:

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. Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church – and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons.

Contrary to the assessment of some conservative commentators, nowhere does the Manifesto condemn evangelical political engagement. Rather it rightly points out that political engagement, while certainly the duty of every Christian citizen, is not the priority of the Church. In calling for the Church to rise above the din and the noise of politics, some have characterized the Manifesto as a demand for Christian withdrawal from the political process. Some read Dr. Guinness’ call for “civility” as a call for compromise on the issues important to conservatives, a ruse to get us to drop our guard on abortion and same-sex marriage while the liberals change the priorities to global warming and AIDS/HIV. Only a subjective reading of the document could lead anyone to that erroneous conclusion.

In reality the Manifesto pricks our consciences by pointing out that the place of the Word in the pulpit as the authoritative voice for moral and spiritual change in the at-large culture has been drowned by pro-family political action committees to which the Church has abdicated its prophetic office. We declare in our creed that we have no king but Jesus, yet betray by our actions that our hope is firmly rooted in the outcome of the next presidential election. We have taught our people how to vote (and for whom to vote) all the while leaving them clueless as to how to pray (and for whom to pray). While we frantically sort through labels to determine whether we are on the right, left, or middle we are deaf to the Word which calls us to be above (cf. James 3:13-18).

Nothing I have said here should be interpreted as suggesting the Manifesto is above thoughtful analysis. My chief concern is that in attempting to ascertain what the Manifesto means by what it says, we have often assumed that what it clearly says cannot indeed be what it means. We have allowed our prejudices against some who signed it to call into question the integrity and intentions of those who wrote it.

No one connected with the drafting of the Manifesto claims for it a Divine imprimatur, as if Dr. Guinness has just returned to us with face aglow from Sinai having received the Manifesto on tablets written with God’s own finger. It is, after all, a human document with equally human short-comings. But then again, so was Luther’s 95 Theses. History gives witness to the truth that reformational statements rooted in Scripture endure while those committed to a political agenda quickly fade. History will judge where the principles articulated in An Evangelical Manifesto have their roots.

Os Guinness on An Evangelical Manifesto

The press conference at the National Press Club announcing the release of “An Evangelical Manifesto” has just concluded. Os Guinness drafted the document and gives the following as one critical reason why the manifesto is so necessary:

When you have best-selling authors who appear on public television with “feel-good” gospels who have to apologize to their own churches that they’ve diluted the faith when they get home, something is profoundly wrong. When you have Evangelical leaders who make predictions in the name of God, which by biblical standards are openly false prophecy, something is badly wrong. When scholars and writers can look at the Evangelical political movement and describe them as “theocrats” or worse, as “fascists,” something is badly wrong.

You can listen to Os Guinness’ full statement at the National Press Club on An Evangelical Manifesto by clicking

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