RDPulpit: Evangelical Manifesto, the “Chamomile Tea” of Theologies

Back in the days of my callow youth, a buddy returned from a year studying in Jerusalem with a Middle East peace plan as flip as only a 20-year-old’s can be. It did have the virtue of being succinct, however:

1.) Decaffeinate the whole region. They’re just too jittery over there and

2.) Convert them all to Episcopalianism so they slowly die out.

Not very nice, to be sure. But something about the Evangelical Manifesto put forward last week by Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, and other moderate evangelical luminaries called that plan to mind:

We urge our fellow-citizens to assess the damaging consequences of the present culture wars, and to work with us in the urgent task of restoring liberty and civility in public life, and so ensure that freedom may last to future generations.

We urge adherents of other faiths around the world to understand that we respect your right to believe what you believe according to the dictates of conscience, and invite you to follow the golden rule and extend the same rights and respect to us and to the adherents of all other faiths, so that together we may make religious liberty practical and religious persecution rarer, so that in turn human diversity may complement rather than contradict human well-being.

This is the chamomile tea of public theologies: live and let live.

It’s also a theology deeply rooted in the American mainstream. That’s the point: the signers of the Manifesto are the Young Turks of the evangelical movement determined to strip the old-guard, partisanized leaders of their title. In twenty closely-reasoned pages of theology, the younger leaders lay out a case for redefining evangelicalism as a religious movement similar to the Protestant mainline. Not coincidentally, such a move would delegitimize the older, more sectarian religious right.

There are any number of ways one could interpret this move. Given the Manifesto’s concern with finding a middle ground between a “naked public square” stripped of all religious reference and a “sacred” (that is, theocratic) public realm, I’m partial to the following thesis: as neo-evangelicalism separated itself theologically from fundamentalism in the 1940’s and 50’s, it gave rise a corresponding political movement to find evangelicals a seat at the table of power. That project, in full swing since the 1980’s, has succeeded and then some.

It’s the “and then some” that bothers the younger leaders. They’re bothered by the political excesses of the religious right. More important, they have apparently looked at the goals of the evangelical movement and discerned that they are poorly served by a primarily political strategy. So now they seek to move the pendulum back toward a faithful but still civically-engaged stance. Having earned their place at the table, they are determined to be tactful guests.

This will require evangelicals to respect the other guests at the party, which won’t sit well with the old guard. For example, Ali Eteraz, writing at Jewcy, sees the Manifesto as a model for Muslim engagement in the American public square:

Perhaps precisely because evangelicals have had the experience of acquiring massive political power and squandering it, they are singularly qualified to provide a lesson to American Muslims, who have virtually no power as a religious community. When religion becomes inextricably tied to partisan politics, it can be bought and sold like stocks, simultaneously cheapening the faith and corrupting the secular principles of liberal government. Addressed to every faith community in the United States, the Evangelical Manifesto is a warning American Muslims should heed. To be accepted as full members of a liberal polity, they have to be prepared to accept that their profession of faith is just one feature of their identities among many, and not the one that should dictate their engagement with politics.

This seems fair and sensible. In fact, the authors of the Manifesto explicitly welcome the participation of all faiths, and no faith, in public life. Get everyone together over a cup of Sanka, and we’ll hammer out our differences.

This consensus-building sounds appealing, but it has its own pitfalls. Jeff Sharlet, in a comment at my site, argues that as difficult as conservative evangelical dissent has been in the past forty years, it has at least preserved a certain prophetic difference vital to our democracy. (Robert Bellah agrees with him, more academically.)

The danger in wanting to become an Episcopalian, the religious right might say, is that you lose the fire of the Holy Spirit, and consign yourself to progressive irrelevance. But the danger from a secular perspective is that you become an established church, with all the myopia and compromise that entails.

So the authors of the Manifesto are insightful in positing a three-way dynamic in the American public discourse. They’ve overstated their case, is all. The choice is not between theocracy, French-style secularism, or something in the middle, but between prophetic particularism, bland universalism, or some third, as-yet-undefined model of civic engagement.

What shape that debate takes may be less important than that there is a debate. Religious believers are less content than ever to check their beliefs at the door to the public square. So are secular citizens. It’s only a matter of time until somebody puts down the sherry and reaches for the espresso.

In other words, we’re going to be fighting about this stuff for a very long time to come. That’s as it should be. The conversation about religion’s place in the public square touches on our deepest convictions about morality and the limits of political involvement in a secular democracy. Talking those things through may not be the most fun we’ve ever had, but by God, they’ll know we’re awake.

For another take on the Evangelical Manifesto see Martin Marty’s article here.