The Milquetoast Manifesto

Though Saddleback’s pastor, Rick Warren, helped draft the document and was rumored to be among the signers, he is not.

What if the evangelicals wrote a manifesto and nobody cared? It was supposed to be a decisive document, a credo that unified American evangelicals around the Christian principles that form the foundations of their faith. It would restore to American evangelicals a sense of mission and history—giving them permission to look beyond party politics for their values while at the same time urging them to be orthodox and ethical in their lives and in the world. Instead, “An Evangelical Manifesto” was released three weeks ago to almost no fanfare. Aside from a handful of news stories and some dutiful intervarsity sniping online, the fallout from the “Evangelical Manifesto” was—and continues to be—less than earth-shattering.

The idea for the manifesto was born three years ago in the mind of Os Guinness, a Virginia-based evangelical intellectual. He was inspired to write it, he told NEWSWEEK, after speaking with people who were so disillusioned with the way that evangelicals were conducting themselves in politics—and with the way they were portrayed in the press—that they no longer cared to label themselves “evangelical.” So together with people like Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, Guinness drafted his manifesto: seven Christian principles that every evangelical could agree on.

There’s an old joke, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions,” and the same could be said for evangelicals. In the end, the manifesto was so vetted that, for all its 20 pages, it didn’t say much: “Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” Stop the presses. Then it went on to say that evangelicals believe that “Jesus Christ is fully God become fully human” and that salvation comes through grace, not deeds. Far more revealing was what the document did not tackle head on: the subject of the inerrancy of Scripture, which more than any other issue divides fundamentalists from the rest of the evangelical crowd; the obligation to convert the unconverted to Christ and the appropriateness of doing so in the public square; and, most important in this election season, the kind of civic engagement required of evangelicals beyond the old wedge framework. Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; he was asked to sign the manifesto but declined. “You put this document down and you say, ‘OK, I agree with this, but who do we want on the court? Do we want Obama deciding judges?’ ”

Indeed, suspicion in conservative circles that the manifesto really amounts to a green light for evangelicals to vote for Obama runs high, and it’s hard to find a name-brand right-wing Christian among the signers. James Dobson of Focus on the Family has not signed it. Neither has Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson or Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Also missing are the most recognizable evangelical megapastors. Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, is not on the list. And though Rick Warren helped draft the document and was rumored to be among the signers, he is not. “Dr. Warren felt more input was needed from all segments of evangelicals,” says a spokesman. “His role, consistent with his calling and leadership style, is to bridge different groups.” Mouw can barely contain his frustration over how little his efforts have yielded. “I do not support gay marriage. I do not support the ordination of gays. I am a right-to-lifer. Does that make me a lefty?” he asks. As Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs rightly observes, the problem with the “Evangelical Manifesto” is that it’s not a manifesto at all. It’s polite and embracing—a welcome change in religious discourse—but it’s porridge. America’s evangelicals, especially those struggling with consciences about how to vote in November, deserve better.