A group of Evangelical Christians recently unleashed a manifesto on the world. Well, sorta. It’s twenty pages long. And as Alan Jacobs explains in today’s Wall Street Journal and in a smart blog post for The American Scene, it raises many more questions than it answers.
Once all the self-description is out of the way, it turns out that the heart of the document is a kind of urgent appeal: Please don’t call us fundamentalists or confuse us with them. This strikes me as a regrettable tack, for two reasons. First, it is defensive, and manifestos should never be defensive. Second, it suggests a concern for labels and public perception that is not attractive in Christians. Besides, people who make the kinds of theological statements found in this document — for instance, “We believe that the only ground for our acceptance by God is our trust in Jesus Christ” — are going to be called fundamentalists no matter what else they say.
That seems about right. But, I think Jacobs could have emphasized even more the generation gap between the authors and supporters of this Manifesto, and the previous generation of Evangelical leaders. The signatories include J.P. Moreland, Mark Noll, and even my friend, Joe Carter. I think these men and the other signatories have been waiting for their chance to lead the evangelical movement for a long time. This is a movement that desperately wants to get beyond the Moral Majority days, and the sweat-soaked-Holy-Ghost-filled televangelists of yesteryear. There is just a hint of insecurity, and I agree with Carlson that it is unattractive, but I would feel the same way in their shoes. In fact, on most days I’d like to get beyond the political and social leadership of my own Church. (Donahue, I’m looking your way.)
But overall, I think the writers of this manifesto should be applauded for their effort to be intellectually and politically serious. The tone of this document is defensive in some respects, but it makes clear that Evangelicals should no longer be satisfied with the table-scraps of the conservative movement and the Republican party. Evangelicals are a growing force in our culture, even as they find themselves fighting more pitched battles with fewer allies. They no longer have reliable friends in the mainstream denominations on important social questions –though Evangelicals often constitute an insurgent force within those churches. Evangelicals may suffer from slight insecurities, but they are making a good faith effort to find their footing in a world that looks very different than it did when Reagan took office.