Do Evangelicals Have an Image Problem?

Article ID: JAN2315 | By: Lee A. Dean

A group of Christian leaders has released a document that seeks to crystallize the definition of what it means to be identified as “evangelical” in contemporary society. “An Evangelical Manifesto” was released May 7, 2008, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., along with an invitation for people to sign the document (see www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com). The document seeks a reaffirmation of identity, reformation of behavior, and repositioning in public life by evangelicals.

“Confusion and Corruption.” The manifesto is the result of three years of work by a nine-member ad hoc steering committee including author Os Guinness, professor and author Dallas Willard, Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, theologian Timothy George, Presbyterian pastor John Huffman, and vice president and editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today news group David Neff. Charter signatories include such evangelical leading lights as Leith Anderson, Jack Hayford, John Ortberg, and Max Lucado.

The committee identified several areas of “confusion and corruption” about the meaning of evangelicalism, Neff told the Journal. One is political: the term “evangelical” became such a buzzword during the 2000 American presidential election that it lost its original theological meaning. “The word did not refer to a political bloc or a philosophy, but to a particular faith that developed out of the sixteenth-century Reformation and that was mediated to us in a variety of ways. A strong evangelistic impulse with warm-hearted faith and classic Christian theology combined to create what was called evangelicalism,” he explained.

An additional factor motivating people to sign is that evangelicals have not lived up to the high standards they set for others and themselves. “All too often we have attacked the evils and injustices of others, such as the killing of the unborn, as well as the heresies and apostasies of theological liberals whose views have developed into ‘another gospel’ while we have condoned our own sins, turned a blind eye to our own vices, and lived captive to forces such as materialism and consumerism in ways that contradict our faith,” declares the manifesto.

Guinness and Mouw said that they were motivated by personal contacts with people who held negative views of evangelicals, although the goal of the manifesto is not to bolster the “brand” of evangelicalism. “Some of them felt embarrassed, some ashamed, and some openly revolted by some of the images of evangelicalism today. As I listened to them, I realized I agreed in many ways with what they were saying about the image and the cultural and political baggage that surrounded evangelicals,” Guinness said at the May 7 press conference.

Civility in the Public Square. Another rationale for the document is the level of polarization in society. The manifesto calls for vigorous participation by evangelicals in public life and “bridge building where it’s appropriate,” Neff told the Journal. If necessary, this participation can take place with people of other faiths—or of no faith at all—without compromising orthodox Christian belief, said Neff, who added that those who worked on the manifesto are exclusively Christian and not part of an interfaith group. Citing the call of Jesus to live in the world, but not of it, the manifesto notes that evangelicals “are fully engaged in public affairs, but never completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity.”

The lack of civility in society is yet another rationale for the manifesto. It thus calls for a civil public square, as opposed to a sacred public square (where only one form of religion is allowed) or a naked public square (where no religious expression is allowed). In a civil public square, the manifesto states, “citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and a right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land.”

Why Some Won’t Sign. Steering committee members say they are often asked why a particular leader has not signed the manifesto. Some leaders belong to organizations that do not allow them to sign any petition or outside doctrinal statement. Others, including two prominent Southern Baptists, are not signing because of theological differences.

In a May 13 essay for Baptist Press, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, expresses full agreement with “at least 90 percent” of the manifesto. Land, however, takes particular issue with how the manifesto describes orthodox evangelical beliefs as “at the heart of the message of Jesus and therefore foundational for us,” instead of flatly describing the beliefs as “foundational.” Land asks, “Could this be an attempt to qualify the most basic of all evangelical foundational beliefs, Jesus’ assertion that ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the father but by me’ (John 14:6)? I could not help but notice that when the Manifesto quoted this verse several paragraphs earlier in the document, the drafters omitted the last half of the verse: ‘no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ Why? Is this just verbal imprecision or something more?”

In a May 12 posting on his blog, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that the manifesto is in large part an exercise in public relations. “The document was released at the National Press Club—not a usual venue for theological discussion. The stated aims of the document are also directed to public relations. The sense of attempting to convince the public that Evangelicals are not what many think them (us) to be pervades the Manifesto,” he wrote.

A strain of books such as unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons profiles the opinions of people in their late teens and twenties, who hold that evangelicals are strident right-wingers who hate homosexuals, don’t care about the planet, and are concerned only about getting people saved. The manifesto “certainly addresses some of the concerns that emergent folks (or whatever label you want to use) have with evangelical churches, but without budging on the basic content of the faith,” said Neff. He added, “We have had a fine response from a number of younger adults who are not comfortable with the label ‘evangelical’ but who love Jesus. Some of them have read the manifesto and said, ‘that’s a gift to us.’”

—Lee A. Dean

Lee A. Dean is a freelance writer and editor based in Michigan. He is a graduate of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and a ministerial student in the Wesleyan Church.