the manifesto that isn't

I have a brief essay in the Wall Street Journal this morning on the just-released Evangelical Manifesto. Though I have the greatest respect for pretty much everyone involved in making this document, I am puzzled and even frustrated by it. In the column I explain why — my primary complaint is that it is anything but a manifesto — but I want to add just a few comments here.

One way this document is going to be read is as an attempt to write the Religious Right out of the evangelical movement. No one clearly associated with that movement signed the document, while some prominent members of the Religious Left (most notably Jim Wallis) did. The document places a great deal of emphasis on the distinction — completely irrelevant and meaningless to everyone except conservative Protestants — between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, repudiating the former and uplifting the latter. This distinction is handled in a confusing way, because without any transition the Manifesto goes from criticizing fundamentalism for being politically disengaged and “world-denying” to criticizing it for being politically triumphalistic and uncivil. (This does in fact describe the historical development of fundamentalism. but the document suggests that fundamentalism somehow manifests both tendencies simultaneously. In a piece of writing that extends itself to the highly-unmanifestoish length of twenty pages this is not quite forgivable.)

In the end, the document seems to be saying something like this: “We’re tired of being lumped in with the fundamentalists, who are always angry and rattling on about America being a ‘Christian nation’ and that kind of junk. We’re tired of being treated as the lapdogs of the Republican party. We’re followed the Republicans all these years because of one issue — abortion — and while we don’t want to abandon our pro-life stance, we think that we’ve ignored a lot of other Christian values and convictions in order to get leverage on this one matter, and now we’re thinking that that wasn’t such a good idea. And by the way, some of us have been Democrats all along. But we’re not telling you how to vote, so don’t jump to any conclusions. We just want to be seen as polite and reasonable participants in the American public sphere, unlike the red-faced old dudes you always see on TV presented as ‘the evangelical voice.’ We’re sick and tired of all that.”

I share many of the feelings that prompted this document, I admit, but I think this so-called Manifesto raises more questions than it answers, and creates more confusions than it resolves. The authors call themselves “representative evangelicals,” but are they? Or do they represent a highly educated, culturally elite subset of evangelicals? If they want to claim the name “evangelical” and deny it to fundamentalists, then what happens if the people they call fundamentalists want to call themselves evangelicals? Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (an organ of the Religious Right if there ever was one) calls itself the world’s largest evangelical university — should it stop using that adjective? (“Evangelical,” I mean, not “largest.”)

On another front: what does it mean for evangelicals to be pro-life (regarding abortion, I mean) if they’re not going to vote pro-life? I can imagine good answers to this question, but the Manifesto doesn’t provide any. And if it’s going to be a real manifesto, not just an inside-the-Beltwayish White Paper, it really should.

And the biggest question of all: For whom was this written? Who cares, or is thought to care? I can’t figure that out at all.