Identity Check: Evangelicals Clarify Their Role

A prominent group of Evangelical leaders is making a statement about their faith. It's an attempt to better clarify what, exactly, "Evangelical" means. Titled "An Evangelical Manifesto," it calls on evangelicals to engage politically, but avoid being puppets of any party. Os Guinness, an author of the statement, explains.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk about the issue of politics colliding with faith. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation. A group of prominent Evangelical theologians and writers recently released what they called an "Evangelical Manifesto." Three years in the making, the document charges that Evangelical Christians have allowed themselves to become too closely aligned with the interests of the Republican Party, and it challenges Evangelicals to recommit to social involvement driven by core values and not by political expediency. Some of the movement's most prominent conservative leaders have refused to sign onto the manifesto. We're going to talk about that and why that might be. Here to talk more about all of this is Os Guinness. He's one of the authors of the manifesto. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. OS GUINNESS (Author, "Evangelical Manifesto"): My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit more about what prompted this, and as I mentioned there have been a number of people over the course of the year, and I think in recent years, who've been interested in this question of what is in a country that is so religiously diverse and yet for whom faith is so important, you know, what is the appropriate intersection of these sort of two powerful forces?

Mr. GUINNESS: The manifesto goes back to a week three years ago when I met 12 Evangelicals in one week who were all on the edge of giving it up or at least giving up the label or the term. And I realized they were so embarrassed or ashamed by the cultural or political baggage, but they had no counterweight, and my own family for instance, Arthur Guinness, who founded the Guinness Brewery, was a great friend of William Wilberforce who was not only the greatest social reformer in history, abolition of slavery, he was also very strong Evangelical, but very different from what we've seen recently. He was a member of a party, he was a Tory. But he always voted conscious and principle and he became the conscience of England, and out of that I was determined to write something that said who Evangelicals are and what it really means.

MARTIN: And so how did you - as I mentioned that it took a while to kind of bring this statement together. What is your purpose in publishing it at this time? What do you hope will happen?

Mr. GUINNESS: Well, the double concern is that we initiate a movement of reform within Evangelicalism. When you have Evangelical leaders who make predictions in the name of God, which by biblical standards are wrong historically and wrong theologically, something's badly wrong. When you have feel-good pastors who so dilute the Christian message, say on "Larry King Live" or whatever, that they have to apologize to their own congregations, something is wrong. Or when you have Christian political action and people from the outside look at it, and they describe it as American theocracy or as American fascism something is wrong.

MARTIN: It sounds like you're objecting two strains that some people associate with Evangelicalism today. One is deep involvement in politics that some consider to be very closely identified with the Republican Party and its specific agenda, and the other is the so-called prosperity gospel movement.

Mr. GUINNESS: Well, certainly.

MARTIN: Some people feel is sort of in the pursuit of kind of wealth as an end in itself and users the sort of the Bible as a warrant for that. If, I have that right, what would...

Mr. GUINNESS: You certainly do. Although let's take the first one, which is the one that's caused most of the controversy. The manifesto's very clear. We should be fully engaged, but never completely equated. In other words, no one is speaking against political engagement. We should be fully engaged, but never equated. Christians should always have a higher allegiance than any party or ideology or even nation.

MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that some of the Evangelical leaders who might be best known to the general public, like Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. who's the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Land who heads the denomination's public policy arm who's sort of a frequent discussant on public policy programs. Dr. James Dobson, many people know from Focus on a Family declined to sign the manifesto. Why do you think that is?

Mr. GUINNESS: I think there were different reasons. I've been on Al Mohler's program. I think he had some genuine misgivings which as we talked proved insubstantial. He has a very false understanding of civility. The document calls for civility and he thinks that that if you have civility you can't argue tough policy conclusions, as he puts it. But I told him civility is like a framework or a boxing ring, within which, in the ring under the rules under referee you have, fights, boxing fights and there's winners and losers and that's democracy. So civility does not mean that there are not tough-minded debates and his whole understanding of civility, I think, we had to clear up.

MARTIN: Some critics have said the piece is a warrant for diversity but there was a lack of diversity in the drafting of the document. Would you speak to that?

Mr. GUINNESS: Well, we could of always had more, and there were women, there were African-Americans, there were Hispanics and there were people considerably cross the board, conservative and liberal. And I myself - and I was one of the primary drafters, I probably showed it to 100 people and listened very carefully to what every one of them said. And their changes and suggestions reflected in the document I wish had gone to Al Mohler and Richard Land who's a friend.

MARTIN: But what about those who say that the documents call for inclusion is the very thing that leads to a slippery slope and a challenge to Evangelical identity and priorities? How do you respond to that? In essence the thing is you can't have it both ways - you have to stand firm in certain core principles to walk this walk and to really be Evangelical.

Mr. GUINNESS: I would absolutely agree with that, and there's nothing watering down the core principle, as I said. Evangelicals are followers of Jesus and there are seven decisive, theological affirmations that follow that. And there's nothing diluted or watered down in any of those, and some people have had suspicions and fears which they've read into it and brandished it around, and troubled people, and so on. But that's irresponsible. They should have just asked.

MARTIN: But some say that there's just no way to read this document as anything other than of rebuke to the religious right. Because indeed, the religious right is kind of the face of modern Evangelicalism in this country and the basket of issues with which this movement is identified - are those that are identified with the religious right.

Mr. GUINNESS: Well, Michel...

MARTIN: That's just the way it is.

Mr. GUINNESS: You've read it and you can see clearly it speaks of the dangers on the left and the right. In the 60's the tendency was much more towards the left of the liberal side rather than the left. And the same is true on the conservative and the right wing side, today. And so, I would just say always if the cap fits, wear it. If it doesn't fit, don't wear it. In other words it's pointing out tendencies and trends. It doesn't attack anyone for falling foul of those. And if it doesn't apply to people, they pass unscathed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUINNESS: Like the parables of Jesus.

MARTIN: Os Guiness is one of the Author's of "An Evangelical Manifesto", he's also Author of "The Case for Servility" and why our future depends on it. He spoke to us from NPR west, Dr. Guiness thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GUINNESS: My pleasure my Michel.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.