Baptist leaders questioned a self-identified “inclusive grassroots initiative” unveiled Wednesday criticizing Christians on both the left and right for allowing their faith to become too political.
“The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness,” says “An Evangelical Manifesto” statement released in a Washington press conference. “The Evangelical soul is not for sale. It has already been bought at an infinite price.”
Reportedly drafted over a three-year span by a nine-person steering committee, the statement repudiates efforts “to politicize faith,” an error the signers said is made by both the religious left and right.
Using faith in expressly political ways causes faith to lose its independence and the church to become “the regime at prayer,” the statement says.
“Christians become useful idiots for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form,” it says. “Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.”
“Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system or nationality,” the statement says.
Conservative religious media questioning the impact of the statement made note of whose signatures do not appear on the document. High-profile Religious Right leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson were not asked for input or to sign.
Moderate and progressive Christians dismissed it as too little and too late.
“This statement comes at a moment when evangelical Christianity has lost all credibility because it is so closely identified with the American political right,” said Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. “More than any other group in America, the world knows that evangelicals are the political base for an administration that has disrupted the peace and tranquility of the entire world by fighting wars under false pretenses, undermining human rights, and condoning the use of torture.”
Now that the political influence of evangelicals is declining, Prescott said, there have been “many lamentations about the lack of civility in America’s ‘culture wars.'”
“What you won’t find is any clear apology for the role that evangelicals have played and are still playing as cheerleaders for a worldwide ‘clash of civilizations,'” he said.
“Evangelicals have lost all credibility,” Prescott said. “Their manifesto is a timid step in the right direction, but an elephant is still in the room and they are still ignoring it.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said several signers of the declaration should confess their own involvement in political activity they now condemn.
“Those who claim to want to recover the word evangelical played a nasty role in creating political fundamentalism, advancing the anti-everything public image that conservative evangelicals rightfully have, fostering the cultural narrative that GOP stands for God’s Only Party and truncating the biblical witness’ moral agenda to a few so-called non-negotiable issues,” Parham said.
Parham said some signers, like steering committee member Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, “helped the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention which strengthened Christian Right and its agenda of dominion and theocracy.”
David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, worked over a decade at SBC-related Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Union University in an era when Southern Baptists earned reputation as one of the most stalwart defenders of the Republican Party. Since joining the faculty of a moderate seminary associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Gushee has moved away from fundamentalists on some issues like torture and global warming.
Parham said others signers, like Liberty Theological Seminary President Ergun Caner, “have helped to spread a mean-spirited anti-Islamic fear.” Caner’s book, Unveiling Islam, was cited as the source for former SBC President Jerry Vines’ 2002 statement describing Islam’s founding prophet “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
Caner stood by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell until Falwell’s death last May. In 2005 Caner lionized old-guard SBC leaders like Adrian Rogers and Jimmy Draper, who helped build bridges between Southern Baptists and the Religious Right in the “conservative resurgence” movement launched in 1979.
By one Internet account Caner “brought the house down” with a statement aimed at supporting President Bush during a 2006 sermon at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., a prominent SBC church whose pastor, Johnny Hunt, is reportedly running for SBC president this year.
In 2004 Caner likened Bush to Abraham Lincoln.
Other signers, Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries and Foursquare Gospel pastor Jack Hayford, were among 72 prominent evangelicals signing a 2004 letter equating voting for President Bush with voting for biblical values.
Charisma magazine founder Stephen Strang strongly backed Mike Huckabee for president.
Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren, who had input into the document but was out of the country and unavailable to sign on as a charter signatory, took sides late in the 2004 presidential race between Bush and Sen. John Kerry, when he e-mailed his large pastor network with five “non-negotiable” values at stake in the election: abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.
“For those of who accept the Bible as God’s Word … there are five issues that are non-negotiable,” wrote Warren. “To me, they’re not even debatable, because God’s Word is clear on these issues.”
He said, “There can be multiple opinions among Bible-believing Christians when it comes to debatable issues such as the economy, social programs, Social Security and the war in Iraq”
After discovering that Warren’s language and list came from a right-wing Catholic organization, Parham said that Warren had “reduced the Bible’s moral agenda.”
“The biblical witness speaks directly to a host of issues–earth care, economic justice, fair treatment of workers and care for the poor,” Parham countered. “The biblical witness does not speak directly to stem-cell harvesting and cloning, since these are new, technology-driven issues.”
Other manifesto signers have ties to the Religious Left. Jim Wallis of Sojourners has spoken to leaders of the Democratic Party about reaching out to people of faith. Wallis is convener and president of Call to Renewal, which invited Obama to give its keynote address in 2006.
“Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left,” the manifesto states. “Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish and disastrous for the church–and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons.”
Prescott criticized the manifesto for singling out religious extremism of “Islamist violence” while ignoring examples of “Christian violence” like bombing of abortion clinics.
“You’ll find several admissions of human sinfulness and fallibility and many appeals for repentance and reform, but not a single confession regarding the failure of American evangelicals to address this nation’s militarism, human rights violations and abuse of prisoners,” Prescott said.
“Until evangelicals muster up the courage to address their own most egregious sins and shortcomings, the message they want to share about the good news of the gospel will fall on deaf ears.”
“It’s hard to take seriously generic confessions about vague wrongdoings,” Parham added. “Surely evangelicals can do better than that.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.