A panel of 77 evangelical Christians issued a "manifesto" at the National Press Club yesterday ostensibly to clarify "the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term 'evangelical' " but which ended up causing ferment within their movement.
The 19-page document, which defined a middle path for the nation's 45 million evangelicals between "liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism," attacked the bandying about of the term "evangelical" by the religious right and left.
"Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith," it said. "It would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left. A politicized faith is faithless, foolish and disastrous for the church."
Evangelicals constitute about 26 percent of the U.S. population and are a potent political force, particularly within the Republican Party over the past 30 years, helping put Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush into the White House.
The 19-page document, posted at http://www.evangelicalmanifesto.com, also gave the history of evangelicalism in America, set forth seven beliefs basic to all evangelicals, described some fault lines within the movement and called for "a civil public square" where people of all religions can be heard on public policy. It warned against a worldwide backlash against all religion in public life and cautioned Christians against any "dangerous alliance between church and state."
Several drafters held a press conference yesterday to explain their motives. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said they encountered friends who were ashamed to call themselves "evangelical" and were "embarrassed by the public behavior of some in the evangelical movement."
"When you have best-selling authors who appear on public television with feel-good gospels who have to apologize to their own churches that they have diluted the faith when they get home, something is profoundly wrong," said Os Guinness, founder of the Trinity Forum in Burke.
"When you have evangelical leaders who make predictions in the name of God which are by biblical standards false prophecy, something is badly wrong. When scholars and writers can look at the evangelical and political movement and call [their followers] theocrats or worse, fascists, something is badly wrong."
However, the nine-member drafting committee and 77 signatories omitted some of the most famous names in the evangelical movement: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, pollster George Barna and several top Southern Baptists.
"Theirs is an ivory tower perspective," said Mr. Perkins, who was not asked to sign. "It's an age-old problem with people who are concerned with being spoken well of. They want to rid the world of evil but they don't want to get their hands dirty. It's not true that you can't preach the Gospel and be engaged in taking on the culture."
Evangelist Billy Graham declined, but he rarely signs such documents, organizers said. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and his board had "numerous problems and concerns" about the document, said his spokesman, Gary Schneeberger.
"I was never asked to sign it," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, "nor was I allowed to see the document beforehand. I'm not sure there's anything in it I'd disagree with."
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said he was passed over but doubted he would have signed a document "that vague."
The document, he said, "is often eloquent and many ways sets forth some key evangelical convictions. My questions have to do with its actual intent. How specifically do those who are framing this document wish to define evangelicalism with reference to some crucial questions, such as abortion and gay marriage? They appear to be calling for civility, but how do they suggest discussing these issues in the public square and be as civil as they think themselves to be?"
Janice Crouse, director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America, criticized the paucity of female signers (six out of 77) and the "contradictions" in the document.
"While calling for more civil dialogue, they called the 'politically visible public voices' of evangelicalism 'political zealots' and declared that their 'emotional responses' harmed the brand name of evangelicals," she said.