Thirty-five years ago, I was one of a group of evangelicals who issued a call for the movement to become more involved in social action. The 1973 “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” pledged “to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed,” to “deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism,” and to “challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might—a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence.”
It concluded: “As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world. By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.”
Ironically, the major evangelical social action since then has come from the Right. Galvanized by the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion, the Right founded a succession of organizations, from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. All were characterized by a priority emphasis on two issues—abortion and same-sex marriage—and by a close identification with the Republican Party.
As one result, the church has a serious image problem. A recent book, unChristian, by Barna pollster David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, reveals much about how Millennials, the emerging generation, view Christianity. An overwhelming majority see Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, too focused on the afterlife, and too political in the worst sense of the word. And that image is often particularly true of evangelicals.
But other studies show that when you ask people what they think about Jesus, they say that he was compassionate, loving, and caring, that he hung out with sinners and poor people, and that he was a peacemaker. People think that the followers of Jesus should stand for the same things as Jesus did. It’s time to change the image.
A substantial group of evangelical leaders are trying to do just that. In May, a new statement, “An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment,” was released in Washington, D.C. The statement had two purposes—to address the confusion about who evangelicals are and to clarify an evangelical role in public life. I affirm the views expressed in the manifesto and was happy to accept an invitation to be one of the charter signatories.
On the point of identity, the manifesto says: “Our first task is to reaffirm who we are. Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. … Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.”
It then goes on to identify “beliefs that we consider to be at the heart of the message of Jesus and therefore foundational for us.” They are primarily theological affirmations, including: “We believe that being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives, secular as well as spiritual, public as well as private, in deeds as well as words, and in every moment of our days on earth, always reaching out as he did to those who are lost as well as to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the socially despised, and being faithful stewards of creation and our fellow creatures.”
ON THE QUESTION of public life, the manifesto recognizes that people are yearning for a moral center to our public life and political discourse, with a better understanding of the choices and challenges that lie beneath our political debates. More and more people want to see a common-good politics replace the politics of individual gain and special interests.
As the manifesto states: “We affirm that to be Evangelical and to carry the name of Christ is to seek to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the kingdom of God, to bring these gifts into public life as a service to all, and to work with all who share these ideals and care for the common good. … Called by Jesus to be ‘in’ the world but ‘not of’ the world, we are fully engaged in public affairs ….”
Most of the news coverage of the manifesto, written by religion writers, was good, but its content was not reflected by the headline writers, many of whom spun it as a repudiation of politics. Headlines included, “Group of evangelical Christians writes manifesto urging separation of religious beliefs and politics,” “Evangelicals call for movement to shun politics,” and “Evangelical leaders say their faith is too politicized.” The manifesto itself, however, says “we Evangelicals see it as our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality.”
It’s a point I have made many times: “God is not a Republican or a Democrat,” and that is a good thing. Committed Christians will be, and should be, on both sides of the political aisle. Indeed, people of faith should never be in any party’s or candidate’s political pocket and should, ideally, be the ultimate swing vote because of their moral independence from partisan politics.
But the media just can’t help themselves and always want to squeeze everything into their old framework of left and right, Democrat and Republican. “Left” and “right” are not religious categories, and people of faith should define their political involvement in moral terms, not partisan predictability. Even the media coverage of the manifesto shows how much the statement is needed.
In the future, we will see new alliances and campaigns led by people of faith on a wide range of moral issues that will involve people of faith across the political spectrum and will shake up politics. The social movements that really change politics are precisely that—public engagement defined by religious and moral commitment that defies normal political categories. Eventually, even the media will finally get it.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.