Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Evangelical Manifesto and a civil public square

An Evangelical Manifesto was issued yesterday. Now before you roll your eyes or hide under the bed, the document has a few good things to say. These ideas are from the Executive Summary:

An Evangelical is not always the same as a fundamentalist. At the core of fundamentalism is to deny the outside world. In contrast, an Evangelical works to change the world. They claim that many of society's big gains -- abolition of slavery and women's right to vote -- were brought about by Evangelicals. I don't have verification of those claims.

Thus Evangelicals do have a place in public discourse.

However, they want to clarify their position. Faith is not just private. A person of faith brings a strong moral sense to public life and should have a voice in how society is formed.

But faith is also not political. It loses its independent voice, its believers become the "useful idiots" of politicians, and it is exploited by political factions. Yes, engage in politics, but don't allow religion to be equated with any party or ideology.

The public square is not sacred, in which religion has a preferred place in public life, nor is the public square naked, in which religion is banned. Ideas should not be coerced, but should be persuaded. The public square should be civil, in which all ideas are engaged and the developed policies are fair and just for all faiths. See, I told you there were good things here.

Culture warring is not good. The reaction of religious extremism is a backlash against religion in public life and a turn to a secular society. Intolerance by Atheists is a warning sign.

The public square has become global and we need to learn to live with our deepest differences if we are to avoid two errors: coercive secularism and religious extremism. The second leads to needless conflict. The first leads to complacency -- there are evils in the world that must be resisted.

The public square should be a place where the sacred and the secular meet. Actions of either affect all.

Some believe that "error has no rights" -- if you are wrong or do something wrong you forfeit your rights. I haven't heard this phrase before, but I see that it is behind a lot of fundamentalist thinking. In contrast, everyone has the right to be wrong. That doesn't mean all ideas have equal weight in the public square, but ideas should be debated with respect and civility.

The Executive Summary is here (6 page pdf).

The top website is here.

The document or the website doesn't describe what organization came up with the Manifesto, but it does list the names and titles of those who have signed it.

It is good to hear a group on the Right insist that public discourse should be civil and ideas should be debated honestly and respectfully (with something more convincing than "if you don't do what I say God is going to smite you").

However, others are not convinced.

Why issue the manifesto now? Why wait until Evangelicals have tied themselves to the GOP, pushed through a disastrous presidency and disastrous public policies, and lost all credibility? Where were you 15-20 years ago? Did you approve of what Evangelicals were doing until it was obvious both they and the GOP were sinking fast?

How about an apology, or at least a smidgen of regret of the role Evangelicals have played in branding all Moslems as extremists without mentioning the violence Christians have perpetrated against abortion clinics? Perhaps confessions about their role in national militarism, human rights violations, abuse of prisoners, and inciting violence against gays? How about regret for giving all Christianity a bad name?

And how hard are you working to get your message of tolerance to the wider Evangelical world?

Yes, the manifesto is a tiny step in the right direction. But there is a lot to be done to restore credibility.

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