The FundamentaList (No. 34)

1. Evangelical Manifesto Seeks to Depoliticize a Movement, But Is Anyone Listening?

A group of academic and media-savvy evangelical leaders unveiled the final product of a three-year effort to shape how the evangelicals and the general public define the word "evangelical" last Wednesday at the National Press Club. "An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment" is a sprawling, cerebral, and often self-contradictory document that on its face seeks to reclaim the name "evangelical" from negative public perception. Evangelicals should be defined theologically and spiritually, according to the manifesto, and "not politically, socially, or culturally."

The manifesto is part confession, part criticism, part social commentary, and part call to reform for a huge movement that, according to David Neff, editor of Christianity Today and a member of the manifesto's steering committee, represents nearly half of America. The evangelical movement is more theologically, politically, socially, and socioeconomically diverse than most people think -- dispelling the myth of evangelicals' ideological and political homogeneity (the idea that there is one monolithic block of "values voters" is the primary example of this belief) was one of the drafters' intentions. But it was evangelicalism's heterogeneity that led to a long and sometimes inscrutable list of complaints in the manifesto. It seems likely that the best the drafters can hope for is a moderately successful public-relations campaign with no real lasting ramifications.

Without naming names and without much specificity, the document criticizes everything from "liberal revisionism," whose proponents "run the risk of becoming what Soren Kierkegaard called ‘kissing Judases' -- Christians who betray Jesus with an interpretation" -- to "conservative fundamentalism," which "tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian." The document reviles the replacement of "biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment ... church growth with business entrepreneurialism" and the "unbecoming anti-intellectualism ... vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith." At the same time it condemns evangelicals who have "become cheerleaders for those in power and the naïve sycophants of the powerful and the rich."

Any document that cites Kierkegaard, particularly one which also rails against "anti-intellectualism" and partisan "useful idiots" is likely to invite charges of elitism from the activist trenches. Given that the religious right was already grumbling before the manifesto was made public, it is not surprising that many leaders of the religious right were less than pleased. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who has not signed the manifesto, charged that "it smacks of ivory tower rhetoric instead of a realistic assessment of the rough and tumble mindset of contemporary activists." Albert Mohler, radio talk show host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog that "the Manifesto is wonderfully prophetic in calling for civility, but it never explains how civility can survive a policy conclusion -- or how civil parties to a conversation about ultimate things can speak the truth and always be considered civil."

2. Alliance Defense Fund Launches Challenge Ban on Pulpit Politics

On Friday, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) launched a project that it hopes will set up a legal challenge to the Internal Revenue Code ban on electioneering in pulpits. For a coordinated "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on September 28, ADF is recruiting "pastors who will preach from the pulpit a sermon that addresses the candidates for government office in light of the truth of Scripture. The sermon is intended to challenge the Internal Revenue Code's restrictions by specifically opposing candidates for office that do not align themselves and their positions with the Scriptural truth." ADF's stated purpose, according to Erik Stanley, the lead attorney for the initiative, is to set up a test case to allow it to challenge the IRS ban before the Supreme Court.

"Either ADF is confused about the state of the law or this is a fundraising stunt," said Rob Boston, a spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The current law of the land is a 2000 case, Branch Ministries v. Commissioner, decided by a conservative panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which held that the Internal Revenue Service could revoke the tax-exempt status of a church which took out an advertisement in USA Today urging followers to not vote for Bill Clinton. Even with today's more conservative Supreme Court, Boston added, "ADF's argument won't fly."

Stanley insists that Branch Ministries does not apply, because urging people simply to vote for or against a candidate is acting like a political action committee, whereas giving a sermon is religious speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.

And what of the manifesto, and its call to reject the blending of electoral politics and religion? Os Guinness, one of the main drafters of the manifesto, called the ADF effort "a sign of Christian weakness, not of strength." Adding that in de Tocqueville's time, when evangelicalism was a potent force, "pastors did not need to politically engage, because they taught the Bible, and their lay people carried it out in public life. ... It's precisely because we have such a weakness of faith integrated with life that you have to call pastors to actually electioneer. ... Good pastors can preach the entire Bible all the time without any constitutional problem."

3. Huckabee in the Veepstakes again?

U.S. News and World Report's James Pethokoukis reports that Mike Huckabee sits atop John McCain's shortlist for running mate, according to a "top McCain fundraiser and longtime Republican moneyman who has spoken to McCain's inner circle." This comes on the heels of Bill Kristol's column a couple of weeks back that suggested that McCain was eyeing newly elected Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

I interviewed Jindal a few years ago, and he and Huckabee share something in common: that breezy affability that fools the mainstream press into thinking they're not as tied to the religious right as they actually are. But Jindal has far less executive experience than Huckabee does and is hardly the household name (for good or for bad) that Huckabee is. But regardless of whether he picks Huckabee, Jindal, or even someone not necessarily appealing to the religious right, McCain is sending signals that he is trying to simultaneously appeal to different factions of the evangelical movement. He has courted the traditional religious right with speeches like his recent one condemning "activist judges," the more expansive centrists with his position on global warming, and the Armageddonists with his continued embrace of their most politically visible leader, John Hagee.

4. McCain Endorser John Hagee Sows Seeds of Panic About U.S. Middle East Policy

Speaking of Hagee, last week he was busy preparing members of his Christians United for Israel (CUFI) for their annual summit in Washington in July by making them very, very worried that Washington had given up on stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and is bent on pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Our purpose in Washington is going to have to be to stiffen the spine of Congress to reject this cheap political ploy in an effort to make Condoleezza Rice a vice-presidential candidate and building what I am calling a midnight legacy for George Bush," said Hagee. "If there was ever a time that was critical for us to be there, it's right now, because Israel's future is hanging on a thread."

CUFI's executive director, David Brog, echoed Hagee's despair but saw a bright spot in something Joe Lieberman told him. "He said to us, you and CUFI have no idea the difference you make ... when you come to Washington and you fill the halls of Capitol Hill. ... You change the mood, you change the spirit on Capitol Hill."

Let's get them all mood rings and test the theory.

5. Jay Bakker Challenges Mega-Church Pastors on Homophobia

This past weekend, Jay Bakker, son of the televangelist Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Bakker, visited Joel Osteen's Lakewood mega-church in Houston, Texas, in an effort to enlist the church's participation in the civil-rights organization Soulforce's effort to foster dialogue between churches and LGBT people. Bakker, who pastors his own Revolution Church in Brooklyn, New York, became an openly "gay-affirming" pastor three years ago. Revolution Church's Web site proclaims, "As Christians, we're sorry for being self-righteous judgmental bastards."

In Houston, Bakker chatted with Osteen and other church officials after the Sunday service, and although he described Osteen as "very genuine" and "welcoming" of LGBT people into his church it became clear that Osteen wasn't going to take any big stands on LGBT rights. Bakker chalks up much of the resistance to fear of losing influence and financial support. When he took his stand, Bakker added, he lost big donors and speaking engagements.

I asked Bakker about the common belief that younger evangelicals are more open to gay marriage and LGBT rights. He described the next generation as "more compassionate and open" but "I still hear [anti-gay] rhetoric -- people are afraid to take a stand." But apathy, Bakker added, "is just as bad as divisiveness. ...That's not going to bring around any positive change."

Contact me at tapthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.

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