Since the 2004 elections, evangelicals' relations with the Republican Party have been, to say the least, uneasy. The botched nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the Bush administration's lack of interest in pushing for a federal marriage amendment, the initial popularity of Rudy Giuliani as a GOP presidential contender -- on these and other issues, the relationship has been less like that of a happily married couple and more like that of quarreling lovers. Now a group of prominent evangelical leaders have released a critical statement about religion, politics and public life. Here is how Rebecca Trounson of The Los Angeles Times described the document:
In an often strongly worded statement released this week, more than 70 pastors, scholars and business leaders said faith and politics have become too closely intertwined and that evangelicals err when they use their religious beliefs for political purposes.
About a quarter of U.S. adults call themselves evangelical Christians, polls show, and for the last 30 years, the "religious right" has been a reliable base of support for the Republican Party. But Christians from both ends of the political spectrum have made the mistake of politicizing their faith, the group declares in the document, called "An Evangelical Manifesto."
When that occurs, "faith loses its independence, the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form," the document says.
The passage contains juicy phrases -- "useful idiots," "the regime at prayer," etc. So what, exactly, are the authors referring to? How can faith be politicized? Do the authors think that more evangelicals should vote Democratic and influence that party? All of these questions are naturals.
Yet Trounson does not attempt to answer them, much less pin the authors down about the details. She should have asked the authors to cite examples in which evangelicals acted like "useful idiots," presumably for the GOP, or "the regime at prayer." Instead of pursuing these specifics, she stuck to generalities. Her story was the worse for it.
Granted, "An Evangelical Manifesto" lacks specific examples of evangelical political misbehavior. It urges an "expansion of concern beyond single-issue politics," but fails to sketch out how this might be accomplished or what form this would take. A Communist Manifesto this is not.
Yet Trounson could have been specific about why few conservative evangelical leaders signed the manifesto. Why didn't they? Were they bothered about the manifesto's call to go beyond single-issue politics? Were there powerful evangelicals who were not offered input on the document, or a chance to sign or not sign it?
Unfortunately, Trounson does not say:
Many of the most prominent conservative evangelicals did not sign. A spokesman for James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, said Dobson had concerns about the document and decided not to add his name.
It's worth mentioning that "An Evangelical Manifesto" is not primarily a political document. The statement contains long sections about the need to reaffirm evangelical identify (or Evangelical identity, as the authors urge) and reforming their behavior. Yet on the sections that had political implications, Trounson failed her readers by not fleshing out the possibilities.