UW Religion Today Column for Week of Jan. 20

January 16, 2013
University of Wyoming Religious Studies

By Paul V.M. Flesher

Truth is a dangerous concept, especially a truth backed by God.

When religious adherents seek to impose their truth on non-adherents, it often generates conflict, whether political competition, street demonstrations or violence. This has been the case for the last several presidential campaigns. The Republican Party has endorsed a number of religious ideas, held as truths by key religious groups such as Evangelicals and the Catholic Church, to draw votes to their candidate. In the 2012 election, these ideas included beliefs about abortion, women’s access to health care and birth control, and gay rights. Candidates claimed they would enshrine such “truths” in law, giving rights to Christians at others’ expense.

Not all Evangelicals agreed with such a blatant political approach to religious belief. In May 2008, months before the previous election, an alliance of Evangelical leaders released an “Evangelical Manifesto” that called for a more centrist and flexible position for Evangelicalism, one in which Evangelical is defined in theological rather than political terms, where adherence to Christianity did not also require support of a political party. This manifesto (http://www.evangelicalmanifesto.com) was signed by a wide range of Evangelical leaders, and they invited others to read it and sign it if they wish.

Without ever saying it in so many words, the Manifesto is heavily critical of Evangelical representatives involved in politics. This is made clear by its comparison between Constantine and Jesus. In the Manifesto’s view, when the Roman Emperor Constantine created the Christian Church in 324 by organizing and funding the disparate Christian communities throughout the Empire, and by bringing them together for the first time at the Council of Nicea, he joined the church with the state. In so doing, he established Christianity as the one religion supported by the Roman Empire. Although this picture smoothes over many details, it is true that the Empire helped Christianity become its dominant and ultimately its only fully legal religion, using force to exterminate paganism.

The Manifesto argues that Evangelicals should not ally themselves with the state and its power, as the church did in the time of Constantine, but should instead follow the example of Jesus, who participated in his society simply as an equal. He taught and debated those around him on an even footing and spread his message with the same means available to others, even subjecting himself to the ruling authorities.

In modern America, the equivalent is the “civil public square,” which the Manifesto sees as the place where all citizens have an equal voice. It is not a “sacred square” where (certain) religious voices predominate, nor is it a “naked square” where secular voices stand privileged. Rather than seeking special rights for Evangelicals, the Manifesto sees the Christian message as special, not its adherents.

“Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and (a) right for all the believers in all the faiths across the wide land.”

But this is not the Manifesto’s largest concern. “We are also troubled by the fact that the advance of globalization and the emergence of a global public square finds no matching vision of how we are to live freely, justly and peacefully with our deepest differences on the global stage.”

The future will intensify the “challenges of living with our deepest differences,” namely, the religious differences of people around the world. The Manifesto raises this as humanity’s greatest concern, one that must be faced by everyone, not just Christians. While it offers no vision to overcome, it suggests to the Evangelical community that it must change, approaching the future with the humility borne of equality and egalitarianism rather than striving for political dominance and the elimination of differences. The coercion that comes from such attempts at dominance, it argues, “leads inevitably to conflict.”

And, as has been clear from the last two elections, the political use of a religious message is by definition designed to generate conflict, a conflict in which voters are supposed to choose one side over the other. In retrospect, however, thoughtful this Evangelical Manifesto was at the time, it has been widely ignored since its release by the very people it hoped to influence.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.  

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