Recently, a group of Evangelical Christian leaders let loose an Evangelical Manifesto upon the world (short summary here). By attempting to save Evangelical Christianity from the political and religious excesses that threaten believers and non-believers alike, the authors point to possible way forward for Muslims living in western countries, attempting to be good liberal democratic citizens and maintain their faith at the same time.
"Insistently moderate" as Alan Jacobs calls it, the Manifesto abjures a sound-bite discussion of Christianity and criticizes the whole spectrum of the Evangelical movement from right to left, including its own authors. And it extends beyond its own tribe, asking secular humanists and new atheists and liberals of all stripes if they are satisfied with the relationship that society and religion currently have, and taking a pox-on-both-thy-houses approach to "French style secularism" as well as "Islamist violence."
Evangelicals must not, the authors contend, become "useful idiots" to any political party — no doubt a reference to Republican operatives like Karl who call Evangelicals "loons" behind their backs — and they must not try to coerce or force other people to believe in their way. They must not try and depict themselves as the apex of truth. They must not be fundamentalist (yes, the manifesto uses the f-word), must help the poor, the under-trodden and needy. Over and again, the document condemns the "dangerous" alliance between church and state, denying that Christianity deserves special treatment because it's the majority faith, contending instead that "no one faith should be normative."
What's more the emotional and argumentative crux of the Manifesto — the claim that "Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally" — draws a necessary and important distinction between religious and other kinds of identities that should be instructive to people of all faiths, and to western Muslims in particular.
Is there such a thing as a "Muslim vote" or "Muslim politics"? And if there isn't should Muslims try and vote as "bloc"? Or should there be Muslims for Ron Paul, Muslims for Obama, Muslims for George Galloway, Muslims for Ken Livingstone, and Muslims for Joe Lieberman? Should mosques endorse candidates? Should our national organizations pander to politicians? Should there be "Muslim" PACs or "Muslim" foreign policy initiatives?
The Manifesto says "no," loudly. Muslims should define themselves theologically and not politically, socially, or culturally. They should see that their primary relationship to Islam isn't utilitarian but salvific, and that "Muslim" identity isn't a fulcrum with which to advance certain ends in the public sphere, but simply a pact with God, whose rewards are identity reaped in the next life.
Many Muslims will be quick to retort that given the current climate — where they are under attack not just from fundamentalists among them but Islamophobes of every stripe — taking such an apolitical approach to being Muslim is virtually impossible. Every day, Muslims are asked to condemn bombings, and address beheadings, and talk about foreign wars against their co-religionists. How, then, can anyone suggest that when Muslims talk about Islam, they should focus on the afterlife? Even if we wanted to, Muslims will say, other people wouldn't let us!
The Evangelical Manifesto has an ingenious response to this problem, interpreting it as a "cost of discipleship":
Unlike some other religious believers, we do not see insults and attacks on our faith as offensive and blasphemous in a manner to be defended by law, but as part of the cost of our discipleship that we are to bear without complaint or victim-playing.
In other words, when Muslims are put in a position where others are speaking for them — and putting them into political and social and cultural categories — it will be up to them to resist the temptation of accepting these categories. They, as the Manifesto suggests for Evangelicals, will have to say:
[W]e insist that we ourselves, and not scholars, the press, or public opinion, have the right to say who we understand ourselves to be. We are who we say we are, and we resist all attempts to explain us in terms of our — true motives and our — real agenda.
By taking this approach to political debates, even debates about Islam, Muslims could at last enter the debate not as Muslims, but as Americans. Or, say, as Philadelphians. Or as lawyers.
Perhaps precisely because Evangelicals have had the experience of acquiring massive political power and squandering it, they are singularly qualified to provide a lesson to American Muslims, who have virtually no power as a religious community. When religion becomes inextricably tied to partisan politics, it can be bought and sold like stocks, simultaneously cheapening the faith and corrupting the secular principles of liberal government. Addressed to every faith community in the US, the Evangelical Manifesto is a warning American Muslims should heed. To be accepted as full members of a liberal polity, they have to be prepared to accept that their profession of faith is just one feature of their identities among many, and not the one that should dictate their engagement with politics.