FAMiLY LEADER's "Declaration of Dependence" and the longstanding tradition of evangelical pledges.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 13 2011 10:13 AM

Sign Here, and Here, and Here

FAMiLY LEADER's "Declaration of Dependence" is just one in a long line of evangelical manifestos.

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These Declarations and Calls and Vows underscore the ongoing problem of authority that has defined evangelicals ever since they first thumbed their noses at the pope and—in many cases—fled the pews of the older Protestant churches for younger denominations or independent congregations allergic to the idea of granting too much authority to human hierarchies or historical tradition. Evangelicals say that their authority lies in the Bible alone, but agreeing on what scripture actually means in practice has always been easier said than done.

As a result, evangelicals are constantly squabbling, schisming, regrouping, and claiming their faction alone is the holy remnant and the authentic Christian voice. Obscure groups like FAMiLY LEADER have the same right as anyone else to speak as if they are the magisterium.  The very label "evangelical" has been a source of consternation for decades, as rival claimants endlessly qualify or redefine the word and demand new doctrinal and political bona fides.

FAMiLY LEADER's "Declaration" also hints at the other authority that rules over their constituents—the evangelical obsession with individual conscience and personal testimony. To the secular observer, pledges like this "Marriage Vow" carry a whiff of McCarthyite loyalty oaths, and the analogy is not wholly misplaced. But the more apt parallel might be the "anxious bench" of 19th-century tent revivals, where sinners sat before the congregation and publicly confronted their troubled conscience—or more recently, Promise Keepers rallies where husbands and fathers sobbed their sins into one another's shoulders and swore, from this day forward, to do right. A careful reader of the Declaration will notice that Footnote 8 forgives all past indiscretions: "No signer herein claims to be without past wrongdoing, including that of adultery. But going forward, each hereby vows fidelity to his or her marital vows ... to all strictures and commandments against adultery." (A wise move, since it's no secret that evangelicals' rates of divorce are roughly on par with those of the general population, and a significant percentage know their way around a pornography website or two.)

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In the race for the fabled "evangelical vote," candidates like Bachmann and Santorum hope that signing the "Declaration" will help them use the trope of religious conversion—both personal and national—to connect with evangelical voters and mark any GOP hopefuls who refuse to sign as whited sepulchres. Bachmann, in particular, needs manifestos like this one to help preserve the fiction of unity among the increasingly restless ranks of her most loyal army, the Tea Party, whose libertarian tantrums are often at odds with the theocratic worldview popular among many of its members. Classical libertarians and politicized evangelicals have much to argue about, but they agree on one thing: They are the authentic Americans, the keepers of the flame. They may not be certain where their movement is headed, but they do know they don't want any hemming or hawing or noncommittal hangers-on. The "Declaration" helps mark ideological boundaries. There is nothing like a good manifesto to separate the sheep from the goats.

American liberals, likewise, seem to wish that Obama would help them reclaim their manifesto-strewn heritage. Elected on a tide of idealism and hope, the president is now sinking in a morass of compromise and frustrated intentions. As any good revolutionary will tell you, the whole point of a manifesto is to declare that there will be no compromises ever again and that ideals trump the status quo. Perhaps Obama should quit his careful diplomacy and nail some theses to Boehner's front door.

Molly Worthen teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.

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