When Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed the FAMiLY LEADER's "Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family" last week, many observers wondered the same thing: Who is this mysterious FAMiLY LEADER, and what gives him the authority to demand that candidates for public office affirm his list of proclamations against the "redefinition of the Institution of Marriage" and other 21st-century sins that he condemns not only on behalf of "Christian Scripture," but also "Classical Philosophers," "Natural Law," and the "American Founders" themselves? Just who does he think he is—and what is going on with that sinister lower-case I?
Although the name sounds like an epithet that Kim Jong-il might select on one of his off days, it turns out that the FAMiLY LEADER is an Iowa nonprofit affiliated with Focus on the Family. Its mission is to provide "a consistent, courageous voice in the churches, in the legislature, in the media, in the classroom, in the public square … always standing for God's truth." (The lower case I is meant to signify the individual's submission to family and God.) Despite their obscurity outside Iowa, the authors of the "Declaration" claim the right to call out politicians on behalf of all conservative Christians. And, oddly, there is nothing unusual in this chutzpah: They are following a long-standing tradition of evangelical Christian manifestos, pledges, and declarations.
In-your-face proclamations were once a favorite tool of the secular left going back to the French revolutionaries' Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Manifestos used to be communist, anarchist, and humanist turf. Yet in recent decades, progressive Americans have shied away from this kind of political tactic. On the left, the word "manifesto" now calls to mind long-haired rowdies cross-referencing Che Guevara's diaries with the Port Huron Statement. Manifestos are still mainstream in other parts of the world (in the United Kingdom, both the Conservative and Labour parties call their election platforms "manifestos"), but to most American liberals, the very idea sounds more nostalgic than serious, beyond the fringes of today's stunted political spectrum. At the same time, conservatives—and evangelicals in particular—have developed a penchant for trumpeting their principles and demanding that every true believer sign on the dotted line.
Evangelicals joined with libertarians last year to issue the "Mount Vernon Statement" demanding a recommitment "to the ideas of the American Founding." The year before that, the Faith & Freedom Network & Foundation published a "Saving of America Manifesto" and evangelicals connected with Catholics and Orthodox Christians to publish the "Manhattan Declaration" defending "the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience." In 2008, disgruntled megachurch pastors lamented the over-politicization of faith in an "Evangelical Manifesto." Don't confuse that document with the other "Evangelical Manifesto" published in 1996 by the National Association of Evangelicals, or the 1990 "Call to Biblical Fidelity" or the bestselling Christian Manifesto published by Christian Right guru Francis Schaeffer in 1981.
Traditionally, manifestos bristle with Enlightenment individualism. They declare independence from some form of perceived tyranny. They lay down the beliefs of the rebels against the regime, challenge that regime's legitimacy, and call the true and faithful remnant to action. But for evangelical Protestants—who have shown an even greater taste for manifestos than other wings of the conservative movement—documents like the "Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family" have an additional resonance. FAMiLY LEADER's "Candidate Vow" is not just a political platform but an affirmation of beliefs: the conviction that only "faithful monogamy between one man and one woman" constitutes legitimate marriage, that a fetus is "the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy" deserving the law's fullest protection, and that "robust childbearing" is critical to maintaining America's superpower status. Like early Protestant drafters of Reformation-era confessions, and even the Church Fathers who hashed out the earliest Christian creeds, the activists behind "Declaration" see their statement as a measure necessary to correct widespread theological error, expose heretics, and resolve conflicting claims to authority.
In the old days Christian creeds usually emanated from groups with clear authority to speak for the half-pagan masses: councils of bishops, church synods, or at least learned divines with poofy collars and friends in high places. What is remarkable about American evangelicals is that so many of their manifestos, no matter how solemnly intoned, come instead from whichever ragtag crowd has mustered the energy and time to pull together their friends and scribble down a few bullet points. In 1973, when a group of progressive evangelicals gathered in a dingy YMCA in Chicago and issued a "Chicago Declaration" demanding that evangelicals pay more attention to social justice—the evangelical love for manifestos knows no ideological boundaries— evangelical scholar Lester DeKoster noted that the Declaration reflected "the guilt and aspirations simply of fifty individual Christians of undoubted sincerity, whose views could easily be qualified or even largely contradicted by fifty, or say a hundred, other individual Christians of equally unquestioned integrity—should someone care to go to the trouble of getting them together and issuing a news release."
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.)
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.