What shook the Earth last week in Washington wasn’t the president, Congress or anything from the campaigns. Rather, it was a remarkable manifesto from a group of more than 100 evangelicals.

Their signed declaration, which you can read at www.evangelicalmanifesto.com, begins with a needed message for evangelicals themselves. At the outset, the document declares:

“The twofold purpose of this declaration is to first address the confusions and corruptions that attend the term “evangelical’ in the United States and much of the Western world today, and second to clarify where we stand on issues that have caused consternation over evangelicals in public life.”

Some evangelicals, who define themselves as believing in the Good News of Jesus as defined by Scripture, have been critiquing the movement for a while. But not until this document has a group so deliberately challenged evangelicals to rethink their identity.

The most encouraging set of points involve the call for evangelicals to return to a religious identity – “Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially or culturally” – and to move away from single-issue politics.

Those are essentially the same point because the broad image of evangelicals in most other Americans’ minds is that of right-leaning Republicans.

The fact that there are now so many leading evangelicals stepping forward, from the theologically conservative Dallas Theological Seminary to the social-activist Sojourners community, shows that some are trying to steer evangelicalism in a different direction. One in which theology is more seriously valued than popular speakers and entertainment-driven worship. One that understands the Bible instructs them to care for the poor, justice and the environment.

Ironically, the fact evangelicals are trying to be less politically identifiable is the reason that politicians like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain should take this document seriously.

Let’s start with McCain, because he especially needs to tune into this manifesto. His trip to see mega-church pastor John Hagee in San Antonio this spring reveals a very limited knowledge of evangelicals.

Yes, Hagee has a following among evangelicals who are fiercely protective of Israel because of how it plays into their end-times theology. But those narrow views and his equally narrow views about Catholics not qualifying as followers of Christ hardly reflect the views of all evangelicals.

In fact, cozying up to Hagee, as McCain did with the late Jerry Falwell before the Moral Majority founder died, sends exactly the wrong signal. It implies that the Republican presidential nominee is not interested in the growing swath of evangelicals who don’t take their cues from the party’s right-leaning leaders. (Centrist evangelicals, for instance, made up a sizable share of all evangelical voters in the 2004 presidential race.)

Or it shows he just doesn’t understand the evangelical movement, which is rapidly heading away from the Falwell/Robertson/Dobson-led culture war.

Sen. Barack Obama, who increasingly looks like the Democratic nominee, could do himself a favor by dialing into this conversation. He needs to mend some fences after his comment in San Francisco about bitter, out-of-work rural Americans clinging to God and guns in times of economic stress.

He also will find the evangelical pastors, theologians and church folk signing this manifesto are as concerned about having a prophetic voice as his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But they aren’t using their voice to drive others out of the conversation, which was Wright’s great mistake with his divisive finger pointing.

These evangelicals are trying to figure out how Americans can live with our differences. Consider this line from the manifesto:

“Evangelicals in America, along with peoples of all faiths and ideologies, represent one of the greatest challenges of the global era: Living with our deepest differences.”

This admission sounds very Obama-like. One of his themes is how the country can get more oars stroking in the same direction. Here are some evangelicals interested in doing that, which is more likely to happen with their humility than with Wright’s bromides.

Most of all, this manifesto is good for evangelicals, as it can save them from suffocating themselves. It also gives the presidential contenders some new ideas to consider. This is no longer your father’s evangelicalism.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. E-mail: [email protected]

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