Friday, December 11, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration -- I won't be signing it

A couple of friends have recently pointed me to The Manhattan Declaration with encouragement that I and other like-minded believers should sign on.  I won't be signing it, and I encourage my believing friends to think long and carefully about it too.  The declaration purports to lay out three principals as particularly important for Christians to support, and to publicly advocate:
  • the sanctity of human life
  • the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  • the rights of conscience and religious liberty. 
I actually support all three of these principles, but not in the way the writers of the Manhattan Declaration mean the words.  In point of fact, a careful reading of the principals as elucidated in the Declaration makes it abundantly clear that they only mean these things in the American Christian Republican manner, despite their nonpartisan protestation.  I say this in particular with regard to points one and three:

The sanctity of life  The text of the declaration is unmistakable in its denunciation of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning.  I agree that abortion and euthanasia are inconsistent with a Jesus-centered life ethic, even though I disagree with most of the particular actions and laws that so-called "Pro-Life" advocates actually push (stem cells and cloning are far less clear-cut IMO).   In typical Republican fashion, however, the declaration says nothing about warfare or capital punishment.  While I freely grant that there are consistent, Jesus-honoring people who believe that there are times where the Christian may condone both of these, a position that truly considers the sanctity of all human life would have to require that any application of either warfare or capital punishment pass certain tests far more stringent than simply "the government (or at least the good, conservative, Christian, Republican government) says so."

In the case of warfare, a rigid application of just war criteria would have to precede every use of military force, and would require a deliberate and public examination of the causus belli and the actual prosecution of the war.  If human life is truly sacred, then the notion of "collateral damage" in warfare should be as horrifying as the notion of infanticide.  So, too, should the notion that we go and fight (i.e. kill people) for our "freedom."  Nothing but the preservation of life--not lifestyle, but life itself--can possibly justify the taking of other life if human lives are really sacred.

In the case of capital punishment, a Christian perspective should at the very least be in the vanguard of efforts such as the Innocence Project and similar efforts dedicated to making sure no one is wrongfully executed.  Quite to the contrary, Christians are often leaders in the enforcement of capital punishment.  If human life is truly sacred, then we should go to every conceivable length to make certain that those who go to the gallows are indeed guilty.  The notion that courts might actually reject the petition for a DNA test of a capital case is unconscionable.

The Right of Conscience and Liberty  This section advocates for the rights of Christians to promulgate and practice their views without government interference.  For the most part I agree with this, though when those same Christians attempt to enshrine their views in publicly-sanctioned (or owned) assets it gets a bit murky.  I do agree, for example, that Christian hospitals shouldn't be forced to perform abortions, and Christian adoption agencies should be able to screen their placements for families who meet faith criteria (though they should be prepared to give up government subsidies--including tax exemption--when they do).  However, there is not a word in this document on the liberty of other religions within America.  I know people in my own church who consider Islam to be an "enemy religion" and have said to my face that the Christian West and Muslim nations are inevitably at war.  I remember lots of Christians who felt that if Barack Obama were a Muslim (which anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows was false) it should disqualify him from the presidency.  The church in America has not been sufficiently vocal on the side of religious tolerance in our own country, and conservative Christians who support documents like the Manhattan Declaration are among the most egregious offenders.

Unlike points one and three, the section on Marriage at least shows some nuance in its acknowledgment that Christians have all too often violated the sanctity of marriage by their divorces and infidelity.  In large measure I agree with that section of the Declaration, though if I were to write a declaration of places we believers ought to take a stand, I doubt that the defense of traditional marriage would make my top ten list; it certainly wouldn't make it to the top three.

But until Christians who stand for the sanctity of life mean ALL human life (Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls this a "Consistent Life Ethic" and though I'm not an overall fan of Wallis, he gets that right), I can't endorse their statements on the sanctity of life.  And until the right of conscience is defended even for those whose conscience differs from mine--or yours--I can't endorse those statements either.


Josh said...

I won't be signing it either. My first reaction to the statement was to think, "There is nothing new under the sun." The Manhattan Declaration says nothing that conservative Christians have not already said frequently and dogmatically. Why did they feel a need to issue this statement now? Is it because the United States now has a Democratic president? Whatever their reason(s), their declaration is undeniably reductionistic; the Christian faith simply should not be reduced to two ethical concerns and one political position.

About the sanctity of life, I agree with you for the most part, but would add poverty and environmental devastation to the list of pro-life issues. Both poverty (often accompanied by lack of health care) and environmental devastation can result in loss of life. (Also, I am not for cloning.)

On the subject of marriage, I continue to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. However, I am aware that many others define marriage differently. I have reservations about attempting to impose my definition of marriage--by means of legislation or other means--on persons who do not share it. I am not sure that secular governments of pluralist societies have compelling reason to enshrine in law the Judeo-Christian tradition's understanding of marriage.

Finally, as you point out, the signers of this declaration are only concerned about freedom of religion for conservative Christians. Hypocritically, they advocate laws that would force persons who hold other beliefs to practice a conservative Judeo-Christian ethic. How is coercing persons who do not share your beliefs to live as if they do consistent with a commitment to religious liberty?

jaigner said...

I'm with you, Dan. Good thoughts.

I am uncomfortable with the motivation behind this thing, as well. It's amazing to me how many Christians can call themselves pro-life (a label which can still be applied to me, I believe) while showing little regard for life at all stages, which Josh pointed out can even extend to environmental issues. I think more unborn children would be spared if women could see how they would be supported and loved instead of judged. This is a huge problem.

Regarding the marriage issue, I'm not sure how Christians can believe that legislating this position will preserve the sanctity of their relationship. The laws of this country do very little toward preserving any moral standard in people's hearts. I don't think any homosexuals will be converted by political means.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Dan. It has been a while since you posted. I missed your insight.

Yeah, put me down as not signing this document. The sanctity of only some life is alone enough to keep me far away from this document. As you and both commentors say this is just a rehash of the "American radical right version of Christianity -- Love it or leave it" mentality.

E. A. Harvey said...

I find it interesting that the Declaration starts off with a laundry list of things we Christians have accomplished in our history. It's something to be proud of, for sure. But if we're going to take a walk down memory lane, we best be ready to admit our faults, missteps, and egregious failings, especially in the areas the Declaration later addresses. Jesus said that all men would know we are his disciples if we have love for one another-- would we need to remind the public at large of our historic achievements if we were more about the business of loving people here and now, day to day? It certainly would give us more credibility. I'm not sure what the authors of this Declaration are hoping to accomplish. Just meaningless words on a page if we're not loving people in tangible ways.

Dan Martin said...

That's an intriguing question, Leesha. At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe that the Manhattan Declaration appears to be coming from a point of defensiveness--there are many in the Evangelical world who believe their faith is under attack. To some extent they are right, though rarely do they acknowledge the reality that they've at least partially brought those attacks on themselves by their own belligerence. At any rate, I think the self-congratulatory preamble is an attempt at self-defense. Of course, our Lord had a few choice things to say about those who justify themselves. . .

Mike Mitchell said...

To Josh:

When you complain that the Declaration seeks to impose a Judeo-Christian ethic on those who don't share the beliefs of Jews and Christians, what alternative do you suggest? Don't all laws "impose" one set of beliefs on others (those who break laws) who don't share the beliefs of the law makers?

And what do you have to say about the Catholic and Methodist organizations referenced in the Declaration who's conscience and deeply held convictions were violated by the laws about gay marriage being imposed on them in Massachusetts and New Jersey? If I owned a rental home and believed homosexual behavior to be immoral and contrary to my religious convictions, is it right for the state to "impose" its beliefs on me by punishing me for refusing to rent the house to a homosexual couple?

Is there any consensual sexual behavior Christians are called to renounce as morally reprehensible and thus not to recognize as legitimate forms of marriage? I recently read an article from a gay rights activist who adamantly complained about the violation of the rights of those of a "trans-generational orientation" (AKA pedophiles). Though her premise was flawed and her conclusion repugnant, her logic was sound. If homosexual practice is acceptable, then all other sexual practices mentioned in the Declaration are as well.

Dan Martin said...


I hear your questions and sympathize, but let's unpack your example a little. As the hypothetical landlord you posited, would you refuse to rent your home to a straight, but unmarried, cohabiting couple? How about a couple who are married but swingers? Or how about a guy who owns an adult-video store? Or how about a guy who manages a factory where workers are paid below-minimum wage due to piecework rules?

In other words, do you screen your hypothetical tenants to make sure that they have not sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? If not, then why is the gay couple so much "worse" than all the other sinners to whom you might rent? (may I suggest, btw, that you pop back and read my post on homosexuality from earlier this year?)

That's why my big issue with the M.D. is their use of standards (pro-life, religious freedom) as only they define them, without extending either standard to those equally-legitimate areas that don't happen to correspond to right-wing American dogma.

Mike Mitchell said...


Thank you for your response.

Of course, I believe the landlord would be equally obligated for moral reasons to refuse renting to a cohabitating couple or a "swinging" married couple--and perhaps the exploitive employer (though that's a bit different because the rented apartment may not be used to directly accommodate the sin?)

But the perennial argument that homosexuality is no worse a sin than greed or any other sin misses the point. No honest Christian could argue that homosexuality is any more or less a sin than greed or exploitation or sexual promiscuity. But the dire issue which the Manhattan Declaration aptly addresses is the failure of so many people to recognize homosexual practice (not orientation) as a sin at all.

What the MD aims to address is the idea that homosexuality is good and healthy and should be respected and affirmed. This is why some of the comparisons you make aren't balanced. How often have you heard someone say, "I'm an adulterer. I'm married but sleep with many different people. This is my orientation and identity, I'm proud of it and I want others to affirm and accept my behavior and appreciate our diversity"?

I've always been perplexed at those who claim to be Christian but practice homosexuality. It seems they believe they're the only ones exempt from carrying their cross. If a person who wants to follow Christ has natural urges toward promiscuity or pornography or pedophilia, it is clear that he or she is called to pray for the grace to resist those natural urges because they are sinful. But when it comes to the sin of homosexuality, instead of resisting, many turn and embrace and celebrate--even identify them selves by--their sinful urges. This makes no sense to me.

Dan Martin said...

Mike, I don't dispute that homosexual practice is wrong from any reasonable scriptural perspective. In fact, if you read the post I referenced above, I argued then and still believe that homosexuality is no better than, and no worse than, but merely another form of adultery. Straight or gay, adultery is forbidden to the followers of God.

My frustration with the right-wing church's obsession over homosexuality is the same as that over abortion and most of the other sins about which they get up in arms, and this is the same objection Jesus made in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. By this I mean that the church's greatest sin is its sanctimonious denunciation of "other people's" sins...the ones for which they are not guilty (at least in their own minds). It's easy to blast gays when you don't know any. Same with anything else you can keep at a safe distance while lobbing grenades at it. It's much harder to look in the mirror and confront our own failings.