Why Christians should reject the Manhattan Declaration

The Manhattan Declaration is a self described “wake up call” to Christian churches. Gathering voices from Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders, to “reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good.”

The Manhattan Declaration states three truths that need defending:

  1. the sanctity of human life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Furthermore the declaration clearly calls Christians to stand up to their convictions even to the point of civil disobedience. It declares that their signers will never be forced into silence by cultural, political or even legal forces.

The Manhattan Declaration is deeply flawed and I won't be signing it.

Even more importantly, I don't think conservative Christians, or people of faith at large, should support the Manhattan Declaration either. Here's why:

1.The Manhattan Declaration is politics as usual.

This document shows that, despite looking like they had finally died down, the culture wars are back. This document, sadly, shows that these leaders are still fighting the political wars of the 1980s, and offer no new thought on those issues or issues since then in the Manhattan Declaration.

There is but limited expression (and not a mention in the summary) of a larger number of issues than the ones that those same leaders found important over 15 years ago; apparently genocide, war, poverty, greed, debt-relief, Africa, the third world, and torture still have no place on the table of conservative pastor's political agendas. The only thing relatively new in the document is the call to civil disobedience, which is nothing but an escalation of the same old tired rhetoric by religious leaders who are now sensing their own loss of power.

2. The main points of the Manhattan Declaration contradict themselves.

One cannot claim to be about the business of religious freedom and then claim the state must define marriage as only be between a man and a woman because it was ordained this way by God in the Bible. This second point is, of course, a religious declaration.

Religious freedom is meaningless if it does not include the right to believe something unpopular. If we don't protect the religious freedoms of people we disagree with, we won't have any religious freedom left at all.

Homosexuality is undeniably a very hotly debated topic with many different perspectives within Christianity and society at large, and debating it is not the scope of the paper, however, it must be stated that it is a primarily religiously and morally based argument. The Manhattan Declaration refuses to acknowledge this, essentially saying "we value religious freedom, but only for those who agree with our religious perspectives.” One cannot both argue for religious freedom and then offer a religious argument for the protection of marriage; if the writers of the Manhattan Declaration would like to argue for the protection of marriage they must do so by using more reasoning that is universal to all. Either we have religious freedom -- which includes the freedom to reject my religion and my religious perspectives on certain moral issues– or it's not really religious freedom.

(This, of course, does not mean that government then has no rights to make any laws at all, as preventing crime -- which has a clear victim-- is very different than legislating morality and creating a state-authorized religious definition of marriage -- which does not have a clear victim.)

3. The Manhattan Declaration's narrative is very selective.

The authors try to make the case that Christians have advanced culture. Yes, Christians were a large reason -- maybe even the catalyst -- for both the end of slavery and the woman's suffrage movement (more so for slavery), but we cannot forget that we were also the opposition in both of these battles. That should give us pause and make us consider the shallowness of our own motivations to be seen as in the right and the blackness of our own hearts for the way we were in the wrong. The right response when looking back on these events should be humility not pride.

3. The Manhattan Declaration places the problems of society on outsiders – not as something that is also within us.

This thinking is best illustrated by the statement "the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies." We should not blame this on outside forces, but rather this should give us pause. White, Church attending, conservative Christian's divorce rates are higher than any other group, and as a white, church attending, conservative Christian, this information should give us cause for repentance not as a call to blame others. Blaming others is exactly the type of ideas that the false prophets came up with, the true prophets would have called for repentance and not sugar coated or blamed the problem on someone else.

Although there is a statement that Christianity has not historically always done the right thing and that churches need to find ways to solve their own divorce rates, these statement still at best like an afterthought. The document paints a much more vivid picture of "agendas" attempting to destroy marriage.

It is not the "homosexuals agenda" that is causing divorce rates to increase among conservatives.

4. The Manhattan Declaration values policy more than theology.

For example, the document says that marriage was "blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem." Although the Hebrew bible is very pro-marriage and pro-reproduction, Christ (and Paul after him) are decidedly not pro-marriage, especially when considering their time period. Although both state that there is nothing wrong with getting married, they both argue that it is better to be single (and chastise) as one can focus more on healing the rifts in this world and being about the work of kingdom. (For example, Corinthians 7:27 "Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife." or Matthew 19:12 "For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.") Again, it is revolutionary that, for their time period, both Jesus and Paul would clearly present being single (and chaste -- and not reproducing) as the ideal.

Furthermore, the bible does not support only one-man-one-woman marriage relationships; there are many men throughout the bible that married multiple women. The bible makes no mention that this is inherently wrong; it never requires a man with two wives who embraces Christianity to divorce one of them; in fact, the only time it limits a man to one wife is for those in church leadership (making the implied case that although not being ideal, it is, at least, allowed for the time being). Jesus, himself, prophesies that there will come a time when there will be such a great impending disaster of a war that eight women will size one man to have them bear their children. Although one can easily make case that the bible prefers a one-to-one definition of marriage, that case can only be made by also claiming that it does so, not by banning polygamy, but by gradually eroding it. The bible, rightly, sees (in a culture where women had few means of providing for themselves and their children on their own) divorce as a worse problem than polygamy.

The writers of the Manhattan Declaration want to win a political argument more than they want to properly convey what the bible says. They are so apt to prove that one-man-one-woman marriage is this great, holy thing that must be protected that they are ignoring the complexity of what the bible actually says about the topic. One-man-one-woman marriage is the preferred biblical form of marriage, but it is not the only one.

5. The Manhattan Declaration is bad policy.

This declaration shows that the religious right has had no political thought in the last 15 years. The religious right needs to go back to the drawing broad and is in desperate need of new leadership. The religious right has vastly misunderstood that ultimatums and the unwillingness to compromise is how you marginalize yourself in the political arena. You might be able to make a lot of noise on the news pundit circuits with absolutist political positions, but it is the person who can cut a deal that can actually pass legislation. Campaigning may be about having firm, unwavering positions, but governing is about bringing people to enough of a consensus so that a bill can be passed.

Although I would love to see zero abortions occur next year, that does not look like a political possibility. A good politician doesn't bother fighting battles that don't have enough consensus to be won. Instead, they work at bringing about their view of a just society gradually.

This inability to compromise and especially the inability to engage and understand an opposing point of view, keeps the pro-life movement from ever accomplishing anything. Conservative Christians want to end abortion but we have no step-by-step road map to get there and no understanding or desire to discuss how this will affect global over-population or our already overwhelmed foster care system. We cannot even say whether saving the life of a newborn child in America will truly save a life or, because our global food supply can't even meet current demand, just transfer that death to a child in an impoverished nation. Without looking into improving the global food supply, we can't even begin to determine if ending abortion will have a positive net affect. The most likely scenario is that ending abortion in America will actually cost more lives than it will save, since an American family eats significantly more times the amount of food that a third world family (on average, we throw out more food than a Sudanese family eats). The strategy that the Manhattan Declaration espouses contains the same tired strategy of making a demand without attempting to reach a consensus or negotiate improvements in these other areas of concern first.

6. The Manhattan Declaration is timed right politically.

It's only when the "unchristian" party is in power that we even see this type of rubbish. If the ruling party was the "Christian" party everyone who is talking about civil disobedience now would be quoting Romans 13:1-7 "everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities..." In an age where Christianity is producing its own extremists who daily make outlandish claims about an administration's leader and agenda, to escalate the rhetoric is reckless.

7. The Manhattan Declaration puts undue importance on politics.

Not once does Jesus mobilize a political kingdom. (It is in fact, the satan who suggests this in Jesus' temptation)

Not once does he attempt to clean up society (and often both his teachings and his actions declared that the moral failures of his day were fully welcome at his table).

Not once does he threaten Rome with a manifesto or with calls for civil disobedience.

8. The Manhattan Declaration presents two options when there are three.

Both the calls for civil disobedience or submission to rulers (even unjust rulers), vastly misunderstands Paul, and Jesus', large points. Both Paul and Jesus time and again call their audience to not oppose or fight laws or unjust rulers but to subvert them -- injecting so much love and reconciliation into one's overt obedience to an unjust law that one disarms it.

For example, when Paul tells his listeners that "women must submit to their husbands" and "children must obey their parents," he is acknowledging the Roman world where God's laws were not the laws in power. (There was a Roman law at the time that said listed a woman had the same compulsion as a slave to obey her husband and another one that said that children, of any age, must obey their patriarch's wishes. This patriarchal right did not end when a child left home, but lasted until the patriarch's death and then passed to the next oldest male member of the household). When Paul says that women must submit he is acknowledging that law; when he says that men must not be harsh with their wives he is subverting it from the inside.

Women must obey the law he says, but men obey a greater one that makes the law that women must obey no longer a burden. The same thing can be said when Paul talk about patriarch's not frustrating their sons, and masters must be just and fair and remain mindful that, in God's kingdom, that slaves and masters are both equal. If the person in power obeys the new command that Paul is giving, the Roman law is rendered powerless. If a master remembers that in God's kingdom his slave is his equal, the slave does not have to worry about unjust treatment. If a Patriarch does not frustrate his son, the son's (required) obedience is not difficult.

So you can see what Paul is calling for is neither one of the two extremes that Christian politicians like to pull out: civil disobedience or submission to authority. Instead what Paul (in these examples) and Christ (in the example of violence and war) are doing is creating a third way: subversion of a law by submitting past the point of what was required. It is the brilliance of walking the second mile that is the example that we, as Christians, should reserve as our response to politics. The first mile can be required by Roman law but the second one wins back your freedom and places the Roman Soldier (who had a right to make a Jew carry his pack for up to one mile -- but no more) in a strangely awkward legal situation where he -- not the Jew -- is breaking the law. The Soldier might have every right to force you to carry it for a mile, but if you are exceedingly generous and walk two he will stop asking you to do it as to avoid breaking his own law. You have not won a political battle, but you have still disarmed the law.

In this same way, you don't have to worry about what the law says:

I don't need to pass laws to make the government take care of the needy (although I can still choose to vote for or against them): I can invite the needy into my home.

I don't need to pass laws to keep women from having abortions (although I can still choose to vote for or against them), I can help her have enough money to be able to raise the child without having to sacrifice her education, help her have the emotional support to not go it alone, and do my part to help her not face the social judgement of a single woman raising a child.

The sooner that people of faith quit looking for their government to legislate their faith the better -- for both faith and the government.