The Manhattan Transfer: Why I Cannot Sign the Manhattan Declaration

“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.” Thomas Jefferson

Note: I do not expect that everyone will agree with my views on this subject.  Thus it is good that I am neither the Pope nor even a bishop.  I fully support the rights of all who have signed this declaration to do so and have the utmost respect for Chuck Colson as well as the Bishops of my Church who have signed this declaration.  I would never impugn the earnest beliefs or motives of these men and women.  However I do not believe that the Manhattan Declaration is fully reflective of the preponderance of the Gospel being that it does not address any traditional theological distinctive of the Christian faith.  It addresses instead moral, social and political issues that are used as wedge issues in contemporary American society.  While I believe that every Church has a right to comment on such issues to use them in their own realm that in a democracy or constitutional republic that such statements serve little purpose other than to rally the troops who already are convinced of them and do little to change the hearts and minds of those who do not.

Recently a fairly sizable number of Christian Leaders from Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have drafted and signed a document called the Manhattan Declaration.  It is a statement of four basic sociological and political issues with significant religious and theological overtones.  Let me provide a brief synopsis of the major points of the declaration:

1. The sanctity of human life.
2. The sanctity of marriage.
3. The protection of religious liberty.
4. The rejection of unjust laws.

To be honest these are all worthwhile goals and I can agree with them.  In fact I agree that the right to life of the unborn as well as the born must be protected.  I believe in sanctity of Christian marriage but recognize that the institution of marriage pre-dates the Christian Church and that descriptions of “traditional marriage” in the Old Testament do not reflect a Christian understanding of marriage but rather a ancient Near Eastern Culture of marriage that is more reflective of Islam than Christianity.  I believe in the protection of religious liberty as defined by the founders of the United States in our Constitution.  While I am a Christian every citizen in the United States has a Constitutional right that protects their religious liberty even if offends and is in contradiction to the Christian faith.  The United States was the first nation of the Enlightenment and the drafters of the Constitution would not allow any denomination to impose its interpretation of the Christian faith on any citizen.  Finally there is the rejection of unjust laws; who can be against that?  At the same time who determines what law is unjust? Or is it a matter of political dogma and not the faith that defines what is or is not an unjust law?

By definition Christians should strive to protect life as a matter of course.  Defending the rights of the innocent both the unborn and the born are essential if one truly is pro-life.  As such simply being anti-abortion is not enough to call oneself pro-life.  Unfortunately the vast majority of those who have signed the Manhattan Declaration would limit it to that and pay lip service to everything else that would make one pro-life including the provision of adequate health to those of inadequate means or access to healthcare, the use of the death penalty and the proper application of the Christian understanding of the “Just War” which prohibits preemptive wars or attacks against nations that have not attacked us. Pro-life would also include the implicit command for the Church to be leading the way in caring for the poor, indigent and the foreigner among us.  Likewise such would assume that the government would also have some responsibility to care for its citizens as the institution that God has raised up to maintain public order and maintain a just society.

Likewise it is within the context of the Church define marriage recognizing that while the vast majority of Christians would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, that is the understanding of the vast majority of people who have signed this document.  No church or religious body should be required to perform rites that are in contravention to their beliefs. At the same time they cannot under the laws of the land impose those beliefs on others or force the government to do so.  The understanding of religious liberty as defined by the Constitution does not allow this.  One of the good things about going to a Southern Baptist Seminary before the Fundamentalist takeover of the denomination was the deep understanding of religious liberty and the freedom of conscience that is given to all citizens.

Likewise defending religious liberty, both to practice one’s religion as well as respect the rights of others to practice theirs is a sacrosanct principle of being an American.  This is especially true for those who serve as Chaplains in the Federal government.  To use a Star Trek metaphor, such is our “Prime Directive.”  Religious liberty is essential and protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution which also guards the rights of free speech and association.  It is my hope that what I model to others in word and deed, and definitely helped by the Holy Spirit, will allow people, even those hostile to the Church or the Christian faith to maybe reconsider, especially if they have rejected the faith because of the intolerance of other Christians or our sometimes sordid history in regard to the treatment of people.

Finally the rejection of “unjust laws” is a bit of a Red Herring.  An unjust law is in the eye of the beholder. The founders of the country believed that a African American only counted as 3/5ths of a person. Which 3/5ths I don’t know, but certainly this cannot be considered a “just law” however it was supported by many Churches including those that resisted anti-slavery provisions adopted by their denominations and left those denominations in the years preceding the Civil War.

However it is not the theological principles of the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, freedom of religious expression and resistance of unjust laws that is the problem.  Rather it is the tacit political emphasis of the document in spite of the comments by major supporters such as the President and CEO of Focus on the Family:

“It is important, first off, to note that the Manhattan Declaration is not a partisan or political statement…Instead, it addresses and elevates four specific areas of universal consensus. Some have referred to these as “threshold issues,” meaning they represent the foundation of our faith and the pivot point from which everything else flows. This is the bedrock. If we can’t agree on these areas of doctrine, everything else will be of reduced value.” Jim Daly, President and CEO of Focus on the Family

As a Christian of the Anglo-Catholic tradition the bedrock of the faith resides in the Bible and the testimony of the Church in the Creeds and the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church. These are not areas that “represent the foundation of our faith and the pivot point from which everything else flows.” I dare anyone to show me this in scripture or church tradition.  While there are places that one can draw inferences of these issues to be scriptural one can claim that the Scripture at no point forbids abortion. In fact the one place where these is even an inference of this is in Exodus 21:22-25 where a man injures a woman to cause a miscarriage is fined and not treated as a murderer.  Likewise the “imprecatory prayers” in the Psalms calm for dashing infants against stones.  If one looks at marriage it is obvious that Israel, like all Middle Eastern cultures of the day and many of the Moslems condemned by many supporters of the Manhattan Declaration practice was more of a property transfer than a true union of husband and wife as we now understand it to be. As far as freedom of religion one can cite numerous examples in the Old Testament where there is no religious freedom or rights given to non-Jews.   So to claim any of these as universal and foundational is inaccurate, even if they are worthy goals.

The drafters of the document refer to the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church during the Nazi era as a precedent for their work.  This is a bad analogy and bad history.  The Barmen Declaration was a statement of faith. The bulk of the declaration dealt with historic Lutheran and Reformed beliefs in the context of bearing witness and being faithful as members of a State Church which was falling in line and becoming a political instrument of the Nazis sacrificing its actual Christian faith and adopting a Nazi-Aryan faith.  This was viewed as heresy and apostasy by the members of the Confessing Church.  These men had no political party to support them, they were alone.  This is not the case with those who sign the Manhattan Declaration.  It is not a statement of orthodox Christianity against the apostasy of a church but a statement of political and social beliefs that have a religious component.

The partisan nature of the document is shown in the timing.  It now occurs with a President who is a liberal Democrat.  It well could have been issued during the Bush administration where little than political speeches were made in support of pro-life or anti-abortion causes.  In fact the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in his confirmation hearings referred to Roe v. Wade as “settled law.” Likewise the Bush administration adopted the policy of pre-emptive warfare as a matter of doctrine.  This is blatantly in contravention of both international law as well as the Christian understanding of the Just War.  One has to remember that the United States prosecuted the Nazis for wars of aggression; wars that the Nazis believed were justified.  Likewise the open support of Gay marriage by the former Republican Vice President was never criticized by many of these people.  It seems that such a document would have had much more credibility has the writers published it during the past administration.

The point of this article is to reaffirm actual Christian doctrine defined by the Creeds, Councils and Scriptures as the standard of the Christian faith and not a list which is not and has never been the central component of the Christian faith.  It is my belief that the Manhattan Declaration is well meaning but ill-conceived and can and is being construed as the litmus test of what it means to be a faithful Christian.  I have seen two friends this weekend, who are totally orthodox in their denomination’s understanding of the Christian faith, theological conservatives who have difficulty with such declarations attacked as liberals and unbelievers.  I expect that some will do this with me.  It is my belief that this statement will serve to ghettoize Christians into a particular wing of the Republican Party providing their critics with the opportunity to simple count them as a subgroup of that party.  That is a real and present danger.

I do find that the preamble to the declaration has much that I can agree with, however it is the focus on a narrow band of issues that concerns me, issues that have been for the past 30-40 years hot button political issues where both major political parties play upon religious groups to further their agendas.

Again, I am totally pro-life and orthodox in my faith as a Christian.  I just believe that such declarations serve only to reaffirm the previously held positions of those who support them and have little effect on the vast majority of people and almost none on the government.

My friends Joel and Jared have made some interesting observations on their own sites.  Joel is at

http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/ and Jared at

http://jzholloway.wordpress.com/

The text of the Manhattan Declaration is here:

http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/images/content/ManhattanDeclaration.pdf

Peace,

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under marriage and relationships, philosophy, Political Commentary, pro-life anti-abortion, Religion

4 responses to “The Manhattan Transfer: Why I Cannot Sign the Manhattan Declaration

  1. padredavidfell

    Fr. Steve,

    Your insights are appreciated. At the same time I would not read into it some of what you concluded. The document itself, not what one of the signers said about it, did not leave me with the impression that it was a statement of faith. It is clearly a stance on moral issues facing our culture and I do not think it pretends to be anything different. Maybe I missed something big in my reading.

    What it does, in my opinion, is provide a point of connection for those who may feel like they are alone in their beliefs and perceptions about the moral and ethical climate in our society. As such, I believe that it goes a long way–however imperfectly–to accomplishing some common ground to standing together on social and moral issues. Many feel that they are alone in their beliefs on such issues; that their voice does not matter. It may not matter, but at least they know they are not alone and that speaking up their voice, in a peaceful way, can be heard.

    As such, I do not find it difficult to support common grounds issues between religious bodies–despite some people in their theological ignorance elevating this document to a statement of Christian doctrine and the short comings of the document itself.

    I essence it advocates a compassionate and non-violent response to the moral issues facing our society. I applaud peaceful efforts to express moral or social issues. A clear lack of perfection notwithstanding, I can stand with their effort to make their voice heard.

    Peace and Blessings,
    Your friend,
    Fr. David

    • padresteve

      David+, While I can see your point I do not think that such is the case for the majority of those who sign the document. I honestly believe that many if not most are those who are activists and involved both in the various branches of social conservatism, but also who are active in party politics. I sense a deep anger when I see some of the words of supporters, an anger which borders on hatred of those who even stary the slightest from their party line. While the drafters may not intend this to be a “litmus test” it is already being used as such by such activists. My view is that this is much more about rallying the base as we enter the off cycle election year than actually speaking to the nation. If you are right I will rejoice, but my inherent cynicism about the poisoned political climate tells me different. As always my friend I love you. Take care and blessings, Steve+

  2. Pingback: I will not be signing the Manhattan Declaration | The Church of Jesus Christ

  3. Fr. Steve,

    We discussed this Saturday over some fine brew, and as usual we agree on most points.

    My problem is this, from a study done last year, I will find it, but I do not have it now, over half the abortions committed in the USA were from born again Christians… mainly because they felt like they would be condemned, felt hopeless, etc… The government cannot fix the Church, so why is the Church trying to put off her own failure to address a problem within herself on the government of the United States and its laws? Of course, there is a lot more… and I know you read my posts 🙂 anyways, my latest is: http://jzholloway.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/the-providence-treatise/

    love ya Padre!
    Jared

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