• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Manhattan Declaration: A Waste of Everybody's Time?

Friends and students have asked what I think about The Manhattan Declaration. Not all friends or students have asked, to be sure! Indeed, many readers of this blog won’t know what I’m talking about. But some will know that it is the recently released statement of a range of conservative American Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians.

It’s a strange document, this Declaration. Indeed, it seems to me to be strangely useless. Here’s why.

1. The original signers include some Big Names among evangelical popular culture, a few eminent Catholic intellectuals, some institutional presidents, and assorted others. Missing are heavyweight evangelical scholars or prominent Christian politicians. Missing also is almost anyone to the left of the Religious Right, with a few conspicuous exceptions, such as  the estimable evangelical activist Dr. Ron Sider. As such, it is difficult to take the document seriously as representing the best Christian thinking available on matters of ethics and politics.

2. Given the provenance of the document being the American Religious Right, therefore, it will surprise precisely no one that the document declares that such people are (still) prolife, (still) pro-traditional marriage, and (still) desirous that their way of seeing things is put into American law. It’s not evident to me that anyone needed a big declaration that such people still feel this way.

3. The document gives no clear direction about what anyone is supposed to do once they have read it–besides sign it, I suppose. Is anyone now going to campaign for prolife positions any differently than he or she did before? Is anyone going to change his or her mind about homosexual marriage? Is anyone going to seek new legislation or, if the law swings against conservative Christians, engage in civil disobedience of some unspecified sort? Who knows?

4. Finally, the document seems philosophically and politically incoherent. It argues for religious liberty for Christians to dissent from views they don’t like (and this point, alas, needs increasing emphasis in America as well as here in Canada). But it also argues that these particular Christian views of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and more should be enshrined in American law. It says nothing about the liberty of those who would dissent from those views except to assert that because these Christian views are right, they should be the law of the land. What, then, happened to religious liberty on these important matters? The document doesn’t say.

I’m conservatively prolife and have traditional Christian views of marriage also. But just because I think those views are right doesn’t entail that I believe they should be law. Deciding what ought to be law in a pluralistic, democratic society that welcomes immigrants from, and seeks to influence helpfully, countries all over the world, requires careful political theory. Indeed, it requires fundamental and detailed consideration of a variety of related subjects, including the nature and intentions of divine providence over nations, what God expects of human beings individually and corporately short of the return of Christ, what is politically feasible in a given situation, and more. There is none of that sort of thinking evident in this declaration, but rather a strong sense—common enough among conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox around the world—that particular Christian convictions are simply right and therefore ought to be law.

Furthermore, America is not an officially Christian nation, but rather a Christian-majority one. So if we apply the same logic elsewhere, then Muslim-majority countries should enshrine shari’ah as their laws, since Muslims are equally convinced that shari’ah is right, and should brook no exceptions for non-Muslims. The same would go for Hindu- or Buddhist-majority countries. Then what happens then to religious liberty? Or is liberty important only if your views are correct—namely, Christian?

I note that the three drafters are Timothy George, an evangelical historian of theology and academic administrator who shows up frequently in such projects; Robert George, a distinguished Princeton University scholar who is a stalwart defender of Roman Catholic conservative social policy; and Charles Colson, another evangelical whose impressive Prison Fellowship ministry arose out of his previous political career, a career that by any account was extremist and ended in the extremes of Watergate disgrace and a prison term (and therefore not the political expertise one might hope for behind such a document). Such authorship confirms the sense that the project of building a “Christian America” according to the values of the Religious Right, rather than building the best possible pluralist and free society, is the agenda guiding such a declaration.

Others of us, however, will think that God’s will might run to greater liberty for all, greater tolerance for ambiguity and dissent, greater pluralism of belief and practice, and perhaps paradoxically therefore greater opportunity for the Gospel. For it is not clear to us that such declarations, and the outlook that prompts them, really increase non-Christian willingness to respect conservative Christian concerns, let alone to seriously entertain any proclamation of the Gospel. It certainly is not clear that they move anyone closer to prolife, pro-traditional marriage, or pro-religious liberty views.

Indeed, it’s not clear to some of us what good they do at all.