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Why I Don't Like the Manhattan Declaration

It’s a new year, and in this case a new decade.  It’s hard to find anyone who is satisfied with the results of the last decade, all of the advances in science and technology notwithstanding (or perhaps because of these advances.)    Perhaps the next one will be better; I’m not holding my breath.

It’s also become a time (not consistently) for me to critique some of these declarations that religious organisations put out.  Two years ago it was the Muslims’ Common Word.  This time it’s closer to home: the Manhattan Declaration, which has received much press in the conservative Christian world.  In spite of the fact that the Declaration is well intentioned and contains good stuff, I have sadly concluded that actualising it will result in the repeating of many mistakes which both recent and not so recent history should have cured us of.

Readers of this blog will realise that one major issue is civil marriage.  I’ll get to that, but before I do I need to start with the simple observation that the Declaration is based on a false premise.

The False Premise

The declaration is divided into three parts, which affirm:

  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.

The mere order of these is significant.

There is a sizeable body of Christian believers who believe that the defence of life is the central purpose of Christianity on the earth.  It is this idea that has fuelled much of the whole pro-life movement over the last forty years.  At one time this was primarily a Roman Catholic emphasis, but it has spilled over into the Evangelical community as well.

Such an emphasis needs to be informed by the simple fact that it is eternal life that matters the most.  Ultimately our objective as Christians is primarily to proclaim the second birth, not merely to defend the first.  Knowing that the latter is a necessary prerequisite to the former, it is counter-productive for the church to constantly “fight for life” only to allow the fruits of that struggle to slip away into the second death, either by our own indolence or the state blocking the proclamation of the Gospel.

Nowhere in the Declaration is the freedom to evangelise either mentioned or defended.  Our right to live our faith and to express it are certainly mentioned, but real evangelisation?  It isn’t there.  That’s an important distinction, because in a society where people let all kinds of things “hang out,” it’s easy to express something as long as there’s no real conviction behind it, or if that proclamation doesn’t carry with it the invitation for transformation.

And that leads to what I feel is the Declaration’s false premise: that living out Christianity is primarily a social and political act.  We’ve been there before, on both sides of the divide.  Liberals did it leading up to World War I, and their “hastening of the Second Coming” died in the trenches.  They tried it again from the 1960’s onward, and their declining churches speak louder than anything else.  Not to be outdone, conservatives have been working on “bringing America back to God” since the 1970’s, and the current state of affairs in Washington is in part the result of the failure of this effort, irrespective of its merits.

Christianity differs from Islam in that the amelioration of society–civil, political and individual–is a by-product of the Christian life rather than its objective.  That starts with the transformation of the human heart.  That’s the message Our Lord tried to get through to the Pharisees.  In many ways he is no more successful with us than he was with them.  When hearts are transformed then nations can be changed, not the other way around.

The Civil Disobedience Business

Much has been made of the Declaration’s call for civil disobedience:

Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself. Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.

Ever since Gandhi and Martin Luther King made non-violent protests the reference standard of civil disobedience, that method has been held up to generations of potential activists.  When the declaration invokes such a memory, it is a call to action.  But will the action work?

Non-violent protests depend upon two things for success: a media willing to sympathetically (and consistently) cover them, and a public with enough conscience to be moved by them.  Gandhi may have found the Christianity he saw in the West dissatisfying, but it was enough to make people take a serious look at what he had to say.

Ever since Watergate, Americans have been pummelled with scandal after scandal in the hope that these legal lapses would produce moral outrage and change.  The result is that Americans’ moral sense about these things has been dulled.  It is much harder today than it was in King’s day to move the conscience of the nation because that conscience has been seared by endless, mind-numbing appeals to shock.  Today we are more like Lu Xun’s China: rather than being outraged at the way people are treated, we just come and see the show.

As far as the sympathetic media is concerned, they’re more likely to cover protests they don’t like as the acts of “bad elements” and dismiss them.  The corporatist nature of our society, with its inchoate fear of “unplanned” change, only underscores that.

Personal Sacrifice

In the FAQ’s, the Declaration website says the following re civil disobedience:

So, for example, if a law imposes on pharmacists a duty to dispense abortifacient drugs, and if a pro-life pharmacist believes that his or her compliance with the legal duty would itself constitute a grave injustice towards victim—the developing human being whose death the drugs would be used to cause—then he or she must not comply, even if this means suffering the penalty of being legally disabled from continuing his or her career as a pharmacist.

That’s not my idea of civil disobedience, not at least in the sense that King meant it.  What they’re describing is an act of personal sacrifice, and the gospel certainly calls for that.  We have for so long been drilled in the idea that doing what we want to do in the way of work is a right that we forget that there are things we can do for a living that Christians just don’t have any business doing, and that isn’t restricted to the obvious ones.  Our actualising that part of the Christian life isn’t an act of civil disobedience; it’s part of the personal sacrifice that Our Lord promised to be an integral part of our walk with him.  The fact that the world is simply making that list longer only makes the challenge greater; it doesn’t change the basic nature of the act.

Unfortunately this simple reality exposes a signal weakness in the Evangelical wing of American Christianity.  Evangelicals have “sold themselves” and their way of life in part on the basis that it will induce upward social mobility.  “Redemption and lift” has been a promise of Evangelical churches for a long time.  In the case of those coming off of destructive lifestyles, the immediate benefits are fairly straightforward, even in times when Christianity is unpopular.  For those wanting to move up but are blocked by an implicit or explicit anti-Christian bias, or moral conflicts like the one the FAQ’s describe, decision time comes.  Appealing to “anti-discrimination” sentiments or laws may be limited in their effectiveness if those in seats of authority have collectively decided that the discrimination is “beautiful and good.”

This puts Evangelicals in a world of hurts.  Fortunately, as Late Roman Christianity found out, such sacrifice is easier to deal with when the civilisation is collapsing.  Christians have droned on and on about the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our society, but how about its financial bankruptcy?  How to liberals plan to finance their patronage schemes (such as health care reform) when dollar hegemony is receding, small and medium sized business withers in the face of inadequate credit and snowballing regulation, and the public debt mounts?  Why do we keep wanting to hold up this society when our enemies in the drivers’ seat keep running it into the ground, taking their agenda with it?  These are questions that deserve better answers than the platitudes that American Christians so thoughtlessly throw at them.

What Really Needs to be Done

Having said all of this, what really needs to be done is the following:

  1. Christians need to accept the fact that following Jesus Christ will be costly, at least in the short term.  They need get used to the idea that their commitment to Christ may result in universities passed up, jobs missed, and other opportunitites foregone.
  2. Christians also need to embrace the idea that what our society holds up as successful living may in fact not be very successful.  The way of life commended today has many destructive aspects that get in the way to true achievement, advancement and wealth generation, including the expense of serial monogamy, substance abuse, uncontrolled sexual activity and the enormous amount of debt that people incur.
  3. Christians need to see that upward social mobility has changed in nature from acheivement through working one’s way up in business to a credentialled affair based on education and the connections that come with it.  Although we preach in our society that anyone can be anything they want to be, the reality is much more limited than that.  This in turn limits the downside of (1).
  4. Christians must get away from this neo-caesaro-papism (understandable of Roman Catholics, inexcusable in Evangelicals) that they have gotten themselves into.  They must challenge the assumption, prevalent since Bill Gothard enunciated it, that the disaster of the 1960’s was a breakdown in authority, and that the restoration of authority is the only way to reverse it.  They must face facts in the face and understand that what was initiated in those days–times that still haunt the Boomer leadership of Christianity–was in fact a transfer in authority from one group to another.
  5. Christians need to become more libertarian in their ideas and expectations of the state.  They need to grasp the limitations of politics in its ability to accomplish a moral and spiritual agenda.  They need to remember that the genius of the American relationship with the church started when religious dissenters, in league with others, challenged the state church paradigm that was brought over from the “old country.”  Freedom needs to be leitmotif of Christian political involvement, not authority.  The latter will lead to the domination of the church by the state.
  6. Christians must remember that, rather than simply buttressing Roman power and authority, the reason why the Church became dominant during Rome’s collapse was that it was able to transcend the Roman state and become a force of its own in society.
  7. Christians need to spend more time in strengthening the church rather than trying to save society.  Although Evangelicalism’s drive for outreach is excellent, it’s too often done without regard for either the individual discipleship level of the members or their group cohesion.
  8. Christians need to be what they are, the only true internationalists in the game.  They need to realise that the centre of Christianity and the world’s industrial and economic centre are becoming one in the same, namely Asia.  They also need to grasp the import that other parts of the world which are described as economically “emerging” are also becoming centres of Christianity, such as Africa.  “Western” Christians need to understand that their faith is now a Third World religion.  They must learn to celebrate that fact and facilitate the transition rather than desperately holding onto power.

The Manhattan Declaration contains many fine sentiments.  Unfortunately one gets the feeling that it will lead to the leadership of American Christianity making the same mistakes they have in the past, and at this point we have neither the time nor the luxury to indulge ourselves in doing the same things over again we’ve done before.

Sidebar Issue: Evangelicals and Catholics in the Manhattan Declaration

One thing I’ve discovered with the Declaration is that some Evangelicals have back away from it because of its implicitly Roman Catholic view of Christianity and society.  Objectors (such as John McArthur) will couch that in doctrinal terms.  Although much of what I’ve written above reflects an Evangelical view of how people become Christians, because of my complex theological development I’ve probably taken the scenic route to get where I’m at.

As was the case in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, I don’t have a problem with the two groups working together for common political objectives.  And it’s true that Roman Catholics have a more developed view of the church’s role in society and the state than Evangelicals do (and that’s not saying much.)  The problem is that, in order to perfect the Roman Catholic view of Christianity’s role in the state, you really need to revert to the paradigm that was reality in places such as the ancien régime in France.  As much of a Bossuet fan as I am, at this stage I don’t think that this is either desirable or possible.

While on the subject of the scenic route, I found interesting the reasoning for signing given by my fellow Chattanoogan, Dr. Niel Nielson, President of Covenant College.

Sidebar Issue: Civil Marriage

Most regular readers of this blog know that I believe that civil marriage should be abolished.  I won’t belabour this point, but would like to observe the following:

  1. There’s no Biblical reason why Christians should believe that civil marriage is necessary.  God didn’t need the state to solemnise Adam and Eve’s union, did he?  Why should we?  Even the declaration admits that marriage precedes all other institutions in society, and that includes the state.
  2. The Declarations statement that “Marriage is an objective reality…that it is the duty of the law to recognize and support for the sake of justice and the common good” is a statement of hope against experience, for reasons I detail here.  The law simply hasn’t done this, and, although there are a few who have called for the reversal of much of what has taken place in marriage law, I doubt this will take place.
  3. It’s interesting to note that, in spite of the active participation in efforts such as California’s Proposition 8 by the RC and LDS churches, neither of these institutions need civil marriage in order to make it function amongst their members.  They have the central authority, record keeping system and judicial capabilities to make it work.

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