Thoughts on the Manhattan Declaration

When I first read the Manhattan Declaration and its list of supporters, I announced on Facebook that it broke my heart for the church and I’d soon be making my own comments on the document. Indeed, the authors of the declaration state [they] call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. I will here attempt to do so in a fair and reasonable fashion, without digressing into the angry and bitter conversation of what I disagree with so strongly and why. I’m more than happy to state my reasoning for our disagreement, but that’s not the purpose of this particular writing. My purpose is to express why I am so saddened by this declaration and its listed supporters.

To be sure, there are elements of the document that I wholeheartedly agree with. It would be both arrogant and presumptuous for me to take an ecumenical statement signed by so many leaders from Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox Christian traditions and the intellectual and academic accreditations of Michael Easley, Wayne Grudem, Craig Williford, John Woodbridge and Ravi Zacharias and others – each of whom have played a role in the understanding and development of my own faith – and to say there is nothing in it with which I too could not find common ground. These leaders have far more life experience and academic knowledge than I could lay claim to myself. I hold no doctorate, no title of leadership within any academic or religious institution, and haven’t held a job in “the church” for more than a few years for more than a few reasons.

What saddens me – deeply – is that this combined intellect and diverse experience of living in faith that claims to follow God in the way of Jesus Christ, has seemingly “rounded the wagons” to defend their (I’d write “our” but I’m not sure this version of Christianity is something to which I’d subscribe) faith against what they perceive to be the biggest threats of today. In so doing, this statement further polarizes and alienates the church from our current culture, and further paralyzes the effectiveness of the institution of the church in America; thereby decreasing the effectiveness of those who would attempt to follow God in the way of Jesus by reconciliation and restoration in and through that very institution.

The Preamble of the document acknowledges and lays claim to an inheritance of right and good deeds performed by those who have gone before us – a history of “reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.” Giving mere lip service in only a single sentence of a 6,500 word statement to the oppressions and atrocities committed in the name of Christ, the document goes on to position the church – Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical traditions together – as the standard bearers for truth, hope, and love, setting up the charge this declaration is supposed to answer, “Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good.” The following statement follows closely behind: “While the scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.”

If you’ve read the entirety of the Manhattan Declaration, you realize that the above sentence acts as an outline for the three main points these leaders of the church have determined to take a stand on: fighting abortion (and to a lesser extent, euthanasia and stem cell research), defending the definition of marriage as a heterosexual relationship designed for procreation, and defending the rights of pastors, priests and religious institutions to refuse to acknowledge the validity of same sex marriages (as well as the right to speak out against abortion, euthanasia, and a few other things they disagree with) in the name of Religious Liberty.

Its argument against abortion, as one might expect, features the sanctity of life argument as well as the rights of the unborn. “We must be willing to defend, even at risk and cost to ourselves and our institutions, the lives of our brothers and sisters at every stage of development and in every condition.” Stating that the “loss of the sense of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life” is in large part responsible for the innocent victims of war, human trafficking, abandonment of the aged, racism and other global atrocities, the initial section ends with, “And so ours is, as it must be, a truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances.”

My goal here is not to argue for abortion rights, nor to point out the inconsistency in the argument that takes away a woman’s right to choose while claiming to be defending civil liberties for all. Though I am disappointed that in the entire document the concern for global poverty, the AIDS epidemic in Africa or human trafficking takes up only the portion I mentioned above, I applaud (as others have already) that these issues even got an “honorable mention” in the document. That’s progress from where we’ve historically been. What disturbs me is that after making these points and claiming to work from a “truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances,” the authors then spend nearly the entirety of the remainder of the document arguing against the rights of homosexuals.

A good argument is made for the need to strengthen marriages and families, and points that much of the blame for the staggering rates of divorce and failed marriages are due to the glamorization of promiscuity and infidelity in our culture. The need for an education concerning the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses must make to and for one another is called to be instilled in young people. Yet rather than allow for the possibility of a committed and faithful monogamous relationship which can be either hetero or homosexual, the document claims that it is literally impossible for gays to uphold such a standard. Not all too surprisingly, it claims that accepting same sex marriage is tantamount to locking into place “the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions,” and claims that marriage is a right only for heterosexual couples, as it is intended purely for “its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.” Indeed, the Manhattan Declaration even states emphatically, “No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage.” This statement saddens me to the core. “We will not allow gays to be married” they say, “and no one has the right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage.” In other words, any rights desired by a same sex couple – even a committed, monogamous couple who’ve been committed for some 20 years in a faithful relationship – whether it is adoption, end of life rights, visitation rights of a loved one in the hospital, dental, medical or life benefits, et cetera … any rights particularly or specifically linked to marriage are not a civil right, if you happen to be gay.

After attempting to bolster the arguments against same sex marriage, using terms like “biological,” “body,” and “flesh” the Manhattan Declaration spends a brief moment on defending the Religious Liberty of the church, and concludes this way “Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”

If you know me and have some knowledge of my life story over the past three to five years, you’ll know that I disagree with the conclusions and arguments of the Manhattan Declaration concerning civil rights, same sex marriage, homosexual compatibility with the Christian faith, et cetera. Yet the fact that I disagree with some 150 church leaders, some of whom were my professors at religious institutions is not what saddens me the most. It’s not even the audacious and exclusive statements regarding their refusal to acknowledge someone’s “other” relationship as a marriage, nor the refusal to accept that these Others are eligible the same rights as those who’ve signed onto the document.

What saddens me the most is this – that with all of the ills in the world today, what brings these men and (a few) women together to make a statement of faith are these issues. Never mind the cited dehumanizing scourge of human trafficking and sexual slavery, AIDS sufferers in Africa, and the myriad of other human rights causes – from providing clean water in developing nations to providing homes for tens of thousands of children orphaned by war, disease and gender discrimination that gets merely a mention in the Preamble. Never mind an arrogant intolerance and heir of theological superiority of our churches in the midst of a history (and present) littered with consistent church scandals and despicable behavior by its leaders by any moral standard. Never mind other “missteps” in the name of God and the church such as imperialism, genocide, martyrdom, et cetera. Never mind the dogmatic demand for conformity and certainty in uncertain times with uncertain issues. The prospect of addressing these opportunities for healing and seeking repentance and reconciliation from the world that followers of Christ are meant to minister to is not what brings together this unprecedented ecumenical statement. What brings these leaders together to make a declaration for the world to see is yet another step in the wrong direction. Instead of following Christ in the way of truth, love and compassion, the Manhattan Declaration further alienates the church from the world its God loves. And this, my friends, is what saddens me.

I can’t help but wonder: were this document or its historical equivalent brought to Jesus of Nazareth in the middle of one of the house parties He attended with the tax collectors and prostitutes, do you think He would’ve signed on? I doubt it. In fact, I’d like to suggest that He would’ve ripped it up and wept for those who thought it was a good idea.