Monday, December 07, 2009

Why I believe the Manhattan Declaration causes more harm than good

One of my friends recently blogged about something called the Manhattan Declaration. It’s a 7-page letter drafted by 3 conservative Christians expressing their opinions on how Christians should respond to several hot social issues.

After reading it, I found myself shaking, vastly disappointed not only in those "Christians" who created the Declaration, but also those who choose to endorse it. The Declaration claims to speak for Christians. Instead, it makes me ashamed to call myself one.

With my frustration vented in those words, the easy course would be to stop here. Instead, I feel I need to go into detail, to explain exactly why I’m so upset. I write this out of my own frustration, but also because I care: I care about seeing reform in the Church, and I see the Manhattan Declaration as moving us in the opposite direction from where we should be headed.

The Declaration itself appears to encourage such a reflection:

We 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.

And so, after many hours, here is my critical reflection:


The Declaration’s preamble lists some of the good things Christianity has done throughout history. There are some true gems in there: caring for the sick, fighting slavery, fighting for civil rights, etc. Yes, the Church has done some good. The authors conveniently forget things like the Crusades, the suppression of scientific advances (the earth is the center of the universe, remember?), the oppression of women (which continues in modern day Catholicism and several other denominations), etc. But in all fairness, none of those are core issues at stake, and being that this is a religious, not historical, document, I’m okay letting it slide. So, really, nothing terribly objectionable in the preamble.


1) Abortion

The authors deserve great credit for including this statement:

We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need…. [The] truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike.

This is a well thought out and healthy response, they did well here. Because I’ve gone back and forth in my views on abortion, while I personally [currently] disagree with their viewpoint on the immorality of all abortions, I can, on this topic, simply agree to disagree. If the authors and signers fulfill this social promise to care for the pregnant women in need (or, if not completely fulfill, at least give a good faith effort), then more power to them, and kudos.

With that said, though, I must also acknowledge the necessity of separation of church and state, something for which I have only in recent years gained an appreciation. By this I mean: the authors, and the Church, are welcome to hold their stance against abortions, but they ought not decree law, because, at least in this country, we are not a theocracy.

2) Embryonic Research

Sadly, the church has often stood opposed to science and scientific advances, so to hear that view reiterated in yet another modern day context doesn’t really surprise me.

At issue here is the question of when life begins (vs "potential life"), for which, to my knowledge, no one has yet produced a solid, definitive, and scientifically credible answer.

Personally, I believe there’s great potential benefit in embryonic research. To imagine that we could one day rehabilitate spinal injuries, I think it would be irresponsible not to pursue these advances. But I also don’t see this as a core issue of Christianity (in fact, *nothing* in the entire Declaration seems to be an actual core issue… hmm…), so again, I’m willing to agree to disagree.

3) Euthanasia

Death is tricky. When it comes to end-of-life care, I generally put it in these terms: what would I want if it were me or my family? My parents and I had that discussion a few years ago when Terri Schiavo was in the news. We all agreed: none of us wanted to be in that situation.

Heart-wrenching, end-of-life decisions are difficult enough, and thus belong solely in the hands of the family, their pastors, and the doctors, not politicians or religious protestors.

The flip side: opening the door to any form of legal euthanasia quickly becomes a slippery slope issue. The Church is right to be concerned and to encourage just legislation... but along with that comes a responsibility to approach the issue with intelligence. End-of-life decisions for patients with no chance of recovery in no way equates to eugenics, as the Manhattan authors seem to suggest.

I believe the message here ought to be: leave this one in the hands of individual pastors, rather than trying to apply a blanket, catch-all rule. Life and death are far too complex for that.

What the authors leave out

Left out of the discussion are capital punishment and war, in my opinion the most important "sanctity of life" issue. (There is one passing mention of war victims, but it’s barely noticeable). If the Church ought to be riles up about anything, I would want it to be riled up about these two issues. Unlike the issues the authors do bother to discuss, capital punishment actually affects living people, is morally dubious at best, and promotes punishment rather than rehabilitation - these are not New Testament ideals. (yes, the Old Testament condones capital punishment, but set in context, the OT law is one of the most progressive ancient world legal systems, on par with the Code of Hammurabi)

Related to war, one of the most important questions we can ask: why is my life as an American any more valuable than that of a non-American? If the Church truly wants to be counter-cultural, this would be a good place to start.


I’ll lambast in a few moments, but first I must acknowledge some true pieces of gold. The Declaration rightly expresses concern over the dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock birth rate, infidelity, and divorces. They go on to state:

To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love.

Amen. Well spoken. And I wholeheartedly agree. Hollywood and popular culture have cheapened marriage, and that saddens me. The Declaration authors are right to express their concerns.

Unfortunately, my agreement ends shortly thereafter. The Declaration goes on to, in my words, "lovingly condemn" homosexuals. Here’s what I mean. The authors do acknowledge that:

We, no less than they [homosexual persons], are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness.

On very basic principle, taken out of context, I agree with that statement… in that I agree ALL persons "have fallen short". And I truly must commend the authors on delivering what is perhaps the most gracious and loving language I’ve seen from the conservative’s camp on this topic. Seriously, their attention to nuance is inspirational, and at the very least, I pray that those who are more conservative would take what the authors have written to heart. There is some actual good that could come from it.

But the authors grievously err in their presupposition that homosexuality is inherently sinful. This is the hot button for me, since at least half of my closest friend group is GLBT, and some of them are in committed relationships more honoring to God than many heterosexual couples I know. I honestly can’t believe that the Church is still up in arms about homosexuality, seeing as it’s mentioned exactly 0 times in the Gospel (so clearly it was of fundamental importance to Jesus, the person we’re supposed to be imitating... wait…)

There are a few Biblical verses from Leviticus and Paul’s letters that are always used to condemn homosexuality, but these all speak of lustful acts performed in order to shame God (much the same as heterosexuals do all the time… except no one is persecuting them), and not about committed, monogamous marriages as we see them today. There are plenty of laws, for ALL people, heterosexual and otherwise, about sexual purity, but none that actually address homosexual marriage commitments. To any who disagree with me, the burden of proof is on you to provide any Scriptural evidence to the contrary. (I’d also add, if you bother to read Leviticus, in addition to sexual purity laws, it also commands believers to stone anyone who works on the Sabbath, to stone adulterers, and not to weave cloth from two different kinds of thread. I’m always curious why the conservatives don’t ever try to enforce these laws...)

The Declaration expresses concern about "family values". I would pose this question for consideration: how are "family values" threatened by monogamous, committed, publicly accountable marriage covenants between two people who love each other and want to raise a family? That seems like a pretty good definition of "family values" to me. Why should gender matter?

The Declaration goes on to purport that allowing equal marriage rights will lead to polygamous or incestuous marriages… I don’t know any effective method of arguing against irrationality, so my only response is for anyone who actually believes that to go out and talk to a gay person, rather than about them.

Now here’s what really doesn’t make any sense to me: in the Declaration’s previous section, discussing "life", the authors say the following:

We call on all officials in our country, elected and appointed, to protect and serve every member of our society, including the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us.

The Bible enjoins us to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those who cannot themselves speak.

I can’t possibly be the only one to spot the irony: the authors first claim a desire to serve and protect the marginalized, those who are defenseless, but then proceed to attack one of the most commonly marginalized groups today: the GLBT community. Does Christian hypocrisy surprise me anymore? No, of course not, we’re all human. But it does disappoint me. The authors would do well to read their own work, perhaps it would enlighten them.

More importantly, though: how is a GLBT Christian supposed to respond? I’m a straight, white, middle class American male, I have it pretty easy in life, and this isn’t an issue I’ve personally had to wrestle with. But half of my closest friends have. How does one choose between their faith in God and their sexual identity? It’s as perverse as if asking an African-American to choose either their ethnicity or their faith. The homophobia and prejudice presented by the Declaration is as vile as racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. It’s saying that being the person you were born is a sin. I thought we’d moved past that in this country, and so it saddens me greatly that the Church, of all organizations, should be the one promoting continuing persecution. Have we learned nothing from the civil rights and suffrage movements?

For over 260,000 signers of the declaration to date, the answer is apparently "no".

I find it revolting when fear and prejudice try to hide behind God’s name.

If individual churches choose to oppose to equal marriage rights, I suppose that’s their prerogative. To those churches I say this: remember the separation between Church and State, and keep your hatred, fear, and prejudice out of my legislature.

Religious Liberty

I was hoping this section might have discussed the recent trend of saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Because I might have been in agreement with the authors had they touched that subject.

No such luck.

1) Conscience Clauses

The authors express their unhappiness that Christian health-care professionals are forced to refer or perform abortions. While I can appreciate such a person’s plight, each individual chose that profession, and with accepting their job agreed to do their job.

The Declaration also laments the closing of a Catholic adoption agency because they discriminated against GLBT adopters. I believe that’s referred to as "illegal discrimination"… I guess I don’t understand what part of "illegal" didn’t make sense to the authors...

One of my friends was fired from her job at a so-called "Christian" Bible camp last summer. It was her second year, she’d worked there the previous summer, was well-liked, had many friends amongst the staff. But it came out that she was in a loving, committed, Christian relationship. With another girl. She was told to choose: leave her employment, or leave the girl she was dating.

I wish she would have pursued legal action; unfortunately, the camp will get away with it.

2) Hate Crimes Laws

The authors are concerned that new legislation will prevent pastors from preaching against homosexuality and abortion from the pulpit.

I’m undecided here, because there is that line between Church and State. As for abortion, while I disagree with the view, I’m inclined to say such speech is protected under the 1st Amendment. I don’t particularIy see the church alienating those who have had abortions, but if that’s what the pastors really want to do, I think it’s their right. I can at least hope they’ll approach such a topic with a view of love and reconciliation.

As concerns anti-homosexual speech from the pulpit, this equates to no less than preaching about hating black people, or women, or Jews, or Indians, of Muslims, or anything. Whatever laws govern other hate speech ought also apply to sermons related to anti-homosexuality.

A couple years ago, one of my very best friends, who also happens to be homosexual, and an atheist, was hired as a church secretary. Since then, she has come to believe in God again. What would have happened if that church had turned her away?

The End

The Declaration ends with an invitation to incite civil disobedience against unChristian and unjust laws. Laws that give people equal rights and stuff. Because, of course, it’s not like that’s what our country was founded on or anything. Christianity ought to be defined by who we include, rather than who we choose to exclude from Jesus’ table.

The Declaration was written by leading conservative Christians, and cannot be assumed to speak for all Christians world-wide. Instead of bringing church unity, it instead alienates people like me - people who are already fed up with "the Church". It alienates and marginalizes those who have had abortions, those who are divorced, the GLBT and Christian GLBT communities, and those who have had to make difficult end-of-life decisions for their loved ones. Rather than offering reconciliation with God, the Declaration builds one more obstacle between God and the people He loves.

The Declaration causes more harm than good.