November 24, 2009

Manhattan Declaration: Where are the moderates?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Religious Right's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Energized by the backdrop of President Obama's first year in office, an ecumenical but familiar group of influential conservative Christians (including prominent Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Evangelical leaders) have reasserted the primacy of abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty as the three foremost political issues that matter above all others.

If you haven't yet read The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, here's the
full text and list of 145+ original signatories, which includes names like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Al Mohler. This excerpt provides the basic gist:

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.
I suspect where one stands on the Manhattan Declaration likely hinges on how one would answer the question: Should abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom be placed at the very top of a "hierarchy of issues" (to use drafting committee member Chuck Colson's term) when it comes to public policy concerns facing Christians?

So far, the Manhattan Declaration has received mixed reviews. Bloggers over at First Things can barely contain their
enthusiasm for it, while others like Dan Gilgoff have said it "reads like a throwback to the culture wars of the 2004 election." Regent College theology professor John Stackhouse calls it "strangely useless" while Jonathan Merritt, founder of the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, says the statement is unlikely to "sway a new generation of Christian leaders who take a broader view of cultural issues facing us today."The document's backers point to the diverse range of theological perspectives represented by its signatories, not everyone in the evangelical world who typically contributes to these types of ecumenical public policy collaboratives has endorsed the Manhattan Declaration. A handful of names like Ron Sider, Cornelius Plantinga, David Neff and Richard Mouw notwithstanding, there doesn't seem to be much support from evangelical "moderates" who were instrumental in drafting last year's Evangelical Manifesto and 2004's For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, both of which called for a broadened platform including issues like creation care, poverty alleviation, racial reconciliation, human rights and peacemaking. Those who have endorsed both the Manhattan Declaration and the Evangelical Manifesto (Timothy George and Leith Anderson for example) appear to be the exception.

So where are all the moderates?

Noticeably absent from The Manhattan Declaration's signatories are respected scholars like David Gushee, Jim Skillen, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen Monsma, J.P. Moreland, Os Guinness, Dallas Willard and Darrell Bock, not to mention other influential evangelical voices like Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, Bill Hybels, Gary Haugen and Rich Stearns. This doesn't mean Manhattan isn't an amazing feat of coalition-building across Evangelical-Catholic lines (Neuhaus would be proud), but such a narrow range of policy emphases might explain why many, including yours truly, are reluctant to sign on.

It looks like the culture wars are back, folks. Man your battle stations.


Rachel said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this!

"I suspect where one stands on the Manhattan Declaration likely hinges on how one would answer the question: Should abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom be placed at the very top of a "hierarchy of issues" when it comes to public policy concerns facing Christians?"

That's exactly what I was thinking! Sounds like a call to arms if I've ever heard one.

Frankly, I'm tired of fighting.

Ethan said...

Thanks for your post Common Loon.

I found myself resonating with the declaration, excited to fight this war (lovingly) for the sake of human dignity, the common good, and the glory of God.

While issues such as creation care, poverty alleviation, racial reconciliation, human rights, and peacemaking are important, it seems like less prophetic "declaration" needs to be said about them since many from right and left agree they are important.

Ethan said...

I actually don't like the term "Culture War". I prefer terms like debate and discussion since they promote more civility when it's easy for hatred, pride, and malice to take over. I shouldn't think of myself as a warrior who fights but rather a faithful servant of Christ.

Ethan said...

I thought the declaration was very well written, well argued, and showed good humility towards those with same sex attraction. It was well worth reading.

Joe Losiak said...

We need to stand for what we believe in to be true. It's that simple. Saying only thinks that will not offend is silly. We are to speak the truth in love - both are needed. Love w/o truth is hypocrisy. Truth w/o love is brutality. Those who could not sign can form their own declaration - instead of saying that we must all stoop to the lowest common denominator.

Joe Losiak said...

The declaration also made note of which Jesus we believe in as there are others versions of Jesus that were concocted later.

Joe Losiak said...

Hey Dude Richard Mouw signed it. Just because someone didn't sign yet, doesn't mean they will not sign. Some may agree and not sign for personal reasons. Those against should say what they are for, because the rest of us don't know if it matters that much.

The Common Loon said...

You are correct about Richard Mouw, Joe.

I've edited the post to reflect this.

The Common Loon said...


I would agree that respectful debate/discussion is far more helpful in addressing these complex public policy issues than "culture warring."

The question is, does the MD's narrow focus on 3 hot-button issues help cultivate this kind of civil discussion or does it take us back toward the political right vs. left polarization where the turf becomes divided into 'us' vs. 'them?'

My concern is that documents like the MD serve to solidify the already prevalent notion among evangelicals that abortion and gay marriage are the paramount litmus-test issues that draw a hard and fast line between good guys vs. bad guys in the public square (the secular left is just as guilty on the opposite end of the spectrum).

The danger in filtering all of our political opinions through this simplistic lens is that we risk writing off some very good ideas in other policy areas simply because they've originated with people who disagree with us on the all-important hot-buttons. For example, many pro-life Christians are incapable of agreeing with any policy proposals coming from "liberals" (even if the topic has nothing to do with abortion) simply because those are the "other" guys who kill babies and support gay marriage.

On a related note, I saw a poll today saying that only 54% of Republicans believe global warming is occurring so I'm not convinced there's much consensus 'from right and left' when it comes to climate change / creation care. The fact that this and other important issues (poverty, racial reconciliation etc.) were hardly mentioned in the MD seems to be indicative of the very different policy priorities between right and left.

Last year's "Evangelical Manifesto" is closer than the MD to where I stand on Christian political engagement. It featured a slightly more "moderate" drafting committee but has some overlap with the MD on things like religious liberty. Interestingly, many evangelicals from the conservative wing (Dobson, Perkins, Mohler et al.) did not sign it because they felt it took too much focus off what they see as the paramount issue priorities, namely those 3 covered in the MD.

I'd encourage you to read it if you get the chance:

Ethan said...

Thanks for your thoughts Common Loon.

I agree with you about the need to be careful not to write off ideas from those who don't agree with MD on those 3 issues.

I'm not sure whether MD will advance good discussion on these issues. I'm guessing it will in some quarters (especially with those who are undecided) and will lead to dangers you describe in others. Hard for me to see what the net effect will be.

I haven't read the Evangelical Manifesto or heard much about it. I'm glad you brought it to my attention. I will try to look into it more when I have time. From scanning the intro to it though it seems like it has a different aim then the MD. The Manifesto seeks to define Evangelicalism while the MD seeks to defend from attack on these 3 issues. If MD was intended to define Evangelicalism, I'd agree it would be much too narrow.

Ann said...

Is there are list of those who were invited to sign but didn't or are you just familiar with who would normally be on board with something like this and noticed that their name was lacking (Nick Wolterstorff, for example)?

The Common Loon said...


I'm not aware of any such list in circulation, although I'd be curious to see the names of those initially invited to sign.

The non-signers' names I mentioned are merely my own observation of prominent evangelicals who are highly likely to be aware of the MD by now, but have not signed for whatever reason.

There could still be a few "heavy hitters" who end up as signatories, but only time will tell. My personal feeling is that Gushee, Skillen, Warren and Hunter would have added their names by now if they were ever going to.

Anonymous said...

I always trust you to summarize the news that I'm not going to take time to read unless there's nothing on TV. And for that, I thank you.

Daniel said...

Hello CL, I found your interesting blog through Cho. I also have been spending some time considering the Ma.Dec. as well as belatedly working my way through the Sopranos miniseries. As near as I can tell up to seasonn 3, I think Tony, Big Pussy, Pauli, Hesh (the Jew) and the whole Soprano crew wouldn’t have any problem signing on to the “Declaration," they are anti-abortion, anti-homo, pro-(theoretical)-family, anti-tax, Caesar rendering, pro-business, limited govt., God-believing, patriotic Americans. They would confess to some personal and historical “imperfections” as the MD humbly acknowledges (a genocide here, an atomic bomb there, a few millennia of slavery, couple of pogroms and holocausts, but all of these evils are accountable to Roe v. Wade projected backwards into history ( by a aprocess of theological 'magical' un'realism'). The authors of the MD share Tony’s profound sense of selective historicism (no mucking about with post-modern relativism here) the Md time travels from rescuing Roman trash babies, to the barbaric sack of Rome, to Wilberforce in a couple of paragraphs! True, the MD argues, it may have been Christians, who turned the fire hoses and German shepherds loose on black civil rights workers in Montgomery, but it was also Christians who invented the fire dept., and Cesar Milan the dog whisperer is a practicing Catholic, so we selectively claim that part of our heritage. Meanwhile Carmella is currently going through a crisis of conscious. She knows that her family’s wealth and lifestyle are dependant on Tony’s ‘questionable’ business practices (e.g. Arson, extortion, robbery, murder, drugs, prostitution), so she invites her priest for advice and consolation. They have dinner, wine, more wine, (all on Tony’s dime) really make a ‘soul connection,’ pray, have communion, then make-out and come close to having sex, yadda yadda, the priest absolves her of all her guilt, and they both agree to “keep praying for Tony to grow and change.” Oh, I didn’t notice any Jews or synagogues supporting the ‘declaration’ so maybe Hesh would give it a pass. Thanks for the great blog, Obliged, Daniel.