This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
November 20th, 2009
A group of conservative Christians released today their manifesto of their agreement across lines of faith and tradition. Entitled Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, this document lays out areas in which the signatories declare commonality of purpose.
Who they are
First, let us say what this document is not. It is not, as the NY Times described it, a situation in which “Christian Leaders Unite on Political Issues“. Indeed, this is but a segment of Christian thought, claiming the mantle of Christian history and tradition but excluding broad segments of the faith.
One need only glance at the signatories to know the nature of the alliance. Present are some who are well known names in the political culture wars who have long striven to impose their religious views by force of law on the unbelievers: Dr. James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Gary Bauer, and Tony Perkins. Some are religious leaders who have been recently shifting their realm of influence away from faith towards secular domination: Ravi Zacharias, Dr. Albert Mohler, and Jonathan Falwell.
But this is not just broadly social conservatives. There is, instead, a concentration of those who focus on “opposing the homosexual agenda”. There are a few religious activists who seem dedicated and committed (obsessed, one might think) to fighting equality for gay people: Ken Hutcherson, Bishop Harry Jackson, and Jim Garlow. And then, inexplicably, some who are not religious leaders at all but social activists whose primary occupation is in seeking the political institutionalizing of inequality to gay people: Maggie Gallagher, Frank Schubert, and William Donohue.
Perhaps the most difficult to explain, and by far the most troubling name present, is The Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola, Primate, Anglican Church of Nigeria.
There is no explanation provided as to what relevance Akinola has on what is a uniquely American collection. But his participation is not accidental. And, as I will discuss momentarily, his is perhaps the key that explains the true nature of this manifesto.
This could be seen as nothing more that “the usual suspects”, a rehashing of the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition or any other of the loose groupings of religious authoritarians, were it not for one import inclusion. There are nine Catholic Archbishops who signed on to this document.
Ideologically as dissimilar as possible, these two Christian extremes – one whose doctrine is based in tradition, liturgy, and hierarchy, the other whose doctrine is based in reform, spirit-led worship, and direct divine revelation – have set aside ancient hostilities and theological beliefs that doubt the other’s right to be considered “Christian” and have now joined in a common purpose: denying your rights.
But as important as who is present, is who is absent.
Among the signatories I was unable to find any members of the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Friends (Quaker), Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalists or American Baptists. There was one United Methodist minister.
In short, a whole branch of Christianity, Mainline Christianity, was missing, including many who no doubt would agree with the goals of banning abortion and forbidding same-sex marriage. This exclusion is, I believe, integral to understanding the true purpose of this manifesto.
The agreed upon issues
While this alliance is one that does not reflect the face of Christianity, it also is not a declaration of a new-found position of agreement based on shared Christian teaching and ideology. There is no mention of shared faith in creeds or teachings, no virgin birth, no resurrection, no divine redemption.
Rather, this is a statement of political purpose by an alliance of socially conservative activist who oppose abortion and marriage equality. Indeed, although the document speaks in lofty terms of Christian tradition and religious freedom, the only commitments it makes are to oppose legal abortion (some day down the road) and the immediate attack on the ability of gay people to avail themselves of civil equality.
This is, in short a political alliance. It is a pact and a threat.
What it means
While on the face of it, this manifesto purports to be a rededication to fight two specific political issues, I think that this is but surface dressing for a deeper meaning.
This is not a war over civil marriage definition – nor, indeed, has that ever been the real motivation behind anti-gay marriage drives. Rather, this is a war over religious domination, a fight over who is “really a Christian” and an effort on the part of a long-suffering religious subset to spite those who have long had what they coveted.
Political power in the United States had long been in the hands of what is now called Mainline Christianity. Our presidents have included over a dozen Episcopalians (as is the National Cathedral), about ten Presbyterians, with most of the rest being Methodists, Unitarians, Disciples of Christ, and Quakers.
There has been exactly one Catholic. There have been four Baptists, of whom the two Southern Baptists were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. There have been no Pentecostals and no members of mega-Churches. In fact, though some Republican presidents have been religious and conservative, there has never been a President of the United States that was both denominationally and ideologically within the fold represented by the signatories of this Manhattan Declaration.
And now they want theirs. And, not content at the rise of their own political power, they will not be happy unless they can diminish those denominations whom they seek to replace.
Note the presence of the second signatory, Peter Akinola? He is the Nigerian Anglican who has been missionizing the United States in an effort to hurt the Episcopal Church. His inclusion is a very clear message sent to the EC that they are a target for the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches who will use whatever political power they may wield in the future to thwart her position in the nation.
This manifesto is, I believe, less a declaration of war on gay people and those with unplanned pregnancies than it is a declaration of war on other Christian faiths.
One absence that seems to confirm this alliance is a denomination that one might have expected to be quick to affirm its commitment to the right to life and protection of the family. But there are no representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). The exclusion of this church, considered by most conservatives to be “NOT Christian”, suggest that this manifesto has less to do with social goals and more to do with Christian definition.
This manifesto says, in effect, “We are the Christians. We are the ‘heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word’, and we alone will speak for the faith.”
What the manifesto reveals
In addition to highlighting the division in the Christian body, there are also some clues as to future items on the agenda of this newly affirmed political alliance. Here is how I translate some of their declarations.
we note with sadness that pro-abortion ideology prevails today in our government … truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike
Only lip service will be paid to the shared objection to abortion. Little time, money, or political capital will be spent on this already lost goal. However, should opportunity ever swing in their direction, they will stop at nothing short of a full ban on all abortions without any consideration of rape, quality of life, or the life of the mother.
But absent the abortion issue, these allies have but one other shared issue: attacking you and your life.
Around the globe … take steps necessary to halt the spread of preventable diseases like AIDS
The situations in Nigeria and Uganda are not accidental nor unrelated to the efforts of conservative Americans. Although virtually all of the spread of AIDS in Africa is related to heterosexuality, this will be an excuse to pass draconian laws seeking to repress, incarcerate, or execute gay men and women.
In addition to being a slam against the Episcopal Church, the inclusion of Akinola announces that pogroms against gay Africans will have the endorsement of both the Catholic Church and conservative evangelical churches.
We should not expect the calls for criminal prosecution of gay people to be limited to foreign soil. Should such a fervor be fostered internationally, it is unquestionable that this will lend support to efforts to reinstate or bolster oppression here.
It is no longer a matter of curiosity that the Catholic Church has not spoken out against the Kill Gays bill in Uganda. Nor had Dr. Mohler or Dr. Dobson. Nor, indeed, has any signatory of this document.
The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships … there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships … Some who enter into same-sex and polyamorous relationships no doubt regard their unions as truly marital … the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for same sex partnerships; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships
The Manhattan document does not in any place refer to same-sex relationships without simultaneously mentioning multiple-party relationships. This will no doubt translate to a new commitment on the part of the signatories to try and tie the two together in their political campaigns.
Frankly, I wish them godspeed in that decision. Americans have, I believe, moved beyond the point in which gay couples are viewed as identical to polygamists.
as Christ was willing, out of love, to give Himself up for the church in a complete sacrifice, we are willing, lovingly, to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage.
This probably tells us nothing but the extent to which these people are self-righteous and truly deeply smarmy. They are willing, lovingly, to sacrifice your life and freedom and equality, not their own. Oh how loving. Oh how Christ-like.
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.
There are, as we all know, no requirements for any churches or ministers to act contrary to their faith. We have long since debunked their claims of oppression and shown them to be nothing more than a retraction of special privilege when the religious groups in question wanted to use taxpayer dollars to discriminate against gay taxpayers. There are no instances in their recitation in which religious groups were forced to compromise in any areas of faith in the administration of their own funds or time.
That is of no consequence. Liars lie. We expect the morally bankrupt to behave without integrity.
But what I think we can anticipate, based on their conclusion, is a concerted effort at political stuntery. A dedication to dishonesty. And an ongoing campaign of lies.
As a Christian, it distresses me to see the name of my faith and the mantle of its history usurped by those who have no respect for its greater principles but instead gleefully glom onto its darker bloody history. Rather than exalt in the liberties that have evolved from Christian thought, they seek to equate the faith with its most prejudicial, superstitious, exclusionary and dictatorial moments.
But perhaps something good may come of this.
It is possible that out of this declaration of war, the moderate and liberal branches of the faith may find common cause, if nothing else in defense of their own good name. Perhaps they will decide that they have a purpose and meaning in modern America and will let go of residual guilt and angst and take up the mantle of protector of the oppressed and champion of justice and mercy.
Let us hope and pray that they do.
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