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The Manhattan Declaration: Approach with Caution

Last month a group of over 150 Christian leaders from the Evangelical, Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox faiths united to sign The Manhattan Declaration, a document declaring that signers will not compromise on the issues of sanctity of human life, the traditional definition of marriage, and the “rights of conscience and religious liberty.” They have pledged themselves to “civil disobedience” in order to avoid violating these Christian standards. As of this writing, they have been joined by nearly 250,000 who have signed the document online.
The Declaration, drafted by Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George, and Dr. Timothy George, is in direct response to the recent gay marriage debate and is designed to provide a common base of support for activities such as the Catholic Church’s recent high pressure lobbying of Congress to eliminate language from the national health care bill that would have funded abortion.
While they have claimed they will commit “civil disobedience,” essentially this amounts to refusing to perform activities inconsistent with their faith while enjoying non-profit 501(c)(3) status, and signals a willingness to withdraw from providing humanitarian public services if the government makes such activities a prerequisite for non-profit status or funding. In other words, a Catholic adoption agency may shutter its doors rather than provide services for same-sex couples.
Although the groups have not been able to agree on fundamental theological issues, their unity around these points held in common may initially seem to be an admirable step forward in reasserting the Christian voice in America’s culture wars.
So far so good – churches shouldn’t be compelled by the government to do things that violate their sincerely held beliefs. However, the Declaration does not stop with three issues that many American Christians would easily agree upon as protective of their faith. In the midst of the statement on promoting a “thriving marriage culture,” the writers tuck in an ominous sentence that seemingly comes out of nowhere, “But if we are to begin the critically important process of reforming our laws and mores to rebuild such a culture, the last thing we can afford to do is to re-define marriage in such a way as to embody in our laws a false proclamation about what marriage is.” (Emphasis added.)
The writers do not clearly define what they mean by a “thriving marriage culture.” Since same-sex marriage is merely a hindrance to achieving this goal, there must be something beyond defining what constitutes marriage. Culture is a broad sweeping concept, and passing laws would affect not just adherents but everybody in society.
And what does it mean to “rebuild” such a marriage culture? Despite the imperfections of modern family life, what laws could be passed to restore a “thriving marriage culture”? There are two things that families could use more of: money and time. Tax breaks might help families by relieving a portion economic stress but such changes might only increase family budgets by at most 10% and would require cuts in government services benefiting low income families. Time is a much more valuable commodity and if the supply and demand chain were broken one day a week, families would have opportunity to relax because there would be no reason for the majority of people to go to work that day.
Declaration signers know that it is impossible to pass a law requiring people to “be nice.” However, things can be done to help families. If they are to reinvigorate a thriving marriage culture, sweeping changes must be made across the board to empower families. Right now, with 24/7 commerce it is difficult to give employees a uniform day of rest that they can count on each week so that they can plan family time. (See Keep Sunday Special for the secular health and safety benefits of a uniform day of rest.) Promoting the family time inherent in Sabbath rest would appear to promote a thriving marriage culture, and would at least require economic penalties against those businesses who required their employers to lose this family time by engaging in commerce.
Such efforts are underway in Europe where Germany has passed a national day of rest for most sectors of the economy. (See Spiegel International to read where the law is being used as a mechanism to block a minority group from practicing its faith.)
In America we are quickly reaching the critical point where expansion of freedom is viewed by some as a threat to religious liberty. Advocates for religious freedom who once took an almost permissive approach so long as the rights and safety of innocent third parties were protected are now actively calling for those types of freedoms to be curtailed.
It is a delicate balancing act, and churches do well to protect their integrity. But if they are also using the power of this unity to “reform laws” and “rebuild the culture” then we are witnessing the emergence of a new threat to liberty. After all, if the problems we face are resulting from too much freedom, a restoration of a prior culture would mean a rollback in freedom.
From a strictly human perspective, the document is troubling as well. It focuses on human power to effect changes in human laws which will in turn effect the hearts of the people – an approach that Christ repeatedly rejected in His earthly ministry. If Christians want to rebuild a moral culture, they must be willing to preach the gospel but rely on the power of God to change hearts – they should not hide behind the power of government.
We are dancing on shifting sands. It may be tempting and even seem safer to join the crowd and push for new laws to change society. It can be frightening to run the risk of appearing in favor of “immorality” if you stand for the principles of separation of church and state, and try to protect the rights of both the religious and the secular. It is true that there are tremendous forces coming at churches from the left but the answer is not for the people of faith to become the threats themselves. Those on left and right should seek to protect themselves and their organizations from those on the opposite side, yet not force their will on the rest of society.
I am afraid we are seeing the emergence of a snowball effect – the forces now assembling will do whatever it takes, and say whatever they need to in order to gain power, adherents, and confidence and will eventually threaten the well-being of all who refuse to conform.
We have no reason to doubt that those who drafted and are signing the Declaration are sincere and trying to do what they believe is best for America. There are many good reasons why it may seem a good idea, but we should raise a voice of caution regarding the unintended consequences of this approach. Christians tempted to set aside theological differences, which include differences in how grace and salvation are viewed so significant that they led to the battles of the Reformation and Inquisition, and unite on points held in common in order to change society should recall the unholy results of such unions. From a Christian perspective, government and even church edicts cannot change hearts, only God can.
As we are admonished in 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!” (New Living Translation)
An attorney, Michael Peabody is the editor of Religious where this article also appears.

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