Monday, April 5, 2010

Why, I Declare

Mention the term “Manhattan Declaration” in a crowd at your church and see what kind of response you get.

Not the “Manhattan Project,” mind you – the secret government plan to develop and deploy atomic weaponry during the Second World War. Today's Manhattan Declaration is a document crafted by some evangelical Christian pundits who want to perpetuate an activist role for people of faith against abortion, gay marriage, and limitations on religious freedom.

And no, my anti-New-York friends, I'm not talking about it just because it's named after the Big Apple's most famous borough! Manhattan happens to be the place where Christian activist Chuck Colson and his co-writers developed their treatise.

Another Thing Evangelicals Have to Disagree With
Like anything else in evangelical circles these days, the Manhattan Declaration (MD) has garnered its fair share of critics and naysayers, most notably John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul. Even one of my most learned non-reformed seminary friends has come out in opposition to the MD. Apparently, I'm not as contrarian as I thought I was: I signed it myself this past fall.

What’s all the fuss? What’s wrong with framing three of the biggest social issues of our day in a context of Biblical imperatives and social activism? Called “A Call of Christian Conscience” by its authors, the MD lays out what appears to be an impressive defense of life, the traditional family, and religious freedom. Who in our community of faith could have a problem with that?

Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to justify your evangelical credentials if you are pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage, and anti-religious-liberty. As the recent Obamacare debate illustrated, abortion remains a key sociopolitical dividing line. In some churches and denominations, not to mention our society at large, gay couples continue to make inroads towards securing spousal legitimacy. And with some new laws in Canada and Europe sparking fears of sermon police here in America, the specter of constitutional limitations of faith speech looms large and dark among certain trend-watchers.

After learning about the MD on FaceBook – that new disseminator of 21st Century information – and researching the document and its authors, I didn’t see any reason not to sign the online petition. Purportedly intended to send a signal to national leaders, the online petition is the electronic affirmation MD proponents are encouraging people of faith to sign and publicize. Not only adherents within America’s traditionally evangelical community, mind you, but also mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. It’s something we can do to tell legislators, judges, the media, and entertainment executives that we’re mad-as-you-know-what and aren’t gonna take it anymore.

What can be less painless than an online petition?

So far, over 400,000 people have signed the MD, which last week reinvigorated its drive for signatures. Some of the famous people who have already signed include J.I. Packer, James Dobson, Joni Eareckson Tada, Wayne Grudem, and Tim Keller. But equally notable are the people whose absence from the list continues to hang like an errant storm cloud on the horizon.

Reasons Not to Sign

Several well-founded justifications exist for evangelicals who do not support the MD. Nobody disagrees that the principles of sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty are worth advocating for. Rather, the red flags come in the intentions of the MD’s writers, and in some of the language within the document itself.

First, opponents frankly point to the fact that the MD does not acknowledge that the Gospel stands as the only fix for any and all of society's ills. For them, this singular - and, admittedly, significant - omission disqualifies its validity as an instrument for legitimate change.

Second, do we really need another political petition drive? Do we need another document other than the Bible to show the means by which we intend to live our lives? How well and how often have sign-up sheets worked in the past? Is the reason we need a petition because people of faith aren’t living their lives well enough so that our leaders can see our firm resolve on these issues? To what extent have our everyday actions not lived up to our professed faith? Isn’t this just another Baby Boomer machination to create the illusion of grass-roots activism when people of faith are too lazy to actually make a difference in their churches, communities, and voting booths?

Third, what is the extent to which adherents of three increasingly opposing religions can find common ground through language that purportedly unifies us with scriptural precedents? In other words, how can groups like evangelicals and Roman Catholics suddenly overcome intrinsic theological differences to agree on the Gospel’s definition of Biblical community and God’s purposes for humanity? It’s the same Bible, yes, but the reason we don’t worship together is because of centuries of irreconcilable interpretations of sacred texts. Does trying to unify around a man-made political document somehow make amends for what separates us doctrinally? Not that we can’t see eye-to-eye on these issues, but can’t we work towards common goals without the MD? To what degree might we marginalize our respective faiths by commonly claiming Gospel imperatives as set forth in the way the MD was written?

Some of the suspicion and reluctance on the part of MD detractors comes from Colson’s previous attempts to forge Protestant – Catholic advocacy groups. To some people, it all smacks of political grandstanding and reputation-building, both of which seem unnecessary and even irrelevant when it comes to matters of faith. Can’t the Bible stand on its own? Can’t people of faith be expected to live lives of Biblical distinction and authenticity, and can’t our testimonies provide better evidence to the truth we purport to believe?

Reasons Signing May Not Be Bad

And these are all good questions, aren’t they? But do they raise the theological bar high enough to invalidate the ambitions of the MD’s advocates? Does it marginalize one’s faith if you sign along with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians? What’s the harm in joining voices to establish a common voice among social conservatives and capture attention from America’s political and media elite? Even if the document contains ecclesiastical wording which some theologians think muddies the doctrinal waters?

To what extend do politicians still rely on public demonstrations like petitions? Don’t they already hear from their constituents on these issues? What difference will it make to have a formalized list of people from across the country - who may or may not vote for you – taking sides on these issues? Can’t we already extrapolate some rough numbers based simply on church and civic memberships?

You may be surprised to hear that I can see both sides of the arguments for and against signing the MD. And you know what? I tend to lean towards Dr. Sproul’s reformed passion for maintaining the purity of the Gospel in public discourse. Yet I am cynical enough to think politicians remain out-of-touch with reality enough to need to see a list of one million names supporting conservative issues.

If this document was crafted as a theological imperative, then I wouldn't have signed it, for the same reasons acclaimed experts like Sproul and MacArthur haven't. However, I don't see how signing the MD compromises my faith and dishonors God, since I see it as more of a political manifesto.

So for now, my name remains on the list… but I haven't ruled out changing my mind. And actually, I wonder if a lot of signers share my qualified affirmation. I can’t find the “remove my name” option on the MD’s new website!

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