'Manhattan Declaration' commits to engage culture

by Tom Strode & Michael Foust, posted Friday, November 20, 2009 (4 years ago)

WASHINGTON (BP)--A diverse group of Christian leaders joined together Nov. 20 to declare a commitment to defend the sanctity of human life, biblical marriage and religious liberty without compromise.

In a 4,700-word statement named the Manhattan Declaration, about 150 evangelical, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox signers said they were coming together to "embrace our obligation" to speak and act in support of the dignity of all human beings, marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and the freedom to express religious convictions.

"[W]e 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," the statement says, "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. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

The drafters and other signers of the Manhattan Declaration unveiled the statement at a Washington news conference. The document gets its name from the location of the first drafting committee meeting.

The timing of the document's release -- 10 months into the Obama administration -- was affected by the policy proposals of the new president and a Democrat-controlled Congress, but the principles in the statement are timeless, they said.

"If you look at the Manhattan Declaration, we are clear that we see a genuine increase in the threat, especially on the sanctity of life front," said Robert George, a Roman Catholic and a professor at Princeton University. "That's the result of the federal government having an administration that is deeply committed to legal abortion and [government funding] and a majority in both houses of Congress that share that commitment.... We could have said many of the things that we are saying today a year ago, but some of the things we are saying today have an urgency to them as a result of the [Obama administration]."

Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., agreed and added, "[T]his is not a politically motivated agenda.... [W]hile the urgency of the moment is impacted by what's going on around us, and we need to be discerning of that, the principles that undergird the Manhattan Declaration are enduring. They are motivated and come from the deepest resources of our faith. And in that sense, it's a statement that could have been made last year, 10 years ago, and we think will be relevant 10, 50, a hundred, a thousand years from now."

Timothy George also said the three issues the statement focuses on "do not constitute the entirety of Christian moral concerns."

"Obviously not. But they are threshold issues on which everything else we do is related," he said. "Our concern for the poor, for peacemaking in our world, for the care of creation, our concern for all of the issues of nurturing children in the faith, these are all related to the three issues we are talking about today."

In addition to Robert George and Timothy George, Charles Colson was a member of the committee that drafted the statement with input from many of the signers. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, is a member of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla.

Among others who signed the document were three Southern Baptist Convention entity heads: Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Land said, "It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of the process that produced the document. It is a sterling and forthright declaration of first principles. To paraphrase Martin Luther: Here we stand; we can do no other."

Two former SBC entity heads signed the document: James T. Draper Jr., president emeritus of LifeWay Christian Resources who also is a former SBC president, and Bob Reccord, former president of the North American Mission Board and founder of Total Life Impact, Inc. In addition to Draper, another former SBC president listed among the signatories is Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

Other SBC leaders who signed the declaration include Jim Law, senior associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.; David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.; Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University; Hayes Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., and a former president of the SBC Pastors' Conference; C. Ben Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University; Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.; Kay Arthur, cofounder of Precept Ministries International; Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia; David Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.; and James White, pastor of Mecklenberg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C.

Dockery said, "Not unlike the 1934 Barmen Declaration [the statement of the confessing church in Nazi Germany], the Manhattan Declaration is a clarion call for Christians of every tradition to stand together in biblical faithfulness for foundational matters of society and culture like commitments to life, marriage and family.... I pray that God will use this declaration among leaders and laity in churches, the academy and parachurch organizations to join hands together for the sake of the kingdom of God."

Among evangelical leaders who signed the Manhattan Declaration were Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife; Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund; Wayne Grudem, research professor of theological and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary; Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center; Josh McDowell, founder of Josh McDowell Ministries; and J.I. Packer, professor of theology at Regent College.

The declaration includes a preamble and a declaration, along with sections on life, marriage and religious liberty. The preamble says Christians have stood up for the helpless for centuries, beginning during the Roman empire by "rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire's sanctioning of infanticide." It was Christians who "combated the evil of slavery" and the slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and who, in more recent U.S. history, "stood at the vanguard of the suffrage movement" for women.

"The great civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 60s were led by Christians claiming the Scriptures and asserting the glory of the image of God in every human being regardless of race, religion, age or class," the preamble reads.

The declaration acknowledges that the "whole scope of Christian moral concern" includes a "special concern for the poor and vulnerable," but that the current status of the three categories in the document leaves the signers "especially troubled."

"Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense."

Among the declaration's highlights, categorized by topic:

-- Life.

"Although public sentiment has moved in a pro-life direction, we note with sadness that pro-abortion ideology prevails today in our government," the declaration reads. "The present administration is led and staffed by those who want to make abortions legal at any stage of fetal development, and who want to provide abortions at taxpayer expense. Majorities in both houses of Congress hold pro-abortion views. The Supreme Court, whose infamous 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade stripped the unborn of legal protection, continues to treat elective abortion as a fundamental constitutional right, though it has upheld as constitutionally permissible some limited restrictions on abortion."

The document notes that President Obama has said he wants to reduce the "need" for abortion -- "a commendable goal" -- but it also notes Obama has said he wants to eliminate laws "prohibiting government funding, requiring waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and parental notification for abortions performed on minors."

"The elimination of these important and effective pro-life laws cannot reasonably be expected to do other than significantly increase the number of elective abortions by which the lives of countless children are snuffed out prior to birth."

The signees say they recognize that both major political parties "have been complicit" in protecting abortion rights. The issue, they say, "is not a matter of partisan loyalty."

"We will be united and untiring in our efforts to roll back the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion. We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion, even as we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike."

The document criticizes the president and Congress for supporting taxpayer funding of "therapeutic cloning." It also condemns the movement to legalize assisted suicide and "voluntary" euthanasia.

"The Bible enjoins us to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those who cannot themselves speak. And so we defend and speak for the unborn, the disabled, and the dependent. What the Bible and the light of reason make clear, we must make clear. We must be willing to defend, even at risk and cost to ourselves and our institutions, the lives of our brothers and sisters at every stage of development and in every condition."

-- Marriage

The declaration points to the out-of-wedlock birth rate -- which is around 40 percent -- and the high rate of divorce as examples of the "serious erosion of the marriage culture" in the U.S. The signees say they confess with "sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage." The declaration then addresses the issue of "gay marriage."

"The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture. It reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil and religious law and in the philosophical tradition that contributed to shaping the law. Yet it is critical that the impulse be resisted, for yielding to it would mean abandoning the possibility of restoring a sound understanding of marriage and, with it, the hope of rebuilding a healthy marriage culture."

Redefining marriage "would lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life."

Marriage is by definition between a man and a woman because of the uniqueness of the relationship, the document says.

"[M]arriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and that the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit."

The signees acknowledge "there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships" just as "there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct."

"We, no less than they, 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. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners."

The argument that "gay marriage" won't harm a straight person's marriage must be rejected because it could be "asserted with equal validity" for "polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships.

"Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships? No."

-- Religious liberty.

"It is ironic that those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled and also a right to engage in immoral sexual practices, and even a right to have relationships integrated around these practices be recognized and blessed by law -- such persons claiming these 'rights' are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife."

The trampling of religious freedom, the document says, is seen "in the effort to weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro-life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions." It is also seen "in the use of antidiscrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers of various sorts to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business." The document cites as evidence a New Jersey Methodist ocean-front retreat center that lost part of its tax-exempt status when it refused to allow a lesbian commitment ceremony to be performed on its property.

"As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. The biblical purpose of law is to preserve order and serve justice and the common good; yet laws that are unjust -- and especially laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust -- undermine the common good, rather than serve it."

Since the Christian church was founded "Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel." The declaration cites Peter and John's refusal in Act 4 to stop proclaiming the Gospel, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s defense of religious conscience and rights in his "Letters from a Birmingham Jail."

"Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," the document states. "Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King's willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring."

Regarding civil disobedience, the signers "certainly hope that it does not come to that on any of these issues for any American," Robert George told reporters at the news conference. However, he said, "[W]e see in case after case challenges to religious liberty, impositions, such as impositions on pharmacists.... There are limits to what can be asked of people. There are limits to what can be imposed on conscience."

The statement may be accessed online at http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/ManhattanDeclaration.pdf.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist. Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.