Right Wing Watch: In Focus | Feb. 2010 |

Manhattan Declaration: Old Poison, New Packaging


Religious Right leaders are making a new concerted push to gain signatures for the “Manhattan Declaration,” a manifesto that was released just before Thanksgiving by about 150 conservative Christian leaders. New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein described the declaration and the campaign to promote it “an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush.”

The group’s signers had hoped to gather a million signatures by December 1. Although they fell well short of that goal, they claim to have gathered about 350,000 signatures by mid-January, and they’re making a New Year’s push for more names. Focus on the Family posted a note on its “Action Center” on January 14. The American Family Association made the Manhattan Declaration the centerpiece of a January fundraising letter, urging members to sign the document and warning of the grave threat from “the anti-family/anti-religious radicals who control the White House and Congress.” And several U.S. Catholic bishops – Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Weir of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville — and are urging their fellow bishops to preach about the declaration, get signatures from the faithful, and to use the document as an organizing vehicle.

What’s all the fuss about?

Abortion and Marriage Equality are Evil – Where have we heard that before?

The Manhattan Declaration is a 4,700 word manifesto released on November 20th by a group of conservative Christian leaders. In spite of its authors’ hyperventilating claims to be staking out new historical ground, the message essentially rehashes anti-gay and anti-abortion messages we’ve heard from Religious Right leaders for decades. The document insists that opposing legal abortion and marriage equality for gay couples are the two most important moral issues facing the country and that advocates for choice and gay equality are out to destroy religious liberty in America.

This basic message, while gussied up in pages of prose from Princeton University Professor Robert George and Religious Right leader Chuck Colson, echoes speeches we’ve heard again and again by James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and many of the other familiar Religious Right leaders who were among the original signers.

The rhetoric in the Manhattan Declaration is typically extreme regarding those with opposing views.

Supporters of legal access to abortion and supporters of physician-assisted suicide are denigrated as “those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled.” The declaration cites early 20th Century eugenicists and Nazi notions of those not worthy of living and says “the only difference is that now the doctrines of the eugenicists are dressed up in the language of ‘liberty,’ ‘autonomy,’ and ‘choice.’” In other words, the Declaration suggests that the only difference between Nazi master-race theorists and today’s pro-choice and death-with-dignity advocates is rhetorical.

Similar respect is accorded to same-sex couples and those who support them. The declaration never mentions same-sex relationships without pairing them with polyamorous relationships or incest, moving one headline writer to top an an Associated Press story about the declaration with “Evangelicals, Catholics: Gay Marriage Paves the Way to Incest.” That, along with the well-documented anti-gay histories of many signers, makes it a hard to take seriously the document’s assertion that it is “love (not ‘animus’) and prudent concern for the common good (not ‘prejudice’)” that is motivating the signers’ pledge to resist and defy laws that recognize civil marriage equality.

And while the declaration does not directly address domestic partnerships or civil unions, it does assert,

“No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage,” echoing sentiments found on the site of the Conference of Catholic Bishops explaining the church’s opposition to any legal recognition of same-sex relationships: “We strongly oppose any legislative and judicial attempts, both at state and federal levels, to grant same-sex untions the equivalent status and rights of marriage – by naming them marriage, civil unions, or by other means.”

According to the declaration, marriage is, in the final analysis, about creating a “reproductive unit.” Yes, marriage may be about an emotional and spiritual commitment, but only one that is “completed and actualized” by sexual intercourse that fulfills “the behavioral conditions of procreation.”

America on the Brink of Anti-Christian Tyranny and Totalitarianism

Of course, the document is updated for the Obama era to include the now-standard right-wing warnings that the administration and its congressional allies are leading the United States into an era of Nazi-like tyranny. Highlighting dramatic and fictional claims of anti-Christian persecution run amok in America allows the document’s authors and signers to preen as willing martyrs for the cause of religious liberty. “We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.” In discussing the declaration on his radio show, James Dobson stated that with the passage of hate crimes legislation, “it could get very costly to follow this Christ,” meaning that pastors and Christians are about to come under direct attack from the government, to which Robert George responded that Christian “martyrs have [always] been called on to pay the ultimate price rather than to deny the Lord or to do what is evil in his sight.”

There’s no mystery about who the Manhattan Declaration’s authors portray as enemies of 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 “Right” 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 document repeats bogus claims about the new federal hate crimes law, neglecting of course to note that law’s explicit affirmation of First Amendment protections for free speech and religious liberty:

“In Canada and some European nations, Christian clergy have been prosecuted for preaching Biblical norms against the practice of homosexuality. New hate-crime laws in America raise the specter of the same practice here.”

George, a co-author with Chuck Colson of the document, explained on Dobson’s radio show that an impetus for the declaration was the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress, who are out to destroy traditional marriage and basic Christian values. The manifesto warns that restrictions on the right of religious institutions to discriminate in hiring threatens to undermine civil society and lead to “soft despotism.” (In fact, many progressive advocates of church-state separation believe the Obama administration has not done enough to overturn Bush-era policies that eliminated previous protections against groups engaging in discrimination with federal funds.)

David Dockery, president of the Southern Baptist Union University, compared the Manhattan Declaration to the 1934 Barmen Declaration of the confessing churches in Nazi Germany resisting the Nazi-sympathizing state church. In a web video promoting the document, Colson urged viewers to read Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism,saying, “It is a very chilling book. It is prophetic, however, in its application to today.”

The Hype

The authors and signers of the document have made grandiose claims about the Declaration’s importance, based on the fact that it includes Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders, and on its threats of widespread civil disobedience in response to civil marriage equality, legal abortion, and end-of-life issues.

No false modesty here. Manhattan Declaration co-author Chuck Colson said that it was the most important document he has ever signed. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said that nothing of this significance has happened in his lifetime, and gushed on his television show that Colson, one of the authors of the Declaration, would be “one of the great influences on history.” Document signers have been compared with, and compared themselves with, every Christian hero from early martyrs to Martin Luther King. Huckabee suggested the document’s historical importance equaled that of Martin Luther sparking the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. James Dobson called it “a defining moment in America for the Christian church.” (Of course, Dobson sees every election cycle as a defining moment.)

Anti-abortion activist and WorldNetDaily columnist Jill Stanek wrote, “In my mind, signing the Manhattan Declaration is the closest I’ll come to understanding the thoughts and feelings of those signing the Declaration of Independence. Those men were willing to pay the ultimate price to stand against tyranny.”

There’s that “ultimate price” language again. The promoters of the Manhattan Declaration are eager to drape themselves in the moral authority of those who put their lives at risk for liberty. Given that in many parts of the world, Christians and people of other faiths are actively persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs, it’s nothing short of shameful that these privileged and powerful public figures are pretending that they run the same risk for their anti-gay and anti-abortion advocacy in America. After all, it isn’t anti-choice activists in America who have been paying the “ultimate price,” but doctors and other workers at clinics providing women in America with medical care who have been killed by advocates for “life.”

It’s also worth noting how desperately the manifesto’s authors wanted to cover themselves in the banner of “the common good,” a term used frequently by religious activists working to combat poverty, expand access to health care, and protect the environment. The Manhattan Declaration includes the phrase no fewer than eight times.

The Signers

The first 168 signers included an array of figures from the Religious Right legal and political movement, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, William Donohue, Jim Daly, Jonathan Falwell, Richard Land, Mark Tooley, and Alan Sears; Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown from the National Organization for Marriage; anti-gay clergy like Rev. Ken Hutcherson, Rev. Jim Garlow, and Bishop Harry Jackson; and Frank Schubert, the campaign strategist who devised the fearmongering anti-marriage campaigns in California and Maine. Also included were a number Roman Catholic Bishops, including Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, some elders of Orthodox churches, and Peter Akinola, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and a leading anti-gay voice in the Anglican church. Filling out the initial list were conservative professors, theologians, and editors and publishers of conservative Christian publications.

The initial signers immediately began seeking others. Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage wrote to the group’s activists, “Would every Christian (and others of good will) please stand up and be counted” by signing. Of course millions of Christians would not consider signing the statement because they support choice and legal equality for LGBT Americans. And it’s even harder to imagine any non-Christian “others” signing an explicitly Christian statement that declares God “is most fully known in the life and work of Jesus Christ.”

Some Responses

Not surprisingly, right-wing pundits hailed the declaration. Ann Coulter told Bill O’Reilly it is a “fantastic statement” that might “wake up” the church.

Chuck Colson, one of the document’s authors, rejected the notion that the declaration is a political manifesto of the Religious Right, saying “nothing could be further from the truth” and claiming “this document is a clarion call to reach out to the poor and suffering.” Maybe that was an earlier draft. This document affirms the primacy of anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality organizing over all the other issues that animate so many Christians, including younger evangelicals, from poverty to human rights and the environment. The document was so far from the “clarion call” Colson describes that Jonathan Merritt, a younger evangelical, wrote on the Newsweek/Washington Post “On Faith” blog that “this declaration has relegated [all those other issues of moral concern] to little more than a footnote.”

A number of progressive religious leaders have rejected the declaration’s claims and its effort to claim the moral high ground. The Religious Institution for Sexual Morality and Healing called it “a political call against women’s moral agency and the rights of lesbian and gay persons dressed up in religious language.”

Reverend Timothy McDonald, Founder of the African American Ministers Leadership Council and a board member of People For the American Way Foundation, said the Declaration

“profoundly misrepresents the moral questions Christians encounter in America today. Seeing that every American has the health care they deserve and access to a quality education are not peripheral to our struggle for justice and righteousness —they are absolutely central to it. Many Christians of every denomination support health coverage for all people, high quality public education in every community, and, yes, reproductive choice for women and marriage equality for all.”

“Perhaps even more importantly, I am deeply disappointed that the signers of this document would use scare tactics and mistruths to generate a wholly synthetic threat to religious liberty.

Harry Knox, Director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion & Faith Program responded:

“This declaration simply perpetuates the fallacy that equality and religious liberty are incompatible and every step toward fairness for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is another burden on religious people. In reality, non-discrimination laws are working all over this country, where religious freedom is existing side-by-side with equal opportunity.”

The Significance

Journalist and author Sarah Posner, asking rhetorically if the attention-seeking Declaration was a sign of desperation or a show of power, calls it “proof that the culture wars are not only not over; there hasn’t even been a truce.”

Promoters of the Manhattan Declaration have made a big deal out of the supposedly historical significance of getting Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians together on the same document and the same press conference podium. But this isn’t 1950, and it’s not really all that amazing for conservative Christians to join forces across denominational lines in a political battle.

Anti-choice Catholics and evangelicals have long worked side by side in opposition to legal abortion, as they are doing currently to try to use health care reform efforts to further restrict women’s access to reproductive health services. And in recent months Catholic bishops have devoted massive financial resources and political muscle to resisting domestic partnerships and marriage equality, and shown themselves ever more willing to stand with extreme anti-gay voices of the evangelical Right. Catholic leaders shocked even many Washington-area Catholics recently by threatening to abandon Catholic Charities’ extensive social service partnerships with the DC government if the marriage equality bill moving forward in the DC Council becomes law. So the ManhattanDeclaration’s signers are really more of a reflection of reality that already exists on the ground rather than the creation of some grand new coalition.

The declaration also sought and got attention with its dramatic pledge to engage in civil disobedience.

Here’s the closing paragraph:

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. 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.

A Los Angeles Times editorial called the declaration’s invocation of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail “specious,” saying the signers, “even as they insist on their right to shape the nation’s laws, are reserving the right to violate them in situations far removed from King’s witness.” The editorial also states:

Strong words, but also irresponsible and dangerous ones. The strange land described in this statement is one in which a sinister secularist government is determined to force Christians to betray their principles about abortion or the belief that “holy matrimony” is “an institution ordained by God.” The idea that same-sex civil marriage will undermine religious marriage is a canard Californians will remember from the campaign for Proposition 8, as is the declaration’s complaint that Christian leaders are being prevented from expressing their “religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”

In the end, the Manhattan Declaration reflects rather than revolutionizes the trend toward a weakening of denominational lines and a strengthening of theological and ideological ties across denominational lines. In many ways, right-wing evangelicals and Catholics have increasingly had more in common with each other, particularly regarding public policy and religion in politics, than liberal and conservatives within any particular denomination.

But it also reflects a potentially more troubling hardening of right-wing resistance to legal abortion and to cultural shifts that signal a nation increasingly supportive of equality for LGBT people. In a diverse and increasingly pluralistic nation, these conservative Christian leaders are inflaming false fears of religious persecution in order to justify their own intransigence and unwillingness to abide by legal, political, and cultural changes that they don’t like.

If, as these and other conservative Christians have declared, their positions on abortion and end-of-life issues and marriage are “inviolable and non-negotiable,” where does that lead? Clearly, it may lead to the Archdiocese of Washington decreeing that its supposed need not to provide health care benefits to the partner of a gay employee is more important than its multi-million-dollar partnerships with the District of Columbia government to provide services to the homeless and hungry.

And it could lead to worse. The editors of the Los Angeles Times called the Manhattan Declaration’s “apocalyptic argument for lawbreaking” both disingenuous and dangerous, and asked, “Did the Roman Catholic bishops who signed the manifesto consider how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn?”

The signers, concludes the editorial, “need to be reminded that this is a nation of laws, not of men – even holy men.”