Part 2 – Reflections on the Manhattan Declaration

Since yesterday I've been monitoring comments on this blog and other prominent blogs regarding the Manhattan Declaration. The comments on Scot McKnight's blog for instance, offered a cross-section of passionate opinions. Comments ranged from enthusiastic approval of the Declaration (McKnight himself supports it) to near outrage.

Most of those outraged by it disagree with the theology voiced in the Declaration. They may be pro-choice, for gay marriage, or scared to death that Christians are trying to force their beliefs on everyone. Somewhere in between are those who say things like, "Why do we have to 'declare' anything. Why don't we just live it?" or "I agree with the content of the document but think there are more important things than life, marriage, or religious liberty (AIDS in Africa for example)."

Such statements were puzzling, as the Declaration addresses several such issues in the document. Furthermore, the document has a scope. It isn't intended to be Vatican 2. Thus, I feel like it's unrealistic for people to criticize the document for what it doesn't include, rather than discussing the merits of what it does. To oversimplify, it's like me getting upset that my birthday card doesn't also wish me a happy anniversary.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to address even all of the comments I've received on and off-line. So, I'm going to put out some abridged thoughts and open the discussion again. As yesterday's focused mostly on the idea of creeds in general and the overall theme of the Manhattan Declaration—today we'll deal with the substance of the document.

Preamble. I appreciated the acknowledgement of Christianity's shortcomings. It's important that Christian leaders do this. Apologizing for Christianity is en vogue right now. What's not en vogue is public thankfulness for Christianity's contributions to making the world a better place—which by far, outweigh the other by any objective standard. I was pleased that they tied the Declaration to Church History. Also, the document strengthens it's claims of political non-partisanship with a list of signatories from across the Christian and political spectrum.

Declaration. As I mentioned yesterday, I appreciated the recognition that the signatories, "sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities." They don't speak for everyone, but only for themselves. I also like their opening description of Christian conscience and how Christians have addressed key issues throughout the history of Western Civilization.

Life. I agree with the framers of the Declaration that, "A culture of death inevitably cheapens life in all its stages and conditions by promoting the belief that lives that are imperfect, immature or inconvenient are discardable." The question is, is "culture of death" an accurate descriptor? The Declaration deals with many aspects of life and death (suicide, euthanasia, cloning, etc.)—though it does place the most weight on abortion. I share the signatories' views on abortion and life on the whole, though I'm still chewing on a couple of lines.

Marriage. This is the one that's going to get them in the most trouble. We all know what a polarizing issue gay marriage has become—and that's why many people won't hear the Declaration's broader theological points on marriage, which I think are terrific. I also think the Declaration does as good a job as I've seen of taking a strong position on the issue while remaining open, thoughtful, and dignifying in it's commentary. The marriage section spends extra time on gay marriage, but is about marriage as a whole. It should be read as such.

Religious Liberty. This section is marvelous. It begins by asserting, "In recent decades a growing body of case law has paralleled the decline in respect for religious values in the media, the academy and political leadership, resulting in restrictions on the free exercise of religion." I agree with this. It is also what I believe to be the impetus for the Declaration's formation. The authors are concerned,"that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions." It isn't that they believe Christianity should be legislated. I read the intent of the document the opposite way. The authors are arguing that legislated secularism (it's own religion…a subject for another post 🙂) has come to a point where it is coerces and at times forces Christians to act against their conscience. They illustrate this point well. The Declaration is thus a bit of a gauntlet. "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."

Ironically, many evangelical leaders refused to sign the Manhattan Declaration because they thought in doing so they were somehow endorsing the doctrinal convictions of all signatories. This is, of course, not the case.

On the whole, I find the Manhattan Declaration to be a fine articulation of Orthodox Christian positions on the issues it raises. It's not a perfect document. It's open to criticism, for sure…just like those who blog on it 🙂

So, let's keep talking… give me good, bad, and ugly. What's your take? As always, let's keep the fire friendly 🙂

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

6 thoughts on “Part 2 – Reflections on the Manhattan Declaration

  1. Tim,
    Thanks for your thoughtful blog. One of my top five for sure.
    I read somewhere that it isn’t WWJD, but
    WWJHMTD
    What would Jesus have me to do?
    But Paul said imitate me as I imitate Christ. (1 Cor. 11.1)
    I can’t see Jesus signing it, but He was bold and gracious about such matters.
    Of couse in this modern age I do many things that he wouldn’t do and in these areas I hope to change.
    Again, Tim, and writers above, thanks for the dialogue. It is helpful to me.

  2. Tim,
    Fair enough…I think we can disagree and still be brethen:-).
    I do see your point about some who want to avoid the law when it comes to one issue but are willing to stand behind legislation when it comes to other issues. I hope I am not that person. I am pretty “apolitical”. I still vote (does that count as candidate endorsement?) though I have yet to vote for one president whom I did not have some fundamental disagreements with. I struggle with where to draw the line when it comes to establishing laws. I obviously want there to be laws that make murder and rape illegal and punishable crimes. But I also realize that where their is a heart being led by God’s Spirit (something a law cannot affect), little if any law is necessary to bring about what is holy and righteous (cf. Gal 5.22-23). My worry is that I am increasingly concerned that too many Christians want to use the law to maintain/establish a Christian culture rather than do the hard work of bringing about a culture under the reign of God through the same self-sacrificial service that Jesus employed to bring about such change (that is a general critique and not aimed at you or anyone else personally). I hope that helps explain where I am coming from and I think you will understand my concern (even if you don’t fully agree with its application) because you have chosen a vocation rooted in such self-sacrificial service.
    Grace and peace,
    P.S. I appreciate the civil discource everyone is having in this discussion.

  3. Todd and Rex,
    Thoughtful comments that raise some good points. I’ll address you both in this comment–though I know you guys come at this from different angles.
    As I say in the post, I read the intent of the document differently. There is no call to legislate anything. I read the Declaration as a taking of a position against being coerced or forced by law to act against conscience. However, to be fair, if they could legislate it, many of the signatories would probably choose to do so.
    While I respect the views of those religious leaders who have taken the position that “the law isn’t the answer,” (something I generally agree with) I find it thin with most of them–as many of these people have endorsed political candidates, sided with legislation on stem cell research, climate change, health care, etc. So for them, I guess the law is the answer…as long as it gives you the answer you want.
    To those who are genuinely “apolitical,” they have little to fear from the declaration…as there is no clear advocacy for any legislation–but rather against the growing body of legislation that the authors feel coerces or forces behavior that violates Christian conscience.
    The group of signatories really is all over the map politically. Many of those on the political left are lesser known names to many evangelicals because they are in the Catholic and Orthodox camps. But, it’s a fairly diverse crew, that is addressing these issues to the party in power. I have no doubt that these issues were spoken from a certain viewpoint because of some legislation currently in the works.
    From my perspective, that isn’t necessarily anti-Democrat. It’s anti-legislation-in-the-works. This seems to me a rational position given that many signatories are themselves Democrats.
    Many of these signatories were, for instance, well know for their opposition to the war in Iraq, and are voracious advocates for the poor and oppressed. Some of them have led Herculean efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic. As they say in the document however…the unborn represent, for them, the most vulnerable.
    The signatories are trying to articulate deeply held convictions…that are shared by millions…to people in power who they believe are (or are on the verge of) abusing power to legislate and enforce secular morality on Christians.
    That’s how I read it.

  4. Tim, I appreciated everything you wrote here, and these also are the aspects of the Declaration I found most helpful. The only slight disagreement I have with your posting is that you seem to not be bothered by the selection of these three issues when it seems to me that it’s fairly apparent that it’s an identification with the political Right. I hope that I would feel the same way if they chose “gay rights, environment and poverty” as the three issues. Yes, the scope is broad if you include the one paragraph on the other issues, but why these three? I think that’s fairly apparent.
    As Rick Warren said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, gay marriage just is not the highest priority issue when compared to other life/death issues. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it, but does it deserve the priority the drafters give it — ESPECIALLY in light of the way that the Evangelical community has so alienated gay people — many of whom came from their churches — you would think that the effort would be towards understanding, compassion and embrace rather than another statement that alienates people.
    On abortion — the law is not the answer. The culture is. When Christians so reform the culture so that abortion is no longer an acceptable practice, we won’t have to change the laws. And by the way, that is happening. Abortions are down drastically over the last two decades, and they always fall as the economy improves. Movies like “Juno” do more to change opinion on this rather than evangelicals trying to change the laws…and since Reagan, it’s never worked. The reason it doesn’t work is because we have not reached a cultural consensus about it yet, and it’s not appropriate to use the law to criminalize what half of our culture does not believe should criminalized (in contrast to rape and murder, for example).
    I agree with Rex above … I’m not sure that Declaration don’t do more to alienate than to clarify. I think most of us are pretty clear where evangelicals and Catholics stand on these issues. Their loud clarity about it is just the problem in the broader culture.
    Good discussions, and appreciate your thoughts on this.

  5. While many issues are raised in declaration, it still is clear that the drafters have two primaries issues in mind (with the issue of “religious liberty” being tied to the other two issues). Why are these two issues the most important? Also, while they do not’ target the Democratic party by name, the declaration seems to be weighed against the Democratic/Political-left more so than its counter part. Now that may be due to the fact that the US currently is led by a Democratic President and a Democratic Marjority in the house but this still seems to undermine any bipartisism effort.
    As a Christian minister, I believe the problem is not in the laws of our land. Laws are made by people. The change the drafters of the declaration seek and the change we seek will only come when the hearts of people are changed. I believe that process of bringing about that change needs to start with the church. From where I sit, there seem to be too many professing Christians (and Christians who regularly attend a church service) that no longer strive to live like Jesus. And I am increasingly concerned that while Christians confess Jesus as Lord, many no longer FUNCTIONALLY live confession. I know we all fail at some point to live out our confession but I am not talking about honest failure, I am talking failure either due to ignorance of what that confession means or apathy towards the confession. Until we begin to change the church culture, we will not change the secular culture nor do we have any business attempting such.
    Grace and peace,
    Rex