First let us be abundantly clear: The Manhattan Declaration is not a Church document. It was not adopted by a council of a denomination or even a group of pastors within a denomination. It is a document developed by a group of like minded people and signed by individuals. Thus it is not confessional. Comparisons to the Barmen Declaration are inappropriate.
On the other hand the writers and those who have signed it, as far as I know, are all Christians. Its very title claims that it is a Christian Declaration: “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” It is an attempt to speak to certain societal issues from a particular Christian perspective. It is not a theological document. Others have pointed out the lack of references to Jesus. It is an ethical and political statement.
One question raised by some is whether Christian or people from any faith tradition have the right to bring their tradition into the public square and use the perspective of that tradition to speak to public issues. Some have spoken of the separation between Church and State. Are people of faith allowed to speak from their faith to public issues?
I think a more appropriate question is how can they not? If faith is, to use an overused term, a “worldview” how can anyone speak outside of their own world view? One can hear the views of others and perhaps understand them intellectually but one does not abandon one’s faith at the gate to the public square.
Unfortunately some argue that this is precisely what people of faith must do. Some interpret the American experiment as primarily a secular one. There is some historical justification for doing so.
The earliest writers about the American experiment were of a generation that abhorred the role religion had played in the long Protestant/Catholic wars in Europe. Actually those wars were more complicated than wars between Protestants and Catholics. Lutherans fought against Catholics and Reformed. Reformed governments in Switzerland punished Baptists by drowning them.
The early politicians who formed the American system of government and provided the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings for that system reacted against the religious wars of Europe. While in some states particular denominations were the established churches the first Amendment to the U. S. Constitution says that there would be no established church in the United States. At the time this meant that no particular denomination would be the state church. It has come to mean that no particular faith tradition can claim to be the main faith tradition in America. Following Thomas Jefferson present day Americans speak of the wall between Church and State as if such words were in the U. S. Constitution. Put simply American political tradition says that the no faith tradition shall be given primary place in America and the government will not interfere with the faith traditions of religious institutions. What exactly are religious institutions is the subject of much debate today. So is the place of religious symbols on public lands.
Some claim that one can only speak in secular terms when one speaks to political issues. And indeed if any group seeks to gain enough political strength in American today to influence public policy that group must find ways to speak about issues that appeal to those of various faith traditions. (I include within the term faith traditions those who claim to have no faith. I suggest that even saying one has no faith is a faith statement.)
So the Manhattan Declaration is an attempt to speak to issues of the day from a Christian perspective. And while the authors of the Declaration may disagree with me I suggest that the Declaration speaks to those issues from a particular Christian tradition, not from the only Christian tradition. Whether the writers of the Declaration speak from correct Christian tradition (and from my perspective that means to properly interpret Scripture from within the Christian faith and apply that interpretation to issues of the day) there are other Christians who disagree and say that the writers of the Declaration have failed to properly state the Christian and Biblical positions on the issues discussed. If American Christians have learned nothing else in the past two hundred years we should have learned that there are many people of differing Christian traditions all seeking to speak what they believe is a proper way to look at political issues from a Christian viewpoint.
The first issue raised in the document, one that might be called the right to life, is a matter of much debate among Christians, particularly in the formerly mainline denominations. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), my own denomination there are documents adopted by General Assemblies on the issue but there is no confessional statement that makes a particular position on the subject of abortion (and for that matter capital punishment) an essential of the faith.
To put it another way, denominations make theological and ethical statements and then seek to influence the political process by lobbying those in public office. The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church do so. The Washington office of the PCUSA does the same. Separation of Church and state does not mean that the Church in its various forms cannot speak to political and ethical issues. It also does not mean that individuals and groups cannot do the same. It does mean that denominations are not allowed to dictate to those who represent the people in government as to what actions the government shall take.
Any time a government enacts a law those who voted for and against the law take ethical positions. American tax law takes a wide variety of ethical positions. The tax deductions for home mortgages say that the government encourages individuals and families to own homes. Tax deductions for minor children say that the government encourages people to have children (although the deduction comes nowhere near the cost of raising a child). Even if the government were to institute a flat tax that would be an ethical statement. There are no ethically neutral laws.
So I suggest that anyone who says that a group of Christians from a variety of Christian traditions should not and do not have the right to express political positions based on their faith completely misunderstand the American tradition of freedom of speech. Even denominations are allowed to take ethical positions that speak positively or negatively about particular legislation. The one limit the U. S. government has placed on religious institutions is that the institution and the leaders of the institution may not declare support for a particular candidate for office.
So the authors and signers of the Manhattan Declaration have the right to speak to political issues from a particular religious position. Whether the Declaration appropriately describes a position based on right interpretation of Scripture is a matter of debate that I will speak to in the following blogs. Americans all have the right to say what we think, no matter how obnoxious or revolting our statements may be to others. And we can all be sure of one thing: if one American says something another is bound to disagree. That is the uncomfortable joy of the American experiment.