All around the Western world the Christian church is under attack, and along with it, the West's Judeo-Christian heritage. It is not just a specific faith which is being ferociously targeted, but all the attendant goods of that faith. Three chief goods – the sanctity of human life, the institutions of marriage and family, and religious liberty – are all under threat.
Thus to defend Christianity is to take a stand for these tremendous social goods as well. They stand or fall together. That is why one diverse group of Christian leaders – evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox – came together yesterday to announce the release of an important new Christian document – the Manhattan Declaration.
Charles Colson, one of the original signers to the Declaration, says this about it: "The Manhattan Declaration is a wake-up call – a call to conscience – for the church. It is also crystal-clear message to civil authorities that we will not, under any circumstances, stand idly by as our religious freedom comes under assault."
Over 140 leaders from throughout the Christian community have already signed this historic document, along with thousands of ordinary citizens. The link provided below provides access to three things: the Declaration itself; those leaders who have already signed it; and a place where you can also sign the Declaration.
All believers should become familiar with this document. Therefore, let me here briefly summarise its contents. The Preamble gives a short account of the outworking of the Christian faith in the public arena over the past two thousand years. It highlights the overwhelming amount of social good the Christian faith has brought to the world in its two-millennia history.
It says this "Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good. In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good."
It also makes this affirmation: "We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right – and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths. 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. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty."
The first main section, on Life, says this in part: "A truly prophetic Christian witness will insistently call on those who have been entrusted with temporal power to fulfill the first responsibility of government: to protect the weak and vulnerable against violent attack, and to do so with no favoritism, partiality, or discrimination. 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."
In the next section on Marriage we find these words: "Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits – the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves."
It looks at the various threats to marriage and family, chief of which is the push for same-sex marriage. But it also acknowledges how those in heterosexual marriage have often failed: "We 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. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same."
This section concludes this way: "And so it is out of love (not 'animus') and prudent concern for the common good (not 'prejudice'), that we pledge to labor ceaselessly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and to rebuild the marriage culture. How could we, as Christians, do otherwise? The Bible teaches us that marriage is a central part of God's creation covenant. Indeed, the union of husband and wife mirrors the bond between Christ and his church. And so just as Christ was willing, out of love, to give Himself up for the church in a complete sacrifice, we are willing, lovingly, to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage."
The final section, on Religious Liberty, says, in part, "Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions. What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well."
And further, "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. We view this as an ominous development, not only because of its threat to the individual liberty guaranteed to every person, regardless of his or her faith, but because the trend also threatens the common welfare and the culture of freedom on which our system of republican government is founded. Restrictions on the freedom of conscience or the ability to hire people of one's own faith or conscientious moral convictions for religious institutions, for example, undermines the viability of the intermediate structures of society, the essential buffer against the overweening authority of the state, resulting in the soft despotism Tocqueville so prophetically warned of. Disintegration of civil society is a prelude to tyranny."
It closes in this fashion: "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."
On occasions in the recent past various church documents and pronouncements have come forth. Some have been wishy-washy and less than biblical. Thus it is good to find a document like this which is not fearful in tackling some of the biggest threats to religious freedom in general and biblical Christianity in particular.
It deserves not only a wide hearing but solid backing and promotion. The strong stance demonstrated and enunciated in this Declaration is to be applauded and duplicated, if we are to have the sort of impact we need in an increasingly dark and fragmented society.
The Manhattan Declaration
Published 23 November 2009 | Bill Muehlenberg