Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration and Fundamental Principles

I don't generally read the Washington Times. There's something about the whole "Owned and Operated By Rev. Sun Myung Moon" aspect of it that makes it seem like rather less than a real media outlet. I'm always a bit afraid that if I read too much of it I might end up selling flowers in some airport or marrying a Ghanaian woman I've never met in some vast auditorium full of other glassy-eyed couples.

Earlier this week, though, my feed from the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life served up a Times editorial from Jean Crouse, the Director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute at the Concerned Women of America. And yes, that's the institute named for "Left Behind" LaHaye's wife. Glad to know all the money from those theologically absurd books is helping employ a few ultraconservatives.

The editorial was entitled "A Christian Call to Arms," and was a song of praise for the recent Manhattan Declaration. That document, in the event you're not aware of it, is the latest in a series of conservative Christian declarations of principle that state, with bold and ferocious certainty, that the central and most important themes of Christianity are closing down abortion clinics and keepin' them gay folk from getting hitched. Ms. Crouse thinks this is the bees knees.

What particularly struck me about her editorial were three things:

First, the idea that what is being argued in the Manhattan Declaration represents the heart of "biblical Christianity." I've read the Declaration myself, and it's a pretty well constructed document. Where it struggles, though, is in that core assertion. Throughout the text, it declares that love and caring for all are the central purposes of Christian faith. And then...it repeatedly tries to make the leap to affirming the two great wedge issues of 20th century Christian fundamentalism. It does not succeed. Abortion is at best a tangential issue in the Bible, and while there are legitimate reasons to be troubled by it, it isn't front and center. Same sex marriage is certainly not approved by the literal text of scripture...but again, it's hardly a Red-Letters-Of-Jesus issue. Are these "biblical beliefs?" Sure. But they aren't the flesh, meat and bones of scripture. Arguing that either of these issues represent the essential core of a Christian worldview is a mighty sinew-popping stretch.

Second, I was struck by the idea that "honoring justice and the common good" means the same thing as "enforcing the values of 19th century fundamentalist Christianity." Well, no. In a pluralistic culture, one in which a range of different belief systems form the common good, and within which justice represents the equitable balance between those competing systems of belief, one system cannot take precedence over another. The norms and ethics of my community cannot define what others are permitted to do. The life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we are self-evidently endowed with cannot be constrained by the ethics of others. American conservatism...not in it's libertarian form, but in it's nativist form...has never quite grasped this. If Christianity had a legal structure for governing society like Islam, these are the folks who'd be calling for Jesus-sharia to be enforced. Fortunately, Jesus only left us with one law...one which may govern our hearts and minds, but was never intended to be the framework for directly governing the Worldly City.

Finally, I was struck by her assertion that we shouldn't be "rendering unto Caesar" those things that are God's. What we owed Caesar back in the Roman day was nothing more than taxes and obedience. Caesar as a metaphor for American democratic governance requires more. Not just rendering up taxes and accepting the role of government in public life...although Lord knows some folks complain endlessly about those...but a willingness to both engage with and show forbearance to others with whom one disagrees.