Monday, November 30, 2009

On the Manhattan Declaration

This post is in response to the Manhattan Declaration, along with three interpretations of it. Like most ‘evangelicals’ in the USA I am deeply divided over the relation of church and state. Yet, having read (enough of) my Hauerwas, O’Donovan, Yoder, Grant, Milbank, I know when to smell a rat. This is what troubles me. Three pillars of the MD are:
1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life;
2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and;
3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.
Set aside possible good intentions for the moment. Why do theses 3 points sound so, well, American? Because they are. They are not, it seems to me, pillars based in the Gospel. They are not pillars based in any major strand of historic Christian political thought.

To take but one example: appeal to the imago Dei in (1) is distressing to me. Since when has the image of God ensured us ‘inherent rights of equal dignity and life’? If anything, I thought the imago Dei, set in the context of the creation story, showed just how much life was a gift, and so not a right.

And yet the drafters of the MD show no regard whatsoever for the historically variegated interpretations of what the imago Dei teaches us Christians. Instead their appeal is to human rights language, in complete neglect over how human rights (as a concept) puts the challenge to Christian theological tradition in the most striking way. Do Christians have nothing to say to this dubious concept? Do we not have two millennia of tradition based in natural right, which has emphasised the very good moral question, not ‘what are my rights’ but rather ‘what is right’? Don't we want to start there?

In this vein, I fail to understand why the MD has the unflinching support of American Christian leaders whom I respect. Justin Taylor says it is a ‘well-reasoned natural law rationale’ – is it? No not quite. It is not natural law, but new natural law. The kind of natural law advocated by people like Robert P. George and John Finnis – a version of natural law that does not find the law grounded in nature extra nos, but in the human person. Taylor may very well believe this is a far superior natural law theory to that espoused by the majority of Christian thinkers (not to mention classical, scholastic, Reformation and even some early modern thinkers, Christian or not) throughout history, including many today. But well, can you say as much? Should we not address why the Christian tradition thought (and to a large extent, still thinks) differently? Or justify why the MD is all too conveniently and worryingly wedded to the political philosophy of that remorseless, incorrigible late-modern experiment, the United States of America?

Then there is the response, voiced by other evangelicals like Chailles and John MacArthur, which shows reservation for this joint statement on the basis of the Gospel – i.e. Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not have the Gospel right, so how could we in good conscience sign MD? Frankly I’m just befuddled as to why this matters – American evangelicals seem so very eager to enlist Catholic support in their moral majority campaigns. When someone tries to justify on paper why they agree, however, it becomes clear that no one really can say. Is it for political expediency that we rally the votes of those who don’t have the ‘Gospel’ like we do? That’s dubious enough, but let me press things further: what, I should like to know, would this group of dissenting evangelicals change about the MD? My fear is not much. For to critique this document requires that they demonstrate historical debt to the Western and mostly Catholic theological tradition, which for good or ill is the solitary mother of our now-gone-prodigal Western political philosophy. But the very American MD just does not promote such critical reflection. It does not help us Americans see what might be wrong with the way late-modern liberalism, i.e. America and its First Amendment, defines morality in terms of rights.

The third response is to those like Halden, who vigorously critiques the MD on the basis of its pursuit of cultural hegemony. Halden is very Hauerwasian in his position, and for this I am very satisfied. It is a political message that needs to be heard, but I worry is not being heard, in churches and in small groups across the American evangelical spectrum. What I do not find appealing about Halden’s position, however, is that it fails to help us think about America within the wider context of modernity and the world. What would happen if American Christians saw America for what it was? That it directly opposed the Western political theological traditions of an older Europe? That it implies a history of progress that treats democracy as the sine qua non of any good political theory, without which the ancients (with their foolish kings and hierarchies) could not sustain a reasonable and thus (for today) politically relevant discussion? The cultural hegemony button is a good one to press in criticising the Church. But is it the only button? Should we not also press the political factors that in many ways force Christian political participation to operate in this way? It seems to me, in fact, that the MD is doing exactly what Charles Taylor advocates faith communities do in this rabid modern political climate – and did not Hauerwas enthusiastically endorse Taylor's thesis, after all?

All this I submit with some reservation, of course. Following Thanksgiving it may seem a bit unkind that I should sound so un-American and raise so many problems with those older and likely wiser than myself. The question invariably turns to this: how should Christians in America act politically? I confess I have no real good answers. But this does not in any way mean that Christians in America should capitulate to the prevailing political lingo in an effort to express themselves, in an effort to be culturally relevant. But what did others think? Did the MD rub anyone else the wrong way? Am I way off in where it offended?


Anonymous said...

In the FAQs, number 8 includes:

So the signatories are happy to stand alongside our LDS brothers and sisters who have worked so heroically in the cause of defending marriage, our Jewish brothers and sisters, members of other faiths, and people of no particular faith (even pro-life atheists such as the great Nat Hentoff), who affirm our principles and wish to join us in proclaiming and defending them.

You're not off base at all.

Jerry Brown said...

It definitely rubs me the wrong way, simply because it is so utterly unneccessary. What will this piece of paper accomplish? A fleeting feeling of "take that!"? It seems to me that the Bible tells us this will occur, and plainly gives us a solution: repentance, prayer and fasting.

Your point about the "American-ness" of this is also well stated. But it is a distinctly American document, written entirely with the Culture Wars in mind. And yes, upper middle class America is the nadir of righteousness. I mean, really, what can those who really suffer for the Gospel teach us?

It would be kind of funny if weren't so destructive.

c.c. said...

This document has no imagination---it refuses to challenge the categories our culture is so entrenched in, and it is so narrow in scope as to be almost embarrassing. All that work for this?

Don't get me wrong. I can appreciate on some level that people---especially those who don't follow Christ!---for some reason want to prevent the repugnant disposal of embryos and to uphold a social institution in a way that happens to align with God's will for it. In some sense, what does it matter why good is accomplished, as long as it is? But in another sense it matters a whole lot. "Moral" laws do not a godly kingdom make, let alone the Kingdom of God.