Nobody I’ve ever met likes abortion and considers it a moral good, although I’m sure there are a small number for whom it poses little if any moral quandary. Nobody I’ve ever met wants to weaken the institution of marriage, although I imagine there are a few hedonists who feel the world would be a better place if it resembled a Hugh Hefner pool party. Nobody I’ve ever met wants to deny the basic freedoms of speech, conscience, or religious faith, although most of us are more nervous about some people’s speech, conscience, and faith than we are about others’.
But as I read and reread the statement released in November by prominent Christian leaders on the sanctity of life, “traditional” marriage, and religious freedom, I realize that its framers and signers must look out at the rest of us who didn’t sign and wonder: What’s wrong with them? Are they pro-abortion, anti-marriage, and anti-freedom? And sadly, that’s a question that seldom gets asked or answered, because, by framing issues in an us-vs.-them way, declarations too seldom lead to dialogue.
If such a dialogue were to occur, the quarter-million-plus signers of the Manhattan Declaration would have the chance to learn some important things about the rest of us.
For starters, they would learn that many of us do in fact abhor abortion. But many of us do not believe that the best way to reduce it is to criminalize it. And even some who would favor criminalizing it do not believe that the approach of the Religious Right in recent decades is an approach we could support—whether on moral, political, or strategic grounds.
They could also learn that many of us who love and honor marriage—and have demonstrated that commitment in the most practical way possible over many decades—believe that extending marriage to gay and lesbian couples would strengthen, not weaken, marriage as a desirable and socially respected way of life. And they could learn why those who oppose gay marriage but favor civil unions cannot in good conscience follow the Declaration’s lines of moral argument or methods of biblical interpretation. They could better understand how our support for equal rights for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers is, to us, not a violation of our Christian convictions, but an expression of them.
Finally, they could learn that we share their commitment to religious liberty and freedom of conscience, but we are also sensitive to the fact that people of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and other faiths will want to make similar claims in a pluralistic nation. They could better understand why we are hesitant to make claims for ourselves that we are unwilling to extend to others, and how our understanding of Christian identity hinders us from seeking to claim a privileged civic position as Christians.
Happily, there are places where the Declaration’s framers acknowledge that “there are sincere people who disagree with us.” But sadly, the sentence doesn’t end there. It continues, “and with the teaching of the Bible and Christian tradition ... ” By making that statement, they lose the chance to understand why some of us believe that, in differing with them, we are differing not with the Bible itself but with their interpretations of it. Throughout the document, a “we” acknowledges the existence of a “they,” but the “they” are, through simplistic refutation, presented as unreasonable, immoral, unenlightened, and even dangerous.
Declarations have many purposes—to strengthen insiders’ resolve, to attract a rising generation’s commitment to an older generation’s priorities, to put outsiders on notice, and simply to make clear—which is the etymological root of the word “declare.” The Manhattan Declaration succeeds admirably in making its position clear, which is hard enough, in my experience.
What’s even harder, I think, is to hear and understand the positions of others with the same level of clarity as one’s own group has sought to be understood. I hope that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration will in the future strive to do the harder thing as effectively as they have done the hard thing.