A Rationale for Not Signing the Manhattan Declaration

Despite the risk of offending most of the management and readership of this site–upon whose joint efforts much of my political education gratefully rests–I hope it may prove profitable to lay out a case for difficulties in the Manhattan Declaration which constrain me from signing it in good conscience. By doing so I intend no disparagement of any here who have declared their intent to sign, nor of the at least two original signers whose theological work–but not always their means of political expression–I have long admired.

How then can I justify not signing a document which so clearly aims to defend several inarguably Conservative principles by stating that:

1.the sanctity of human life
2.the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3.the rights of conscience and religious liberty
… are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, … inviolable and non-negotiable.

While the Declaration nobly argues several indisputable positions, it also rests on assumptions which run contrary to the professed purpose of many of its authors and signers. My dispute is rooted in the following:

Historically resonant Declarations make it abundantly clear that their signers, though possibly of different minds on unrelated matters, are in full agreement on all points explicity declared. So my forbears, the Independents who produced the 1658 Savoy Declaration, were united on all points necessary to validate the Congregational model in light of the Westminster Confession while still remaining in fellowship with the Presbyterians; the Founders who produced the 1776 Declaration of Independence were united on all points necessary to birth a new nation; the German pastors of the Confessional Synod who produced the 1934 Barmen Declaration were united on all points necessary to oppose the devastating German Christians leadership movement; so the confessional signers of the 1996 Cambridge Declaration were united on all points necessary to prophetically call contemporary Evangelicalism from the brink of self-inflicted irrelevance in hopes of preparing the way for a contemporary Reformation.

The 2009 Manhattan Declaration, however, appeals to terminology which cannot conceivably be thought to hold a common meaning for all of its original signers, most strikingly in its references to the proclamation of the Gospel:

Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace

It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness

There is a logical possibility that the signers mutually agreed to renounce all significantly irreconcilable particulars about the Gospel in their several confessions. Sadly, the remoteness of that possiblity is reduced by the explicit elevation of unity under the Declaration above unity within their own communions:

We … make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God

But it is much more likely that this is an instance of terminology overloading, in which identical terms can bear vastly different meanings to different audiences. Of course overloading occurs in both the political and theological realms, but it is customary for opposing groups to articulate the distinctives of their own usages, both for their fellow adherents, for those opposed, and for those in the middle. It is a rare sight when groups with long-established opposing views on a fundamental doctrine share terminology as though no differences exist, and raises the uncomfortable question whether the need to address contemporary issues, as tragic and burdensome as the subjects of the Declaration are, has now been deemed worth the price of abandoning the truth of the central message of the Word of God?

This has happened before. For all the vitriol heaped recently upon Rev. Wright and those of similar mind by Conservatives, the short-sighted would do well to remember that the theologically liberal mainstream denominations, now so inextricably and disastrously linked to political liberalism, began their decline from conservative roots at the hands of the most well-meaning persons and movements, including those universally acknowledged to have succeeded “for the common good”. But whenever the Church has attempted to acquire political capital, inevitably and to the same degree it has lost its hold on the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Political movements must attempt to acquire sufficient followings to enact their agenda in a society; this is tautological whether using ordinary means, as persuasion and the ballot, or extraordinary means, as civil disobedience or force. A church faithful to the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, finds itself saying “Follow Me–come and die!”, which tends not to be a stadium-filler of an offer, except perhaps to onlookers wanting to see the drama take place before their eyes.

This assumption about shared root principles is totally unnecessary to the good arguments in the Declaration. It would have been more appropriate to have either left out the implied doctrinal agreements, or kept them in and had each branch address solely its own communion. And what of the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Atheist who is in agreement with the major principles? Are they expected or invited to sign in expression of political solidarity with the principles expressed? If not, are they deemed incapable ofacquiring proper political motivation? If so, are they assumed to find it easy to violate their own consciences by publicly declaring fidelity to the cause of Jesus Christ?

There is also not a single reference to the sovereignty of God in exercising His inscrutable will over men and nations–including our own–or His gracious condescension of allowing His children to participate in the manifestation of that will through prayer, led by and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the most efficacious means of accomplishing the will of God now seems to be–Civil Disobedience.

And what of the countless saints dead and living, in situations inconceivably more difficult than our own, who have somehow managed to resist the will of Caesar when it violates the will of God, always at a price of reputation, family, livelihood, health, freedom or life–content to know that their baptism encompassed a sufficient Declaration of their intent to die with Christ that none other would be necessary or appropriate?

As I have done multiple times on this site, I commend those to whom these objections seem unfitting for a self-described theologically and politically conservative to a study of the several Reformation-based expressions of the Two Kingdoms model; these will provide the most biblically sound, Christ-glorifying approach to the proper roles of the Christian citizen and the church in this present evil age, “for it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men”.

I must close with the last lines of the preface of the Barmen Declaration, signed by pastors united by similar confessions and intended for their own flocks and fellow-shepherds in the last moments before irrevocable darkness fell:

If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”