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Friday, November 27, 2009  

On the Manhattan Declaration

I decided to give the Manhattan Declaration a look, since it had gained the support of people I respect and of church leaders who, by virtue of their office, should get a hearing. It has three main tenets: opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research; a defense of religious and civil marriage as a union of one man and one woman; and a statement on the freedom of religious conscience.

In a strange spell of naivety, I had imagined I might be able to sign it myself--though I was almost certain that the section on marriage would scotch that possibility. In the event, there was no chance. I do not think it is a bad document, but in the end, for all its language about Christian concern for social justice and for protecting the most vulnerable, it ends up endorsing the same right-wing boilerplate a cynical person would expect, while breaking no new conceptual ground, brokering no new mutual understanding between different schools of Christians, and not calling its own base to account in any meaningful way.

Consider the claim that "in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened." Abortion is indeed legal, as it has been for decades. It is a universal fact of human life, taking place everywhere under every legal regime imaginable. The idea that the disabled and elderly are severely threatened, however, is a total fabrication. It is a high-minded rephrasing of the "death panels" imbroglio of earlier this year. The lives of the elderly have been greatly protected by the creation, over the objections of Christian and secular Right alike, of Medicare in 1965. The disabled stand to benefit from the strengthened regulations on the insurance industry proposed in both versions of health care reform. What the framers of this document call "an increasingly powerful movement to promote assisted
suicide and “voluntary” euthanasia," threatening "the lives of vulnerable elderly and disabled persons" simply does not exist. To add a slur to a fabrication, they continue:

Eugenic notions such as the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) were first advanced in the 1920s by intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe. Long buried in ignominy after the horrors of the mid-20th century, they have returned from the grave. The only difference is that now the doctrines of the eugenicists are dressed up in the language of “liberty,” “autonomy,” and “choice.”

I do not happen to favor physician-assisted suicide laws, but to say that granting a terminally ill person the option of dying quickly and peacefully under medical supervision is somehow related to Nazi eugenic theories is repugnant in the extreme. People who put their name to these words are bearing false witness. It is evading very serious questions about autonomy, end-of-life care, and the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life. This passage alone--a hysterical conspiracy theory dressed up as anti-Nazi posturing--renders the document unfit for support.

The section on the sanctity of human life in general is not so gravely defective. All the same, I looked for some clarity. Are the authors suggesting that doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them should be imprisoned? Do they rather favor moral suasion and increased social support for pregnant women and young children? The statement gives no indication. The vast scale of abortion in this country argues strongly that people who consider themselves "pro-life," or who are affiliated with institutions that so label themselves, are having abortions. What are we to do if many, many women whose leaders are signing this document do not see a way to raise their unborn children? About all of this, the document is silent. With language that is meant to sound exculpatory but is ultimately just demeaning, the document condemns "the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children." Women don't seek out abortions out of desperation, fear, or dire necessity, but rather "submit" to them--at whose insistence, exactly? There are no doubt many exceptions, but as far as I know it is typically the woman herself who finds abortion to be in her best interest.

Now it is well worth asking why this should be. But to do so would undermine the central premise of the document, which is that abortion is a matter of moral failure that must be fixed with more moral instruction and the coercive power of the state. Nothing about sexual double standards, nothing about the danger to which unmarried pregnant women can be exposed, nothing about the material conditions that can turn a pregnancy into a disaster, nothing about the health of women. Nothing that would challenge the complacency of a conservative anti-abortion movement that was happy as a clam during the Bush years, when the drop in abortion rates ended but the government was more solicitous of their moral scruples. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

The section on marriage is no more penetrating. "Marriage" is set forth as a sort of Platonic ideal and contrasted with the non-marriage of homosexuality, polyamory, promiscuity, divorce, and incest. "Everyone benefits," the authors claim, "where there is a marriage culture." Women, then, are apparently better off in Afghanistan than in Massachusetts. Japan is apparently a much happier place than Texas.

It is much more accurate to say that marriage is a term that has been applied to a series of institutions, all shaped by culture, religion, and the material conditions of life. Hagar was abused by her mistress, but it was an act of compassion for God to send her back to her life as a concubine, because there were no cold-water flats and clerical jobs for single mothers in the Sinai desert back then. Jacob exchanged seven years of labor for a wife, who was then swapped out at the last minute for an older sister. He never loved that wife and showed great favoritism to the younger sister (paid for by another seven years) and her sons.

But the whole section on marriage is funneling down to one thing: homosexuality. "The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture." The next many paragraphs, of course, address the symptom exclusively rather than even attempting to shed light on the cause. And this is an important question! That pie-eyed yearnings for the heyday of a "marriage culture" are profoundly misguided does not change the fact that marriage really is in trouble in our country, for a variety of reasons--none of which will be illuminated over the course of this document.

The authors do take pains, however, to say that they don't hate gay people, but rather love them. Of course. Richard B. Russell, legislative general of the southern segregationists during the civil rights era, claimed to love black people. I'm sure he meant it. He just didn't want them asserting all kinds of special rights and mucking around in sacred and time-honored southern institutions and folkways. "We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness." This sounds nice, but it is not true. Conservative Christians speaking to gay people always end up sounding like Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity: "You're just a little more rotten." I have yet to encounter a conservative churchman or woman who considers his or her own loudly-trumpeted sinfulness so grave a matter as to make them unfit for the church's fellowship.

Again, there is no acknowledgment of the long history of vice, hypocrisy, secrecy, sham marriages, and ruined lives that were tolerated in the golden years of the marriage bond. There is no suggestion of what gay people are supposed to do, except repent and live in enforced solitude.

Of the last section, on freedom of conscience, there is little to say. Conscience per se is not a category of great interest to these authors. In law, they defend Christian institutions against non-Christian individuals, and Christian individuals against non-Christian institutions. May a Christian social service agency fire an otherwise-qualified employee for being gay? Yes. May a pharmacy fire a Christian employee for refusing to dispense a legal medication? No. This is not a coherent position. Having a conscience, of any kind, entails paying a cost. If a doctor or nurse refuses to prescribe legal birth control, they should be fired, just as a soldier who becomes a pacifist should be removed from duty. Likewise, if an agency does not wish to follow the civil rights laws of the state, it should learn to live without state contracts. This might be lamentable, and they have every right to lobby for different laws, but there is no way to exempt queasy Christians from the laws of the land.

All the foregoing is a statement of genuine disappointment. I was hoping for something a little more worthwhile than this, knowing I would find it at odds with my own views. Talk is cheap. Phrases like "sanctity of life" are the cheapest of all, since they can be mouthed by signatories like Jody Bottum, editor of the scandalously war-loving journal First Things. A true commitment to human life requires sacrifice--tax dollars to provide decent health care, education, and housing for mothers and children alike; long-term care insurance for the disabled; a willingness to risk the abstract goal of national security in favor of the concrete reality of Pakistani (and dare I say Palestinian) lives. It requires, too, a willingness to embrace palliative care, advance directives, and a reasoned consideration of how to handle truly scarce resources as integral to life's dignity. None of these things is in evidence here.

Talk is cheap. Repenting of complicity in the decline of marriage is an easy thing to sign off on. It's another matter when you have to purge your ranks of the divorced. Calling out the "disdainful condemnation" of gay people is all well and good, but when Peter Akinola--the Nigerian archbishop who supported anti-gay laws so brutal and illiberal that even the Bush State Department objected publicly to them--can comfortably sign, we may conclude that the exhortation has already been in vain.

This document represents a missed opportunity. The world needs a Christian witness on all of these issues, but it needs more thoughtfulness about health care issues and not more scare-mongering. It needs more moral reasoning and not another tired regurgitation of political talking points. It needs to call all of us to repentance, not merely confirm one faction in its moral conceit.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 6:36 PM
Hi Ben,

I passed on signing as well.

Your explanation is much deeper, and better, than mine - but I note some differences that I thought I might mention.

First, I am a little surprised you thought you might get to 2 out of 3. Regretfully, I expected to, and got to, 1 out of 3.

In your piece, I have a couple of comments. First, I disagree that we should expect that not being a pacifist should exclude someone from being against abortion. I think war can be justified far easier than abortion, and the death toll from abortion is far greater than war. In any case, they are two different moral issues - I do not really buy the "seamless garment" position.

We agree largely (I think) on the marriage issue. The issue for marriage in the US, and more importantly in the Body of Christ, is not homosexuality or the civil redefinition of marriage.

I think we disagree a bit on point three. I think it is perfectly fine to fight for conscience exemptons to law -- whether it be conscienctious objection to war or concienctious objection to performing abortions (the only way, btw, that the AMA was able to get the votes in 1972 to drop their objection to abortion), or objecting to dispensing prescriptions to abortificants. One should simply not be expected by society as a whole to oppose their own conscience when it comes to taking a life.

I agree that whether society allows that exemption or not has no bearing on whether one follows their conscience or not - regardless of the outcome.

My focus right now is trying to figure out the right balance between the Gospel and the Kingdom of God; and political involvement and the kingdoms of men. The Evangelical movement has been so out of balance in that department that I think it is time for us to just back off politically and do God's work in the world.

The Manhattan Declaration, in that sense, wasn't just tired - it is horribly anti-Gospel and anti-Kingdom in this present environment.
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