Manhattan Declaration Is The New Old Culture War

It’s hard to discern whether the recently unveiled Manhattan Declaration is an act of desperation or hubris: are its promoters’ backs up against the wall, their fundamentalism mockingly rejected by a culture increasingly weary of bombastic theocrats? Or is it a sign that they are emboldened by their balance-tipping abilities, as exemplified by the Catholic Church’s pivotal role in forcing House Democrats to include the restrictive Stupak-Pitts anti-abortion amendment in their health care bill?

The Manhattan Declaration is billed as “A Call of Christian Conscience,” drafted and signed by Catholics, evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians, an “ecumenism” celebrated by its promoters as evidence of its far-reaching appeal. The document targets reproductive freedom (enemy of the “sanctity of life”) and LGBTQ equality (enemy of the “dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife”) as foes of Christians’ religious freedom. It’s a new document but an old canard. And it’s proof that the culture wars are not only not over; there hasn’t even been a truce.

The Declaration’s drafters and signatories view it as an act of “conscience” and religious devotion, not politics, yet they threaten unspecified civil disobedience if the law fails to yield to their theocratic fantasies. But if the document is so disassociated from current political events, why did it need to hit the streets with a splash at the National Press Club? The festivities took place just steps away from where the D.C. City Council was considering gay marriage legislation subject to threats from the Archdiocese of Washington, and where the Senate was poised to break a threatened filibuster of floor debate on its health care bill, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called “the worst bill we’ve seen so far on the life issues.”

The Manhattan Declaration assumes that in a country with constitutionally protected religious liberty, any law intended to protect the citizenry’s other freedoms should be subject to the veto threat of the signers of the Manhattan Declaration itself. This is not a new strategy for the religious right. Since the 1970s the Hyde Amendment has “protected” the “conscience” of people who find abortion morally objectionable and don’t want tax dollars paying for someone else’s (although many of those people of “conscience” also oppose war but have barely lifted a finger to stop us from paying for the killing of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan). Religious right legal groups have used the courts to try to dismantle the separation of church and state on similar grounds, claiming that everything from LGBTQ equality to prohibitions on the public display of the Ten Commandments infringes on their religious liberty as Christians.

The Declaration no doubt seeks to capitalize on the current Obama/secularism-as-Nazism mania that pervades the fantasies of Glenn Beck and the tea party movement. Watergate felon-turned prison evangelist Chuck Colson, who was present at the press club for the unveiling, released a video just before the event in which he recommended reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which he called “prophetic in its application to today. . . . The destruction of civil society has always been prelude to a totalitarian government.” Indeed the Declaration harkens not only to Hitler, but to “intellectuals” and “elites” who supposedly share his genocidal ambitions:

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.”

These Manhattan-ites (so distinct from the island of the same name whose sexual license they no doubt fear) believe in a “one-flesh union as husband and wife,” the “crowning achievement of God’s creation.” But those dreaded one-flesh unions between men and men or women and women are not the only enemies of God’s creation for these Manhattan-ites. Sex before marriage — which as we all know nobody engages in! — is another perpetrator of “social pathologies of every sort.” Princeton’s Robert George, who emceed the affair, seemed downright obsessed with the specter of what he called “polyamorous relationships,” repeating those words as if a mantra against those imaginary man-on-dogon-barnyard-animal threesomes Republican luminaries have warned us about. (George is also the founder of the American Principles Project, which opposes the appointment of LGBTQ people to positions in government.)

The real question, though, is not whether the culture wars are “dead,” as so many would have it; clearly they are not. (As I write this, over 37,000 people have signed the Manhattan Declaration.) As evidenced by many of its signatories, who claimed to sign on behalf of themselves but not their organizations, the Manhattan Declaration is representative of the thinking of the Catholic Church and mainstream evangelicalism. Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and once touted as a representative of that “broader agenda” that includes issues beyond the culture wars, announced his support for the Declaration by noting that he is a registered Democrat. (To his credit, David Gushee, the Mercer University professor also part of that “centrist” group, told me he would not sign the Declaration.)

If the Manhattan Declaration is anathema to the prophets who proclaim the end of the culture wars, and who claim to be the great religious hope of the Democratic Party, they need to stop fighting the war themselves. That would mean that abortion coverage in health care reform is of no consequence; the bill should pass in order to cover the tens of millions of Americans who lack it. That would mean that gay marriage laws get passed not only unchallenged by the so-called centrists but supported by them, so that LGBTQ people (God’s children?) are no longer relegated to second-class citizenship. Anything less than that from the prophets of the end of the culture wars means that they are fighting them, or at the very least throwing fuel on the fire, along with the culture warriors they claim to reject.