A fortnight or so ago, a group of conservative evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian leaders issued the Manhattan Declaration. The Declaration begins:
We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:
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.
The document is a pointed attempt by the religious right to fend off the growing consensus among many Christians, particularly younger evangelicals and Catholics, that the relentless focus on “pelvic morality” (the obsession with sexual purity) was a warped one. While many younger Christians may remain opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, a great many (this was clearly reflected in the 2008 election) insist that fighting poverty, war, and environmental degradation deserve equal if not greater attention. A number of commenters have noted that younger evangelicals tend to be less concerned with the “social issues” than their elders — and this has meant that younger evangelicals and Catholics have felt much more comfortable voting for Democratic and pro-choice politicians. The ageing leadership of what might be called the “traditional religious right” is understandably concerned; the Manhattan Declaration is an attempt to lead these straying youngsters back onto the narrow path.
It’s worth noting that many of the leading figures in contemporary American Christianity refused to sign it. My father’s former student, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, would not add his name to the list. Neither did celebrated mega-church pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. None of those three men support same-sex marriage; all have solidly pro-life credentials. But wisely, they — and countless other respected figures in the evangelical mainstream — refused to be taken in by the Declaration’s indefensible attempt to create a “hierarchy” of virtues in which the fight against gay marriage trumps the battle to save the planet and the poor.
Brian McClaren, the best-known young evangelical writer in America and leading figure in the “emerging church” movement, wrote a critical and feisty response to the Declaration in Sojourners last week. As he usually does, Brian gets a lot right, particularly in his assertion that we need to spend far more time combatting a culture of greed than the framers of the Manhattan document suggest.
Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmnetal degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation.
To put it more simply, the Manhattan Declaration is an exquisite example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Those who sign it, embrace it, and live out its call can comfort themselves with the thought that when they campaign against same-sex marriage and women’s health, they are doing the most important work in all of God’s kingdom. Changing how they spend, how they travel, how they eat — the really challenging things — are rendered irrelevant by comparison. This is a scandal and a shame to the body of Christ, and deserves bold and prophetic repudiation.