Nov. 20 marked the 10-year anniversary of the publication of The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience. The document was originally drafted by two Southern Baptists, the late Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship and Timothy George, then dean of Beeson Divinity School, as well as the Roman Catholic legal scholar and philosopher Robert George.
Almost 150 leaders from various Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions were charter signers of The Manhattan Declaration. Over the past decade, over 550,000 individuals have added their signatures. I was not a charter signer of the document, but I signed The Manhattan Declaration the day it was published and shared it publicly from my social media accounts.
The Manhattan Declaration outlined three issues that were under assault in American culture in 2009: the sanctity of every human life, the traditional biblical understanding of marriage and religious liberty for all people. The statement addressed each of these three issues from the complementary standpoints of holy scripture (our ultimate authority), the best of the Christian intellectual tradition and human reason.
While The Manhattan Declaration offered a brief exposition of each of its three priorities, it was also a call to action. As the signers confessed,
“We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right – and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.”
The Manhattan Declaration issued a clarion call that was clearly necessary 10 years ago. Subsequent events have shown this call is even more important in 2019.
Abortion-on-demand remains legal in the U.S. Since Roe v. Wade legalized the practice in 1973, an estimated 62 million pre-born human beings have been killed in their mothers’ wombs. Though abortion rates have dropped significantly – a trend for which we should give thanks – there have also been setbacks to the pro-life cause in recent days.
In January of this year, the state of New York passed the Reproductive Health Act, which, among other changes, guaranteed a right to an abortion at any point during a pregnancy and removed criminal charges against harming a child in the womb. As reported by Baptist Press this week, a San Francisco federal jury awarded Planned Parenthood almost $2.3 million in its suit against the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life organization that had used secret video recordings to demonstrate that the abortion provider was trafficking in fetal body parts.
Traditional marriage has suffered a number of significant blows since The Manhattan Declaration was published. In 2011, the Obama Administration instructed the U.S. Justice Department to cease defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) in court. In 2012, California courts declared unconstitutional Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that had banned same-sex marriage in the state. Most notably, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
During this same period, LGBTQ activist organizations, corporations, and progressive politicians have partnered together – mostly successfully – to further normalize homosexuality, transgenderism, same-sex marriage, and other unbiblical understandings of gender and sexuality in popular culture. Christians and others who reject revisionist understandings of gender and sexuality have increasingly been ostracized and even penalized for their convictions, which leads to the third issue addressed in The Manhattan Declaration.
Increasingly, the religious liberty of individuals who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons is under assault. LGBTQ activists have sued the owners of bakeries, floral companies, advertising agencies, apparel companies and others for refusing to provide services that would compel them to affirm same-sex marriage. The Equality Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 but has not yet been acted upon by the Senate, would declare homosexuality to be a civil right and further discriminate against people of faith for their religious convictions.
Other issues have also provoked threats to religious liberty. Both businesses and non-profits have been sued for refusing to fund abortions through their health care policies. The free speech of religious and/or conservative collegians has been threatened by the growth of “free speech zones” on many college campuses. Churches and other ministries in many communities continue to struggle with discriminatory prohibitions about the use of certain pieces of property or rental agreements. Organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission are standing in the gap for Christians (and others!) whose religious liberty is under fire.
Life, marriage, religious liberty – three biblical ideas that have significantly influenced American culture yet are under assault as never before in 2019. The Manhattan Declaration has proven to be a prophetic document, and believers need to heed its call now more than ever. I would encourage you to read Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty: What Belongs to God, What Belongs to Caesar, edited by David Dockery and John Stonestreet.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He also serves as a research fellow for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.)