H.L Mencken’s observation that theology is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the terms of the not worth knowing kept coming back to me as I slogged repeatedly through the six pages of The Manhattan Declaration over the weekend. A large part of the difficulty is in it’s urgent need to deceive the reader. It wants you…it Needs you to know that it isn’t a mere justification of an invidious prejudice against gay people. Just that gay people are…well…you know…immoral, and their sexually barren counterfeit relationships are incapable of any deep devotion or spiritual meaning. But we Love them. Really.
It’s thick, ugly heap of claptrap theology slathered over the same old well worn religious right slogans about gay civil rights, marriage and culture. In retrospect I had to wonder why The Manhattan Declaration was dumped out into the public on a Friday, the traditional day for releasing news its sources would rather see forgotten over the weekend. In Washington they call it the Friday News Dump. My hunch is that the target audience of The Manhattan Document would be kept well aware of it regardless of when it was released to the public, while at the same time a Friday Dump would mean it got less critical scrutiny from the mainstream press.
The excerpt on my Google news page this morning read: “The document outlines the group’s three most pressing issues, two of which deal with gay rights: abortion, marriage and religious liberties.” That’s one way of putting it. Another is that the three most pressing issues were opposing same-sex marriage, and defending the right of bigots to deny goods and services to gay Americans. Oh…and…uh…abortion. No. This is a manifesto on opposition to gay equality. The rest of it is window dressing.
What’s remarkable about the document in fact, is the amount of effort put into the window dressing. Right from the beginning of it, careful attention is given to defending its authors from the charges of bigotry they have a hunch will be forthcoming…
Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering…
…and so on and so forth. What a bunch of swell folks. Christians I mean. The ones who actually do all of that seeking justice, resisting tyranny, reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering stuff. But these are not those people. Reading that stirring preamble to the document, listing all the ways Christians have fought over the centuries for democracy, women’s rights and social justice, you almost forget that. What part of “The great civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 60s” could you imagine Dinesh D’Souza, Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins having a part of? What part of seeking justice and reaching out with compassion to the oppressed have James Dobson, let alone Peter J. Akinola ever played a role in?
In a document purporting to take a stand against a “culture of death”, there are no calls to oppose war or pledges to work for peace among peoples and nations. There is no condemnation of hunger or poverty, no challenge to act on making clean water, uncontaminated food, and accessible health care available to the world’s needy, let alone a call to work against institutionalized greed that impoverishes millions. There is no call to stand against nationalism, ethnic and racial hatred. Other then the oppression of Christians (by their definition) no call to action is made concerning the oppression of other religious communities.
Oh some of this is indeed noted in passing as regrettable facts of life nowadays, but that’s the extent of it. The signers even confess a few times here and there that they haven’t done enough to oppose some of the evils of the world. Where it takes a stand in favor of protecting the weak and vulnerable against violent attack, it does so for the unborn. The living it seems, had best look out for themselves. But this document, ostentatiously standing firm against the culture of death, does not concern itself with that fight. And, surprise, surprise, there no clarion call to stand against hate motivated violence against gays, lesbians and the transgendered. There is only a “call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it.”
As if disdainful condemnation were all gay people had to deal with. No…the gauntlet is thrown down against gay citizens, and in particular same-sex couples. Abortion, the right’s other foundational Christian dogma, is given just slightly more then one page of notice in the document or one-sixth the total verbiage. The defense of Marriage as a heterosexual prerogative is given two, or one-third of the total text. But this all by itself is misleading. Practically all of the section on religious liberty seems preoccupied with the threat posed by gay equality, and the entire document itself is a manifesto that seeks to provide a religious basis for defiance of civil rights laws that its signers, all leaders as near as I can tell in various religious right communities, claim religious opposition to.
It is ironic that those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled and also a right to engage in immoral sexual practices, and even a right to have relationships integrated around these practices be recognized and blessed by law‚Äîsuch persons claiming these “rights” are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.
We see this, for example, in the effort to weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro-life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions. We see it in the use of anti-discrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers of various sorts to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business. After the judicial imposition of “same-sex marriage” in Massachusetts, for example, Catholic Charities chose with great reluctance to end its century-long work of helping to place orphaned children in good homes rather than comply with a legal mandate that it place children in same-sex households in violation of Catholic moral teaching. In New Jersey, after the establishment of a quasi-marital “civil unions” scheme, a Methodist institution was stripped of its tax exempt status when it declined, as a matter of religious conscience, to permit a facility it owned and operated to be used for ceremonies blessing homosexual unions.
Notice the weight given here to the abortion issue, verses the issue of gay civil rights. This document raises both abortion and homosexuality as evils the signers say they will not abide, even if the law requires them to. But clearly it is intensely preoccupied with one, and gives only routine notice to the other.
Two well worn religious right lies are put forth here in defense of the proposition that Christians face persecution if homosexuals are given equal rights. First, in Massachusetts the Catholic Charities were doing their work, much as they are in Washington D.C., on the government’s dime. A similar Mormon Adoption agency is still, so I am told, working in Massachusetts, free to discriminate to its heart’s content, because it is privately funded by the LDS church. The Catholic church could take a similar route if it wanted to, but apparently it would rather play martyr to The Homosexual Menace then help needy children find homes. They have likewise threatened to stop feeding the homeless in Washington D.C. Likewise the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association had agreed to allow the public use of its boardwalk pavilion in exchange for a tax break, did allow many couples, Christian and otherwise to use it, then balked when a same sex couple applied to use it.
But notice this: The lawsuit had nothing to do with the fact of same-sex civil unions in New Jersey. It was an equal access case based on an anti discrimination law that predated same-sex civil unions in that state. With or without same-sex civil unions, The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association would have lost their tax break for denying gay people equal access to a public accommodation. The slippery way the signers of The Manhattan Declaration make their case is telling here. They are asserting a right not simply to defy legal same sex marriage, but the entire scope of civil rights laws painfully won over the course of decades for all Americans. But they’d rather you saw it as a case against same-sex marriage, not the entirety of existing civil rights law.
But the meat of the document is in the section on Marriage.
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.
So the document in one breath declares that same-sex marriage is but a symptom of larger evils. And then proceeds to spend two pages attacking the symptom.
We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same.
To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love.
Sounds great until you realize further down that beauty, mystery, and holiness is something only heterosexual couples are capable of. No, I’m not exaggerating. What sort of beauty dehumanizing a small minority of their fellow human beings is going to bring to heterosexual marriages is anybody’s guess but I suspect it gives a lot of folks in the right a profound sense of their own holiness.
In a document that rests its entire case on the procreative potential of heterosexual sex, no call is made to shield children from the effects of poverty, feed and cloth them, give them health care, and an education. Whatever Christ said about those who would harm the little children, it is no concern of the signers provided they’ve already been born. What seems to worry them greatly isn’t that families may fall into poverty and divorce or that children may go hungry or die of preventable illnesses, but that gay citizens might gain equal marriage rights.
And their case against same-sex marriage would seem to rest on one thing: procreation. Except it doesn’t.
Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being…the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual…on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation. That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.
Okay…look at it: Heterosexual coupling fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation and when procreation cannot occur that’s why heterosexual marriages are not dissoluble or annullable. Wait…what?
Let’s simplify this passage: Only heterosexuals can naturally procreate but even when they can’t they’re still heterosexuals and you’re not. Yes…this is exactly what they’re saying. And make no mistake…it’s more then just the ability to procreate that the signers of this document deny gay people are capable of.
Read it again:
…forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being…the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual…on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation….
Absent that biological reproductive component, the infertile heterosexual couple would seem to be exactly on the the same footing as the same sex one. Their “sharing of life” is just as “merely metaphorical” without that physical actuality of procreation. Yet, the signers insist the heterosexual couple is still “fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation”. But what behavior? Both the same sex couple and the infertile opposite sex couple are behaving exactly the same way. At least, to the eye that is willing to see in a same sex couple, two people in love. That’s the problem.
To the signers of this document, the same-sex couple is not only lacking the biological sharing of life, but also “the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual” too. It is bedrock, absolute bedrock in the anti-gay pews that homosexuals don’t love, they just have sex. See it over and over again in this document as it makes references to “fashionable ideologies” and a “right to engage in immoral sexual practices”. See it here in the airy theological claptrap they use to point out the difference between same sex couplings verses opposite sex ones. They’re not just talking about biology. Even taking into account their mutual infertility, same-sex couples are regarded by the signers as profoundly deficient on the spiritual level as well or this statement that the heterosexual’s behavior is completed and actualized in a way the same-sex couple’s isn’t simply makes no sense. It’s not just that same sex couples cannot biologically reproduce, but that their behavior does not reflect that “sharing of life at every level of being”. They are constitutionally incapable. The depth of their commitment to one another, the spiritual union between them, isn’t regarded by the signers as a real thing, but only as “fashionable ideologies”. But this is something the signers are loath to say bluntly. So the dress it up in a fashionable theology that says that homosexuals don’t love they merely imagine they do while engaging in “immoral sexual practices”, without saying it in so many words.
And for those readers who find it repulsive to see their gay and lesbian neighbors treated as hollow imitations of human beings, tragic souls imprisoned in sin whose sexual bondings have zero spiritual qualities and no romantic content whatsoever, the signers have an answer for them too…
It [same-sex marriage] would lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life.
The section on marriage ends thusly:
And so it is out of love (not “animus”) and prudent concern for the common good (not “prejudice”), that we pledge to labor ceaselessly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and to rebuild the marriage culture.
In case you missed it there…they’re pledging to labor ceaselessly to make sure humanity stops regarding a couple’s love as the bedrock of their marriage…out of love. Because they love us, they want us to understand that marriage isn’t about love. Because they love us they are going to rebuild the marriage culture with love perhaps functioning as an afterthought to the process of having children. Maybe. So long as we don’t all get too caught up in our destructive belief in romance. With enemies like this a culture of death doesn’t need friends.
This is not a religious manifesto. It is a political one, written and signed by a group of right-wing political activists, many of whom happen to be clergymen. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as more of the same junk rhetoric. Some days ago, following the passage of the Matthew Shepard – James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a group of anti-gay ministers put on a show in front of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C., daring the Feds to come out and arrest them for preaching against the evils of homosexuality. Like the Declaration, it was less an act of street theater and more a warning to both the government and the gay community, our families and friends, that bigotry isn’t going to just roll over when civil rights laws are passed. It didn’t back in the 1960s either.
And then you realize there is an audience out there in the pews just drinking all this in and getting more and more fearful and angry and defiant with every serving. With a black democrat in the white house, and democrats controlling both houses of congress, all it seems the religious right can do at the moment to advance its policies is whip up the pews for the next election, with sickeningly little concern for the consequences. In July of 2008, Jim Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, carrying a sawed-off shotgun and burning with hatred toward “ultra liberals” who “worship the god of secularism” and “embrace every pervert that comes down the pike”. He opened fire in a room full of people watching their children put on a play, killing two. Culture of death.