How the Manhattan Declaration is mobilizing silent-too-long Christians to protect life, marriage and religious freedom
It was Nov. 20, 2009 when more than 20 Christian leaders stood before the microphones at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Fox News, CNN, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other media outlets were there with cameras and microphones.
There we announced the launch of the Manhattan Declaration. We proclaimed to the church—and put our nation’s political leaders on notice—that we would protect the sanctity of life, uphold the sacredness of marriage as a holy union between one man and one woman and defend religious freedom for all people.
In front of all those cameras and lights, the Christian leaders lovingly, winsomely and firmly took a stand. I will never forget the picture. I stood between Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia. I looked over at Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, and Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. To my left was Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., who mobilized African-American churches in the District of Columbia to oppose gay marriage. And there was Fr. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.
Silent No More
For too long, the church has remained silent as the forces of secularism and the culture of death ate away at the very pillars of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage. By being silent, we participated in the destruction of the values we held most dear.
I could no longer stand by silently as “medical advances” and technology used human embryos for “experimental cures,” as the gay marriage movement undermined the most foundational institution of society, and as corporate, cultural, governmental and judicial forces placed increasing pressure on religious freedom by demanding that people of faith accept and play along with the assault on life and marriage.
So Princeton professor Robert George, Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George and I called upon 115 prominent Christian leaders from every denomination to gather in New York City to draft the Manhattan Declaration.
The document laid out in inviting, non-confrontational language the case for defending life, marriage and religious freedom. The signers of the declaration acknowledged that all human beings are created in God’s image and that their lives—from the moment of conception through natural death—are sacred.
We described how God instituted marriage between a man and a woman for the blessing and propagation of the human race. And we explained that religious freedom is a fundamental right of every human being, endowed with a free will to choose to follow God or not.
Yet even with the positive language, the declaration ended with a firm statement, which draws in Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances, will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”
Striking a Nerve
The declaration struck a nerve among believers and non-believers alike. Within a few months, half » million people signed the declaration. Trans-denominational and trans-racial rallies and conferences sprung up around the country.
The declaration also stirred up a hornet’s nest among pro-abortion and gay-rights groups. For example, a small handful of gay-marriage activists persuaded the late Steve Jobs to ban the Manhattan Declaration app from Apple’s iTunes store because it allegedly promoted gay bashing and bigotry.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Judge for yourself. Here is what the declaration says about homosexuals and homosexuality:
“We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. 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. We 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.”
News reports on society’s moral decline tell us that the declaration is needed now more than ever. We read about a photographer being fined for not shooting a same-sex wedding ceremony; new health care laws that will force Catholic organizations to purchase insurance that covers contraception; a town clerk is sued for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses; and policies that promote utilitarian end-of-life decisions.
That’s why I’m very excited to see Christians coming together to reinvigorate the Manhattan Declaration movement. Leaders from diverse Christian organizations met in October at the Colson Center to discuss the next steps to mobilize grass-roots efforts around the declaration. I am very confident that national attention will be drawn again to the issues of sanctity of life, traditional marriage and religious liberty.
A Movement—Not Just a Document
Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged. The deck seems stacked against biblical standards—a morally tone-deaf media, schools that promote anti-Christian worldviews and “lifestyle choices,” and a culture that is increasingly vulgar and coarse.
But all is not lost. Think about the great moral and social reforms throughout history: the spread of education and hospitals, the Protestant Reformation, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. What did they have in common?
First, they were Christian movements at their core—informed by a Christian worldview and a biblical understanding of the universe. Second, while they had their charismatic leaders, the movements became powerful engines for change only when the grass roots were motivated and mobilized.
I look at what’s happening right now with Doing the Right Thing, an initiative launched by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview to restore ethics and moral behavior to public life. It started as a six-part DVD series, which was hosted by Princeton University professor Robert George and me, and was moderated by television journalist and political commentator Brit Hume.
Filmed at Princeton, the series presents in plain, nonreligious language the case that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and people can know right from wrong while living lives of virtue to the benefit of all society. In a few short months, we sold more than 6,000 kits to churches, small groups, businesses and schools. In September, we held a nationwide simulcast viewed by thousands across the country.
To borrow a line from a once-popular chorus, it only takes a spark to get a fire going. As famous sociologist Robert Bellah wrote in Psychology Today back in the 1970s, “I think we should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a new vision of a just and gentle world. ... The quality of a culture may be changed when 2 percent of its people have a new vision.”
More recently, according to an article in Science Daily, “Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”
Did you catch that? When just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. According to the researchers at RPI, this is possible because people do not like to hold unpopular opinions and are always seeking to reach a consensus. So those who stick to their intellectual and moral guns can eventually influence their undecided neighbors to adopt their views—and begin to spread them themselves. »
Cultural Change Agents
This principle, of course, is not really new. Jesus launched a world-changing movement with just 12 disciples. All it takes is a committed number of cultural change agents. In the words of one RPI researcher, “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” Add the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we are on our way.
Well, you might argue that we already have over 10 percent of the population with unshakable Christian beliefs, and so why are we still losing on so many cultural fronts? Where is our tipping point?
First, we need to be more active in sharing our beliefs about absolute truth in our pluralistic society. Too many culture-war-weary Christians have retreated to the pews. And too many so-called “Christian leaders” are advising the rest of us to do the same. Nonsense. Now is the time to speak up.
Second, we need to make our case confidently, winsomely and positively. For nearly 20 years on the Breakpoint radio program and now at the Colson Center, I’ve said that the Christian worldview provides the only way to live rationally in the world. It is the blueprint for man to flourish. It is visible whenever we defend the dignity of every man, woman and child, when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and when our marriages, families, churches and schools are refuges for love and learning.
That’s why we invested so much time and effort in our Centurions Program at the Colson Center. Each year, we take 100 individuals and put them through an intense, year-round Christian worldview training course to help them understand Jesus’ claims and that His plan for humans to flourish impacts every area of life. Then we send them out to impact their communities and the culture. We’ve graduated seven classes, and now we have hundreds of “certified centurions” teaching a Christian worldview, running ministries for ex-prisoners, starting racial reconciliation movements in the church and teaching teens to value sexual purity.
Third, we must not be exclusive. We must welcome all who claim the name of Christ, and invite the contributions of all men and women who want to protect life, marriage and religious freedom.
Looking to the future of this great Christian movement that is building across the country, I think back again to that marvelous press conference where we unveiled the Manhattan Declaration. It’s the blueprint for transforming the culture: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox believers—black, white, Latino, old and young—standing side by side, unified in Christian love and firmly committed to rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but never rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.
Well-known author and radio commentator Chuck Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For more information on the Manhattan Declaration, visit www.ManhattanDeclaration.org.
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