Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Manhattan Declaration: Making Martyrdom out of Discrimination

The Manhattan Declaration of some Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox leaders has received some notable coverage over the last couple of days. The declaration itself isn't terribly long, certainly not long enough to deal realistically with any of the issues that it addresses such as abortion, stem-cell research, or same-sex marriage. But it is long enough to raise the question of whether it is trying to reverse a trend signaled in the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto, in which some leading Evangelicals called for less of a politicization of the faith. I'd like to take a look at the sections of the document and argue that it has failed to make an adequate case for its position on same-sex marriage.

Preamble: The Preamble is a quick trip through 2000 years of Christian history. It is a story of Christianity resisting and fighting evil. There is no hint about same-sex marriage in the preamble. But there are lines that deconstruct the narrative that the writers wish to weave. They note in passing that Christian women were "at the vanguard of the suffrage movement." Indeed, they were. It seems odd to me that the document, written by representatives of faith traditions that are the least likely to recognize women's leadership in the Church, would highlight this fact. But what should be suggestive about this bit of history is that the Church has encouraged people to achieve things in the secular realm that it would not allow them to achieve in the spiritual. So why would it not celebrate the Christians today who are working for same-sex marriage in the civil realm? I guess that would confuse the clear lines of us and them that the writers are drawing.

Declaration: Thankfully, the declaration acknowledges that the writers or signers are speaking on their own behalf and not on behalf of their faith traditions. They mention as their sources of authority Scripture, natural human reason, and the nature of the human person. So we basically have a mixture of Bible and Robert George's conception of natural law. It is in this section that we find the first explicit comments on marriage: "...the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies." And that leads them to their definition: "marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society." Here the writers seem to be covering their bases in that they locate marriage as they understand it in the divine command but also in society. But the words "historically understood" complicate both the roots of marriage--the divine command and society. In fact, they complicate the picture sufficiently to make their own swipe about "fashionable ideologies" incoherent. The historical interpretation of God's commands about marriage and the social pressures shaping marriage show great variety. Those of us who are seeking to give legal sanction to same-sex marriage are not outside the narrative that the Manhattan signers develop, but we are a part of it. Those of us who are people of faith are attempting to be faithful to our religious views and our partners in seeking marriage, and we are also responding to social changes that make it possible for us to establish lasting relationships, like our non-religious counterparts. There is no one ideology of same-sex marriage. The question for many of us arises out of Scripture, natural human reason, and the nature of the human person, just as it does for the signatories of the declaration.

Marriage: Following the declaration are sections on issues. I'll skip to the one on marriage. One finds a rehearsal of the benefits of marriage, how God has honored it, and a discussion of the threats to marriage. There is an interesting acknowledgment about the causality between same-sex marriage and problems in the wider marriage culture: "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." I was pleased to see this admission. Of course, the section goes on to argue that the impulse must nevertheless be resisted since it would lock confusion into place. But at least these leaders are on the record as saying that same-sex marriage does not directly hurt heterosexual marriages. But did you notice what else they did with that line? They put same-sex marriage and multiple partner relationships together. And they did the same in the following paragraph. Since there isn't to my knowledge legislation pending about multiple partner relationships, the effect is fear-mongering. I guess we can at least be thankful that they didn't bring up bestiality, though they did conjure the image of incest. As I've said before, the nearest analogy is between opposite-sex marriage of two partners and same-sex marriage of two partners. Those are the only viable ones under debate. Adding anything else has nothing to do with the issues at hand in politics today. Britney Spears songs notwithstanding, there is no lobby for threesomes.

Of course, they develop their argument for only allowing opposite-sex marriage based on "sexual complementarity" and procreation. Procreation always seems to be the obvious argument, the common sense position. But it's not. Not every opposite-sex married couple wants to procreate or can procreate, whether that be for age or medical reasons. So marriage need not be about procreation. The complementarity issue also seems to be common sense to many straight people, and one occasionally hears it explained in terms of pegs fitting into holes! I'll resist the urge to be crude in return and simply say, even if there were no same-sex couples...straight people have found plenty of ways to use their pegs and holes that don't have anything to do with procreation and certainly have nothing to do with sexual complementarity. The Manhattan folks won't be saying anything about that because they know how ridiculous they would sound if they started regulating those practices.

Religious Liberty: This final section is the most melodramatic. It is an attempt to scare socially conservative Christians into believing that the state will begin infringing the Bill of Rights with respect to some of the political questions addressed in the document. The state is not going to make any religious body perform a same-sex marriage. But some religious bodies want it both ways. They want the budgeting and tax advantages of forming separate 501c3 organizations to do social work and still not have to comply with non-discrimination laws. My advice would be keep your ministries in house. If you form a separate corporation to do social work and employ over 15 people, there is a reasonable expectation that you will have to comply with federal, state, and local non-discrimination laws and give spousal benefits to whoever is legally married in that jurisdiction. The dramatic language of resisting the state in the same way that the early Church did is laughable. The early Church kept its ministries within the Church and some of its members went to their deaths when they were compelled to worship idols. What those who complain about non-discrimination policies really want are the state-granted advantages of having their social ministries in a separate corporation. My guess is that in many cases, compromises would allow even their separate non-profits to be exempt.

Despite their rhetoric, they will never be commemorated in the liturgy for whining about their affiliated 501c3 charity resisting a local non-discrimination ordinance. They will not end up in the martyrologies. Those men and women were made of much stouter stuff than the signatories of the Manhattan Declaration.

-Chris Sanders

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