Manhattan Declaration: A Remarkable Statement with PR Flaws

The Manhattan Declaration on life and marriage is a remarkably articulate and balanced statement presented by a broad and influential coalition of evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians that rarely agree publicly. It is an important declaration that may, nonetheless, disappear in public consciousness because it will be effectively stereotyped and dismissed as an irrelevant screed of the extreme religious right.

The inspiration and one of the writers of the statement was my friend Chuck Colson, whom I served as chief of staff and public relations counsel for many years. He didn’t ask me about the content of the Manhattan Declaration or the public relations aspects of its release. After the fact, I will offer my unsolicited critique: I enthusiastically agree with the former and have concerns about the latter.

I found the declaration to be wonderfully expressed and unemotionally solid. I’ve added my name to the online signers and I hope we see far more than the goal of one million signatures. (168,000 have signed in the first week). If you share these convictions, be sure to go to the site and add your name.

The fact that many of us are tired of contending for the same issues over and over makes little difference as to whether we as a church should continue. As the statement makes clear, we must continue as a matter of conscience. However, we are most powerful not in our not in a call to arms, but a call to knees; not culture war but personal sacrifice. The statement is superior to previous efforts because it shows more humility, more context, and a more diverse group of signers.

I was encouraged by this statement in the Preamble:

While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions

On life issues, the writers were wise to indict both political parties:

Our commitment to the sanctity of life is not a matter of partisan loyalty, for we recognize that in the thirty-six years since Roe v. Wade, elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as “the culture of death.” We call on all officials in our country, elected and appointed, to protect and serve every member of our society, including the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us.

I found this to a great statement on abortion because it acknowledges our responsibility to the unborn and the born, to mother and child alike.

We will be united and untiring in our efforts to roll back the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion. We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion, even as we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike.

On marriage:

The drafters took the most care to construct its position on same-sex marriage. It was refreshing to read the contention that same-sex marriage is a symptom rather than the cause of the erosion of marriage, and its arguments for a restoration of a strong culture of marriage aside as foundation for the opposition to same-sex marriage.

Its strongest paragraphs:

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. We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce. We must work in the legal, cultural, and religious domains to instill in young people a sound understanding of what marriage is, what it requires, and why it is worth the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses make.

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. It reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil and religious law and in the philosophical tradition that contributed to shaping the law. Yet it is critical that the impulse be resisted, for yielding to it would mean abandoning the possibility of restoring a sound understanding of marriage and, with it, the hope of rebuilding a healthy marriage culture.

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.

On civil disobedience: The willingness to sacrifice freedom for convictions set this apart from previous efforts. It is not so much combative as confessional as it draws on the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching. Their answer was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself. Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.

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.

What Manhattan Lacks

What was introduced as a manifesto, and received great coverage in conservative media, would have had far greater impact in wider circles if it had been more strategically framed and communicated. Chuck Colson knows how to gain support for a cause, and his fingerprints are all over this project, but it has the feel of a project that needed another month of work; not so much the content of the statement, but the planning and implementation of its release.

1. It lacks proper inter-church framing: More should have been made of the fact that charter signatories included nine Roman Catholic archbishops and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, as well as many other Catholics and Orthodox. Together with some of the “bishops” of the evangelical church, this is truly remarkable and should be further trumpeted as a historical coalition of church leaders. The only framing came from Laurie Goodstein, who say this as “an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush.” If we do not frame our intentions and actions, good journalists such as Goodstein will do it for us.

2. It lacks evangelical community framing: The statement is being positioned as an effort of the religious right; but that is a simplification. Charter signatories included Ron Sider, perhaps the dean of the evangelical left, as well as others who are rarely seen as solidly in the right camp: Peter Kreeft, Tim Keller, and David Neff. These leaders should have been highlighted, and far more leaders in the evangelical middle and left could have been recruited to sign this statement, strengthening its appeal.

3. It lacks prominent women. The signatories include women (although not many), but it did not feature them at the press conference or as spokespersons. Women should have been in the vanguard; they are valuable to these causes; and could insulate the effort, particularly on the abortion issue.

4. It lacks young leaders. Where are the young people who should have been charter signatories? As my colleague Jonathan Merritt wrote in Newsweek: [The signers] “Included no notable evangelicals under 40. Perhaps this was mere oversight but it is one that will be both notable and damaging. Had this effort been a multigenerational one, it would have been inspiring and meaningful in a way that a declaration with the intent to “educate” is not, regardless of its sincerity.”

5. It’s too long. The tragedy of this declaration is that it will be not be read and it will be distilled—as are most messages in our society—to status updates and sound bites, and snide summaries by those who haven’t read its contentions. The statement is masterfully written, moderated and nuanced where it is should be, and powerful in important places. The news release championed the 4,700 words; the problem is that this will take 168 tweets to communicate its contents.

6. There was already a Manhattan Declaration—on climate change, no less. A Google search would have avoided that little problem.

One evangelical friend’s intemperate comment: “We need to speak against this blather.” Did this friend read the statement or just the headlines?

The Manhattan Declaration is an important statement for these times, but it should not define the whole of Christian mission. No Christian can look the other way as life and marriage are threatened, but no Christian should be focused only on these two issues.

Jim Jewell
Managing Partner
Rooftop MediaWorks

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
This entry was posted in Abortion, Christianity, Communications, Evangelicals, Family, Homosexual Issues, Jim Jewell, marriage, Politics, PR secrets, Pro-life, Public relations, Virtue and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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