My own signature on the Manhattan Declaration is a witness to my strong agreement with what I take as its basic tenets, particularly what it has to say against murder, sodomy and like crimes and perversions. A unified Christian, indeed, a Judeo-Christian, witness is needed against these things, and I am pleased to join myself to such unities.
But I do have reservations, very strong reservations, about this document’s ambiguity on what are distinctively Christian opinions and responsibilities in light of recent social and political developments. In it “modern democracy,” (!) women’s suffrage, and opposition to slavery (which the scriptures do not abolish, but regulate in such a way as to discourage most of its forms), are put in the same moral category as opposition to homosexualism, abortion, and euthanasia. This admixture appears based upon the conjunction of revealed religion with the natural law as set in creation by its Creator, at the head of which is the mind of man–law which defines nature's constitution from the physical to the structure of human society, including the general moral precepts by which it must be governed. Clearly the Declaration was composed in such a way as to be acceptable to the largest possible number of professing American Christians, but in doing this I believe it has attempted to mix the oil of Christianity with the water of popular American religion, and forgotten some things it needs to remember.
Surely there is, for example, a time and place for Christians to defy Caesar, when what a government demands of Christian citizens is contrary to their faith, and obedience to the government is disobedience to God. It is not simply that in our day and age the necessity for civil disobedience among Christians may be close at hand, but in countless instances it has shown itself to be already here, especially in districts controlled by anti-Christian constituencies, their politicians and judges. It is, however, necessary to draw distinct lines between the civil disobedience of those who disobey to follow a divine precept and that which is a reaction to the abrogation of their rights under the United States Constitution.
I was troubled in listening to recent video presentations on this subject by Charles Colson and Timothy George, both men for whom I have great respect and admiration. As representatives of the Manhattan Declaration, they pointed out the looming possibility of resistance to the inhumane and anti-Christian laws promulgated by the current leaders of the United States, and the history of Christian civil disobedience beginning in the apostolic age. But Dr. George’s presentation became immediately ambiguous when he stepped away from the exposition of principles based on the Lord’s division of his domain and Caesar’s to drawing his examples of Christian behavior from pre-constitutional free churches, from early Baptists and Quakers who were persecuted for their insistence on putting their doctrines forward in Puritan Massachusetts.
Freedom of religion is not a Christian principle. It is a secular constitutional principle which, as understood and enforced in the United States, has favored the majority of religious Americans, relieving them from the burden of establishment, and giving the Republic the manifest advantages of a free religious citizenry. There is, however, another distinctly unpopular but unquestionably Christian side to the matter: The Massachusetts Puritans regarded belief that a person should be allowed the public service of whatever religion he chooses as a radical failure of charity, a license for false doctrine and social anarchy. (The generality of American Christians, provoked by the activities of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, has shown similar impatience at the limits of its own tolerance.)
The early New Englanders viewed it as their responsibility before God, as long as they had the power to do so–borrowing here the words of the Anglican Ordinal–“to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word,” and so to treat Baptists, Quakers, and other varieties of aggressive errorist with a notable lack of civic toleration. The early struggles in religious freedom in this country, in other words, were typically between varieties of Christian, the losers when it came time to compose the Bill of Rights by Enlightenment principles probably having the stronger case from Christian tradition, in which toleration of bad religion by Christians in power has a very meager history.
In present context the idea of the unjust law–which by definition is, of course, un-Christian–seems to be providing the necessary baptismal lubricant for the regeneration of Caesar into God in a manner not unlike the movement whereby natural law is used to justify a principle that is highly debatable from a Christian point of view, such as opposition to the divine right of kings in the name of the natural rights of citizens. But Augustine’s famous dictum that an unjust law is no law at all is no help in deciding the status of a law as Caesar’s or God’s, which is what we must know as well as we can before we decide whether or how we can break it. We may ascertain with full and reasoned conviction, for example, that a tax, or a law that arbitrarily favors one class of citizen over another, is manifestly unjust, and perhaps even therefore “no law at all” (I suspect Augustine the rhetorician couldn’t resist the extraordinary epigrammatic force of lex iniusta non est lex–that something which by its own nature opposes itself cancels its own existence). Thomas Aquinas [ST 1-2, q. 96, a.4], thinking more cautiously, notes, “such laws do not bind the conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, on account of which one should yield his right. As Christ says, ‘If someone forces you to go a mile, go another two with him; and if he takes your tunic, give him your pallium,’ ” so indicating that unjust laws still have the form of law and are to be reckoned with as such, so that we may rightly–and in fact sometimes by the Lord’s command–chose to tolerate and obey them even though we find them unjust.
But there are no such options with God’s laws. They must be obeyed–so that if an unjust civil law is contrary to divine law, we must break it, and to do this there must be a vivid distinction between divine and human law, characterized by our Lord as what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, that cannot be homogenized by the principle that all unjust laws stand against what is due to God in the same way or demand the same actions. They do not.
That is where the problem with Martin Luther King as a Christian witness comes in. There can be little doubt that he was standing against unjust laws which denied American citizens their full constitutional rights on basis of race. Although he used the language of Christiani
ty to make his case, there was nothing distinctively Christian in his stand on civil rights. He was challenging Caesar on the existence of sub-Caesarianism in Caesar’s own realm, and appealing to Caesar, to Caesar he quite successfully went. He did not have the qualifications or the brief for a Christian saint or martyr, and for Christians to make him out to be such can only result in embarrassment. Rather, he is a father of a national–a Caesarian, if you will–constitution, like Jefferson or Wilberforce.
We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have produced the Manhattan Declaration, but in order for it to have the highest level of integrity they must be very careful about the way they promulgate it. It is looking more and more like a document born in an opinion shared by a certain strain of Enlightenment liberalism and prominent representatives of the Reformation’s left wing, elevated to ius divinum by the application of natural law categories. This approach obscures what I think is the real desideratum: that it lay down Christian principles to inspire Christian resistance to the tyranny of the Godless Party now in power. To do this, it must stay very, very close to advocacy of the unquestionably and universally Christian (which does not include democracy, freedom of religion, women's suffrage, and rejection of kings, but does include opposition to abortion, homosexualism, and euthanasia), and at all costs avoid using natural law argumentation to appeal to the loose and uncatholic pieties of the largest possible number of modern American churchgoers.
I suggest a second, revised edition.