Names in the News, The Manhattan Declaration, and some Personal Baggage

Well the semester has come to a close, and it’s been a while since I posted anything, so I suppose I should post something. I’ve been keeping notes about a few things that have been in the news, and I should remind my readers that I spend a fair amount of my time inhabiting the space that spans between opposing factions in culture. For example, I wrote some notes about the Miss California, Carrie Prejean, Perez Hilton, gay marriage, gay rights, conservative, liberal, Christian, what-have-you saga that filled the news media for a while. In short, the story that shouldn’t have been a story at all was intriguing to me, simply because it is a perfect model of the type of large-scale discourse contention we see in culture today—and it is significant that one of the ways in which it is a perfect model is that it is absolutely asinine and embarrassingly stupid on all sides. On another note, a friend of mine recently notified me of The Manhattan Declaration, and so I spent a few minutes reading it and then searching the web to see what’s being said about it, and then reading it again. I think I have a couple of months’ worth of exasperation built up inside of me and need to release some of it, even if it means standing on a soapbox for a few minutes. So here’s part of what I have to say about the Manhattan Declaration (MD), although it’s very much mixed in with some other assorted baggage, frustration, and curiosity thrown in for good measure.

For example, the other stuff could begin with David Letterman and Tiger Woods. What is interesting in these stories is that Letterman got off lightly in comparison to Woods. Why? I see this as tying in with something I write about once in a while on this blog, and the difference between the stories as basically this: Letterman has never attempted to position himself on the moral high-ground of society, but in a certain sense Woods has. Letterman has never made a buck off of a squeaky clean image, but Woods has. And I don’t think the American public really cares, comparatively speaking, whether you have sex with a few of the women who work for you, or whether you have sex with a few women in each of the cities the PGA happens to visit. There are plenty of actors, rock stars and athletes—as well as less famous people—who do this all of the time and in some cases it’s even expected of them. Nobody complains much about these people and their antics. But, people don’t like it when somebody who presents himself as above it, does it. People don’t like hypocrisy, and that’s the core of the issue. Furthermore, I dare say that people would be a lot less upset with Woods if, say, he had only a single infraction whom he claimed was more or less a one night stand. This could be passed off and probably widely accepted as a far less sinister “mistake” induced by “moral weakness,” which people tend to understand and forgive. Weakness we understand, because we all have it. Fraud we don’t accept, because most of us try not to commit it.

Of course, the folks who “handle” famous people know this, which is why they often recommend a rapid and public display of remorse over one’s weakness. This sometimes works, but there’s not a lot of hope of inciting people to confuse simple temporal weakness with fraud, when the “weakness” has perpetuated itself, hidden in the shadows, for a long time. There’s simple moral weakness in a cop taking a bribe once in his life; there’s outright fraud in a perpetually corrupt cop.

I’d say it isn’t always the case, but it is often the case that moral fraud begins with simple weakness (although the waters get muddied if you want to call fraud a form of moral weakness). It seems intuitive to me that the weakness has to be dealt with quickly, by confessing it to another person with the intent of ending it, or else fraud will shortly follow. I tend to think that this is thy the Christian tradition, in its various forms, involves confession of one’s transgressions. Confession helps to prevent weakness, which we all possess, from progressing onward to fraud, which we can choose to avoid. What this requires is humility, and I would contend that the inhibitor of confession is pride, either in the form of “I don’t want other people to know” or “Hey, I gotta right to do what I did because….” And this is another of the practically limitless reasons why pride is the foundational enemy of a “holy,” spirit-filled life, and why humility is necessary for such a life. But I digress…

The MD contains, I think after a couple of readings, a lot of carefully considered and eloquent words. It also has some good thoughts in it; at least in principle. Its preamble mentions the history of Christianity in terms of its devotion to the outcast and downtrodden, which is in my opinion undeniable as the very root of Christian faith. It notes the role of Christians in modern social causes such as slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement. To me this is all well and good, and certainly it is true that Christians were instrumental in bringing about much needed moral change in those areas. The MD also does a good job of making it clear that it does not condemn any particular individual human. Although it does speak against certain behaviors and general directions of society, it admits that all humans are weak and flawed and all are in need of God’s grace. I think this is a good thing. Additionally, the MD explicitly positions itself as a non-political declaration, which is, in theory, laudable. At the highest level, and if I can wave my hands for a moment, the MD claims that it is about the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious freedom. As such, the MD is a positive document and I would likely support it with a signature if it was only a preamble and a simple statement of these three ideals. Unfortunately, it is not that simple:

Noting that Christians have been instrumental in supporting great causes completely ignores that many Christians have also opposed great causes. There was plenty of slavery, gender bias and racism that was justified in the name of the Bible, and this continues to be the case today. Benefitting from a claim of Christian courage in righting wrongs is weakened when one fails to address the fact that those wrongs were also, perhaps in greater numbers, justified in the name of Christianity. The call involving the sanctity of life is directed at abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, but mentions nothing of war and capital punishment. The call involving sanctity of marriage is circumscribed and limited to a definition of marriage presupposed by the MD, and I infer from the document that its statements regarding freedom of religion and conscience are similarly constrained. Some of these topics will be discussed further below, but in general I find it personally impossible to sign the MD, for various reasons.

First of all and in general terms, I have to admit that I’m not much of “a joiner” when it comes to petitions, clubs and organizations; I just never can feel fully comfortable with other people packaging together a set of statements, beliefs and opinions, and asking to me to align myself with them. I suppose it’s simply because I haven’t found a package I align with fully. It is almost invariable that by aligning one’s self with a statement, organization or person because of one or more similar beliefs, you are also going to wind up associated with other beliefs that may not be similar to your own. In the end game, you have to make sure that you feel strongly enough about the former things that you are willing to view the latter as comparatively insignificant. And this is one of things I see in the Manhattan Declaration; in some interesting ways.

For example, one of the things I wonder about the MD is that I know a lot of folks who are pretty fundamental in their Protestant views, and they don’t consider Catholics and Orthodox folks—well, most other Christians, actually—to be Christians. These folks tend to think that only their brand of Protestantism is actual Christianity. But I would bet that many of them would be all for signing the MD, and so what are they implicitly saying when they sign a document that considers all these other people of varying “ecclesiastical” views to be “Christian?” Do people realize that by signing the MD, they may be making an implicit claim they don’t believe?

The MD’s invitation to sign goes further, welcoming your signature even if you’re an unbeliever in a Christian sense but yet agree with the three main principles of the declaration. This seems odd to me on a couple of levels, the obvious being, “We know you don’t believe what we believe about God and Jesus and all that, and so we tend to think you’re going to Hell, but, would you sign up with us and help us fight the things with which we disagree?” On the second level, this seems a bit like when the Moral Majority joined forces with feminist groups to fight pornography a few decades ago, even though the former often considers the latter to be culpable for many of our society’s ills. This seems foundationally duplicitous to me; shameful, even. I think all Christians need to think about the aspects of moral honesty and integrity in what they say, and I’m not sure they’re doing so when, in the interest of their own agenda, they align themselves with people that on any other day they malign and consider to be part of what they are fighting.

This seems to me to be symptomatic of the tendency I’ve noted in the conservative Christian movement as it plays out in media, and please don’t think for a second that the movement is innocent in the media game, as if it tries not to play but always gets sucked in by the “liberal media.” No, it willingly places itself into the arena, a point I’ll talk more about in a moment, and the sad thing is that it does a really bad job of positioning itself whenever it tries. Part of the problem is that it’s obviously desperate to find its own heroes to place upon a placard. For example, it did this with the young lady who prayed with a killer-on-the-run and convinced him to turn himself in to the authorities without a fight. The movement jumped all over her courage and prayer; but it wasn’t sure what to do with her shattered family life and drug use that came to light a few days later—as if the movement shouldn’t have been able to see this coming (this was the subject of my very first blog post, in fact). The movement also did this most recently with dethroned Ms. California, making her a poster child for family values and Christian morality, soon trying valiantly to continue to prove their point amidst her subsequent talk of breast implants, semi-nude photos and a video of her performing autoerotic acts for her ex-boyfriend. (And again, that the Christian right didn’t see this coming is disturbing.)

In my opinion, and please, please I don’t intend to sound misogynistic here at all—in fact quite the opposite—the real reason the movement was especially quick to clamor for these two particular heroines, in addition to its normal famished-induced quest for any hero, is that (though nobody likes to play this card) they’re both good looking women. “Never mind that we have to look to someone who tries to make a living pedaling her flesh,” (and, by the way, that’s what swimsuit modeling and beauty pageants are) “we need a good looking role model that will capture people’s interest! The liberals in Hollywood have all of them on contract!” I realize I am digressing a bit, but I have a point here. The point is that, as the MD further exemplifies, the Christian right is so desperate to get people on its side, and/or to demonstrate that people are on its side, that it will turn to people who flaunt their bodies, anyone remotely claiming to be Christian, and even nonbelievers as long as they are willing to agree with the movement on three basic things: Abortion, Marriage, and Religious Freedom (more on what “religious freedom” means in the context of the MD will follow in a moment). It is so desperate that it will attach itself to people that oftentimes represent the very things that, on any other day, the movement considers to belong to the “enemy.” To me, this is tragically sad—to the point of being morbidly fascinating.

The Christian right, as finally definitively stated via the MD, is saying to people that “if you agree with us on these three things, even if you are a non-believer, you are more like us than the professing Christian who disagrees with us.” Think about this for a long moment. It is tantamount to saying that if you are an atheist who is pro-life and anti-gay marriage, we want you with us. If you are a Christian who is pro-choice and/or pro gay marriage, you need to repent and change because you’re not, really, what we consider to be fully Christian. All I can say to this at the moment is, so much for agenda item number three of the MD: religious freedom and stands of conscience.

And this brings us to the MD’s call for such: Religious freedom and the freedom to act according to one’s conscience. This is a fantastic idea (as are the face-value ideas of the sanctity of human life and marriage), but apparently, what the MD means is that freedom of religion and adherence to conscience are fundamentally important to being human—as long as what they mean is that religious freedom is the freedom to be conservative Christians (read: your agenda is pro-life and anti-gay praxis) and that freedom of conscience applies as long as your conscience is the same as theirs. Rhetorically this is very similar to a position that is usually reversed and causes conservatives to claim (often rightly so)that liberals are hypocrites, but be that as it may it is an appalling shoe no matter whose foot it covers, and it is part and parcel as to why the Christian right is losing the media battle that, again, it willingly engages. It’s been said that if you ask the average young person on the street to say what contemporary Christianity is about, he or she will begin by saying it is pro-life and anti-gay. To me it is a terrible tragedy that the populace would even begin to view Christianity in such a pathetically circumscribed manner that is infinitely removed from the riches and depth of life in God through the Spirit as revealed in Jesus. But, you know what? If that’s the view, it’s at least partly because conservative Christianity has positioned itself in the media battle, right in this very spot, willingly and on purpose. The MD for all its well-written and careful eloquence is, in a certain sense, just another example of how the movement does so—to the great detriment of Christianity’s cultural standing.

In fact, once you think about the MD in this light, that all in all it makes almost zero sense from an overarching Christian perspective, nor from a perspective of trying to effectively engage contemporary culture, nor from a simple media battle perspective, you really have to conclude one of two things: either the people who wrote it are absolute idiots, or the MD is not so much about religion as it is about politics. Now, if the MD is about politics, then this, in and of itself, makes it questionable from the start. And if it is about politics, then I would advise religious leaders not to promote the MD in any way that is officially associated with their churches; they would be dangerously close to violating the terms of their 501c designation.

[Before I continue, I want it to be crystal clear that I have no bad thoughts whatsoever about the genuinely courageous young woman who prayed with the killer and convinced him to turn himself in. I care not about her family problems nor her drug use, except in the sense that I hope she has and continues to work through those. I wish her the Love of God and all good things in life. As for Ms. California, I have no negative judgment for her, either. I couldn’t care less about her implants, her photos or her video. Her story is so boring that it should have never become a story, and it is incontrovertible that she is famous only because has been victimized by the left and by the right; a twenty-one year old kid made a pawn in a media game of power, politics, and embarrassingly sophomoric rhetoric from all involved. I wish her, too, the Love of God and all good things in life. I hope both of these young women find good people in life to help them along and to give them meaningful lives. They need and deserve these things no less than any of the rest of us. In short, I wish them both the blessing of God’s Grace, and I only talked about them because they help to demonstrate the desperation of the Christian right to claim for itself some sellable mix of a hero in terms of morality and culturally requisite sex appeal. The apparent horrendous, insidious hypocrisy of this is, well, a post for another day.]

I had a rather lengthy conclusion, but I’ve deleted it. My final point gets back to my opening statements, though, in the question of what claims a signer of the MD is making about Christianity, both explicitly and implicitly. Are you as a signer willing to plant your feet and say, “Hell no we’re not going to take it anymore” over these three issues? Of all the things you could stand before the world and claim as key to your faith, are these, in precisely the way they are presented in the Declaration, them? Are you willing to imply that for you they come before Christ and him crucified? Before Faith and Grace? Before the issues of social justice, financial greed, and pride-fueled complacency in general culture and in our churches? Before the catastrophically suicidal ways in which conservative Christianity continues to position itself in a media-fueled cultural debate? Are you willing to publicly call “Christian” those you privately denounce as not? Are you willing to stand arm in arm with the atheist while you cast a disapproving eye to professing Christians who disagree with you and yet who, after all, are only following their conscience and therefore—according to your own signature—should be defended for doing so? If you only get one shot in life to sign a worldwide declaration that in essence says, “My way is the right way and by God I want it that way now,” are these three things, in precisely the way they are stated in the declaration, the ones you pick?

Maybe so, maybe not. It’s totally your choice and your freedom and your conscience either way. But I’d like to make a suggestion before you sign. Imagine yourself meeting a stranger, about whom you know nothing. He or she looks deeply troubled, and asks you to share, in two minutes, what being a Christian means to you. If that two minutes is a rough paraphrase of the Manhattan Declaration, then you should sign it. But if you share something else, something more foundational and basic and essential about God making all things right and holy in the end no matter who you are, where you’ve been, and what you’ve done, then maybe you should think twice before you pick up that pen to let others do your talking—and your thinking—for you.

*Cough* Soapbox mode is now set to OFF.

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