By Timothy George
founding dean, Beeson Divinity School
Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders have come together to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good on three of the most pressing issues in our country today–the sanctity of every human life from conception to death, the strengthening of marriage as a covenant union of husband and wife, and the defense of religious liberty and the rights of conscience for all persons everywhere. These are not the only matters that require a conscientious response from followers of Jesus Christ, but they are threshold issues that touch on everything else we do including the proclamation of the Gospel, concern for the poor, nurturing of children, ministry to prisoners, care of creation, and peacemaking in a broken world. These three concerns are not new issues, but they are increasingly under assault in our society today. We know that persons of many faith traditions share these concerns with us. Thus we have issued this declaration of conscience calling on our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in the defense of human life, marriage, and religious freedom.
We ourselves set forth this appeal as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We hold differing political views and follow no partisan agendas. We believe it is time for Christian believers to speak together clearly and boldly on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society. The Manhattan Declaration represents an ecumenism of the trenches that has been going on for a number of years among many denominations and confessional traditions. While we recognize that many important differences of doctrine and discipline still divide us, we nonetheless earnestly seek that unity for which Jesus prayed when he asked that his disciples be one in their love for God, for one another, and for the world.
We have addressed our concerns to the society in which we live, but the issues are global. Policies of forced abortions, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, sexual trafficking of girls and young women, and failure to take necessary steps to halt the spread of preventable diseases such as AIDS are plagues that transcend national boundaries. We affirm that all persons have been endowed by the Creator with inherent and equal dignity and the inalienable right to life. It behooves Christians and all persons of conscience to speak and to act on behalf of the least, the last, and the lost.
As a resident of Birmingham, Alabama, I have frequently visited the jail cell from which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King was an ordained Baptist minister and wrote from an explicitly Christian perspective drawing on the Holy Scriptures, the tradition of Christian faith through the centuries, and the use of the divinely bestowed gift of reason. In a time of great tension, he set forth an eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience. He declared that unjust laws had no power to bind the conscience and he called on his fellow citizens to join him in the struggle for civil rights.
King was willing to go to jail rather than to comply with legal injustices that violated human dignity itself. King’s legacy lives on today in a new generation of Christian believers inspired by his passion and insight. Those who have embraced the Manhattan Declaration profess our commitment to Jesus Christ and his teachings. This commitment transcends all other loyalties. We have declared that 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.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today.