By Jonathan Merritt
Take more than a hundred conservative Evangelicals, mix in a handful of Catholics, and sprinkle in a few Orthodox priests, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a new culture war manifesto. It’s called the Manhattan Declaration, and it is a heady statement seeking to reinvigorate the political alliance of conservative Christians who were a force to be reckoned with during the Bush Administration.
Little new information was offered in this “new” statement, which essentially affirmed the primacy of three historically hot button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. The only thing different about this statement was one of its target audiences: young people. As one of the principle drafters of the document, Chuck Colson, told The New York Times, “A lot of younger evangelicals say they’re all alike. We’re hoping to educate them that these are the three most important issues.”
Colson’s statement might come off a bit condescending, but one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity is a teachable spirit and Colson’s seasoned perspective has much to offer. However, Colson’s comment raises a big question: Is it likely that a public statement like the Manhattan Declaration will inspire a rising generation of Christians? There is little doubt that the right wing vanguard–many of them listed on this document–needs a new army of recruits if they expect their movement to thrive in the 21st Century. But is this approach an effective one?
While there is a statistical shift on gay rights and civil unions among younger Christians, there is no doubt that many of the sentiments and statements in the Manhattan Declaration will resonate with younger audiences. Take the abortion issue, for example. According to a recent Religion and Ethics Newsweekly poll, 46 percent of young white evangelicals say abortion should be illegal in most cases and 25 percent say it should be illegal altogether. The statistics indicate that rising generations are actually more pro-life than our parents were.
The difference comes in the hierarchical structuring of these issues. Older generations often speak as though a handful of issues are the only ones that deserve our passionate witness and concerted attention. The other issues are so far down in the hierarchy that they rarely deserve mentioning. Younger Christians believe that our sacred Scriptures compel us to offer a moral voice on a broad range of issues. The Bible speaks often about life and sexuality, but it also speaks often on other issues, like poverty, equality, justice, peace, and care of creation. The belief that something is important and the belief that something is exclusively important are two very different things.
The declaration declares, “[W]e 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.” While younger Christians believe that these are important issues, our broader agenda demands that we include the many other anti-life atrocities like the 3 million people in this world who will die this year from easily preventable water-related diseases, the 143 million orphans crying out from filthy beds in musty orphanages and the 1 million Africans who will unnecessarily die of malaria in the next 12 months. Older evangelicals have been largely silent on these issues and in similar fashion this declaration has relegated them to little more than a footnote. Younger generations believe being pro-life doesn’t simply mean opposing a culture of death, but promoting a culture of life.
In addition to the disconnect regarding the exclusive importance of only a few issues, it is surprising that in the more than 140 original signatories a young person was scarce to be found. The list included more than its share of established white evangelicals–including James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Albert Mohler, and Tony Perkins–but 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.
“It’s an interesting goal that says a lot about the fears of a graying generation of culture warriors, but the big question is how to instill the declaration’s principles in the new generation,” said Dan Gilgoff in his U.S. News God and Country blog on Friday. “Releasing a 4,700 word document at the National Press Club doesn’t seem like the straightest path to young people’s hearts.”
Will the Manhattan Declaration inspire a new generation? Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem likely. I certainly respect many of the individuals whose names are affixed to this declaration and I find many of their statements worthy of applause. Yet, I suspect it will take more than a heady declaration from even such an august body of Christians to sway a new generation of Christian leaders who take a broader view of cultural issues facing us today.
George Orwell once said, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” Perhaps both sides could use a dose of humility. There is much to learn from an older, wiser generation just as new ideas from fresh voices can be invigorating. Younger Christians often make the mistake of parading around in our enlightened intelligence while older evangelicals only stoop from their platforms and lecterns when it necessary to educate us younglings. Maybe it is time we stop penning declarations that speak at each other and begin sitting down at a table where we can talk to each other about the many issues our faith speaks to.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer who is a regular contributor to publications like Relevant and Charisma magazines and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is author of “Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.”