The attention span of the American media is short and the time span between Religious Rhetorics posts is longer.
By now, many may have forgotten about the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience.” A document produced at the end of last year (2009), it is a Christian ecumenical statement on the contemporary issues of abortion, (gay) marriage, and religious liberty, taking an anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and pro-religious liberty stance on each issue, respectively. Those who sign the Declaration pledge to speak up and take political action on what the document declares to be the three most pressing issues of the day—life, marriage, and liberty, which are the “foundational principles of justice and the common good.”
At the time of the writing of this post, the Manhattan Declaration website boasts over 400,000 signatures. On Facebook, the document has over 78,000 fans. It marks a striking coalescing of an often fractious religion over three issues to effect socio-political change.
Regardless of the actual effects of the text in the political sphere, which remain to be seen, the Manhattan Declaration represents some of the arguments made in Christian circles where similar positions are taken, and for this reason, it deserves our analytical attention.
The document itself is about seven printed single-spaced pages divided into five parts. For the sake of brevity, however, I will focus on the first part of the Declaration, which the authors have titled the “Preamble.”
In the Preamble, the authors lay out a brief history of Christian social action. The very first sentence of this section provides the best summary:
Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s work, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.
The authors then elaborate this tradition, which includes protesting slavery, preserving Western culture, establishing democracy, caring for those with AIDS, and fighting for women’s suffrage.
The end result of this brief history is a positive Christian social heritage. And it is this positive Christian social heritage that the authors wish to ground their current positions on social matters in. While the actions mentioned in their historical list now enjoy near universal agreement, the issues they argue for in the Declaration do not. By connecting the Christian tradition they have outlined with the positions they defend in the rest of the text, they hope to confer the moral approbation now surrounding past causes onto their own issues of interest.
However, as may be obvious to students of European or world history, the historical data presented in the Preamble is conspicuously selective. Admittedly, all argumentation is selective (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969), and our goal then is to determine how the selection of the historical data furthers the argumentative goals of the authors.
To begin, I draw your attention to this excerpt:
While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages, we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life…
There are several things to note in this quote. First, the authors make a division between the Christian heritage of “imperfections and shortcomings” and the Christian heritage of “defend[ing] innocent life.” This division allows the authors and signers to separate and distance themselves from the inhumanity and cruelty found in Christian history (e.g. heretic burnings), meanwhile aligning themselves with the mercy and justice that has also flowed out of Christian history. It’s a bifurcation that anticipates arguments from opponents that might place them within the negative tradition. But the authors take control and determine which part of Christian history counts as their true heritage.
We should also observe what is emphasized. Notably, negative Christian actions are performed by Christian collectives: “institutions and communities,” while positive Christian actions (in general) are performed by individual Christians: “those Christians” and later in the next sentence (not excerpted here) “those believers.” The argumentative force of placing the shortcomings on abstract Christian collectives is one of distance, in terms of the authors’ association with the negative tradition, and of suppression, in terms of the mental presence of the negative tradition in the audience’s mind (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969). This suppression of the negative Christian tradition is further enacted by the absence of any specific examples of negative Christian social action in the text. On the other hand, positive Christian social action is emphasized through multiple examples.
Beyond the suppression of the history of negative Christian social action, we discover, perhaps more importantly, the omission of the contention that surrounded most if not all of the issues presented in the Preamble’s brief historical account. Christianity has rarely if ever had a united mind on these issues at the height of their controversy. Christians, who considered themselves decent, rational, Bible-abiding, God-fearing people, approved of slavery, supported monarchies, stood against women having the right to vote, bemoaned civil rights for minorities, etc., in good conscience. These issues were hotly debated, often with Bible verses and invocations of God used by all sides. Only with hindsight are we now assured near-universal moral certainty.
And it is only through the omission of this historical contention that the authors and signers of the Declaration can claim later in the text:
We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person.
By erasing contention from Christian history and presenting their point of view as part of a univocal, untarnished Christian history, the authors deny the potential validity of any other point of view, because all other view points are necessarily excluded as wrong, immoral, false, unbiblical, etc. This view of Christian history inhibits potentially fruitful dialogue between the authors and signers of the Declaration and other Christians who may disagree but are similarly well intentioned.
The Manhattan Declaration, through rhetorical selectivity, creates a Christian lineage clear of blemish and discord that has always been on the side of justice. The historical truth, of course, is much more complex. But for the sake of argument, and for the sake of the Truth, this truth is conveniently omitted.