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Christian Social Action

Historical Revisionism in the Manhattan Declaration

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.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Historical Revisionism in the Manhattan Declaration

  1. Holy. Crap. You’re saying (gasp) that a Christian call to social action would gloss over Christian history to put Christians in the best possible light?? Oh, woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips, amongst a people with unclean lips…

    Seriously, now, are these findings surprising? Even interesting?

    Posted by pastormack | February 11, 2010, 2:40 am
    • Hi pastormack. Thanks for taking the time to read my post!

      The results of rhetorical analysis often reveal what appears at first to be obvious but what is not usually visible to us in our day-to-day digestion of language. Sometimes, however, it is the fault of the rhetorician (in this case me) who does not make the implications of his findings clear. So let me try to be clear:

      I think calling what the Manhattan Declaration does a “gloss over Christian history” might be a bit too generous, but I mentioned this aspect of the text in my post in part because it was so egregious that I felt that it deserved attention.

      My larger and more significant point, however, was the omission of the contention over social issues that has been a consistent part of Christian history. By painting Christian history as univocal, the authors of the Manhattan doctrine more or less shut down debate on the issues of abortion, marriage, and religious liberty. They suggest that there is only one way to understand these three issues, and that happens to be the way they understand them. And if you have someone with this skewed view of history supporting these positions, it can be very difficult to engage that person in dialogue on these issues.

      By analyzing the historical argument, and showing that it is lacking, I hope to help open up dialogue in these three areas where it might otherwise be closed. Dialogue, or at least true dialogue, appears to be the opposite goal of the Manhattan Declaration.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | February 11, 2010, 3:20 am
  2. Martin, It is helpful to have a conversation about the Manhattan Declaration. When people of standing in the Christian community confer a nearly blessed status to a point of view it is sometimes difficult to articulate why one can be left so unsettled by it. Is there something wrong with me if I do not agree with some or all of the assertions of the Declaration?

    Part of the unease I felt was being led thru a series of proclamations without question as to the foundations of the assertions being put forward. Your post here shines light on what the writers of the Declaration presuppose and also on what is not spoken there.

    If the Manhattan Declaration were ever to be considered a stepping stone to dialogue the moral certainty at its foundation would have been mitigated by allowing for at least the possibility that there are Christian voices that might exist in disagreement that are equally well founded. There is no such granting.

    Declarations by their very nature do not, in my view, invite debate but are rather a statement about what people are willing to go to the mat for or even, in a metaphorical or literal sense, what they are willing to die for. They are deeply held beliefs usually grounded in scholarship, experience, a sense of having the moral high ground and, in this case, faith. Their flaw, if it is a flaw, is the lens through which the believers view the world and themselves in relation to it. Objectivity does not exist in this venture.
    When struggling against an idea the best antidote is a better idea. In the Christian life the crucible of conflicting ideas is the community’s experience and the articulation of the fruits borne of such experience both positive and negative.

    Let us assume that scholarship and faith based articulations are equal for those people of the Declaration and those who stand in opposition. That is, the proponents of each point of view are equally well matched in their assessment tools, knowledge of scripture, standing in the faith community, use of spiritual disciplines, etc., differing only in the conclusion to which their study brings them. Although neither side may grant such a view for the sake of argument let us assume it.

    If we additionally concede that objective truth cannot exist in this contest of ideas, from where does a final resolution of conflicting world views come?

    Michael Sandel attempts to take a look at this very matter in his recent book,
    Justice, What’s The Right Thing To Do? In this work he answers that question as if it has been a moving target over time. With each leap forward in human development and knowledge what is just may look different. For some of us this has been evident in our own lifetimes. Desegregation and equal rights for women are two examples of this. It always comes with struggle and an unwillingness to move forward from the status quo.

    The Manhattan Declaration is firmly rooted in the status quo. That does not necessarily make it suspect but the tone to which you refer in your piece does.

    Learning to resolve conflicting world views may be a part of the great work we have to do in this age. I am not sure that drawing a line in the sand, which the Manhattan Declaration clearly does is a good step in the right direction. It does nothing but set up a win/lose scenario and although the language seems graceful and articulate feels to me to lack the grace that it promises.

    I am not sure whether this is the first installment of a series but I would enjoy a dissection of each major piece, Life, Liberty and Marriage to follow.

    Posted by Mike F. | February 11, 2010, 5:22 pm
  3. You point to an interesting aspect of the Manhattan Declaration that I quite frankly didn’t pay too much attention to before reading your blog post. Well done.

    I can easily agree that the subconscious effect of such rhetorical measures can be useful to notice. I do not, however, think that the authors are merely manipulating truth to persuade their readers, but I think they also sincerely identify themselves with precisely “those believers” they honour in the Preamble. (Well, of course, very few modern Christians identify with supporters of slavery or opponents of women rights.) In the Manhattan Declaration, the authors even hints to why, though briefly, they are a part of this the “good” Christian tradition:

    “While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened”

    It is understood that the authors here express the same concern for the poor and suffering that led Christians to fight slavery and racism, when they now fight for the other vulnerable groups in society (that is, the unborn, the disabled etc.). This linkage to the “good” Christian heritage is also prominent in the piece on religious liberty, though more questionable with regards to their marriage section.

    Now, if I were to claim the “good” Christian heritage, I should indeed explain why. What is it that makes me a part of this tradition? If I say it is because, “like those who questioned divine claims set forth by kings, I too fight for religious freedom,” than that is a reasonable claim not to be discarded before good arguments are made my claim is false. Or if I say, “like those who fight human trafficking, I too fight for the weak and vulnerable,” then my claim should at least be adequately challenged before it is discarded as simple rhetoric manipulation.

    I guess where I am headed is somewhere along these lines: The Manhattan Declaration may be cleverly written, but that does not invalidate it as a source for discussion with Christians who hold other views. But it does set forth a challenge to disprove their self-proclaimed place among the Christian stars.

    Posted by Torstein Stromme | February 12, 2010, 2:17 am
  4. Thanks for making this post, as it’s enlightened me to a lot of the rhetoric techniques the authors of the Declaration used. I like to think that I’m pretty good at seeing the underlying strategies behind people’s words, whether those strategies are intentional or not, but this is far more insightful than anything I could’ve ever come up with.

    I agree that a lot of the Declaration modifies objective truth into a truth more favorable for Christians, especially those who wrote it. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing–from what I’ve seen (in my admittedly limited experience), selective choice of historical events and selective interpretation of those events is one of the most popular methods of persuasion.

    If we imagine the Declaration as part of a debate, then those who support the ideals of the Declaration have an obligation to convince others of those ideals. What better way to do this than to show that its ideals are correct, through favorable citation and interpretation? It then becomes the other party’s job to bring to light that which the original party chose not to, in an attempt to make the Declaration’s ideals seem less appealing while advocating an alternative.

    Because of that, I can’t fault the writers for what they did. They did their jobs as participants in a debate, by advancing their own subjective opinion using their subjective interpretation of facts. Meanwhile it is the job of posts like yours to differentiate between the subjective and the objective in the Declaration’s argument. I thank you for doing this, as it was quite an insightful read.

    Posted by W. Thompson | February 12, 2010, 2:59 pm
    • Hi W. Thompson,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments!

      You’re absolutely right to point out that historical selection, and in its worst forms distortion, is a common tactic, and is not limited to a political persuasion, religion, or worldview. (We might argue that it is impossible to present an objective view of history.) The reason this tactic is used so often is its efficacy.

      Is historical selection or distortion a bad thing? I suppose it depends on how you look at the situation. Yes, the way Christian history is presented in the Declaration significantly aids the authors in making their points persuasive. And yes, an essential part of debate and deliberation is bringing to light the inadequacies and flaws of your opponent’s arguments.

      However, there are a couple of issues we should consider. One is ethics. It’s difficult to make a claim about the intentions of the authors. We don’t know for certain what their true motives were. However, to the extent that certain elements of Christian history are de-emphasized or omitted for the purpose of argumentation, we (including the authors) can and should consider the ethics of that rhetorical move. While we should consider the ethical dimension of rhetorical moves in all instances of persuasion, rhetors themselves raise the stakes when they claim to stand for truth (or justice, etc.), as is often the case in debates within religion. Such a claim would seem to necessarily impose an ethics of argumentation on the rhetor, such that tactics that are arguably deceptive are ruled-out. The debate over the ethics of rhetoric, of course, has been going on for millennia.

      The second point to consider is the possibility of dialogue. A rhetor who disagrees with the Declaration could highlight the flaws in the Declaration’s presentation of history, i.e. its omission of contention, and that could persuade someone who adheres to the Declaration to, at the very least, reconsider the premises on which he/she builds his/her positions. However, the nature of the history laid out in the Declaration is such that highlighting the omission of contention may not be enough.

      If a person became convinced that there were Christians who disagreed on various social issues throughout time, the person need only attach these contentious Christians to the negative Christian heritage that the Declaration separates from positive Christian heritage. Because of this bifurcation, the person could stand firm in their positions, and ignore those who don’t fit into his/her positive Christian lineage—no harm done. We are then back where we started. Herein lies the problem: the history itself, in its selection and presentation, inhibits any potentially productive dialogue about the issues between those who adhere to the Declaration’s propositions and those who do not.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | February 16, 2010, 4:52 pm
  5. Mr. Camper, you have done what i could not do. Please see my response to the Manhattan Declaration, “First we take manhattan, then we take Berlin (and maybe retake Richmond too at Fruit of His Lips: http://mcduffee.wordpress.com/
    thank you. mcduffee

    Posted by mcduffee | April 11, 2010, 6:03 pm
    • Dear Mcduffee, First We Take Manhattan, then We Take Berlin (And Maybe Re-Take Richmond Too)is a very thoughtful piece and rightly calls Christians to account for the bad as well as the good of our heritage. This is the missing bit of grace that The Manhattan Declaration lacks. The Declaration professes moral certainty without professing the unvarnished backdrop of our Christian history which you so beautifully articulate. That we often miss the mark calls us to humility but I am not sure it calls us to certainty or to drawing lines in the sand and assuming we hold the moral high ground.
      Faith is a funny thing, leading different good people in such conflicting directions, each proud of what they’ve done and who they have become and thanking faith for the blessing of getting them there.
      What is it that we refer to as faith? Can it really be faith when the fruits are so suspect? What is the litmus test that separates the faithful from the posers? Can those that support the Declaration and those who do not both be faithful? If the answer is yes how is that possible? I am interested in what you think about this.

      Posted by Mike F. | April 11, 2010, 7:32 pm
      • As a confessing Christian I can only say that the church profits little professing moral certainty if it does so for the purpose of seeking to increase her political power in this world. I understand modern secularity as a providential kind of moral exchange system that permits the conversion of different religious currencies circulating globally into one medium of tender that is not religious, but allows us to offer services and satisfy obligations of a religious nature, which we judge to be most meaningful to us and that best guarantee the flourishing of all. Such a system requires of us all to make our case in public without advantage or discrimination. It denies special privilege or subsidy to any, making religious volunteers of us all. It is not a perfect system. We are called to pray for those who sit themselves in the prominent places within it (regardless of their personal religious allegiance), so we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Secular order and liberty is subject to corruption by those who wield it, and to swindle by those who rely upon it. Nonetheless, I am convinced at present it puts the church in the best position for living the life she has been given by her Head and Husband: to preach the gospel in public without compromise, to practice kindness without prejudice, to endure injustice for being a Christian without complaint, and to hold fast to the blessed hope of the Lord’s rule to come without falling into despair or falling from the faith. Faith is the anticipation of living truth fully disclosed. The life of faith remains open to learning the fullness of sound knowledge, while constantly testing what has already been learned. The person of faith is ready to be corrected even while living a life of unwavering conviction and bold confession. As a student of the Scriptures, the man or woman of faith lives to sharpen his or her powers of discernment, having them trained by constant practice to distinguish good and evil. We do this vigilant to repent of our sin with a godly sorrow as the Spirit gives. We refuse to be worn down by the enemy within each of us that wages a campaign of selfish ambition, compromise, deception and indifference against God, our neighbors and ourselves. The key to repentance is rapidity. We should rush to repent of our sin for the restoring of reconciliation. The nature of political power is to increase both its capacity and its longevity. Therefore, the more political power the church accrues, the less likely she repents of her sins. As with the individual, so too then with the institution: Let us flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

        Posted by mcduffee | April 12, 2010, 7:34 am
    • Hi Dr. McDuffee,

      Thanks for your kind words. I checked out your post and found it thorough and informative. One defense in a world where history is manipulated for persuasive ends is a deep knowledge of history–your post proves that.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | July 14, 2010, 12:33 am
  6. Would the readers of this document be unaware of past Christian malfeasance?

    In attempting to hook their call for justice to the great Christian calls for justice, are they committing any worse sin than those who hook the GLBT cause to the civil rights movement?

    It seems to me they are simply trying to say that they are in the same vein…rightly or wrongly. It doesn’t strike me as a whitewashing of history.

    Posted by The Dirty Calvinist | April 23, 2010, 7:55 am
    • The difference between the LGBT movement and the Church is that the LGBT movement is just that — a movement, and a fairly recent one at that. The Church is an almost two millenia old institution. The rhetorical move of the LGBT movement is one of analogy. The move of the Declaration’s authors is one of selection, hence revisionism.

      Christians, then, as heirs of the heritage of an institution cannot honestly set aside the parts of their history that they find distasteful. I would argue that, if the authors of the Manhattan Declaration were interested in fruitful dialogue, they should embrace that heritage more completely. Then, they might be able to grasp the moral complexity of the issues they are attempting to grapple with.

      However, the way they present history as part of their larger argument seems to preclude any real dialogue between well-meaning Christians who might disagree. The authors of the Manhattan Declaration can all too easily graft those who disagree with them into the negative branch of Christianity.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | July 14, 2010, 12:51 am
    • Fell out of bed feeling down. This has birgehnted my day!

      Posted by Lily | June 15, 2011, 5:52 am

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