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Civil disobedience by the Religious Right

Manhattan Declaration

Dr. Timothy George, one of the document's authors, at the National Press Club.

We’ve been following here with interest the growth of protest activism on the part of the American Right since Obama came into office. They’ve been adapting the methods and language that have traditionally been the purview of the Left and, in the process, getting far more mainstream media attention.

The latest example of this trend comes in a statement released on November 20th, the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” Chuck Colson was one of the drafters, and signers include nine Roman Catholic archbishops and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America. Thus begins Laurie Goodstein’s report in the New York Times:

Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to civil disobedience, 145 evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders have signed a declaration saying they will not cooperate with laws that they say could be used to compel their institutions to participate in abortions, or to bless or in any way recognize same-sex couples.

The document’s preamble goes further, citing past Christian opposition to slavery, Roman infanticide, women’s suffrage, human trafficking, and sexual slavery. At the conclusion, after rehearsing their convictions about abortion, euthanasia, and marriage, the authors and signers commit themselves to act:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we 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; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.  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.

For many people, this promise of nonviolent resistance really amounts to violence: restricting women’s access to abortions, barring same-sex couples from marriage (or even blessing), and threatening the progress of medical research. But one might say the same thing about a boycott that threatens workers’ jobs. Yes, active nonviolence is a weapon, and it forcibly shapes society. (Be sure to catch Sarah Posner’s excellent analysis, for instance, of the political machinations at work in this declaration.) If these people are truly intending to take the suffering that they see in the world onto themselves as a statement against it, I cannot but accept the testimony of their consciences. I’m certainly far more willing to listen to an action like this than to the murder of an abortion provider.

Active, creative democracy is messy, and it forces us to listen to and hear out the voices of those we might deeply disagree with. Those of us who don’t like it are perfectly welcome to take up acts of conscience of our own.