Right before Thankgiving, a group of Christians held a press conference in Washington announcing that “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.”
Their Manhattan Declaration concluded: “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.”
One of the declaration’s co-authors, Princeton professor Robert P. George, talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez over the holiday about the statement and the future.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is the Manhattan Declaration?
ROBERT P. GEORGE: Beginning at a meeting in New York in late September, Christian leaders came together across the historic lines of ecclesial difference — Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians — to bear witness to three foundational principles of justice and the common good: (1) the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions; (2) the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (3) religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The Declaration’s signatories understand that each of these principles is under threat from powerful forces in our culture and politics. They seek to make clear that, as Christians, they regard these principles as non-negotiable, and will therefore be unceasing in their defense of them and tireless in their efforts on their behalf. Moreover, the signatories pledge that neither they nor their institutions will participate in actions, practices, or policies that they, in conscience, judge to be gravely wrong.
LOPEZ: Why now?
GEORGE: With respect to each of the foundational principles of justice and the common good addressed in the Manhattan Declaration, important decisions are now being made or soon will be made. These decisions will either uphold or undermine what is just and good. There is no avoiding the issues or evading the decisions. Both sides in the great moral struggle understand this. Forces favoring abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, the redefinition of marriage, and the like see this as a critical moment for advancing their causes. The Obama administration is explicitly with them on some issues and is at least broadly sympathetic on others. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2006 and 2008 elections, their causes have unprecedented strength in both houses of Congress as well as in many state legislatures. Obviously, they also have great support in the mainstream media and the elite sector of the culture more generally.
LOPEZ: How much did the health-care debate play into the timing?
GEORGE: The health-care debate obviously implicates questions of the sanctity of human life and the freedom of religion and conscience. The Declaration’s signatories strongly oppose paying for abortions with taxpayer dollars and favor strong conscience protections to ensure that pro-life physicians and other health-care workers are not required to participate in, or refer for, abortions, and pro-life pharmacists are not compelled to dispense abortifacient drugs.
LOPEZ: Why just Christians?
GEORGE: For too long, the historic traditions of Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy have failed to speak formally with a united voice, despite their deep agreement on fundamental questions of morality, justice, and the common good. The Manhattan Declaration provided leaders of these traditions with an opportunity to rectify that. It is gratifying that they were willing — indeed eager — to seize that opportunity. Of course, as Cardinal Justin Rigali observed at the press conference at which the Declaration was released, the foundational principles it defends “are not the unique preserve of any particular Christian community or of the Christian tradition as a whole. . . . They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of goodwill even apart from divine revelation. They are principles of right reason and natural law.” So the signatories are happy to stand alongside our LDS brothers and sisters who have worked so heroically in the cause of defending marriage, our Jewish brothers and sisters, members of other faiths, and people of no particular faith (even pro-life atheists such as the great Nat Hentoff), who affirm our principles and wish to join us in proclaiming and defending them.
LOPEZ: Many who signed the declaration are politically conservative. And yet you don the cloak of a Christian tradition of “proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed, and suffering.” Conservatives aren’t exactly known for such things. though. Should they be? Are those who signed the declaration doing anything to change the perception?
GEORGE: Actually, not all of the signatories are conservatives. Ron Sider, for example, who leads Evangelicals for Social Action, is an unabashed liberal. On matters of economics and foreign policy, he would be more comfortable in the company of the editors of The Nation than in the company of the editors of National Review. Several other signatories fall into that category. But they are strongly pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro–religious liberty. I would add that many conservatives certainly have resisted tyranny and reached out to the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering. Conservatives fought Soviet tyranny and worked for the liberation of millions of oppressed and suffering Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Russians, Romanians, and others.
Many conservatives have been in the forefront of the fight against poverty and disease in Africa, the trafficking of women and girls into sexual slavery at home and abroad, and the fight for human rights across the globe. Are there many liberals who have accomplished nearly as much as has been accomplished by the conservative activist Michael Horowitz on any of these fronts? Moreover, it is worth noting that many people who are today “conservatives” were civil-rights activists in the 1960s. Start that list with Mary Ann Glendon, Leon and Amy Kass, and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. They have not changed their views about racial justice. They are today “conservatives” and no longer “liberals” because mainstream liberalism has embraced a combination of statism and moral libertarianism that they regard — rightly in my view — as deeply misguided.
LOPEZ: What’s the top-priority issue for signers of the Manhattan Declaration?
GEORGE: The three principles — life, marriage, and religious freedom — are integrally connected. They are, as the Declaration says, foundational to justice and the common good, properly understood. They will stand or fall together.
LOPEZ: Why did so many Catholic bishops sign it?
GEORGE: Because they understand the profound truths it proclaims and the urgency of proclaiming them. Moreover, they understand the importance of standing shoulder to shoulder with leaders of other Christian traditions in a common witness.
LOPEZ: How should the White House take your statement?
GEORGE: I hope that President Obama will understand that the signatories to the Manhattan Declaration are determined to defend the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage, and respect for religious freedom. On these issues, they cannot compromise, and they will not remain silent. Moreover, they “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.”
LOPEZ: How should conservatives?
GEORGE: The same way.
LOPEZ: Is this declaration comparable to the “end of democracy” debate of the late Nineties?
GEORGE: The “End of Democracy” debate was focused on the consequences for political legitimacy of the judicial usurpation of democratic authority. That remains an important constitutional issue, but it is not a central focus of the Manhattan Declaration.
LOPEZ: When will it be time for civil disobedience? When will people know? How should they express it?
GEORGE: We believe in law and the rule of law. We recognize an obligation to comply with laws, whether we like them or not. That obligation is defeasible, however. Gravely unjust laws, and especially laws that seek to compel people to do things that are unjust, do not bind in conscience. Certainly, one must never perform a gravely unjust act, even when “following orders” or compelled by law. Christians believe — and they are far from alone in this — that one must be prepared to pay a price, sometimes a very high price indeed, for refusing to do what one’s conscience tells one is wrong. Socrates, as presented by his disciple Plato, stunned his interlocutors by saying that if one is faced with the options of doing a wrong or suffering one, it is better to suffer a wrong. That’s the teaching of Christianity, too. So if legislation is enacted that compels obstetricians and gynecologists to participate in abortions or refer for them, Christians and other pro-life men and women who practice in those fields of medicine will find themselves faced with the options of doing what they judge in conscience to be gravely unjust or abandoning their careers. Their obligation will be to abandon their careers. By the same token, if legislation is enacted to compel Catholic hospitals and clinics, for example, to provide abortion services or refer for abortions, those institutions could face the options of doing what the Church teaches is profoundly wrong or going out of business. Their obligation will be to go out of business. Of course, this would be a tragedy, especially since these institutions do such wonderful work in providing health care to the poor. But the legal imposition will leave them no choice.
LOPEZ: Is it dangerous to talk this way, as you do in the Declaration?
GEORGE: No. There is nothing new or surprising in what we say. When it comes to the obligation to refuse to comply with laws that impose on conscience to require people to do what they believe is gravely unjust, the Declaration simply affirms what Christianity has always taught. As the Declaration recalls, this is precisely the teaching that Rev. Martin Luther King proclaimed in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
LOPEZ: Can people who support the Manhattan Declaration join as signatories?
GEORGE: Yes. We hope that hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will read and reflect on the Declaration, and, if they agree with what it says, sign it.