I’ve been asked to comment on the Manhattan Declaration.
1.A document can be an “ecumenical” in more than one sense. It may be an ecumenical or interfaith document in the incidental sense that the framers happen to belong to different religious traditions.
However, the document itself doesn’t focus on interfaith relations. It’s not a self-reflective document which concentrates on their mutual identity. They don’t spend time talking about each other. Affirming each other. Finding the good in each other’s respective traditions.
Instead, it’s an outward-looking document. A call to action. It takes for granted a preexisting consensus on certain social issues. There is no effort to find common ground in theology. To meet halfway. Instead, they already agree on certain social issues, and they are simply joining forces to maximize their political clout.
I don’t object to that type of document. And if the Manhattan Declaration were clearly that type of document, I could sign it.
2.Apropos (1), this is, in principle, much like any political or military alliance. You can form rotating alliances. Someone who’s your adversary in one setting can be your ally in another.
Likewise, there’s a tradeoff in which each ally has to give a little to get a little. Gen Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery are both prima donnas. Each one represents a vital ally. They both can’t have what they want all the time. So Ike has to give each one just enough to make it worth his while.
Same thing with a party platform. Maybe, like Charles Krauthammer, you’re a hawkish social liberal. You don’t agree with everything in the party platform. But you have priorities. If national security is your priority, you may be a registered Republican even, like Krauthammer, you disagree with the platform on social issues.
3.Apropos (2), the very fact that this is an “ecumenical” exercise carries with it some built-in weasel room. It’s understood, going in, that every signatory may not agree with every statement.
Some critics approach documents like this as if they were strict subscriptionists. As if you can’t sign a document like this unless you agree with every jot and tittle. But that holds the signatory to an even higher standard than we have for ordinands.
I think an underlying assumption of consensus documents like this is that some allowance is implicitly made for the mental reservations of the signatory. It’s like Congressional legislation. Voting for the bill doesn’t mean you rubberstamp everything in the bill. In this context, “agreement” is inherently flexible.
Rather, a lawmaker votes for a bill if, on the one hand, the bill contains something his constituents need while, on the other hand, it doesn’t contain something too objectionable to his constituents.
4.On the other hand, a document can be ecumenical in the sense that it’s fundamentally inward-looking rather than outward-looking. The focus of the document lies on the participants, and the institutions or religious traditions which they represent. The point of the document is to talk about each other. Affirm one another.
Interfaith documents of this sort tend to take one of two different forms.
You may have members of the religious left who sit down together to draft a statement expressing their shared outlook. And since the framers are all religious pluralists to begin with, they genuinely share a common outlook, for they have no fundamental differences. To the extent that they represent different traditions, that’s a matter of personal preference or ethnicity.
Or, to take another example, you have an informal get together of Catholics and Protestants. They hammer out a document containing deliberately equivocal formulations which one side takes one way, consistent with its theology, and the other side takes another way, consistent with its theology.
The Catholic participants make throwaway concessions that don’t cost them anything while the Protestant participants make substantive concessions. There’s the carefully crafted illusion that both sides are meeting each other halfway, but in reality, the fundamental motion is all in one direction.
Interfaith documents of this sort are worse than useless.
5.The basic problem with the Manhattan Declaration is that it has more than one target audience. As the document itself says, the framers are speaking both “to and from” their respective faith “communities.”
The document is partly a call to action, partly a call to repentance, and partly an ultimatum. It’s both inward and outward-looking.
And this muddles the message. For example, the document ends with a veiled threat of civil disobedience, if need be. A shot across the bow to the liberal establishment.
I don’t object to that. However, the document is also full of self-recriminations and mea culpas about the many failings of historic Christendom.
But the ultimatum would be more convincing if it didn’t contain so much breast-beating about the real or perceived failings of Christendom. It makes it sound as if the framers and signatories must engage in public confession to earn permission to speak to the issues. But an ultimatum shouldn’t be so apologetic.
6.Apropos (5), the document accentuates the notion of collective guilt, as if the representatives of one religious tradition are culpable for the failings of another religious tradition.
Unfortunately, that becomes the religious equivalent of identity politics. I don’t take that seriously.
And to the extent that this document is a summons to the Christian community, the way in which chooses to frame its appeal is unintentionally divisive. I don’t apologize for the dead.
So the message of the document is fairly confused and counterproductive. In principle, it could simply state a political agenda grounded in a shared vision on certain social issues. But it dilutes that with lots of soul-searching and handholding.
We end up with a well-meaning document that makes a number of fine statements. At the same time, the document is far too self-absorbed. Instead of retaining a focus on the objective issues and imperatives, along with a practical plan of action, it degenerates into group therapy.
As such, this document reflects the social circle and social dynamics of the framers. The world in which they think and move. An upper crust of Christian academics and hierarchs.