Fr Patrick Henry Reardon: Why I signed the Manhattan Declaration

Father Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings
Fifth Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2009

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

As I write these lines, more than a quarter-million people have signed the Manhattan Declaration, released this past November 20. I suppose I should be personally gratified, in the sense that never before have so many people agreed with me! I was, in fact, one of seven Orthodox Christians who went on record to endorse the document prior to its publication.

There are several ways in which the Manhattan Declaration is significant.

The first, I suppose, is the content. This is a public and deliberately political (though not partisan) pronouncement on three points: It is pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-religious freedom. Under these headings it makes specific assertions about abortion, the scientific or medical use of human embryonic tissue, the proposed extension of legitimacy to sexual unions other than that between a husband and wife, and the limitations imposed on the State with respect to the conscience.

Second, the document is significant in the great variety of its authors and original signers, a group embracing members and leaders from several Christian bodies. Indeed, the Manhattan Declaration was endorsed by Christians very little disposed, as a rule, to append their names to documents described as “ecumenical.”

My friend, for example, Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was among the first to sign. Explaining the reason he determined to do so, Dr. Mohler wrote: “I want my name on that list. I surrendered no conviction or confessional integrity to sign that statement. No one asked me to compromise in any manner. I was encouraged that we could stand together to make clear that to come for one of us on these issues is to come for all. At the end of the day, I did not want my name missing from that list when folks look to see just who was willing to be listed.”

Third, the Manhattan Declaration is significant in some of the public reaction to it. I don’t mean the reviews of secular critics, of course, who detested the document’s contents. Their assessments were uniformly predictable. Neither do I have in mind the insouciance of those who, on principle, avoid politics. Nor am I thinking of Christians who filter their ethical sympathies through a different weave (those, for instance, to whom executing murderers is morally equivalent to murdering babies). Such reactions were entirely expected.

The critics I have in mind, rather, are those Christians who confessed agreement with the substance of the Declaration while declining to associate with the other signers. Their objections, I believe, are significant in the sense of deserving comment.

We may take the example of the Evangelical spokesman, John MacArthur, Jr. His complaint was very simple: The Manhattan Declaration scans only the symptoms of certain social evils but neglects to address their root cause. That is to say, this document fails to proclaim the Gospel of salvation, which is the sole remedy for every social ill.

Substantially identical was the objection of the Orthodox Christian priest, Father Jonathan Tobias, who faulted the Declaration for not preaching repentance. This writer went even further, lampooning at length the document’s style and rhetorical style. (Ironically, a somewhat softened Father Tobias has of late chastised James Carroll for a similar mockery of the Declaration.)

The objections of MacArthur and Tobias are curious in their evident presumption that Christians, when they speak in public, should limit their discourse to the proclamation of the Gospel and the summons to repentance.

This may be a legitimate view, though it was neither shared by many Christians over the centuries nor obviously favored by the prophets. Jonah, for instance, preached judgment — not repentance — at Nineveh, nor did his proclamation include one syllable of Good News. If this was true of Jonah, what shall we say of Nahum, whose own message to the Ninevites was just an expansion of Jonah’s meager half-verse?

Respectfully, these objections to the Manhattan Declaration (including its rhetoric) could easily have been made against any one — and perhaps all — of the biblical prophets. Our modest Declaration, as a statement of social concern, invites the endorsement of Christians who share that concern. The matter is truly as plain as that.


  1. George Michalopulos

    Bravo Fr! I applaud your exposition on the difference between a “political” statement (which it is) and a “partisan” position (which it is not). Is it possible therefore that many Orthodox critics are antithetical to the Declaration because many are themselves partisan?

    • Almost certainly. Some, however, have taken exception to being associated with a variety of other folks for whom they do not care – for whatever reason.

      One of the more compelling demonstrations of Christ’s divinity may be the often unnoticed fact that he was able to create a community of love with disciples and apostles who, in any other circumstance, probably couldn’t stand each other. Political zealots, commercial fisherman and tax collectors? There isn’t a “tent” anywhere that is big enough to bring that lot together – let alone transform them in a community of love. Yet He did. Likewise, if anything shows how uncoverted we are, this – too – may be it: our love is still so very, very small. That, and we are still so wrapped up in momentary partisan posturing that we do not defer to the clear (at least in terms of Tradition) political implications of being a citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom, the City of God.

  2. Father’s comments were, as usual, well said, carefully thought out and deeply faithful. He also highlights a distinction that, for some reason, seems lost to many modern biblical scholars: there is a vital difference between political and partisan. Many scholars seem to confuse the two and thus invariably reduce the political implications and overtones in Scripture to a partisan effort. The Church is and always will be the “beachhead” of the “polis” of God (please forgive the mashing of metaphors), but the politics of the Kingdom of God are never reducible to a particular partisan agenda. God has His own agenda, which transcends anything we can think or imagine, yet it has immediate, concrete, urgent implications for our lives – both individually and socially/politically. Theosis always requires a faithful way of living (ethics).

    Most political discourse is concerned with differences of priority or method; these are usually prudential issues over which we may, in good conscience, disagree. Yet when present policy conflicts with or seeks to undermine behavior that is clearly demanded by our faith as essential to both faithful living and our theosis, we are called – as Archbishop Hilarion noted elsewhere – to stand against it. The Manhattan Declaration expresses well and clearly a few key, essential and unambiguous issues in which faithful living is being challenged in the public square in our time. It simply highlights the politically-challenged yet essential positions that we must take in order to adhere to God’s will.

    While the current partisan positions may be identified with one group or another depending on the time and context, the way of life to which we are call remains the same – in this or any other century – since the path to life and to the divinization of the human heart remains always the same. Thus, whether we are challenged by the policies of Democrats or Republicans, Tories or Whigs, Romans or Persians, we are called at all times to live for the City of God, whose “politics” never change.

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