January 2010 Church & State | Featured

For Chuck Colson, it must have been a dream come true.

The Nixon-era Watergate figure turned evangelical Christian and right-wing political activist stood in a packed room at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20 surrounded by nearly two dozen Roman Catholic, evangelical and Orthodox leaders who were joining forces to release a document demanding that the United States pay homage to their religious vision.

Reflecting on the moment later, Colson wrote in a column, “It was a foretaste of what we’re all going to see in heaven, when those of us who can truly trust the Bible, who love Christ with all our hearts, minds, and souls, are re-united in the presence of our gracious and loving God.”

The problem is, Colson’s heaven may look like hell to a lot of other people. Critics say the document Colson and his allies released that day, dubbed the “Manhattan Declaration,” is essentially a cry for theocracy in the United States, a demand that Americans defer to conservative religious leaders because they’re right – right about the Bible, right about religion and right about the “culture wars.”

The Declaration, a joint project of Colson, Princeton University professor Robert P. George and the Rev. Timothy George – the two Georges are not related – of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., takes aim at the popular bugbears of the Religious Right: legal abortion, same-sex marriage and efforts to apply civil law to religious institutions and individuals. It also represents perhaps the most far-reaching effort to date to juice up the Religious Right by adding the political power and media respectability of the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies.

For Colson, it’s the culmination of a long-standing goal: to pull together a united front of right-wing religious orthodoxy against modernity and individual freedom. At the same time, the new effort could add some political traction for a Religious Right movement that has found itself largely on the political outs with Democrats in control of Congress and Barack Obama in the White House.

Named for the section of New York City where it was drafted, the Declaration outlines the religious leaders’ opposition to legal abortion and same-sex marriage. It also demands that government recognize “conscience clauses,” such as the right of devout pharmacists to refuse to dispense medications they find morally objectionable.

But it was a section near the end of the Declaration that attracted the most attention from the media. In its concluding paragraphs, the Declaration audaciously asserts that devoutly religious people have not just the right, but a duty, to refuse to obey certain laws.

The Declaration states that its signers “will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia” and pledges defiance against “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.”

During the press conference, Declaration signers portrayed their willingness to engage in civil disobedience as a principled stand, invoking the image of Dr. Martin Luther King in jail – even though there was only one African American, the notoriously anti-gay Bishop Harry Jackson of Maryland, among those behind the lectern at the National Press Club.

(Likewise, the Declaration demands that women’s reproductive rights bow to church dictates – and exactly one woman stood among the group on the podium.)

Several reporters pressed Robert George and others on how far they would go, but no one bothered to point out that the civil disobedience threat is almost certainly hollow: No government agency is attempting to force the Catholic Church or any other church to provide abortions. Likewise, efforts to compel houses of worship to perform same-sex marriages or punish pastors for delivering anti-gay sermons would be clear violations of the First Amendment.

Despite its occasional high-toned flourishes, the Manhattan Declaration, Americans United charged, is yet another attempt by the Religious Right and other far-right religious leaders to make U.S. law conform to theological dictates.

“This declaration is certain to be deeply divisive,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press statement. “These religious leaders want to see their doctrines imposed by force of law, and that goes against everything America stands for.

“The United States is an incredibly diverse nation,” Lynn continued, “and it would be a disaster if government started favoring one religious perspective over others.”

Lynn and other critics also speculated about a possible political angle to the Declaration. It was released in the midst of an ongoing congressional debate over health-care reform and a dispute over whether insurance companies should be permitted to cover abortion. Signers insisted that the timing was coincidental, but it’s no secret that the Declaration’s issues track closely with the policy goals of the right wing of the Republican Party.

Still, several speakers took pains to claim that there is no political agenda afoot.

“What animates us and this document is not politics,” said the Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who heads the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It is not a penchant for theocracy.”

The Declaration also attempts to boost the scare talk that has been stock-in-trade in Religious Right circles these days. The Declaration implies that churches may be forced to bless same-sex unions, an assertion Ira C. Lupu, a professor of law at George Washington University, told The New York Times amounts to “fear-mongering.”

The Declaration contains a veiled reference to Nazis, blasting the lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) doctrine, which it attributes to 1920s “intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe.”

One speaker even managed to dredge up Soviet oppression. The Rev. Chad Hatfield of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, noted that his church lived under communism “and we know what it’s like to be not permitted to speak.”

The document’s list of signers is a veritable who’s who among the Religious Right. Aside from Colson, other names include Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church; Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund; James Towey, former head of the White House “faith-based” office; and Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters.

In addition, a number of prominent clergy from the most conservative wing of the Catholic hierarchy signed on, including Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver; Bishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone of Oakland, Calif.; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City; Cardinal Adam Maida, formerly of Detroit; Bishop Richard J. Malone of Portland, Maine; Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix; Archbishop Justin Rigali of Philadelphia; Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs; Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C.; and Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh.

Interestingly, while many leaders of Religious Right organizations were present, only Colson was given a speaking slot. Perkins and Sears stood mute while a succession of obscure speakers – individuals Colson knew would be perceived as less threatening – took to the podium.

At the press conference, for example, Robert George played up the participation of Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, who was among the speakers. Sider told the crowd he is a Democrat and insisted, “This is not a partisan agenda.” But Sider’s main issue is poverty. He has never taken progressive stands on abortion or gay rights and has signed on to right-wing statements in the past.

And, in fact, the document is so rife with right-wing rhetoric that true bipartisanship would be almost inconceivable.

Time and again, the Declaration refers to legal abortion in the most lurid terms, labeling it “the license to kill,” “the deliberate killing of…unborn children” and a “violent attack.”

Same-sex marriage fares little better. The Declaration states flatly, “No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage.”

The Declaration purports to express sympathy for gay people but repeatedly insults them by comparing their relationships to polygamy and incest, asserting, “We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct.” It labels such people “sinners.”

The “Religious Freedom” section of the Declaration also reflects the obsessions of the far right. While it declares that no person should be compelled to embrace religion against his or her will, the document goes on to insist that the right of conscience should be so broad as to allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain medications and private employers to refuse to hire people of certain beliefs or lifestyles.

Will the Manhattan Declaration have any effect? Similar statements have been released in the past. In 1994, for example, Colson and the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus released “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a document that touched on many of the same social issues. That effort, however, was a modest affair that attracted attention mostly in right-wing circles.

It looks as though Colson, who has long labored to birth a true coalition of right-wing Christendom, has bigger plans for the Manhattan Declaration. To give the Declaration a push, the signers posted it online at www.manhattanproject.org and have invited those in sympathy to sign it. As of mid December, more than 290,000 people had signed on.

In a Nov. 25 column, Colson gushed that if 1 million people sign the Declaration “that would have an extraordinary impact on American culture.”

Best known as the founder of Prison Fellowship, Colson has increasingly adopted hard-line views over the years. His perspective is perhaps best summed up by a 2007 op-ed he penned for Christianity Today in which he blasted parents who fail to properly indoctrinate their children in Christianity “because we worship at the altar of the bitch goddess of tolerance.”

In a foreword to a 1990 book about evangelicals and the Catholic Church, Colson issued a clarion call to arms.

“It’s high time,” he wrote, “that all of us who are Christians come together regardless of the differences in our confessions and our traditions and make common cause to bring Christian values to bear in our society. When the barbarians are scaling the walls, there is no time for petty quarreling in the camp.”

Right-wing media personalities are doing their part to boost the Declaration’s profile. On Nov. 23, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly interviewed Ann Coulter about the document.

Coulter admitted that she had not heard of the Declaration until O’Reilly sent it to her that day, but posed as an expert anyway, asserting that churches have been forced to act because of “the cultural crisis around us” and the “crumbling moral culture.”

Regardless of the Declaration’s shelf life, AU’s Lynn said he is confident that Americans do not want to see their pulpits invaded by politics.

“I am optimistic that the people in the pews will not heed their leaders’ misguided call to action,” Lynn said. “Polls show that most church-goers do not want to see their faith politicized.”