Manhattan Declaration: Not Perfect, But Worth Signing

Concerning the Manhattan Declaration (available on the Manhattan Project site, accessed 04 February 2013)….I have just signed this declaration). However, I thought I should note that my signing is not a blanket endorsement of all the wording found in it (though I do endorse most of the wording).

Specifically, I am not entirely comfortable with all the wording in the preamble. For instance, that preamble states that

devotion to human dignity has led Christians in recent decades to work to end the dehumanizing scourge of human trafficking and sexual slavery, bring compassionate care to AIDS sufferers in Africa, and assist in a myriad of other human rights causes – from providing clean water in developing nations to providing homes for tens of thousands of children orphaned by war, disease and gender discrimination. (Emphasis added.)
Now, none of the actual mercy ministries enumerated are problematic; all are praiseworthy acts of Christian compassion rightly endorsed and encouraged. What troubles me about the wording is the phrase I’ve emphasized (and here reemphasize): “a myriad of other human rights causes.” Tragically, the phrase “human rights” has become code in the minds of many for support of certain left-liberal causes, such as efforts to equalize income through coercive government wealth redistribution (as opposed to use of moral persuasion, such as from the bully pulpit of one’s government position, to encourage the more successful to freely assist the less successful). Like the phrase “social justice,” though perhaps to a lesser extent, the phrase “human rights” has come to carry some baggage that makes search for alternative phrasing desirable.

Also, it is unclear how the Christian cause is forwarded by speaking of mercy ministries or works of compassion as “human rights causes.” Certainly, human trafficking constitutes a violation of God-given rights of liberty; but is it really helpful to conceptualize “compassionate care to AIDS sufferers” or “providing homes” as “human rights causes”? Unless one’s goal is to create an “entitlement” one can then lobby to have government provide using coercively-acquired funds, the answer appears to be “no.” True, there are Christians who support establishing “rights” to be provided with homes, health care, and a host of other things, and who support having a Robin Hood state make these “rights” into entitlements it will provide whenever individual effort and private charity fail to do so. Not all Christians consider this a proper outworking of Scripture’s moral precepts, however, so including it in a document intended to be signed by Christians in general seems inappropriate.

Within the declaration itself, which joins a core affirmation statement to extended exposition of the meaning and implications of that affirmation, some wording made me mildly uncomfortable. For example, in a list of global phenomena growing out the contemporary devaluing of human life, one finds the following sequence of evils: “the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the sexual trafficking of girls and young women” (emphasis added). What (mildly) troubles me about the wording I’ve emphasized is that “exploitation of…laborers” is another phrase that has acquired left-liberal baggage. While it is clearly wrong for business owners to treat workers unfairly, deceive them about the true value of their labor and skills, or to in any way treat them as anything but persons having the same God-given value and dignity as the owners themselves, “exploitation of…laborers” has much broader meaning for many. For many, owners, or just top management, are guilty of “exploiting” workers if they simply earn a great deal more than the workers, even though this greatly increased earning comes at the cost of greatly increased risk. Genuine “exploitation” is never a good thing, so I could still sign the declaration. Nevertheless, the wording is not ideal.

In spite of the imperfect wording, I decided I still could sign the document, since nothing in it seems to require that signatories endorse everything in the preamble, nor that they be perfectly comfortable with every phrase in the exposition following the declaration’s core affirmation statement. That statement reads as follows:

In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.
These affirmations certainly merit endorsement, and so I signed. As well, excepting the “mildly uncomfortable” wording I’ve noted, the exposition unpacking these affirmations is excellent, meriting wide reading and careful reflection.

One final note. The declaration identifies itself as expressing the shared values of “Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians.” It seems to me that this phrasing might make the declaration more narrow than it needs to be. Some groups that do not consider themselves members of any of these Christian groups, but who nevertheless self-identify as “Christians,” share values that would permit them to endorse the above-quoted affirmation. Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, are one example.

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