There is nothing new about Christians deciding that, when political push comes to legal shove, they cannot render unto Caesar what they truly believe belongs to God. Nevertheless, it still makes news when believers vow to act on this conviction.
"Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," proclaimed a coalition of Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestants on Nov. 20, in their 4,700-word "Manhattan Declaration."
"There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. ... King's willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring."
Thus, the declaration's authors vowed to reject "any edict that purports to compel our institutions" to compromise on centuries of doctrine about marriage, human sexuality and the sanctity of human life. The text was written by evangelical activist Charles Colson, church historian Timothy George of the evangelical Beeson Divinity School and the Catholic scholar Robert George of Princeton University.
The Los Angeles Times offered an especially brutal evaluation of the text, claiming that it offered a "specious invocation of King" and that its logic was ultimately "irresponsible and dangerous."
But the editorial board reserved its strongest words for the Catholics bishops who signed, asking if they considered "how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don't like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform?"
So far, 19 Catholic bishops and archbishops have signed, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and the Catholic shepherds in Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, among other cities.
At mid-week, the project (ManhattanDeclaration.org) had attracted about 230,000 endorsements, including those of famous evangelicals such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Evangelicals for Social Action Director Ron Sider and Bishop Henry Jackson, Jr., a Pentecostal leader in the Washington, D.C., area. Orthodox leaders who have signed include Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen of the Orthodox Church in America and Wichita (Kan.) Bishop Basil Essey of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.
Responding to claims that the declaration is merely a partisan attack on President Barack Obama, Colson noted that it states that in the Roe v. Wade era, "elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to the 'Culture of Death.' "
On sexuality, the document stresses that some people are "disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. ... We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God's intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God's patience, love and forgiveness."
While nothing in the Manhattan Declaration is truly new, arguments about its call for civil disobedience will help draw sharper lines between traditional believers and the powers that be in an increasingly diverse and secular America, said Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., senior editor of the Christian Bioethics journal at Oxford University. He is professor emeritus at the Baylor College of Medicine and a philosophy professor at Rice University.
"This document is the product of a political coalition, but it's not political in the same sense that the tax code is political," said Engelhardt, who is advising several Eastern Orthodox leaders who are studying the text. "This is political in the sense that these Christians are working together on certain issues that have moral and public implications."
The reality is that its authors believe there are "certain God-ordained truths" that continue to have authority and weight in American life, he said. The big question: Are they right or wrong?
"You could make a case," concluded Engelhardt, "that anyone who recites the Nicene Creed, or anyone who believes that God has established any requirements for how we are supposed to live our lives can now be called a Fundamentalist in the context of this secular culture. ... That is what this debate is actually about."