John Stackhouse’s Strange View of the Manhattan Declaration

The well-known evangelical theologian and historian John Stackhouse has added his name to the ranks of Christians who don’t find much to like about the Manhattan Declaration.  There is a twist in this case, though.  He isn’t complaining about the alliance between evangelicals and Catholics, for example.  (Thank you, Lord.)

However, one of Dr. Stackhouse’s major objections is equally perplexing.  While he declares himself to be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage, he believes the call to enshrine those positions in the law is “philosophically and politically incoherent” if one is simultaneously calling for religious liberty (which the signers of the Manhattan Declaration do).

Before writing those words, Stackhouse might at least have thought a few moments about who we’re talking about.  Robert George is one of the main movers and shakers on this document.  And he happens to be a very important political philosopher in the American academy.

Now, disagreeing with Robert George is never evidence that one is wrong.  So what if Prof. George is a political philosopher of the top rank?  He certainly could be guilty of holding a “philosophically and politically incoherent” view on something.  Surely, he could.  And perhaps Dr. Stackhouse would be the guy with the right cut in his jib to effectively point that out.

But let’s consider the claim.  Does calling for religious liberty mean that one is disqualified from simultaneously attempting to make abortion illegal (to use one of his examples)?

I don’t think so.  Let’s take the shortest route to dealing with this claim.

If embracing religious liberty means that we should never attempt to embody moral propositions into the law, then we should not embody religious liberty in the law because it is a moral proposition.  A philosophy that leads to THAT result is incoherent.  The person who argues for religious liberty AND for other moral propositions in the law is on pretty sound footing in the vast majority of instances.

But if that seems like a cheap shot, we can go further.  Why do we value religious liberty?  We value religious liberty because we believe human beings possess an inherent dignity that entitles them to certain rights.  For a very large number of people, quite likely an absolute majority, our rights come from God.  Because God gives us certain rights, it is not the place of the state to abrogate them.  But regardless of whether we claim our rights come from God, we have embraced religious liberty as a right.  It is in tension with other rights.  It is not a trump card.  We do not accept any religious claim that would require freedom to kill another human being, for example.

Another right that we believe human beings have is the right to life.  It is very easy and requires no recourse to scripture to demonstrate that the unborn child is, indeed, a human being.  Given what I’ve said so far, is it at all difficult to understand that one could say religious liberty does not entail a right to be free from legal consequences for killing an unborn child?

No, it isn’t difficult.  There is no incoherency in arguing for both religious liberty and for the legal right to life of an unborn child.


6 thoughts on “John Stackhouse’s Strange View of the Manhattan Declaration

  1. Hunter, I’m having a hard time articulating a connection between religious liberty and traditional marriage. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  2. Religious liberty and traditional marriage is an interesting discussion. Before I get into that, let me just put a floor under what I said earlier. There is nothing incoherent about certain rights existing in tension with each other. There are very few absolute rights. Religious liberty is only an absolute right when it comes to the inviolate conscience. You cannot be forced to believe something, only to say you believe it.

    Religious liberty and traditional marriage is an interesting problem, not because of the challenge of gay marriage, but because of the challenge of polygamy. It is extremely difficult to argue that a religious claim in favor of polygamy cannot be offered with integrity. The court could see that in Reynolds v. U.S. (the Mormon case). People have a right to practice their religion. How far does that right extend? What if it runs into the laws of the nation? Then, the question is whether an accommodation should be made. I suspect there are many advocates of religious liberty who would argue for an accommodation in that instance.

    • Yes, I see valid reasons to support traditional marriage as serving the best interest of a nation, but the reasoning comes out of history, and political philosophy. Societies where one-man one-woman marriage is esteemed and supported survive and thrive better than others. I just read last night that Lenin instituted no-fault divorce because he knew it would weaken Russia. A variation of the divide and conquer strategy.

      I like your point about rights existing in tension with one another. Then decisions must be made at times about which ones supercede. I would think the survival of the society would matter more to the gays than state recognition of their marriage.

  3. Perhaps John Stackhouse recognizes the enormous hubris and totalitarian intent of this declaration.

    The subtext and real meaning of which is this:

    Only we right-thinking Christians possess and know the “truth”.

    Everyone else including members of other Faith Traditions and Christians of a more liberal persuasion are either completely wrong or full of relativistic errors.

    And by golly we ARE going to impose our self-“righteousness” on to everyone else.

    And we have the “great commission” and/or “God’s” command/demand so to do.

    Plus what if the nuclear family is a profoundly anti-cultural device? Which also inevitably creates human being who are emotional cripples!

    A device which creates a nation of completely self-involved (or narcissistic) house-holders in their own consumerist dream castles who have no time and energy for the always necessary task of building cooperative communities.

    Each isolated individual thus being left to struggle (alone) against the over-whelming momentum of the consumerist mass “culture” at large.

    And in Reality thus being no different to their secular counterparts. Every one thus sits faithfully in front of their TV screens waiting to be told which new “exciting” consumer product to buy and get excited about. The I-gotta-have-it-nowies (which used to be called keeping up with the Jones’s)

    Little boxes made out of ticky-tacky, little boxes (and consumers) ALL THE SAME. Doing exactly what TV (or propaganda central) tells them to do. Even what “religious” TV tells them. The 700 club for instance

    Cooperative communities have always been the bed-rock of any healthy culture.

  4. Me again.

    The great social problem of the present time is not the fragmentation of the family, although that too is symptomatic, but the great social problem is the fragmentation of community and the destruction of the intimate social and spiritual culture of community, in favor of the domination of humanity by the abstracted and dehumanizing Power of the State and all the media of popular indoctrination. Freedom from the Parental powers of the materialistic politics of the State is possible only if people enter into responsible cooperation with one another in free communities. In that case, the State can do no more than represent the will and strength of an autonomous, free, and responsible populace.

    The modern everyman of consumer society is an unconscious propagandized individual, participating in illusions and, effectively, self-destructing.

    The modern everyman is being created by the power system of the world, because it is in the interests of that power system for there to be consumer egos who are entirely self-involved, and stupefied.

    Any kind of profound questions beyond the usual religious “answers”, let alone profound doings, are totally taboo.

    At present, a culture of total war, a culture of death, is ruling, while the people are engrossed in stupefying consumerism.

    Brought to one and all by capitalism which IS the leading edge development of the “culture” created in the image of secular-materialism.

    Such a circumstance was depicted by both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The masses stupefied by 24/7 TV titty-tainment and gross self-indulgence, and kept in a state of perpetual fear by endless imperial wars (and threats of such), and the associated 24/7 propaganda.

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