Of Declarations and Tea Parties: A New Birth for the Religious Right?

Late last year a collection of far-right religious leaders gathered in Washington, DC, to unveil something called the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.”

Named for the borough of New York City where it was drafted, the Declaration is a sort of theocratic manifesto endorsed by Roman Catholic, evangelical, and Orthodox Christian leaders.

These guys (and most of the signers are men) have a message for America: We don’t like the way you’re living your lives. You need to start listening to us.

These are tough times for would-be theocrats. Americans stubbornly insist on the right to affiliate with the religious or philosophical movements of their choice. Some people blend elements from different traditions to forge their own idiosyncratic spirituality. Others reject religion altogether.

Sex before marriage has become nearly universal. Risqué movies play at the local multiplex. Writers are free to publish blasphemous books, plays, and poems. Gay people refuse to remain in the closet. Same-sex couples are even getting married in the corn belt of Iowa!

Let’s face it, we’re a far cry from medieval Spain—and that really, really bothers the signers of the Manhattan Declaration.

Charles W. Colson, the former Watergate felon who found Jesus while serving time behind bars, is a driving force behind the Declaration. Colson emerged from prison and became the most obnoxious type of convert—smugly convinced of his religious choice and absolutely certain it’s right for you, too. Joining Colson is Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and traditionalist Catholic who just seems not to like gay people very much.

I was on hand the day the Declaration was unveiled. Looking at the crowd of endorsers (mostly male, mostly white, mostly way past middle age) my first thought was that the drive was, well, kind of pathetic. Behind the fancy words of the Declaration, which you can read online at www.manhattandeclaration.org, was the same old argument we’ve been getting from the theocrats for years: “We’re right about religion, so you have to do what we say.”


But on reflection, it wasn’t so easy for me to dismiss the Declaration as the product of a bunch of has-beens. For years Colson and his allies have labored to build an ecumenical coalition of far-right religious groups. The Declaration represents their biggest success to date.

For a long time an air of mutual suspicion hampered bridge building between right-wing evangelical Protestants and right-wing Catholics. The two factions shared political goals such as opposition to legal abortion and gay rights but were often unable to work together because of theological differences.

The Declaration indicates at least a slight thaw in that antagonistic relationship. Its signers include a lot of familiar names from the religious right: James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and son of famous TV preacher Jerry Falwell; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; and William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Alongside them are ten of the most conservative members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, most notably Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, DC, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City.

This is the same crowd that has been trying to run our lives for a very long time. And in years past they’ve actually had some success with that. Remember, as recently as the 1960s even married couples couldn’t access birth control in some states thanks to Catholic pressure.

Laws like that may be relics today but we don’t have to look far to find other examples of clerical interference in our lives. Humanists are certainly familiar with ongoing efforts by Protestant fundamentalists to ban the teaching of evolution and comprehensive sex education from public schools.

In California and Maine, the religious right and the Catholic hierarchy joined forces to roll back same-sex marriage. The partnership emerged again when a dispute over abortion nearly derailed the healthcare reform bill last year. Efforts to block “death with dignity” laws in many states are often stymied by the same religious coalition.

An additional wildcard in the budding theocratic alliance is what’s being called the “Tea Party” movement. Although it started out as an anti-Obama, anti-government, anti-tax drive, the Tea Party movement, or at least some factions of it, is picking up traditional religious right issues.

Religious right leaders are savvy enough to see the energy in this movement and want to tap into it. Groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council have been promoting Tea Party events. In California, Tea Party activists are helping a retired teacher who is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would amend the California Constitution to “provide opportunities to its pupils for listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of the year.” (Yes, it’s patently unconstitutional, but they’re still at it.)

Humanists shouldn’t write off the Tea Party movement as an unorganized collection of cranks and malcontents. Already its influence is being felt in the Republican Party with the election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to the U.S. Senate. Political analysts likewise expect the GOP to make more gains in this year’s mid-term elections, and the Tea Partiers are coming along for the ride.

The signers of the Manhattan Declaration represent the old guard of the religious right, a movement with pretensions of intellectualism. By contrast, the Tea Party movement is decidedly low brow, anti-intellectual, and marked by emotionalism and rage. Both represent a threat to the principles humanists hold dear, including the separation of church and state.

We would do well to keep an eye on both of these movements. It appears the “culture wars” aren’t over just yet.

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