know what you're thinking: we've already beaten the Manhattan Declaration to death, and we don't need another TeamPyro post on the issue.
I was feeling the same way myself two weeks ago, but the horse keeps coming back to life. Last week, for example, the New York Times published this feature profiling Robert P. George, the sole Roman Catholic in the triumvirate of authors who wrote the Manhattan Declaration. George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and heir to the late Richard John Neuhaus's mantle as American conservatism's leading Catholic intellectual.
George, like Neuhaus, is ecumenical in a uniquely Roman Catholic and conservative sense. In a recent Touchstone article pleading for Christian unity in the midst of cultural division, he celebrates the fact that "the pro-life movement and . . . other godly causes to protect the vulnerable and heal a wounded culture" have brought Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern orthodox believers together despite their fundamental doctrinal differences. George seems to suggest that the moral issues are, after all, vastly more important than whatever points of doctrine once divided Protestants from Rome (and Rome from Constantinople).
In fact, George implies that the main reason the ecumenical movement exists and is growing today is because the old doctrinal issues that divided Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants simply aren't relevant in the culture war. Allowing doctrinal differences to keep us from putting up a completely united front in the culture war is "misguided," George says. How could our benighted spiritual ancestors have been so foolish as to disfellowship one another over differences about the gospel? Take, for example, "the differences between Catholics and Lutherans regarding justification." Were those really fundamental differences in the first place, or were the Reformers and the Council of Trent mostly just talking past one another? George offhandedly asserts that those things were mostly "misunderstandings" that have now been "clear[ed] away."
For Christians who are part of this new ecumenical alliance, ancient animosities and mutual suspicions have quite simply vanished. No longer do we view each other as "heretics" or "apostates," much less as "infidels." Many of us find it increasingly difficult to fathom how it could be that generations of Christians did perceive and speak of each other in these harsh terms. Despite our differences, we regard each othereffortlesslyas brothers and sisters in the Lord. We joyfully work together across the old lines of division; we pray together; we support and counsel one another; we listen toand learn fromone another; we seek understanding and, much more often than not, are able to find or establish it. Together we pray for the "complete and visible" unity that would truly be the fulfillment of Christ's prayer.
Yet read the rest of the article and see if you don't come away with a strong impression that George's own idea of "a more perfect unity of mind and spirit" can never truly exist unless Rome's Pope is in charge of it.
Anyway, be sure to read the New York Times piece. It's an insightful behind-the-scenes look at how the conservative movement's agenda is being shaped. It further highlights some troubling ideas underlying the strategy that produced the Manhattan Declaration.
In short, Robert George's contribution has been to seek ways to argue against gay marriage, abortion, and other social evils by appealing to "natural law" rather than Scripture. George is convinced that conservatives in the culture war need to build their case on "principles of right reason and natural law," not biblical law. George wants conservatives in the culture war to make their appeal to logic, not the Bible. In the words of the NYT article, "George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law 'new' is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scriptureor even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of 'practical reason': 'invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,' as [George himself] put it in one essay" (emphasis added).
Even the New York Times writer (David D. Kirkpatrick) seemed to sense that the biblical truths of original sin and human depravity posed a fairly fundamental challenge to Robert George's notion that society can be won to righteousness through human reason alone. He writes,
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.
It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity's only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) "This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong," George acknowledges.
This is indeed a serious issue, and George is wrong. What sinners in this decaying culture need is redemption and spiritual rebirth, not merely sounder moral logic and more convincing rational arguments about why their sin is bad.
Read the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians for an extended biblical rebuttal to George's strategy.
As we have been saying for years, the gospelnot natural law, moralistic logic, philosophical reasoning, or political strategizing, but the gospelis the power of God unto salvation. God's Word doesn't need an intellectual's rational arguments to prop it up. It may sound foolish to suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly and supported only with "thus saith the Lord" carries more weight or is actually more efficacious than an elaborate philosophical argument, but that is, after all, what God himself saysand "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25). That verse comes in a context where Paul is explaining in detail why the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and why the gospel is ultimately a more persuasive and more effective means of individual and cultural transformation than all the philosophical arguments, moralistic reason, and academic logic the brightest minds and most eloquent orators of this world have to offer.
If evangelicals really want to make an impact on our culture, we need to keep that in mind. We need to get to work proclaiming the gospel in our own communities. And frankly, we ought to leave the philosophical strategy in the culture war to people who have no sharper weapon. Declarations of spiritual unity with moralists, academicians, and religious figures who reject the gospel are a sham and a lie, and such declarations do undermine the gospel and muddy our testimonyregardless of anyone's original intent.