Fearless Speech & the Manhattan Declaration

Perhaps you are aware of the Manhattan confession, a document drafted and signed by 148 people, what Halden has labeled, “a sort of ecumenical conservative manifesto with 148 signatories from Roman, Eastern, and Evangelical denominations.” The document primarily defends against abortion, gay marriage, and the right for the church to do what it wants: three issues that everybody knew were already at the top of the agenda for churches in the US. To me, it reads like nails on chalkboards, and my emotional reaction might best be painted in this savage send-up of the document found here. Thanks, Halden. He has a couple of interesting posts, especially in the comments, here and here.

I have been thinking about the nature of the document itself and why I dislike it. I don’t think it is parrehesia, true truth-telling as regards Foucault’s analysis or biblically, either. Foucault demonstrates in his lectures, Fearless Speech, that the parrhesiast is a person permitted by the state/assembly/group to speak because he possesses the moral character to speak about truth, and does so in such a way to benefit the entire society and he speaks the truth at his own peril. (The parrhesiast was a “he” in this historical analysis, a clue perhaps to the problems of discerning parrehesia…)

By this definition, the declaration reads as false to me.  It misses the point trying to look like a defender of morality and the innocent while neglecting bigger issues inherent to the very concerns it addresses. To worry about gay marriage and abortion without addressing other clearly connected gospel issues like financial injustice, militarization, orphans, and homelessness makes it smell like a conservative American political agenda drives the statement, not a Gospel one.  There is a brief nod to injustice in the introduction, followed by a whole lot of self-righteous church-washing.  Barely admitting historical injustice, the document is eager to note how deeply they “stand” with fallen people, but it's not really a statement of solidarity or repentance, and instead comes across as a critique that ignores the bigger picture, a document of privilege masquerading as oppressed people speaking out. It saddened me to see Ron Sider swept up in it.

The real problem with the “declaration” is that it is not a confession. It points to the justice and valor of the church without bearing witness to its own sin which is implicated in the very issues the document is opposing. For American Christians to get behind a document noting the Christian opposition to slavery as proof of its moral high ground without confessing its complicity seems disingenuous. How can we discuss the sanctity of marriage if we will not confess how slavery made the family unit impossible? How can we speak of the sanctity of life if we will not recognize Christian complicity in the genocide of indigenous Americans.   We must remember that in popular opinion, especially of policy makers, the US is a Christian nation. I know it is not a US document, but that is even more concerning if evangelicalism is what emerges as a greater trans-national Church body that governments "can’t push around."  They give the powers that be a good talking to, ignoring that they are the powers that be around here.

The statement further fails a test of parrhesia in that the signatories have little to lose by putting forth such a document. It is not a bold statement at all, but rather a polite recitation of the evangelical rules of belonging.  Foucault explains:
“If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrehesia. Parrehesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death” (p.16 in the Semiotext(e) edition)

So what will happen to people who put their name to the document? Um, not much. I imagine talk show wags  will laud the “courage” to produce such a document, but it took no courage at all. I could get out and read the document as a sermon in almost every church in California and people would nod their heads in approval. -and we’re a liberal state. It only retrenches the opinion of the empowered; meanwhile the poor continue to go hungry without health care and opportunity. So what is this document? Another evangelical line in the sand that’s really a mirror of self righteousness instead of speaking truth to power. I wish churches would speak out against wealth more.  A critique of abortion that confessed and addressed the systemic injustices behind it would be much more trenchant, with real teeth.  A critique that repented of it bigotry, materialism and self-interest would be getting somewhere.

It’s too bad, as I wish there were more effort put into ending abortion practically instead of politically. More adoption, more foster homes, more opportunity for poor and oppressed, more just ecenomic practices. The discussion in these ways seems like a whole lot of self righteous grandstanding while people go hungry and kill one another. Really guys? (Oh, mostly men signing by the way - only 9 of 139 are women from my count).  The intonations that present this to us as a Barmen declaration  worry me, too. How has the evangelical world come to see itself so clearly as the squashed?  It might be good to take a note from African American traditions and confess that more often than not, when we read scripture, we are not the Israelites in Exodus, but rather Pharoah.

Well, there are also some things I have been thinking about the problems of parrhesia as a critique that Foucault gets at, but more on that later.  Probably enough for a first pass - What do you think?


  1. I totally agree; in fact, most of your criticisms were ones that I had upon learning about the content of this document in sunday school today. Why must "the church" squander what little influence it has left to simply reinforce tired stereotypes about it? I struggle at times to reconcile the pure but conservative teachings I received as a youth with my adult knowledge of "the real world"; just when I feel that there is balance, this comes along to disappoint me. I am able to see things through the eyes of unbelievers now (even if I don't agree), and all I could think of when reading about this was, no one outside of the church will even care.


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