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. [UPDATE: Dr. Stackhouse and I have corresponded on this short paragraph. He felt it was needlessly provocative of me to accuse him of failing to think before writing. I concede the point and hereby apologize in the same space. This does not affect the substance of our disagreement.]

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.


  • http://stackblog.wordpress.com John Stackhouse

    Dear Brother Baker,

    Thanks for noticing my blog. Just a few comments, if I may:

    1. Let me assure you that I did think “a few moments about who we’re talking about.” In fact, I think you know I did from what I wrote. You seem far too educated a man to engage in that kind of cheap shot, which amounts to “He couldn’t possibly have thought about this to come up with something so stupid.” I acknowledge Robert George’s eminence in the original post and in subsequent comments. So I don’t think you’re playing fair on that score.

    2. I agree with you that it is coherent to want abortion outlawed and to defend religious liberty.

    3. So the problem must lie elsewhere, mustn’t it? And it does. It lies in the concerns I express in the original posting, such as the way the Declaration lumps together a wide range of issues that are not of the same sort.

    I think outlawing abortion is about as clear a legal imperative as I can imagine. The same is not true, in my view, about outlawing gay marriage. And when we get to the third part of the MD on religious liberty, it is not at all clear to me–that is, coherent–what political philosophy of religious liberty (and not just Christian liberty) is in play. How free is everyone to practice their religion if, say, polygamy is part of their religion? (I do make this point on the blog already, though, so I’ll stop here.)

    Someone like you would, I’m sure, enjoy interacting with a positive suggestion more than a critical one: that’s why I refer people to my book, Making the Best of It, that outlines an evangelical version of Christian realism.

    And now I’d better leave you alone! Thanks again for the notice,

    John Stackhouse

  • http://commentarius-ioannis.blogspot.com/ Paul Primavera

    Ezekiel 34 talks about shepherds like John Stackhouse.

  • Michael A. Smith

    I hardly think that John Stackhouse needs me to defend him – but please let’s move beyond ignorant and unsubstantiated juvenile jabs Mr. Primavera.

  • http://hunterbaker.wordpress.com/ Hunter Baker

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I note the following from your comment:

    2. I agree with you that it is coherent to want abortion outlawed and to defend religious liberty.

    3. So the problem must lie elsewhere, mustn’t it? And it does. It lies in the concerns I express in the original posting, such as the way the Declaration lumps together a wide range of issues that are not of the same sort.

    I find these assertions difficult to square with your original post where you wrote:

    4. Finally, the document seems philosophically and politically incoherent. It argues for religious liberty for Christians to dissent from views they don’t like (and this point, alas, needs increasing emphasis in America as well as here in Canada). But it also argues that these particular Christian views of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and more should be enshrined in American law. It says nothing about the liberty of those who would dissent from those views except to assert that because these Christian views are right, they should be the law of the land. What, then, happened to religious liberty on these important matters? The document doesn’t say.

    Now, that is the nugget of the problem I have and what I wrote about.

    Hunter Baker

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken Larson

    The other day someone suggested to Mark Levin that he translate his book LIBERTY AND TYRANNY into Spanish [and Portuguese] and sell it throughout Latin America. The suggestion has merit because there’s a market for messages on the subject, even outside of The United States with its Constitution.

    Take Iran. I just read a piece in the WSJ that tells a story of threats to Iranians living abroad and punishment and death to their relatives still living in the country due to their email and Facebook traffic. EVIL exists and takes forms in various ways — and NOT just in America.

    That seems to me to validate the observation of our Founders that resulted in the use of such words as unalienable and self-evident. There is also a factor of the cohesive power that our traditions have in keeping us focused on the good and the truth. Sometimes it takes a law to undergird what our gut tells us and history reaffirms by presenting Gomorrahs every so often.

    This is why i don’t have a problem with the MD mix. And I do wonder how a book titled “Making the Best of It” would do in the shops of Tehran.

  • Neal Lang

    “4. Finally, the document seems philosophically and politically incoherent. It argues for religious liberty for Christians to dissent from views they don’t like (and this point, alas, needs increasing emphasis in America as well as here in Canada). But it also argues that these particular Christian views of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and more should be enshrined in American law. It says nothing about the liberty of those who would dissent from those views except to assert that because these Christian views are right, they should be the law of the land. What, then, happened to religious liberty on these important matters? The document doesn’t say.”

    Interesting position! I suppose taken to its logical conclusion, true “Religious Liberty” must include tolerance of human sacrifice for a practicing Incas. The idea of religious liberty must be tempered by both “these unalienable rights” along with, as our Founders advised – virtue and morality. Afterall, as our Founding Fathers insisted liberty, including “Religious Liberty” was impossible but for a virtuous and moral people. The sanctity of life, either for healthy or the infirmed, the old as well as the unborn is part of the understanding and basis of a “moral people.” To deny this as a society is to reject any possibility of TRUE “Religious Liberty!”

  • Neal Lang

    A “moral people” are best defined by what they permit as what they sanction. Obviously “abortion, euthanasia, marriage” have social as well as moral implications. While abortion and euthanasia are easily seen as immoral, marriage is an institution that is the glue holds society together. As an example, since the universal governmental acceptance of “no fault divorce” in our States, can anyone argue that life, health, and mental stability of our children has improved? Just because the Bible or Christians hold to certain “truths” doesn’t make “truths” any less necessary for a free and moral society.

  • http://stackblog.wordpress.com John Stackhouse

    Neal Lang makes the right point: One can’t defend religious liberty for everyone, as the Declaration does, without then implicitly granting liberty to religions to practice things one finds abhorrent. This is why I find the MD incoherent: religious liberty in a pluralistic situation such as America (or Canada) today must be heavily qualified. And if it is to be heavily qualified, then we need to think together with (at least a majority of) our non-Christian neighbours about what kind of liberty we can agree on such that we do not sanction horrors but also are not forbidden ourselves from practicing what some people (e.g., Richard Dawkins) think are not just stupid, but socially harmful beliefs.

    From my vantage point, then, the MD is incoherent. Worse, it doesn’t even recognize these issues that seem to me to be simply basic in all such considerations.

  • http://plankbed.blogspot.com/ David Alexander

    John, your argument seems to me to ride on a definition of liberty that is purely negative, and if that is so, it is indistinguishable from nihilism. The Manhattan Declaration does not propound such a view of liberty. It may be largely tacit and implicit, but it is there quite clearly in its affirmation of justice and common good. If liberty were just freedom from and not freedom for then it would not be something really worth defending or propounding. It would just be the gnostic flight into destruction, the antinomian self-glorifying sink into ashes and divine ignominy. One merely freedom from stance which seems characteristic of liberalism, seems to me to contrast sharply with Jesus in the gospels who affirmed the Law more strongly than the Pharisees.

  • Jeff Swan

    I’m a fan of this blog, but certainly not a professional philosopher or theologian.

    With that as a polite disclaimer, my defense of the Manhattan Declaration is that by “religious liberty” it is addressing primarily the freedom to *not* do something the government wants one to do, as opposed to the freedom *to do* something that the government forbids. For example, in the case of abortion, the framers and signers of the Manhattan Declaration assert that the right of religious freedom should allow a doctor to refuse to perform an abortion without losing his or her medical license. When it comes to gay marriage, one’s religious freedom should allow a person to proclaim that gay marriage is immoral and harmful without being fined or imprisoned. A religiously based adoption agency should be allowed to refuse to grant an adoption to a gay couple, and so on. This freedom from coercion seems different to me than a freedom to practice a certain activity or rite.

    The basic idea, as I see it, is that people should be allowed to push and promote laws allowing or prohibiting behavior, but at the same time, there should be some sort of “conscientious objector” principle that would ensure the freedom to protest a law and work to change it. The biggest threat from the gay marriage lobby is not the passage of laws allowing gay marriage, but the corresponding laws that forbid anyone to say gay marriage is wrong and should be re-outlawed. Regarding abortion, it’s bad enough that abortion is legal, but now doctors are facing the threat of being forced to perform them or lose their license. Is it possible that the Manhattan Declaration is addressing the very real threats to religious liberty in which the government may force Christians to do certain acts or positively approve certain acts which they know are wrong? Is it inconsistent to say that the basic right of religious liberty should allow a Christian, or a person of any religion, to refrain from certain acts? Isn’t that the tradition of “conscientious objector” that we have had for centuries in America? For years, if one could prove they were a true pacifist, they could avoid serving in active duty in the military, and they could protest a war. Now, there is a chance that “conscientious objectors” may still be required to perform abortions or perform marriage ceremonies – or host the ceremonies or shoot the video of the ceremonies – for gay weddings, and if they protest, that act of protest alone can be considered a “hate crime”.

  • http://hunterbaker.wordpress.com/ Hunter Baker

    The declaration does not endorse religious liberty in a pell-mell, unqualified fashion. I invite interested readers to examine it and decide for themselves whether the characterization is correct.

  • http://stackblog.wordpress.com John Stackhouse

    Here’s what the MD says: “nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions. What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.”

    That’s it. No other qualification, as far as I can see, is offered anywhere else in the document.

    And if I’m right in that interpretation, then I think my point stands.

  • sini ngindu bindanda

    I find such matter as a dilemma to give a propriate position.
    First of all because we humans being we always contradict ourselves according on belhaf of our own interests. Some can give a point of view concerning determined subject but if he finds that he seems to be at once juge and part he trays to scape. Otherwise we could easily give our judgement as one proved by God as Paul says to Timothy, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of the truth. Unfortunatly very often in such matter, much more it is philosophy and theology, conflict of interest, etc which is prevalent and not the truth. Since as I started it always we change position according to the interest in game.
    I want to recall what I have said some weeks ago about the “health” when your government wanted to bring the people to review the sanitarian law to allow all the people to have access to the sanitarian because as I said it, it is a “common duty, a common wellfare”. Any law, in the Christian country, any law which do not adapt a common life, a moral of the people as gol is alluding and must review the way of seing things for the “common interest of the people”.
    By the Covenant God concluded with Noah He said: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by human shall that person’s blood be shed; because for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:6″. Who is that human some can not kill? The 139 Psalm of Davide responds: “I was not yet born and already You saw me. In your book were written all my days you fixed for my existence” (v.16). When God said to Adam “to freely eat of every tree in garden except the one of the knowlege of good and evil, for the day he should eat it he shall die” (Genesis 2:16).
    Did God took of the liberty to man to do what he wanted to do? I don’t think so. But man had only to know the conseguences of disobedience in the case he do not obbey. The life, of all man and hall man, including the uborn is sanctified, being created in immage of Himself. Any time God punished the world, the Flood (Genesis 8); Sodom and Gomore (Genesis 19)it was because of the depravity of moral). The Prophets esorted Israele also for the moral problem (Amos). The condamnation in Parabole of the Ten Bridesmaids seems curiosly be much more moral than spiritual, being that both are linked.
    So as I am concerned there is no incoherency in arguing for both religious liberty and for legal right to life of an unborn child, since he(she) is a man as all of the men. Every man is free but the freedom don’t allow someone to go against which is against the common duty, the common purpose as God wanted the cristians live their life as a light among the world.

    I apology my eventual misunderstanding of the subject I may have.

    Sincerly yours,

    Rev. SINI NGINDU BINDANDA

  • Cathy Lemek

    I have only one problem with the Manhattan Declaration, in regards to the statement that the judiciary in Massachusettes made same-sex marriage lawful. This seems to divert the reality that it was not the judiciary, but the executive-Governor Mitt Romney, who by executive fiat made same-sex marriage lawful in the state of Massachussettes.

  • Roger McKinney

    John Stackhouse: “That’s it. No other qualification, as far as I can see, is offered anywhere else in the document.”

    I don’t think it’s fair for Stackhouse to criticize the document for not thinking to cover every possible misinterpretation of it. It would have become unreadable. Of course the authors assumed that freedom of religion would be constrained by the rule of law (not positive law, but the law of God regarding murder and theft that all reasonable people adhere to).

    Just because positive law make abortion legal, does not mean that it is still not murder. That is not just a religous concept. It has the history of law of most of mankind behind it. Atheists could easily argue that abortion is murder. Any religious belief that tried to make murder acceptable should face the same constraints of law.

    As Ludwig von Mises used to say, liberty does not consists of the lack of law; that would destroy liberty. Liberty consists in the rule of law, that is general principles applicable to everyone equally under the law. Excluding theft and murder from the range of religious practices does not hinder liberty; it expands liberty.

  • GAS

    I agree with Stackhouse. The Document should have a logical order but the order of the premises do not follow.