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.