Tom Gilson

The Manhattan Declaration and the “Culture Wars”

Series: Manhattan Declaration

I’m uncomfortable with the whole idea of culture wars. No one likes the idea of war in the first place. It is a horrible necessity when it really is necessary; it is far worse than that when it is not. The side that picks the fight will have a lot to answer for. Many friends of mine have family members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. My nephew is in basic training for the Air Force; he may get shot at someday soon. I have friends who have come home from war and told stories of close calls with gunfire and IEDs. One of them has a disabling back injury. So far all of my friends have come home.

Tacking on the word “culture” cheapens that awful word “war,” in my mind. That’s one problem with the idea of “culture wars.” There are others. Christians are committed to the instruction in Romans 12:14-21, including, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We’re committed to love and to service.

So why have I signed the Manhattan Declaration? Why have almost half a million others? Aren’t we being belligerent, taking a stand against abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and against legal attempts to standardize treatment toward people who support those practices? Can’t we all just get along?

Well, no. That wasn’t what Jesus was after, and it just isn’t possible just to get along with everyone always. We can’t expect to agree on everything. The better question is, how are we conducting ourselves in our disagreements? What’s our stance, our attitude, our mode of engagement? How are we treating the ones we disagree with?

I think in the minds of many the Manhattan Declaration is an “against” sort of document, just as I described it a moment ago. It isn’t, at least not primarily. It is a “for” document: for life, for family, for freedom of conscience and religion. Yes, it takes a firm stand in the face of efforts to undermine these values. Read the document, though, and you’ll see it takes a positive stance toward positive principles.

There is a strange rhetorical asymmetry in the so-called culture wars. (I don’t much like that term, but it’s the one that’s current.) It’s most salient in the marriage question, and it goes like this. Compare I’m for same-sex marriage with the opposing, I’m for man-woman marriage. Or if you prefer, I’m for traditional, true, or biblical marriage. There really isn’t any one short word or phrase that fits that slot in the sentence as neatly as same-sex does. One effect of that is that to be for same-sex “marriage” seems somehow to be more of a “for” position than to be “for” strictly man-woman marriage.

This calls for analysis, some of which I’ll do here. First, to say one is for “traditional” marriage is to take a terribly weak position. Other than Chesterton’s wisdom of the fence, tradition alone is a weak reason to support anything, especially in the context of current debates. Yes, it promotes social stability, but if that’s the point, then let’s say so: “I value stability of society and culture, and I believe a certain kind of marriage supports it,” not, “I support traditional marriage,” where “traditional” is left hanging by itself without defense or explanation. Even stability is not by itself the summum bonum (highest good): the antebellum South had a certain stability in race relations. It desperately needed de-stabilizing.

Second, the alternative terms true or biblical marriage have their own asymmetry in this debate. Everyone knows and agrees what same-sex means. Not everyone knows or agrees what true or biblical mean in this context. We can’t use those terms without explaining and defending them. As shorthand they are next to useless, except where everyone agrees on what they mean.

The terminology of man-woman marriage requires less explanation or defense, for, like same-sex, everyone knows and everyone agrees what man-woman means (set aside some extreme gender warriors’ disagreement). Nevertheless—and this is my third point—to support a strictly defined man-woman view of marriage is to take an obvious limiting stand. It is to give a clear yes to some things but an obvious no to others; it is automatically to be against that which does not fit the definition. Yes to same-sex “marriage” seems therefore to be a more inclusive yes than yes to strictly defined man-woman marriage.

This is an illusion, however, supported by conceptual proximity. Same-sex “marriage” proponents focus just on marriage and the various ways they want to say yes to it. More conceptually distant, but just as real and relevant, are the things to which they are saying no: no to God and his clear instructions, no to the clear witness of history that genuine marriage strengthens a culture, no to raising one’s own children in a biologically-connected family.

I could extend that list; it would be a worthwhile study to do so. But that’s not my purpose in this blog post. My point is that to say yes to one thing is always to say no to another; but that saying yes to man-woman marriage leads to a conceptually accessible “no,” which opponents can easily capitalize on rhetorically. I admit it: it’s easy to posture my position as an against position. Saying yes to same-sex “marriage,” on the other hand, leads to no’s that take more work to bring to the surface of discussion. That makes them more difficult to manage for rhetorical purposes. It does not make them less significant in reality.

I hope that was clear; if not, please let me know and I’ll work on it some more.

So the Manhattan Declaration is a for document; but just as to say yes to one thing means saying no to something else, to be for one thing always entails being against something else. The Manhattan Declaration’s detractors cannot complain about it for its being an against kind of document. Their opposition to it is an against stand, too.

Which brings us back to something I started with: “the side that picks the fight will have a lot to answer for.” While it’s true that not all aggression in culture wars is wrong—Martin Luther King, Jr. took an aggressive, though non-violent, stand against racism—it’s certainly wrong to mis-identify who the aggressor is. I dealt with this recently, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that we’re not picking these fights. We weren’t trying to be against anything. But the issues have come forth. We have to stand for what we stand for. That’s what the Manhattan Declaration is about.

Next on this topic: fighting the “culture wars” poorly—a mistake made far too often by Christians and others who support values like those in the Manhattan Declaration.

Series Navigation (Manhattan Declaration):<<< Gay Rights Distortions and Aggression<<< Why I Signed The Manhattan Declaration


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