There was a time in America – and it really wasn’t that long ago – when powerful religious groups worked in conjunction with government officials to impose narrow theological precepts on everyone.
As recently as the early 1960s, it was difficult for even married couples to access artificial contraception in some states, and books, movies and plays were often subjected to “screening” by censorship boards dominated by clerics. Children in public schools were often compelled to take part in prayer, Bible reading and other religious activities.
Activism by concerned citizens and court rulings put a stop to much of this. Most Americans would agree that is a good thing.
But a well-organized and aggressive sectarian coterie still longs for the old days. This faction surfaced recently with the release of the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto endorsed by various Roman Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christian figures (including many Religious Right leaders).
The Declaration attacks legal abortion, blasts same-sex marriage and insists that religious conservatives should be broadly exempt from certain laws and regulations on the grounds of “conscience.”
The Declaration’s backers made a bit of a splash in the media by vowing to engage in civil disobedience if laws they don’t like are imposed on them. It was good bluster for the television cameras, but the threat is almost certainly a hollow one. No government official has seriously proposed that houses of worship should be forced to pay for abortions or perform same-sex marriages; the First Amendment would block any attempt to try it.
The force behind the Declaration is Charles W. Colson, who served time in prison for crimes committed during the Nixon-era Watergate scandal. Colson converted to fundamentalist Christianity and would like others to follow in his footsteps. He is free to pursue that activity through private channels, but after reading the Manhattan Declaration one gets the impression that’s not enough.
Indeed, that is the Declaration’s main fault: Its ultimate goal is a nation where powerful religious interests harness the power of government to achieve what simple persuasion has not been able to do – convince people to live as Colson and the bishops would have them live.
The Declaration also looks like an attempt to re-energize the Religious Right, a movement that has been dispirited of late, by forging a new coalition with ultra-conservative Catholic bishops. Working in tandem with the Catholic hierarchy gives Religious Right leaders political clout that they lack on their own.
The Declaration’s backers offer fancy words and claims of the moral high ground, but behind those lofty phrases lie the chains of sectarian control that people fought for years to break. Release of this document is a reminder to stay on guard against all forces that do not appreciate the genius of our First Amendment.