The Manhattan Declaration, released ten years ago today, is an appeal to everyone who considers himself a Christian to recognize that the sacred nature of marriage is no reason to be silent about its public benefits. Rather, precisely because Christians know both the sacred and the secular value of marriage, they owe it to their secular neighbors to defend it. In so doing, they are not merely defending principles, they are defending millions of people who have been defrauded by government institutions.
For nearly 50 years millions of men, women and children have been robbed by state and federal governments. I am not referring to taxes, unfunded mandates, or to federally planned inflation. I am referring to the government’s dereliction of one of its most basic duties—to enforce marriage contracts.
Marriage, of course, is far more than a contract. It is a sacred covenant. But it is a covenant with an economic impact. Christians recognize that marriage signifies the holy bond between Jesus and His church. But anyone can see that it bestows tangible goods on husband, wife, and any children who are conceived in the conjugal union.
Those who reduce these tangible goods to tax privileges and social standing demonstrate an astonishingly deficient understanding. Tax benefits and social standing are not the content of marriage benefits, they are its results. Because of its intrinsically high value to society, governments support it and incentivize it. But the most fundamental duty of government toward marriage is to recognize its reality and enforce the legal contract at its heart.
Marriage Secures Children’s Rights
When a woman enters motherhood, (Latin: “matrimony,” French “marriage”), her energies are refocused in fundamental ways. The physical, psychological, and emotional demands of pregnancy and child rearing affect every area of her life. Marriage serves as a legal contract to guarantee her the support of the child’s father both during these affected years and beyond.
When a man enters fatherhood, his life changes as well. His chromosomal connection to the child creates a legal and social obligation that is enforceable by law, whether he is married to the mother or not. Marriage seals his obligations to the mother while obliging the mother to cooperate with him in raising the child.
Children are the greatest beneficiaries of these mutual obligations. When mother and father are cooperating on a child’s behalf, that child’s “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is protected. The more comprehensive the cooperation, the more beneficial it is to the children. Conversely, when parents refuse to cooperate it robs children of their birthright.
When a couple files for a marriage certificate, they have every expectation that those issuing the certificate will enforce the contract. But so-called “no-fault divorce” laws changed that. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the first one in 1970. Years later, he counted it among his biggest regrets.
Before long, every state was reneging on its promise to enforce marriage contracts. Knee-jerk calls to “get the government out of people’s lives” resonated with libertarians and libertines alike. Free love culture reasoned: If they want to get a divorce, they should be free to get a divorce.
How No-Fault Creates an Imbalance of Power
The problem is that married couples never want a divorce—at least not initially. Rather, typically one party to the marriage wants a divorce while the other does not. “No-fault divorce” laws do not make the government neutral. They put it on the side of whoever values the marriage least.
The injustice is felt by the woman or man who accepted the up-front economic disadvantages of child-rearing relying on a promise of future fidelity. The person is defrauded when the promise is broken. A government that fails to hold people to their promises becomes party to that fraud.
Even worse, the children who ought to be protected from the loss of life, emotional support, education, and inheritance are completely disregarded. Divorce courts should admonish parents to work it out for the sake of their children. Instead, they usually rubber-stamp the breakup. All that remains is for the welfare state clumsily to micromanage the broken home and throw money at the child, as though that could substitute for losing a parent.
Connections Between Religion and Marriage
Forty years after the disaster of no-fault divorce, the late Chuck Colson recognized that anti-Christian religious forces often use the religious nature of marriage to delegitimize and silence Christians who speak about the public policy side of marriage. He and others connected the dots between government’s abdication of its duties toward marriage and its parallel abdication of its duty to protect the youngest and most vulnerable people—children, the unborn, and frozen embryos.
They also recognized that as public policy supporting marriage and human life spiraled downward, there was a corresponding growth in attacks upon religious liberty. This not only put Christians in legal jeopardy, more importantly, it caused many Christian voices to self-censor in a vain attempt to weather the storm.
Colson decided to do something bold. He asked Dr. Robert P. George of Princeton and Timothy George of Stamford to draft a document that recognized both the public and the churchly nature of marriage. It was called the Manhattan Declaration. Today, (November 20) marks ten years since 152 Christian leaders released it. Since then, more than a half-million others have signed it. I am one of them.
In Defense of the Children
Since marriage so deeply affects the welfare of children, the Manhattan Declaration also calls upon every Christian to speak in defense of the life of every child conceived. While faith informs Christian action, it does not limit it. The faithful do not do this primarily in self-defense, but in defense of all people. It is a duty of love to stand with any man, woman, or child who has been defrauded by a government derelict in its duties.
The Declaration states: “Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense… We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.”
Those trying to intimidate Christians into silence have only grown louder in the decade since these words were written. They have passed laws that strip infants of legal defense both before and after birth. They continue to press a radical agenda that allows embryonic children to be bought and sold on the open market, and do precious little to halt the trafficking of older children. All the while, there is a never-ending parade of government-sanctioned indoctrination aimed at destroying the marriages of generations to come.
To shield these anti-child and anti-marriage policies from criticism, they carelessly bludgeon fellow citizens with labels meant to intimidate and silence. They press for so-called “hate crime” laws that use the power of government to silence their opponents. Despite a string of losses at court, states and municipalities continue to pass such laws. They are valuable for intimidation even if unenforceable.
‘Only the Bravest Keep Standing’
The latest salvo has come from the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. One of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first orders of business was to push through the so-called “Equality Act” (H.R. 5). This radical legislation has nothing to do with equality. It is, rather, a toxic stew of laws that further erode federal support of marriage and legal protections for children of all ages and stages of development. Centered in its crosshairs are protections for professionals, social agencies, and individuals who live out their Christian understanding of marriage in word and deed.
Measured by its effects on public policy, the Manhattan Declaration doesn’t seem to have done much to stem the tide. But public policy was never its chief aim. The Declaration was and remains a personal pledge. Signers promise to continue speaking and acting in defense of their neighbors no matter what the cultural or political costs. By that measure, its effectiveness can only be measured by you.
In commemoration of the Declaration’s tenth anniversary, the Colson Center for Christian Worldview published a collection of essays titled: “Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty: What Belongs to God, What Belongs to Caesar.” In it Frederica Matthewes-Green wrote, “[E]very generation faces an issue that draws a line between those who will stand up for what is right, and those who just go along. It’s only the bravest who take a stand, and continue to bear witness even when others mock them and misrepresent them; only the bravest keep standing when, from a worldly perspective, the cause looks lost. Only the most dedicated people are willing to keep working for change, when the struggle is all uphill and they reap nothing but rejection.”
She has aptly described our generation. Our grandchildren are watching to see how we respond.