Late last week, a group of right wing Christian leaders released a document called the Manhattan Declaration, which proclaims that Christians are duty bound to engage in acts of civil disobedience against laws that recognize equal status for marriages of gays and lesbians. The declaration justifies this civil disobedience by stating,
“As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. The biblical purpose of law is to preserve order and serve justice and the common good; yet laws that are unjust – and especially laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust – undermine the common good, rather than serve it.
Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching. Their answer was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself. Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.”
For anyone who is familiar with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the use of his ideas in this context is jarring. King’s civil disobedience was directed toward the equality of all people. The signers of the Manhattan Declaration are working against the equality of all people. King was working against discrimination and prejudice. The signers of the Manhattan Declaration are working to defend discrimination and prejudice.
The Manhattan Declaration frets about “laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust”, but laws that provide for marriage equality don’t compel citizens to engage in acts of support for same sex marriage. Churches aren’t forced to marry same sex couples by these laws. No one is compelled to attend or otherwise take part in these marriage ceremonies.
Civil disobedience involves the purposeful violation of an unjust law, with the willingness to be punished by the government as a consequence. What, though, could be unjust about allowing two consenting adults to become married? Some people may not approve of these marriages, but that doesn’t make the act of allowing the marriages unjust. Heck, I disapprove of some of the heterosexual marriages among my larger circle of acquaintances, but that doesn’t mean that the laws that allowed those marriages to take place were themselves unjust. The freedom to enter a bad marriage is a liberty that should be shared equally.
Besides that, exactly how would right wing Christian followers of the Manhattan Declaration engage in acts of civil disobedience against laws that allow other people to get married? What part of the laws allowing marriage equality would they violate, in order to make the civil disobedience take place? How on earth can you conduct a civil disobedience campaign against someone else’s marriage?
In last century’s struggle for civil rights, people engaged in acts of civil disobedience by doing things that the law forbade them to do: Sitting at the front of a bus or eating at lunch counter designated “whites only”. What’s the equivalent for the followers of the Manhattan Declaration?
The signers and followers of the Manhattan Declaration share more in common with the crowds of white Southerners shouting and jeering at little African-American kids trying to go to school than they do with Martin Luther King. Their idea of a “just law” is one that separates American citizens into two classes, which receive unequal treatment. When those laws are overturned, and equal access to benefits is allowed, all the Manhattan Declaration supporters can do is pout and sneer. There’s no aspect of marriage equality laws that they can violate in order to express their anger, because the laws only grant rights to other people. They don’t restrict the rights of right wing Christians one bit.
There’s no way to coherently engage in acts of civil disobedience against laws that grant equality to other people. The Manhattan Declaration may adopt a pose of principled resistance, but try to put it into action, and it is reduced to meaningless babble.
The babble was expressed beautifully by Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who claims authority over the area surrounding the nation’s capital. Wuerl told the Washington Post that, although he signed the Manhattan Declaration urging Christians to engage in acts of civil disobedience against marriage equality laws, he wasn’t telling his followers to “do anything specific”.
Civil disobedience that doesn’t do anything specific isn’t civil disobedience at all.