A Manhattan Declaration Reunion in Rome: Conservative Catholic-Protestant Alliance Strengthens

About Cole Parke

Five years ago, approximately 150 American right-wing religious and political activists came together to sign The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, which called for a rededication to the fight for “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” The Vatican hosted a conference last week featuring similar themes and many of the same faces, further solidifying the conservative Catholic-Protestant alliance against LGBTQ people and reproductive justice.

Culture War Exporter Rick Warren sits in the front row as Pope Francis speaks at the Humanum meeting at the Vatican

Culture War Exporter Rick Warren sits in the front row as Pope Francis speaks at the Humanum meeting at the Vatican

The Manhattan Declaration—published in 2009covered familiar right-wing talking points, but it was far more than just another conservative call-to-arms. As PRA research fellow Fred Clarkson observed, “[I]ts distinct achievement has been to broaden and deepen the emerging alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants.”

Nine Catholic Archbishops joined some of the best-known Christian Right leaders in the United States on the list of original signatories. Among them were key right-wing leaders such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom; Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Evangelical scholars like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, added their names to the list. Prominent anti-gay culture warriors like Rick Warren also signed. Key leaders involved with the New Apostolic Reformation—Harry Jackson, Joseph Mattera, and Samuel Rodriguez—were on the list, too.

Many of these same individuals teamed up again this week in Rome at “Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman,” which was convened by Pope Francis. The conference follows a recent synod gathering at which Catholic bishops considered, but ultimately rejected, proposals to soften the church’s stances on homosexuality and divorce.

Robert P. George, creator of the Manhattan Declaration and co-founder of the Witherspoon Institute which funded the debunked anti-gay Regnerus study, was a key organizer of Humanum. Speaking in an interview at the conclusion of the event, George enthusiastically described the shared values and understandings that had been made evident at the event despite so many “profound theological differences” among attendees. Though admitting that “things look very black” back in the U.S. when it comes to marriage and family, George was optimistic about the potential found in the unification of conservative believers. “People are leaving this conference on fire!” he exclaimed.

Several prominent signatories were also in attendance, including Tony Perkins, Alan Sears, and Brian Brown. And Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration’s nonprofit, was present as well. In the list of goals he presented to his Facebook followers before departing for Rome, #1 on Teetsel’s list was “ask Pope to sign the Manhattan Declaration.”

Rick Warren and Russell Moore—two of the most prominent right-wing Protestants in the U.S. and both signers of the Manhattan Declaration—were featured speakers at the event.

Indulging anti-Western sentiments, Moore explained to the global interfaith audience, “Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, marriage redefinition, and abortion rights as parts of a sexual revolution that can tear down old patriarchal systems.”

Critiquing the Western world as “anti-family” is an increasingly popular tactic for right-wing Western culture war exporters who are seeking to foster stronger relationships and gain favor with their conservative international comrades. In doing so, these [mostly U.S.] right-wing leaders are effectively forming a consolidated conservative voting bloc at the UN and in other international decision-making bodies which enables them to advance their anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice agenda with increasing efficiency.

Speaking later in the day, Warren agreed with Moore. Marriage, he said, is being “ridiculed, resented, rejected, and even redefined.” He went on to charge the attendees, “The church cannot cower in silence. The stakes are too high!”

Warren—like Moore—is a strategic thinker. For a Protestant speaking at the Vatican to address “the church” in broad, collective terms, he’s effectively making a bold statement of shared ideology and mission, brushing aside historic tensions between Catholics and Protestants that have been smoldering ever since Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses onto the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.

The linking of conservative movements in the Roman Catholic and right-wing evangelical Protestant worlds is a dangerous threat to movements for LGBTQ and reproductive justice, and the ties are growing stronger. Next year, the Vatican will be coming to the U.S., providing further opportunity to strengthen these new alliances. In September 2015, Philadelphia will play host to the Eighth World Meeting of Families—an event coordinated by the Roman Catholic Church and held every three years with the expressed purpose of “strengthening the sacred bonds of the family unit across the globe.”

During his address to the Humanum audience, Pope Francis announced that he will be personally attending the event in Philadelphia. This will be his first papal visit to the United States, and organizers expect his presence will attract more than a million people.

When the Manhattan Declaration was first published in 2009, many social justice advocates especially expressed concern about the inclusion of a call for civil disobedience. Timothy Kincaid, writing for the Box Turtle Bulletin, noted:

“While this alliance is one that does not reflect the face of Christianity, it also is not a declaration of a new-found position of agreement based on shared Christian teaching and ideology. There is no mention of shared faith in creeds or teachings, no virgin birth, no resurrection, no divine redemption.

Rather, this is a statement of political purpose by an alliance of socially conservative activist who oppose abortion and marriage equality. … This is, in short a political alliance. It is a pact and a threat.”

This threat cannot be overstated. As various factions of the Christian Right continue to strengthen their alliances through the common ground of shared enemies, culture war casualties will only increase.

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Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.