Timothy George had recently departed Southern Seminary in Louisville when I arrived as a doctoral student in the summer of 1989, but people still spoke of him in hushed tones of respect. At the time, George was a leading member of a new breed of Southern Baptist Calvinists who believed, among other things, that we are all born destined for heaven or hell and there ain’t a damn thing we (or God, it appears) can do about it.
Calvinism appeals to egghead evangelicals in search of a rigorously intellectual theological system draped in the mists of history. And John Calvin, like the judgin’ exam in Peter Cooks Coal Miner sketch, is noted for his rigor.
Timothy George stirred a bit of excitement in 2009, when, in collaboration with luminaries like Charles Colson, he published a Manhattan Declaration, subtitled as “a call of Christian conscience”. With a prison reformer like Colson on board, you might expect the declaration to touch, however briefly, on the shame of mass incarceration. But no, the only topics deemed worthy of discussion were (you guessed it) abortion, gay marriage, and the purported persecution of the American Church.
Now, professor George is claiming that the 500,000 signatories to his bold confession are akin to the German churchmen who signed the Barmen Declaration opposing Hitler in the darkest days of the Third Reich.
Pardon me if I wince in embarrassment.
Any politician with any hope of winning the Republican nomination these days must oppose abortion and gay marriage. (Moaning about the persecution of the American church remains optional.) This takes courage?
The equivalent to Barmen would be a declaration decrying race-baiting politics and mass incarceration. Can you imagine one of the remaining Republican candidates taking a stand on one of these truly controversial issues? When politicians like Mitt Romney embrace pro-life politics as the price of winning the nomination we aren’t dealing with heroic resistance, we’re talking craven capitulation.
There are circles, mind you, where raising concerns about gay marriage or abortion would be heroic–but the safe confines of the Southern Baptist Convention don’t qualify.
Here’s the second problem. If the signatories of George’s Declaration are the spiritual heirs of Barmen pastors, who is the latter-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler?
If you guessed Barack Obama, go to the head of the class.
Again, criticizing Obama (or any leading Democrat) in the world of conservative evangelicalism isn’t principled; it is mandatory.
Comparing Hitler with contemporary politicians (conservative or liberal) is puerile and perverse. A handful of Democrat or Republican might conceivably resort to autocratic sadism if they were given the chance . . . who knows? But here’s the point: they aren’t given the chance.
George W. Bush may have led us into an unspeakably destructive and unproductive war in Iraq, but he couldn’t have charged over that particular cliff had we not been eager to follow. Opponents to the war effort were ignored, but they had no reason to fear a knock on the door in the dead of night.
How many American politicians can be accurately characterized as “pro-abortion”? How many women who opt for termination are blind to the moral implications of their tragic choice? How many of these women see abortion as an unmitigated good. Some, I fear, but not many. The question is whether, all things considered and in select circumstances, the alternative to an abortion might be worse. How many pro-life activists have quietly opted for termination? Their name is legion.
There are few places in American public life where unqualified support for gay rights isn’t dangerous–San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Boulder–but not many.
Moreover, you can support gay rights without condoning every aspect of “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that is). What passes for a “straight lifestyle” in contemporary America is vulnerable to endless critique, but few want the government telling straight people how to conduct themselves behind closed doors. As one would expect, opinions on sexual ethics run the gamut in both straight and gay communities.
What would happen if Timothy George decided, following a crisis of conscience, that he was in favor of gay rights?
You know what would happen. He would lose his job before nightfall.
What happens when Timothy George portrays “the homosexual agenda” as a threat to heterosexual agenda? A standing ovation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the most courageous Christian theologian in Nazi-era Germany, paid dearly for hi opposition to Hitler. Stripped of his clothing, he was led naked into the execution yard, where he was garroted with thin piano wire.
Timothy George may co-opt Bonhoeffer’s “the cost of discipleship” if he chooses, but we may be forgiven if we roll our eyes.
Associated Baptist Press
MARION, Ala. (ABP) – A Baptist historian compared today’s battle for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage and religious freedom to courageous heroes who resisted the Nazis in Germany.
Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told a group of ministers Jan. 17 that “The Manhattan Declaration,” a document he wrote in 2009 with Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship and Robert George of Princeton University, was inspired by the Barmen Declarationof 1934.
At a seminar co-sponsored by Judson College and the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, George handed out copies of his 4,700-word manifesto that includes a pledge to civil disobedience of laws that would compel religious institutions to perform abortions or same-sex marriages.
“This document isn’t a political one, but a moral one,” George said, according to a news story about the event written by the Judson College communications office. “It’s an example of the church taking a stand on issues and reaching across dividing lines to find support from people of various political and religious persuasions. I think this is what the church can and should do.”
George said in an article in the Spring 2011 issue of the Beeson magazine that the Manhattan Declaration was written on the 75th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, a statement of the “Confessing Church” done in response to the strongly nationalistic and anti-Semitic “German Christian” movement that supported Hitler.
Early drafts of the Manhattan Declaration cited Barmen as precedent, George said, but those references were deleted because “the plight of the church in North America today, serious as it is, is not analogous to the repression Jews, Christians and many others experienced in Hitler’s Germany.”
George went on to enumerate parallels between the two documents. Both, he said, “appeal to the authority of Holy Scripture.”
“Each offers quotations from the Bible as the theological basis of its statements,” he explained. “Each recognizes that the Christian faith can be, and often has been, distorted by accommodation to the ‘prevailing ideological and political convictions’ of the day.”
George said like Barmen, the Manhattan statement is not “political” in the sense of being tied to a particular party or ideology. Democrats, Republicans and independents have all signed on.
“Some say today that the church should take a sabbatical from speaking to the culture at large,” George said. “Hitler himself was happy (at least for a while) to leave the Christians alone so long as they stayed within the four walls of their church buildings and refrained from ‘meddling’ in matters related to public policy and the common life of the German people. But both Barmen and Manhattan refuse to say that there are areas of life which do not belong to Jesus Christ. Both affirm the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Finally, George said, both documents recognize “the cost of discipleship.”
“Both call for the kind of conscientious courage that dares to count the cost of following Jesus Christ along the way that leads finally to the cross,” he wrote.
At the Alabama gathering, George said nearly 500,000 people have signed the Manhattan Declaration. He said the document, controversial for defining marriage as between one man and one woman, has been widely misunderstood as espousing intolerance toward gays.
“It is the marriage section that’s brought more criticism,” George said. “Some have accused us of being hateful, but there’s not a word of condemnation in the document against the gay community. What we argue for is ‘the common good’ that enriches society.”
Baptist leaders who have sighed the Manhattan Declaration include Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Mark Coppenger, director of the Nashville extension center of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; David Dockery, president of Union University; former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham; Richard Land, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Russell Moore, Southern Seminary’s senior vice president and theology dean; Bob Reccord, founder of Total Life Impact and former president of the SBC North American Mission Board; and Hayes Wicker, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., where Colson is a member.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.