When Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed the FAMiLY LEADER’s “Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family” last week, many observers wondered the same thing: Who is this mysterious FAMiLY LEADER, and what gives him the authority to demand that candidates for public office affirm his list of proclamations against the “redefinition of the Institution of Marriage” and other 21st-century sins that he condemns not only on behalf of “Christian Scripture,” but also “Classical Philosophers,” “Natural Law,” and the “American Founders” themselves? Just who does he think he is—and what is going on with that sinister lower-case I?
Although the name sounds like an epithet that Kim Jong-il might select on one of his off days, it turns out that the FAMiLY LEADER is an Iowa nonprofit affiliated with Focus on the Family. Its mission is to provide “a consistent, courageous voice in the churches, in the legislature, in the media, in the classroom, in the public square … always standing for God’s truth.” (The lower case I is meant to signify the individual’s submission to family and God.) Despite their obscurity outside Iowa, the authors of the “Declaration” claim the right to call out politicians on behalf of all conservative Christians. And, oddly, there is nothing unusual in this chutzpah: They are following a long-standing tradition of evangelical Christian manifestos, pledges, and declarations.
In-your-face proclamations were once a favorite tool of the secular left going back to the French revolutionaries’ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Manifestos used to be communist, anarchist, and humanist turf. Yet in recent decades, progressive Americans have shied away from this kind of political tactic. On the left, the word “manifesto” now calls to mind long-haired rowdies cross-referencing Che Guevara’s diaries with the Port Huron Statement. Manifestos are still mainstream in other parts of the world (in the United Kingdom, both the Conservative and Labour parties call their election platforms “manifestos”), but to most American liberals, the very idea sounds more nostalgic than serious, beyond the fringes of today’s stunted political spectrum. At the same time, conservatives—and evangelicals in particular—have developed a penchant for trumpeting their principles and demanding that every true believer sign on the dotted line.