NEW YORK — Catholics must deploy good cheer, confidence and the witness of "a lived reality" to move beyond familiar arguments and deliver compelling testimony in defense of life, traditional marriage and religious freedom, according to speakers at a Sept 25 forum.

"We're bullet-pointing in a narrative culture," where people tune out arguments, but respond to powerful personal stories of Christian resolutions to complex issues, author Eric Metaxas said.

Metaxas moderated a panel discussion at Teacher's College at Columbia University. The panel was part of an event that drew more than 300 people to hear updates on legal and cultural struggles to defend fundamental values.

The forum was based on the Manhattan Declaration, a 4,700-word joint statement signed in November 2009 by more than 140 Christian leaders, many evangelical and Catholic, pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom. To date, more than 542,000 people have signed the declaration, including 52 Catholic cardinals and bishops.

"The Manhattan Declaration is a statement of Christian conscience that comes from our conviction as people of faith that it's our duty, privilege and honor to bring God's light into the marketplace," said Edward T. Mechmann, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of New York.

Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration movement, said signers of the statement rejected "anti-life activities and will not bless immoral partnerships. We will fully render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

He said the Manhattan Declaration's three primary issues are not the only areas of moral concern, but present the greatest threats in our time to the principles of the good.

Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz., said religious liberty is under assault in chilling and unimaginable ways, but courageous individuals who will not comply with edicts that dishonor life and marriage are winning legal victories.

He recited examples of "men and women like you, who were minding their own business until they were forced to" defend actions they made in good conscience.

"This is a taste of what lies ahead if we don't act now," Sears said. "People who think these are private matters are either naive or unaware."

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said hope and courage are necessary "at a time when life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are in jeopardy." Her organization is a political action committee that helps pro-life women get elected to Congress.

She predicted that implementation of the Affordable Care Act will cause "the biggest increase in abortion since Roe vs. Wade."

Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson, co-authors with Robert George of "What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense," said reason and faith reveal the truth that marriage is more than an intense emotional union. It is permanent, exclusive, monogamous and sexual, Girgis said.

Anderson said marriage has public-policy consequences. When marriage law is "redefined to make fathers optional," the needs and rights of children suffer, he said.

"We're at the early stages of the marriage debate," Girgis said. He and Anderson urged proponents of the traditional definition of marriage to follow the lead of the pro-life movement and distill complicated issues from academic treatises and books into slogans and talking points.

"The onus is on us to internalize these issues. The reality is more complicated than secular liberals want to think," Anderson said.

Living out marriage is a more attractive and compelling tool than argument, he said. "Same-sex marriage is only plausible because for 40 years we've made a mess of marriage and human sexuality."

Metaxas said the church lost the battle in the 1970s when it did not draw a line in the sand and fight no-fault divorce.

Girgis said current challenges are "an invitation to double down and not give up. History isn't fixed, it's chosen." He added, "The twentieth century was full of things that were supposed to be inevitable, such as Marxism, communism and the Equal Rights Amendment."

Anderson and Girgis said discussing their book on more than 100 college campuses revealed a welcome openness to truth and rational argument from students across the political spectrum.

Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said listeners should educate themselves about marriage, life and religious liberty issues, pray, spread the word to their neighbors and "stand your ground. Life out the faith. Be prepared, be encouraged. You are not alone. We have great reasons for optimism," she said.

At a prayer service before the forum, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said, "God has placed a design, plan, ardor, definition into creation and his creatures."

"To tamper with that goes against self-evident truths ... and is toxic. It is pollution," he said.

The event was sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York, DeSales Media Group of the Diocese of Brooklyn, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Knights of Columbus New York Council. It was hosted by Columbia Catholic Ministry.