Chatting with a Signer of the ‘Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience’


This week, 150 Christian religious leaders unveiled the Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience, named after our very own borough. It’s a manifesto signed by prominent Christian leaders that calls for staunch opposition to things like abortion, gay marriage, and other satanic liberal agendas. Runnin’ Scared spoke with one of the signers, Dr. Ronald Sider, a Canadian-born professor of theology at a Pennsylvania seminary and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action.

Runnin’ Scared: The Manhattan Declaration. Why was it named after Manhattan?

I don’t really know. I wasn’t involved in the early drafting. It just happened the framers met in Manhattan.

RS: Is it an attempt to stick it to the gay rights movement, which was founded in this city?

I don’t think so. I haven’t heard anything about that. It certainly never crossed my mind.

RS: To you, what are the major issues of the Manhattan Declaration, and why did you sign it?

The three main issues are the sanctity of human life — abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, and so on. The second is the whole issue of marriage. The third is religious freedom. I want to immediately say that they are not the only moral issues of our time. In my life, most of my concern has been about racism, economic justice for the poor, environmental issues, climate change, and so on. I am known in the Christian evangelical world as liberal. I’m a registered Democrat. My book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, is a blistering call for Christians to combat poverty. That’s what the emphasis of my life has been. But I do care about the issues of sanctity of human life, marriage and religious freedom. That’s why I signed the Manhattan Declaration. I agree with the statements.

RS: Interracial marriage was illegal forty years ago, and that is, frankly, embarrassing now. Don’t you think it will be equally embarrassing in forty years’ time to think two adults were not allowed to enter into this civil contract?

I understand that some people think that. It really all depends on how you frame your argument. One thinks that, opposition — well, let me put it differently. Thinking that homosexual practice is not God’s will, that’s not akin to racism. Some people find that compelling. I don’t. I don’t think it is. A lot of people think it’s an inappropriate analogy. Let me start differently. First, I think many Christians, certainly Evangelicals, have a poor record on their relationship with the homosexual and gay communities. We didn’t take the lead in gay bashing — I think it’s wrong, gay bashing is wrong. I think we needed more of the kind of thing that Ed Dobson [brother of James Dobson] did in Grand Rapids, where he started to visit a person with AIDS, and it turned out he was gay. And he then went to the local AIDS support group. They were shocked to have the pastor of the largest evangelical church in the city show up, and he said, “How can I help?” That’s the sort of thing evangelicals should have been doing. Second, I do think that the historic Christian position, that God’s sexual design is a covenant between a man and a woman in a lifelong relationship, is a matter of great concern. I am far more concerned about the sinful disobedience of heterosexuals, with out of wedlock births and divorce. That is why marriage is in such trouble.

RS: How do you feel about gay people wanting to live by these kinds of conservative principles in marriage? Isn’t the desire for gay people to get married, build a life together, buy a house, raise some kids — isn’t that kind of a vindication of the values you promote?

It’s better for the people involved, and better for the culture, if a gay person has one longer-term relationship than a whole bunch of temporary ones and promiscuity. It’s pretty clear that that’s a destructive way to live. I’m glad if a gay person has one longer term relationship, rather than a bunch of relationships. I don’t think the culture needs to say that partnership is marriage. I think it would be entirely appropriate and there is a range of views on this in the evangelical community but I would be open to a legal category of civil partnership. Gay people could have a specified number of legal rights that would encourage their ongoing commitment. But what really matters, and what’s really decisive, is what marriage means — you may have seen Susan Shell, she’s a liberal, and wrote a piece called “The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage,” and what she says is what I what I say — that is, the reason every civilization in history has defined marriage between men and women, is that society has a lot at stake in preserving continuity, in a wholesome way. It’s quite clear that when men and women who have sex and make babies stay together. It’s better for their children, and it’s better that children grow up with their moms and dads — and that’s why societies have defined marriage, to protect making babies. The real question is, what is marriage?

RS: But surely, many couples do not have children, and many who do aren’t married. I think 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock.

We all agree that producing children out of wedlock creates huge problems for the culture. It’s clear. Boys are twice as likely to go to jail if they grow up without a dad. Every year they spend without their dad, their likelihood of going to jail increases by 5 percent.

RS: The heart of what you are saying revolves around religious issues. Why should religious ideas form the basis of civil marriage — not marriage in your church or anyone else’s, but civil marriage?

This is precisely not a religious argument. It’s an argument about what a society needs, to preserve itself, to preserve what is wholesome from generation to generation. The core of that argument is historic, from every civilization.

RS: But in our country, we find that in our Constitution, not in other civilizations. There is a pretty clear argument that denying gays the right to marry is a denial of the equal protection clause of the constitution. In fact, Ted, Olsen, no raging liberal, is getting ready to make that argument federal court.

You can say what you just said, but you’re not listening to me. My argument was not a religious argument. It is about what marriage means. It’s true, a lot of contemporaries have redefined marriage. Marriage now means an emotional, romantic relationship between people. If that is what marriage is, then it should ought to be available to gays or lesbians. But if marriage is what every culture has always said it was, then it makes no sense to offer it to everyone, and Olsen’s argument doesn’t hold.

RS: But as a matter of constitutional, civil law —

We have a couple hundred years of public law in this country on this. But nobody would argue that everybody ought to have identical things regardless of who they are. Children don’t have identical rights; grandparents don’t have identical rights with parents. It depends on who you are, what rights you properly get. It’s not true somebody who is living in a relationship, which is not marriage, should have the rights of marriage.

RS: There were a couple hundred years of law forbidding interracial marriage in this country, too.

That was wrong, and racism is wrong, and I am glad that was overturned. But that doesn’t follow that every case in analogous.

RS: Well, if marriage was granted by civil law, should people be forced to perform it who don’t want to? What about that Louisiana justice of the peace, who didn’t want to perform that interracial marriage. Should that be allowed?

I don’t claim to have an answer that I feel certain about to every conceivable situation. In general, I would want to argue that I find it surprising that people who are very intensely pro-choice on the issue of abortion, don’t remain pro-choice on people who don’t want to do abortions and want to be free not to do them. Whether it’s a doctor who doesn’t want to do them out of conscience, or druggists don’t want to hand out abortion producing things. It would seem a genuinely pro-choice position would be to say, “Yeah, we’re glad to allow people to make their choice, as long as the law allows us to make our choices.” And I find that puzzling. I would be pleased if people who think gay marriage is right would say, “We’ll respect the freedom of people who don’t think that. There are other justices of the peace. And we won’t use the law to force them do something that they don’t think is right. I would be impressed if gay folk would run that argument.

RS: As a religious person, what do you think of the role of the government protecting minority rights, even when it is not popular? Do you think gays should be protected like Christians?

The constitutional protection of minorities is enormously important. Religious freedom is important, but they are all important. I want gay Americans to be protected by the law. I want an end to gay bashing. I want them to have jobs, and have housing. I want them to visit their partner in the hospital, and to inherit property and pay taxes [together] legally. Those are all proper things a good society does to establish equality. Even though gay people are not practicing what I believe is the proper sexual relationship, I think they should be protected by the constitution and have all of their civil rights. It doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t follow gay marriage. But I very much believe that we should have civil rights for everybody. And religious people should have those freedoms, too. For example, among other things, I am a pacifist. There are very few are pacifists. I am glad the law had a space for pacifists. Law has space for me to not have to go into the military. That’s an example of minorities being free in a democracy.

RS: Do you see a rise in pointed opposition since President Obama was inaugurated on these issues?

First of all, people who signed the Manhattan Declaration are not making a political statement. This is not an attack on Obama. I am registered Democrat.

RS: Did you support him in the election?

I didn’t publicly endorse him, but if you read what I wrote, it would be fairly obvious I was fairly enthusiastic. I did vote for him, I continue to like him a great deal, and he has done a range of very good things. It’s true, I think this is what you’re pointing to, within the religious conservative circle, there is some pretty awful stuff circulating. Deplorable fear mongering, not based in clear data, I try to resist that and correct that wherever possible.

RS: So what, other than these social issues, is important to you?

I’m a key founder of the Evangelical Environment Network, and of Evangelicals for Social Action. Part of my organization is working on climate change.

RS: Does that put you on the outs with other evangelicals?

Not on the outs, but certainly in disagreement with some. There is an evangelical center emerging. It was true twenty years ago that the most visible evangelical presence was called the religious right, and they were especially concerned with abortion and marriage issues. There is an evangelical center that cares about those issues, but also about economic justice of the poor, climate change, racial justice, and international human rights, and also health care. I wan universal health care coverage in this country. I’m actively working for a two state solution in the Middle East that gives Palestine its own state and maintain Israel’s security. I am supportive of the president’s multilateral foreign policy, which is moving from George Bush’s unilateral approach. So those are the key issues I am working at this point.

RS: So where do gay people fall into all of this?

I think there are a whole variety of people who, if one starts with the position that God’s will for sexuality is a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant, there are a whole variety of people who will not have sexual intercourse. Widows and widowers, and there are many people ­more women than men ­who would like to marry, but have not found a partner. I think that people in all of those situations, including people with a gay orientation, ought to seek God’s help to live lives of joy without sexual intercourse. I don’t pretend that that would be easy, but it’s not impossible. I think that this culture has made sex so important that it’s messed us up in serious ways, and I think one can live a joyous fulfilled life with out that. I’ll tell you a story — I had an Uncle Jessie. When he was 30, his wife developed mental illness. Thirty years in a mental institution. Every other week, he drove 50 miles to visit her. He lived a celibate life, at that time. Thirty years later, she had an operation, and she got out. Three years after that, she died. Three year later, he remarried. Was it easy? No. Did it destroy him? No. He was a wonderful, generous man, and he contributed to the community. I think the contemporary notion that if we don’t have sex we’re destroying our psyches or not being human, it’s simply wrong. Our culture would be vastly better if we put more effort on friendships, between men and men, and women and women, and men and women, than so much into sex.

RS: Speaking of sex, what about studies that say married people have less sex than single people? Aren’t you encouraging more gay sex by keeping gay people from getting married?

I haven’t seen figures on that. I have seen that evangelicals enjoy sex more than the general population, largely within marriage. I’ve been married for 48 and a half years, and still enjoy it immensely. I don’t think sex is not wonderful, or important. I’d be surprised to see that married people have less sex than single people, but I haven’t seen those studies. We have polls on everything these days