First let me say a word in praise and defense of my former boss, my professor, mentor and friend Ron Sider. I need to start off with this affirming word because by the end of this post — and in the one to follow — I’m afraid I’m going to have to be rather harshly critical of my old friend.
Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is an unflinching, uncompromising assessment of the Christian obligation to share with those in need. I know of few people able or willing to live up to that book’s powerful call to sacrificial generosity, but Sider himself has done so for many decades. He is a gentle, irenic man and a Good Man.
But he is a Good Man in a Bad System — a system that requires a pervasive and unavoidable kind of badness that seeps into and infects the good of Good People trapped within it, preventing them from even imagining any alternative. More on that in a moment.
For now, I just want to reiterate that I have enormous respect and affection for Ron Sider, so much so that my regard for him is able to withstand even something like his dismaying endorsement of the overwrought, corrupt and corrupting “Manhattan Declaration.”
In partial defense of Ron, though, we should note that his signature and support were secured under false pretenses. It seems he was lied to.
The organizers of this right-wing manifesto du jour needed a token liberal to provide a bipartisan fig-leaf, so they turned to Ron Sider (about as close as the evangelical world allows to a liberal) to be their Lieberman. But to convince him to play this role, they had to lie to him.
I don’t know which or how many of the declaration’s three author-organizers did the actual lying. My money would be on convicted felon and would-be domestic terrorist Chuck Colson. (Yes, terrorist. Plotting to burn down the Brookings Institution in order to silence opposition from centrists is political terrorism.) The two Georges — Robert and Timothy — strike me as less cynical true believers. They’re more like the moral philosopher equivalent of one of those physicists who becomes obsessed with his design for a perpetual motion machine — railing against friction and entropy and insisting that they’ll make the thing work some day.
But someone — one of those three — deliberately misled Ron Sider about the content and intent of the Manhattan Declaration and Sider, to his discredit, took their word for it.
Here, from a recent e-mail to members of his nonprofit, is Ron Sider’s description of how he understands the Manhattan Declaration:
Last Friday I joined a circle of prominent Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical leaders at the National Press Club in Washington to launch the Manhattan Declaration, which places the issues of sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty in the context of longstanding Christian concern for combating poverty and racism and promoting the dignity of women.
For decades I have sought to promote what the Manhattan Declaration calls a “truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances.” I agree strongly with the Declaration, that the sanctity of human life, the historical definition of marriage, and robust religious freedom are under serious threat at this point in our history. The Declaration does NOT say that these are the most important moral issues of our time. It only says that these are crucial moral issues.
This is utterly wrong. I don’t just mean that he’s wrong on this issues — which I think he is. Or that it’s utterly wrong to champion bigotry while calling it an “ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances” — which of course it is. What I mean specifically is that the Declaration does claim that abortion, homosexuality and the “religious freedom” to enforce the criminalization of both are the most important moral issues of our time. The Declaration exists to say precisely that. It’s entire purpose and intent is to “declare” that these three things stand above and apart from any other issues — to declare that they must not be viewed “in the context of longstanding Christian concern for combating poverty” or the context of anything else.
The whole point of this document was to threaten younger evangelicals who were perceived as getting a bit wobbly in their opposition to homosexuality. Evangelical Christians under 30 just don’t seem to see that as a paramount moral concern — and they can’t see how gay couples wanting to marry could possibly be viewed as more morally significant than the fact that, by the time these younger evangelicals get to be Colson’s age, Bangladesh will be under water.
The Manhattan Declaration was created to threaten these younger evangelicals to get back in line with the precise priorities of their elders. Get back in line or be cut off. When talking to The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein, Colson is much more candid about this than he seems to have been when suckering Ron into pulling a Lieberman:
The signers … say they also want to speak to younger Christians who have become engaged in issues like climate change and global poverty, and who are more accepting of homosexuality than their elders. They say they want to remind them that abortion, homosexuality and religious freedom are still paramount issues.
“We argue that there is a hierarchy of issues,” said Charles Colson, a prominent evangelical who founded Prison Fellowship after serving time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. “A lot of the younger evangelicals say they’re all alike. We’re hoping to educate them that these are the three most important issues.”
Paramount. “Hierarchy.” “These are the three most important.”
That’s three ways of saying the exact opposite of what Sider was led to believe.
So, yes, I think that Colson lied to get Ron to sign on and that Ron fell for it.
The question is why. What did Ron think was in it for him? The answer isn’t pretty. Not for Ron or for the evangelical world that, as a matter of routine, forces everyone in it to behave ignobly and disingenuously.
At the paper overnight it’s just me and Betty, the security officer who comes through every half hour on her rounds. Private security is all about “loss prevention,” which means, more or less, that it’s Betty’s job to circle the building every half hour to confirm that it’s not on fire. But Betty’s bosses and the insurance company don’t just take her word for it that she’s making her rounds. She has a little electronic wand that she has to wave over little electronic checkpoints throughout the building to confirm and record that she’s faithfully doing her job. If she ever slipped up and missed a checkpoint, the wand would record this omission and she’d be in a world of trouble.
That’s basically how the evangelical subculture works. Everyone within that closed system has to check in, regularly, to reaffirm their allegiance to the two core principles of the religion: opposition to legal abortion and the legal and cultural marginalization of homosexuals.
It doesn’t matter if those things have little to do with the work to which God may have called you. You might be a nurse in a mission hospital or you might run a soup kitchen or a rehab center or you might be the choir director for a local church. It doesn’t matter. You’re still going to have to check in regularly to confirm your opposition to The Gay and to legal abortion.
Fail to do so with the requisite enthusiasm and you’re out, you’re done, you’re anathema.
Formal structures for enforcing this are unnecessary — it’s woven into the fabric of the subculture. Periodically, this implicit requirement is made explicit through formal “declarations” like this Manhattan thing, but such formal reinforcements are hardly needed.
Playing along with this system is easy. Just wave the little wand over the checkpoint and pretend that it makes perfect sense to regard abortion and homosexuality as the “paramount” concerns of the Bible, of the Gospels, of Jesus Christ. Pretend that it makes perfect sense to view the requisite stances on those issues as compatible with what the Bible, the Gospels and Jesus Christ have to say.
Just play along and say what you’re required to say and they’ll let you go back to whatever lesser things you might have been trying to do for a little while. Embrace the smug on cue. When asked, pledge your allegiance to the idea that self-righteous pride — the cardinal vice — is a worthy replacement for the cardinal virtue and you’ll be an evangelical in good standing.
And even if you personally don’t require a disingenuous claim of persecution to get your jollies, what does it cost you to play along with the lie? What does it really cost you to pretend that your privileged, hegemonic majority is being persecuted by minorities forced to live on the fringes of your culture? What does it really cost you to pretend that your own religious freedom requires the restriction or eradication of others?
What does it cost you, I mean, besides your soul?
That’s the bargain Ron was willing to make, whether or not he was lied to about it. And I’m afraid that willingness is indefensible.