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.

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