The Politics of Intimidation

When the fish die you know there’s something wrong with the water. When the bees disappear, it means the ecosystem is in trouble. When it’s the height of the election season, and there are hardly any signs on neighborhood lawns, you begin to suspect that something may be amiss this time around. The truth is that there aren’t many lawn signs or bumper stickers. My theory is that American citizens no longer feel safe about taking a public stand one way or the other. That’s because we’re witnessing the rise of the politics of intimidation.

Here’s a local case in point. Local San Diego businessman Douglas Manchester owns the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a huge downtown hotel next to the Convention Center. It came out in the news awhile back that he had made a major donation to the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign, which is a campaign to define marriage in the California constitution as an exclusively heterosexual union. Obviously not everyone in California will agree with Mr. Manchester’s position, but presumably he has every legal right to hold and promote his convictions in a free society like ours.

Immediately advocates of gay marriage began protesting in front of his hotel in a strong and persistent manner. The result has been an ongoing and undetermined loss of business for the hotel. As the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper has pointed out, this sent an intimidating message to any other local businesses that might consider supporting the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign.

The American Educational Research Association, a vast organization of scholars in the field of education, will be holding its annual convention in San Diego next March, long after the November ballot. This week they sent out a memo to their entire membership, explaining how hard they were trying to avoid using Mr. Manchester’s hotel for any of their needs. The rationale they offered was that the AERA is committed to diversity, and not to support gay marriage is implicitly intolerant. The memo expresses the AERA’s regret that the private actions of Mr. Manchester have “had such a wrenching effect on the lives of our GLBT members (and all members).”

This is what I mean by the politics of intimidation. If someone disagrees with you on a political issue, your strategy is to bankrupt them.

This is the problem in a nutshell. Democracy only works when every citizen knows that it is safe to express and advocate their convictions without being afraid of retaliatory actions and punishment. No wonder so many people are afraid to be honest these days even with pollsters.

I wish I could say that the other side has been squeaky clean. But just this morning the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that leaders of the campaign to outlaw same-sex marriages in California have been writing to businesses known to have donated to Equality California, the nonprofit organization helping lead the campaign against Proposition 8. In these letters they threaten to publicly identify such organizations unless—and here it begins to look like extortion—unless these businesses make comparably sized financial donations to the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign. This is just ugly.

Christians should be the first to protest against such strong-arm abuses from either side. We believe that every human being is an image-bearer of God, and part of being in the image of God is having the right to make free and unforced decisions and choices. Jesus stood for liberty, and his followers should be vigilant to protect it as well.

When the Christian Yellow Pages comes to my door, encouraging me to show favoritism toward fellow Christians in my business dealings, I throw it in the trash. My plumber is a Mormon, and he deserves my business because he does a good job at a fair price. Whether he is a Mormon, an evangelical Christian, a gay-rights advocate, or a Muslim is irrelevant. Let’s keep America a place where we respect the rights of all citizens to hold views with which we disagree. The survival of democracy requires this from all of us.

7 Responses to The Politics of Intimidation

  1. Donald Lowe November 15, 2008 at 6:43 am #

    I think it is prudent to draw a distinction between businesses and individuals. For example, if a business is using its business clout and capital to advocate a position, then I think it is fair to boycott them. I personally boycott a business because they regularly use racy advertising. I think that it’s fair to boycott a company or organization that advocates a position one way or another. Companies don’t vote.

    On the other hand, what happened to the artistic director of a musical theater is far more sinister.

    The No on Prop. 8 specifically targeted a business based on a particular individual’s $1000 donation. As far as we know, the business was not using it’s finances for a particular cause, and likely employed a number from the gay/lesbian community. The net result is that artistic director resigned. I can’t help but think that a person who takes joy in forcing a person to lose their job over this must be very twisted.

    With that distinction, I think that the groups that targeted businesses that donated to Equality California are not as guilty as the groups that have targeted individual donors. If a business takes a position using their financial resources, they need to anticipate boycotts that cut into their financial resources. An individual, however, should be not subject to that kind of intimidation.

  2. Brian Tallman November 10, 2008 at 5:03 am #

    Oliver O’Donovan, not exactly a crazed right-winged wacko, has suggested that the First Amendment “can usefully be taken as the symbolic end of Christendom,” since it “ended up promoting a concept of the state’s role from which Christology was excluded, that of a state freed from the responsibility to recognize God’s self-disclosure in history” (Desire of the Nations, 244-45). It seems to me that the recent political rhetoric, this post and the comments to it sustain his point.

  3. Wendy Patrick Mazzarella November 7, 2008 at 9:02 pm #

    If this isn’t one of the timeliest issues facing society today I don’t know what is. The arguments and consequent actions (as you have identified) on both sides of Prop 8 and similar propositions have unfortunately vehemently divided large groups of people who otherwise live and work together harmoniously. Ironically, many Christians and non-Christians alike routinely spend the day working together as a unified team on a wide variety of challenging projects and work assignments, only to spend their personal time promoting one side or the other of a debate that has created more backlash than many political candidate elections. If you spent election night down at Golden Hall as I did, you got to see first hand the emotions that went along with the angry chants accompanying both sides of Prop 8; many of the chanters were children. How does either side of this and similar debates explain an attitude of “tolerance” under these circumstances?

    Thank you for identifying such a divisive issue and providing this opportunity for discussion. I hope we can promote an atmosphere of not only tolerance and freedom, but respect for the rights of everyone to feel safe discussing their opinions. Let’s remind ourselves that we are ALL image bearers of God no matter how we voted!

  4. Brian Tallman November 1, 2008 at 4:49 am #

    Now, now, let’s not get to far ahead of ourselves. Not all intimidation is bad. After all, it was the Lord our God who said if you do certain things you will die. Further, it is ironic that John Adams said, “Let not Geneva be forgotten, Servetus notwithstanding.” In Geneva repeat adultery was punished with death, along with homosexuality and a whole host of other social/spiritual mishaps. But Geneva has been forgotten and hence we are where we are. There are actually good reasons to vote no on 8. But tolerance and liberty are not they. What you are advocating here is nothing short of than cultural relativism. I would be curious to see a post on what is to regulate the civil sphere. Even if you side with Luther and advocate a Two Kingdoms approach, you are still left with natural law. I will look forward to that more foundational, and therefore fruitful, post.

  5. John Mustol October 28, 2008 at 1:46 pm #

    This is a timely and needed reminder of the danger of fanaticism – when the pursuit of righteousness becomes tyranny. Some theologian once said that there are two ways to sin. One way is to be less than we are and behave like animals. The other way is to try to be more than we are and try to be God. When we become absolutely convinced of the righteousness of our cause, it is ever so easy to forget our fallible humanity and try to be God. Then our commitment to Christ becomes fanaticism. God is God, but we are not God. We are all subject to this error. It is all too common.

    By the way, please put those yellow pages in the recycle bin!!! All phone books and newspapers – just about all paper products are recyclable. Remember the City of San Diego’s slogan: Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

  6. Joanna Emmons October 25, 2008 at 9:29 pm #

    I believe that it is important for Christians to be tolerant of all people, and in doing that, to use God’s Word as our moral compass point. Being tolerant means to love the sinner, but to recognize that sin is still sin and to not condone it. Proposition 8 is proving to be very divisive and I personally have been verbally attaked by multiple people with horrible comments because of my opinion in support of the protection of marriage between a man and a woman. I think that it is extremely important that Christians stand up for Christian principles in our country, even if it means being divisive. Jesus Himself was divisive because He was pure and holy and we, as humans, are not. As Christians, if we do not stand up to protect the unborn, marriage, and those in need, who will?

  7. Scott Wildey October 24, 2008 at 9:37 pm #

    The interesting consequence is that “tolerant” has become a word with almost zero meaning. It’s only use now days is to be a conversation stopper. It’s so interesting that the AERA seems to have no awareness that their statement is in itself intolerant.

    Even if churches did want to practice true tolerance (and I’m not sure all do), it makes one wonder if it is even possible in today’s climate. Tolerance has become a bulldozer to ironically be intolerant.

    I’m wondering if God will use this season to teach us truly who our “neighbors” are, and what it means to “love our enemies.” Though, I suspect that sometimes our greatest enemy is ourselves.