Could this be the end for the anti-everything eyesore of Harlem?
Reasonable people of all stripes cheered when it was revealed by DNAInfo that the city of New York was about to foreclose on the church of anti-Obama, anti-gay, anti-rationality conspiracy nut James David Manning for (what else?) unpaid water and sewage bills.
They further roared in delight when, in a publicity move worthy of a Kardashian, the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s only 24/7 shelter and service agency for LGBT homeless youth, announced a fundraising drive to buy the church building, a historic edifice built in 1890 that once housed the original Harlem Social Club.
What better justice? A building used by a messenger of hate and ignorance turned into a shelter for the victims of hate and ignorance.
The city will hold a hearing on April 26 (postponed from Feb. 24) to determine whether the building is to be put up for auction. Pastor Manning, in flat contradiction to official city documents, claims that as a tax-exempt organization, his ministry doesn’t have to pay water and sewage bills. (Tell that to every charity and church in the city!) So unless he can pony up $1.02 million in the next six weeks, every liberal’s dream may yet come to pass.
But what’s really going on here? The answer is a stew of self-promotion, ignorance, and luck.
My colleague Olivia Nuzzi has met with and profiled Manning several times. (Manning did not respond to a request for comment for this article.) Not unlike his presidential candidate of choice, Donald Trump, Manning is indeed a self-publicist par excellence and it’s hard to tell where crazy ends and calculating begins.
Item: Manning has claimed, and doubled down on the claim, that Starbucks flavors its lattes with the semen of gay people. In fact, this story originated as a parody news story on the website Huzlers.com. But the slander tied together two of Manning’s obsessions: homosexuality and the gentrification of Harlem, epitomized by Starbucks. Amazingly, on a recent interview on The Daily Show, Manning insisted the story was true. (Hilariously, Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams challenged Manning to explain how all that semen was harvested and stored.)
Item: Manning’s unhinged views about President Obama make the birthers look tame. For example, on one recent episode of his daily, three-hour-long YouTube show, he stated that “Obama joined Jeremiah Wright’s church because he was having sexual affairs with several men in that church and then he killed them. In fact, he killed his grandmother.” This was no aberration. Manning has called Obama “a half-baked, half-white son of a sack of trash,” “the son of Satan,” “a long-legged mack daddy,” and “the next Hitler.” He even prophesied that Vladimir Putin would “out” Obama as gay in 2014. (Oops.)
And, of course, Item: the sign outside Manning’s church with messages like “OBAMA HAS RELEASED THE HOMO DEMONS ON THE BLACK MAN. LOOK OUT BLACK WOMAN. A WHITE HOMO MAY TAKE YOUR MAN.” and “JESUS WOULD STONE HOMOS.”
(Actually, Jesus said, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7))
At a protest against the church last fall, Manning stood and sang into a megaphone, “Oh faggots, Oh faggots, Oh faggots please come out tonight!” and asked “Where are all the n*gger f*ggots? Where are the n*ggers? Why are ya’ll white?” (In fact, there were many people of color at the protest, as indicated in the videos.)
And after leading a chant of “Sodomites, go to Hell!” at a July 4 event last year, co-hosted by the far-right militia group Oath Keepers, Manning preached “all fags, all lesbos, all fag churches that burn in lust for human waste will burn in Hell as human waste. We’re going to keep on preaching and teaching that fags, lesbos, sodomites, and all other hell-raisers are going directly to Hell, and I pray that God will let me sit someplace where I can send them to Hell.”
I could go on. Others have gone on. The point is, Manning wants us to go on.
More than anyone, he resembles the late Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Like Westboro, Manning’s church—called ATLAH, for All The Lands Anointed Holy—is a tiny, family affair run by Manning and his wife. (At that protest, only three other people are seen standing with Manning, and tellingly, one of them is holding a video camera.)
Like Westboro, ATLAH is primarily a media platform for Manning’s own preaching—indeed, its website is now titled “ATLAH Media Network,” despite the fact that it operates as a church and is thus exempt from financial disclosure requirements. It does hold services on Saturday and Sunday, though judging from how many people are singing hymns in the church’s online videos it seems attendance is sparse. As Olivia Nuzzi noted in one of her profiles, Manning’s office is so crowded with video equipment that one can barely walk in it.
And like Westboro, Manning’s outrageous statements are so absurd as to obviously be calculated to outrage. These aren’t garden-variety Christian Right statements about gays. Nor are they occasional, off-the-cuff remarks. Watch any of Manning’s videos at random and you’ll happen upon conspiracy- and hate-mongering that can shock even a cynical religion columnist like me.
So what’s all this about? Is Manning simply a publicity whore? Does he have a particular focus on homosexuality because he says he has been “tempted” by it? Is he, perhaps, hoping to attract a right-wing sugar daddy like Robert Mercer, who has funded another idiosyncratic black conservative with a dubious history?
It wouldn’t be a bad idea. According to Gustavo Solis at DNAInfo, Manning owes over $355,000 on nine federal tax liens, $194,000 in outstanding water bills, and other debts—despite receiving a $186,000 tax break from New York City. Because, you know, church.
Even that hateful sign is against the law; ATLAH has been hit with five violations by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Surely, more than anything else, Manning is a con man. He has perfected the art of saying outrageous things with a straight face. He lucked into a ministry as an ex-con in the late 1970s, and took over what was then deemed to be a worthless piece of real estate. He has capitalized on justified anger at gentrification, and, like Trump, taken that anger out on the “other,” in this case, gays and Obama (who is himself gay, remember). And he has built a cottage industry on scams, lies, and exploitation.
In fact, much as I love the Ali Forney Center and totally support its successful effort to raise $200,000 on the back of Pastor Manning (and the hashtag #harlemnohate) I wonder if it, too, isn’t playing into Manning’s cynical game. This is especially true because, as AFC’s executive director, Carl Siciliano, notes, $200,000 won’t be nearly enough to buy the landmark building, which sits at 123rd Street and Lenox, at an pen auction. So AFC is searching for a partner—i.e., a developer who would dedicate part of the space to AFC, and turn the rest into highly desirable condos.
In other words, precisely the linkage Manning likes to draw between LGBT people and gentrifiers would, in fact, be confirmed by an AFC-developer partnership—even if, as AFC will surely insist, some of the building is also devoted to affordable housing.
But what I’m more worried about is a Mercer-style figure swooping in to rescue Manning and give him more of a platform than he already has. That’s the con, it seems to me.
Probably, though, Manning is too toxic even for the wingnuts. He’s not just conservative; he’s batshit crazy. Like Phelps before him, he can gather together a small following of the disaffected, but he’s no Tony Perkins or Jay Sekulow. Those are the kinds of people who know how to turn hate into real money. Manning is chump change.
Of course, tell that to the mother of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman beaten to death about a mile from ATLAH’s sign urging the stoning of sodomites. That’s why maybe it doesn’t matter whether Manning is actually crazy, or crazy like a fox. Because sometimes “crazy” is deadly serious.