Bryan Dean | Tuesday, 10 February 2009 16:16
In his book, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, Ron Sider broadens his scope to address the whole range of political issues that ought to concern evangelicals. Published 30 years after Sider's most famous work, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, this volume follows in the footsteps of Jim Wallis' God's Politics. While Wallis jumps into the debate of evangelical political activity with his quills blazing, Sider takes the time to lay out a carefully constructed evangelical philosophy for political engagement.
Sider's framework is a response to evangelical political activism, which he claims has been a scandalous, largely ineffective, and often counterintuitive disgrace. Sider contends that evangelical political activists have pursued political engagement without careful forethought. In contrasting evangelicalism to other faith traditions like Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, Sider includes the words of Os Guinness: "there has been ‘no serious evangelical public philosophy in ... [the twentieth] century'" (19).
Sider contends that this lack of critical reflection has led evangelicals to embrace completely contradictory beliefs and to champion those beliefs in ways that frighten and offend non-Christians. It has also led many evangelicals to be all too easily co-opted by secular political philosophies that filter their Christian beliefs into overly narrow-and therefore biblically untenable-agendas (20).
To combat this scandal, Sider lays forth a biblically derived evangelical political philosophy to guide current engagement, one seeking a consistent stance on all scriptural issues that have political implications. Sider's framework is essentially one of biblical "balance," and he uses it to address a catalogue of political issues in thematic chapters. Topics include the state, justice, human rights, democracy and capitalism, the sanctity of human life, marriage and family, religious freedom, church and state, peacemaking, creation care, and international affairs.
Sider's discussion of homosexuality in his chapter on marriage and family is a good example of his balanced approach. Here, he encourages Christians to find a middle ground between condoning homosexuality and depriving homosexuals of specific rights. Evangelicals ought to clearly state that marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman, but they should also advocate for homosexuals to have the same legal rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, such as hospital visitation rights, medical decision-making ability, and joint property ownership. In Sider's view, championing gay "unions" or "partnerships" is a perfectly acceptable way to advocate for equal rights for homosexuals, as long as the "unions" confer legal rights without amounting to marriage equivalents.
Another example of Sider's attempt to engage from a position of biblical balance is his view on the relationship of church and state. In this chapter, he asserts that the state should not endorse any specific religion because such an endorsement would necessarily be an encroachment on religious freedom. Yet he also attacks the notion of total separation of church and state, saying that it is both impossible and morally undesirable. He says it is impossible because individual members of the government will necessarily have religious views that influence their on-the-job decisions. It is morally undesirable because religious beliefs should be expressed in all facets of one's life, including the workplace .In essence, Sider believes the state as a whole ought to be religiously neutral but its individual actors ought to be free to let their moral beliefs guide them. Within this framework, Sider argues against displaying the Ten Commandments on public property but also promotes public funding for all groups that provide social benefits, including faith-based organizations.
Though his "biblical balance" challenge to Christians is clear, Sider understates the power evangelicals have in contemporary America. While Sider goes to great lengths to demonstrate the ineptitude of evangelical political engagement, he does little to explain the figurehead role that evangelicals have played in recent conservative politics-including their definitive vote in the last two presidential elections. Sider could gain additional credibility by more clearly acknowledging the power that evangelicals have recently wielded, however ineffectively. Such an acknowledgment would, after all, strengthen his argument that evangelicals could change the world's political landscape if they engaged it more constructively.
Sider's more glaring problem, however, is the unoriginality of his book's content. His commentary follows Jim Wallis' God's Politics (published in 2006), and both books generally deal with the same issues and come to largely the same conclusions. My familiarity with Wallis' writings allowed me to anticipate Sider's conclusions. In other words, I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat.
Yet, if the objective is to develop a consistent frame of mind, complete originality would probably be self-defeating. A far more effective strategy would be to make each attempt complementary to the others. And this is where The Scandal of Evangelical Politics excels. When viewed in terms of structure and method instead of issues addressed, The Scandal clearly differentiates itself from God's Politics. Where the latter jumps into the debate with its fists swinging, the former sits back and analyzes the terrain. Though Wallis' conclusions certainly stem from an attempt to present a balanced, holistic, and consistent biblical framework, he does not take the time to clearly and fully articulate that framework. Sider does. Wallis appeals to a reader's passions with his journalistic prose and touching anecdotes, while Sider appeals to the intellect with his philosophical and theological arguments. These arguments are valuable to evangelicals who want to engage the political realm more constructively. And you don't have to agree with everything Sider says to make good use of his reasoning.
In sum, Wallis' book may be more pleasurable to read, but Sider's book is a useful complementary work that will help evangelicals to develop a concrete political philosophy-one they can return to as they attempt to make decisions with public implications. God's Politics is certainly a better introductory text concerning the shortcomings of evangelical political activity, while The Scandal is a more in-depth and rigorous effort to develop a foundation for consistent and biblical political engagement.
I am reading this articulate review from the vantage point of Nairobi, Kenya, which has just completed celebrating the results of the most recent American political highlight. And having both Wallis and Sider as early stimulants to my own life's work in ministry to the poor of Africa, this review is prompting my interest in these authors' important "sequels". I suspect the focus is on American political issues and struggles; yet evangelicals across the globe have similar need to engage their cultures in whatever issues there are. I'd long for a cross-cultural extension of the ethic and theology being considered in these volumes - perhaps collaboration between best minds across north and south?