The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald J. Sider
Baker Books, 275 pages, 2008. Reviewed by Chris L. Rice.
This is an exciting time to be an Evangelical with an active interest in politics. In the early part of the twentieth century Evangelicals were known to be withdrawn, and then, in the early 1990s we rushed headlong into a single partisan agenda. One leader within the movement at this time (Ed Dobson) typified the approach as “ready, fire, aim.” The movement lacked careful reflection and a wholistic Biblical ethic that focused on the whole person. In his latest book, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?, Ron Sider lays out a new framework for political engagement that draws on his many years of learning, teaching, and practicing mainstream political diplomacy. The work is stunningly ecumenical, drawing on what Sider sees as the need for consensus among several streams of Church history and tradition. Sider draws on Jurgen Moltmonn, Reinhold Neibuhr, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, and alludes to the important work of Lutherans such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dr. Sider successfully shows us that we need a methodology that carefully and prayerfully engages politically, but that does not neglect the important role of the Church as an equally important and uniquely separate realm from the State. This simple point is a minefield for theorists. How much, if at all, can the State be trusted? How much can fellow Christians be trusted when we disagree on so much? In his own irenic manner, Sider concentrates on the Scriptures and the issues on which Evangelicals have had success, and looks forward to a better future despite the many setbacks. Sider knows that politics, like life itself, is full of tragic failure.
Over the last twenty five years Evangelicals have pursued a path that neglected the Church’s true riches and instead sought power for its own sake. Sider seems sure that that era is waning. He continually draws our attention to the document “For the Health of the Nation,” which he helped draft for the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.
“The Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom, and racial justice.” (pg. 233)
On the personal side, I’m excited by Ron Sider’s treatise (for that’s really what this is) and especially his desire that Evangelical politics be communal in nature, that instead of separate camps we have open think tanks. I’d just love to see that in action. Are Richard Land and James Dobson going to faithfully attend open dialogues on Peacemaking and Creation Care? Will they be endorsers of Dr. Sider’s idea (pg. 205) that churches invest millions on CPT styled peacemaking delegations to the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe? Will Land and Dobson change their minds on the Global Warming and the earth’s oil supply?
See what I’m getting at? Evangelicals have sharp differences on peacemaking and the environment, and let’s not forget economics! It was only one year ago now that these same leaders who signed the NAE document sought Richard Czik’s ouster for supporting it! With this in mind is consensus really possible? If we’re looking at real numbers, most Evangelicals are Southern Baptists! Hello! I hope to God Dallas Theological Seminary adopts Ron Sider’s book into its classes. But I’m not holding my breath.
I believe in what Ron Sider is doing in this book. I’m not always satisfied with his approach in particular chapters. Having cut my own teeth on Bonhoeffer and Barth, Sider is certainly no dialectician. He can’t seem to speak backwards and forwards at the same time. At times he seems to fear postmodernism, and sounds downright pollyanish about democracy in another place, but then the further I read, I realize he’s not speaking of any particular democracy on earth but the idea of democracy within his own model. He believes in democracy in so far as it has checks and balances, fair courts, and ability to fairly distribute wealth. But then again, what is American democracy really like?
At any rate, this book really inspired me, educated me, taught me that there’s so much more to be learned about political diplomacy. James Skillen of the Center for Public Justice is prominent in this book along with many other policy analysts such as Stephen Monsma, and Stephen Carter. (Buy the book for the bibliography alone.) If you’ve ever felt alone or unique in your political vantage point as an Evangelical, pick up this book. Its one of those that you have to bookmark in front and back, reading the text and the notes together very carefully. I’ve spent a month of in depth reading with it, and quite honestly I could go through it again. Most importantly, this book fosters intelligent conversations. Its real heart is to create honest dialogue in our churches. Lord knows we need more of that.