RIP Ronald Sider: The Man Who Was Ground Zero for Modern Politicized Evangelical Christianity
When the term “evangelical” is tossed into the modern public square, it usually is accompanied by words like “Trump,” “January 6,” “right-wing,” “Christian nationalist,” “racist,” and the like. Like others who have spent their entire lives in the American evangelical subculture, I cannot say I have welcomed this step into the political arena in which arguments that should be nuanced suddenly are labeled black and white, and that all too often, we are told that the entire fate of Christendom depends upon the election of Candidate X.
This situation was not part of the American scene for most of the nation’s existence. In my formative years, no evangelical (or even fundamentalist) pastor would have openly endorsed a candidate from the pulpit (although some Protestant pastors did wonder aloud what would happen if the Roman Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy were to be elected).
All of that changed in 1972 when the Democrats nominated George McGovern for president. McGovern campaigned far to the left not only in his anti-war views (which many libertarians, including Murray Rothbard, gladly endorsed) but also in his opinions about economics or, to be more specific, the role of the state in a nation’s economy. While evangelical pastors and laypersons certainly had opinions about both men, preaching a gospel of Nixon or McGovern would not have been popular in the congregations.
However, a professor at an evangelical college Ronald Sider, who passed away recently, formed a group called Evangelicals for McGovern in which he claimed that McGovern’s platform could be considered Biblical in its social outlook. Christianity Today, in an obituary for Sider, noted:
Sider also became more politically active. He campaigned for George McGovern, founding Evangelicals for McGovern to rally support for the anti-war senator from South Dakota who was maligned by his many opponents as the candidate for acid, amnesty, and abortion.
According to historian David Swartz, Evangelicals for McGovern was the first evangelical group after 1945 to support a presidential candidate. Religious Right groups such as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition had not yet organized, and though many prominent leaders such as Billy Graham supported President Richard Nixon, evangelical politics at that moment seemed “up for grabs.” Sider, along with people like Tom Skinner, Jim Wallis, and Richard Mouw, wanted to grab it. They believed Christians who loved Jesus and hated sin should exert their political will to oppose the war in Vietnam, law-and-order politics, and economic policies that aggravated poverty.
A year later, Sider and a number of hard-left activists wrote the Chicago Declaration, which condemned private enterprise in the United States, blaming capitalism for most social ills and calling for a vast expansion of the welfare state. In Sider’s view, the only possible Biblical position that a Christian could legitimately own was one of anti-capitalism.
In 1977, Sider wrote the book for which he was most famous, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which I mentioned in a previous article about Christians and economics. I wrote:
Sider’s book looked at poverty in the world at that time and concluded that the only reason that Third World countries were poor was because North America and Europe were relatively wealthy. These countries were gobbling up the world’s resources unjustly and leaving nothing for the starving masses. Capitalism was the culprit, Sider argued, and while he did not agitate for outright socialism, he did call for a central power in the world to oversee massive wealth transfers, a worldwide welfare state.
Sider’s central message was that unless Americans, Canadians, and Europeans gave up their wealthy lifestyles and agreed to adhere to a simple life—and stop using so many resources—poverty and starvation would expand throughout the planet and rates of poverty would accelerate. He even prophesied that unless this was done immediately, it would be maybe a decade before Third World countries like India that had nuclear weapons would use them to blackmail the West into giving up their wealth.
The book fed well into the evangelical mindset of seeing the world in black-and-white terms. It also provided evangelicals, who were likely to be ridiculed by elites in academe, politics, and the media for their faith, a way to be relevant and to try to earn favor with those same elites for their newfound compassion for the poor. The book itself presented a simple, black-and-white view of wealth and poverty; people who had wealth had stolen from the poor, and there could be no other explanation.
In Sider’s world, the economy was purely zero-sum in which any gain by one person meant someone else was to be made worse off. He told a story about himself in which he excoriated his own choice of purchasing a suit for $50 because that sum of money could have kept a child in India alive for a year. Toward the end of the book (ironically, in a footnote) he called for almost total deindustrialization of the West, claiming that without large scale manufacturing and transportation, people would not have to work as many hours and would have much more time for leisure and games, and that such a move would also eliminate hunger in the developing world.
The book was wildly popular among evangelicals, including the Christian college where my father (and later I) taught. Sider had struck a chord with students, encouraging them to embrace socialism and to see that even though the political left despised Christianity, it was the left that held to the True Faith when it came to dealing with people in poverty. At that time, the publisher of the book, InterVarsity Press, was moving leftward, along with its parent organization, InterVarsity Fellowship, which had a strong presence among American college students. (I was involved in our IVF chapter at the University of Tennessee in the early 1970s.)
In the various tributes to Sider, he is universally praised for his social activism and his vision of social justice. Likewise, his political activism in nearly every U.S. presidential election was expressed in his organizing a “Evangelicals for…” with the Democratic Party candidate filling in the blank. (He did make an exception in 2000, voting for George W. Bush, who then promptly launched the nation into ruinous warfare.)
While Rich Christians was wildly popular (the best-ever sales by IVP), Sider never had to pay a price with his peers for being woefully wrong about free-market economics. In his world at Eastern University, which has long been known for its leftism, Sider was a rock star and he never had to confront the fact that his book, as the late Gary North well put it, was an attempt to make American Christians feel guilty for being alive.
By all accounts, Sider was a humble person and someone who surely would have been a good neighbor. I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of him personally. However, by openly politicizing the Christian faith, and more specifically tying the Christian faith to the outcome of upcoming elections, Sider did untold damage that will not go away in our lifetimes.