The evangelical left loses its prophet
Ron Sider dies at age 82
Among the vexing aspects of life in a sinful world is the fact that moral qualities are fractured and maldistributed. In other words, we confront persons with bad ideas who are kind, gracious, and principled even as we meet people with good ideas who are rude, unprincipled, and ungracious. This can be both confounding and confusing. At the same time, this observation can make us think more carefully.
I think Ron Sider would agree with this, but I will not have the privilege of asking him about it in this life. Sider died on July 27 at age 82 of a sudden cardiac arrest. One of the most important figures in what became known as the “evangelical left,” Sider shocked and rocked the Christian world with his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He sought to combine liberal politics with his traditional Mennonite theology and, deeply troubled by what he saw as injustice, Sider sought to rally evangelical Christianity into a movement for liberation against poverty and oppression. The problem was that Sider’s solutions, based in a mix of liberalism, liberationism, and easily falsified economic errors, would only add to the problems.
In Rich Christians, Sider called evangelical Christians to abandon capitalism and its excesses and embrace a new economic approach. Predictably, Sider’s approach just happened to be a mash of collectivism, state control, income redistribution, and predictably leftist (if oddly arranged and inconclusive) economic arguments. His arguments sounded to some like liberation theology and to others like third-world propaganda. Carl Henry and Ronald Nash rightly criticized Sider’s argument as Marxist, while others offered in-depth critiques of Sider’s unexpectedly influential work.
A direct refutation of Sider’s approach came from David Chilton in his book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators. Chilton dissected Sider’s economics, but also offered a theological critique. Sider, said Chilton, “has allowed his economic views to be shaped by an increasingly vocal, socialistic camp in our society, not by the word of God.” Sider would offer several revisions of his book, attempting to clarify that he did not want state collectivism and economic control, but in the eyes of his critics, myself included, he never resolved the larger problem of making economic proposals that would actually hurt, rather than help, those in poverty.
Biography matters. Ronald J. Sider was born into an austere Mennonite family in Canada. He later stated that his father never voted, and his cousin, an influential bishop, identified voting as a sin. Sider’s Anabaptist background was always actually in the foreground as well as the background. He was troubled by perfectionism but sincerely committed to a simple lifestyle. He and his wife Artubus lived in an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia, cooked out of the More-With-Less-Cookbook, and wore used clothing bought at local thrift shops. After graduate work at Yale, he taught at schools including Messiah College and Palmer Theological Seminary.
In Rich Christians, Sider had argued: “All income should be given to the poor after one satisfies bare necessities.” Imagine just for argument, that this principle is correct—how would you define “bare necessities?” That was one of the insurmountable problems with Sider’s approach. He did lean into guilt as a moral principle that he tried to translate into economic life. A more committed Marxist would argue that Sider was just making a consumer choice for a simpler lifestyle.
He was also avowedly political. As the 2020 election approached, I was called by a reporter for a major newspaper and asked to respond to the formation of “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden,” of which Sider was co-founder. The reporter asked me to comment on the group’s public statement which called for evangelicals to support Joe Biden as president. I offered a robust response. The reporter then suggested that the new group was a surprising development. No, I explained, Sider had also organized “Evangelicals for George McGovern” in 1972, in his house no less.
Sider was crucial to the emergence of evangelical events, statements, and organizations that attempted to push evangelicals toward the political left. The most important milestone was a gathering in a ramshackle Chicago YMCA that produced the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. The liberal momentum Sider wanted to build among evangelicals fell apart for two main reasons. First, the left soon devolved into identity politics, first over race and feminism. The LGBTQ revolution was also on the horizon. Second, evangelicals did mobilize in the years after that Chicago gathering, but the energy was on the right, not on the left. As Sider lamented, “we called for social and political action, and we got eight years of Ronald Reagan.”
Sider never approved of abortion or same-sex marriage, which limited his reach to the left. But he widened what he called pro-life concerns to include just about every political interest of the economic progressives, including climate change. He would eventually support the most radically pro-abortion presidential candidate in American political history.
He was a serious man who lived a serious life, and he avoided any personal scandal. He forced evangelicals into many serious ethical and theological debates—and those debates were important. But if evangelicalism deserves a future, it will have to be a future that resists and rejects the arguments of the evangelical left. Ironically enough, Ron Sider helped us to see that.
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