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The Scandal of Evangelical Politics

In The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, Ronald J. Sider attempts to construct a methodology for evangelical Christians to participate faithfully in the political process. His construct is a backlash—to a degree—of the political monopolization of the religious right and its influence in politics. The book is a response to past evangelical involvement, which Sider sees as largely being a failure and highly contradictory. And while his methodology does not necessarily contradict any political goals of Christian conservatives, and is in fact in agreement with many, he wants to encourage greater biblical integrity and sound thinking.

Sider, for example, cites former senator Jesse Helms as an example of someone who brings faith into politics with improper or little theological reflection. Sider praises Helms for standing up for the unborn, then admonishes him by wondering how he supported the interests of tobacco. Sider then proceeds to say that Helms was not really a friend of the pro-life movement after all. Conservative figures are generally the ones cited in the book as examples of straying from a biblically faithful mandate. Sider quotes prominent Christian author Tim LaHaye, who declared, “The only way to have genuine spiritual revival is to have legislative reform.” But ironically one of the book’s endorsers, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, likens his own call for big government to a spiritual revival.

One of the strengths of Sider’s book is that he draws from a deep and diverse well of Christian tradition. Sider cites and discusses the importance of Catholic social teaching, the Reformed tradition, Lutherans, Wesleyans, and Anabaptists. Part of the design of his book is to construct a methodology that is unique to evangelicals. Sider says evangelicals have not developed anything that rivals the depth of Catholic social thinking, or the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, which have been so influential for mainline Protestants.

There is certainly a great understanding that freedom, both religious and political, is much more pronounced in market economies. “On balance, a market economy respects human freedom better, creates wealth more efficiently, and tends to be better at reducing poverty,” says Sider. There is also a balance in his praise of free markets with a warning that “market economies tend to produce a consumeristic materialism that promotes devastating cultural decay," and cites the United States, United Kingdom, and China as countries that are becoming more unequal in the distribution of wealth. If there is one critique here it may be an overly optimistic belief that government intervention and regulation of the economy can fairly correct injustices.

Another key quality stressed by Sider is the importance of limiting the power of the state and the emphasis on space for human freedom to flourish as God intended. He even quotes Lord Acton’s popular dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sider understands the family and church is the proper segment to serve and assist those in need. “Any policy or political philosophy that immediately seeks state solutions for problems that could be solved just as well or better at the level of family violates the biblical framework that stresses the central societal role of the family,” says Sider. At the same time, he argues that sin and other variables call for state involvement and a repairing of community to correct injustices. And although Sider supports measures like state involvement for minimum wage laws, he thoroughly stresses limiting state power. “Only if the power of the state is significantly limited is there hope of avoiding gross evil on the part of the state,” says Sider.

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics also articulates the importance of traditional Christian teaching on marriage and human sexuality. Additionally, there is continued emphasis on parenthood and the family as being responsible for the love and care of children. Tax policies that favor marriage and discourage divorce are preferred.

Sider’s critique of Christian conservatives at times, calls for more distinguished thought. Ultimately, Sider’s methodological construct is a valuable source material for evangelically minded Christians. The book’s call for a “Biblically balanced political agenda” over and against narrow understandings committed solely to single issues is a worthy calling. The understanding that political involvement or action will never build a utopia and the additional emphasis of the need for limited state power is highly beneficial.