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The Scandal of Just Politics

Review of Ronald J. Sider's Just Politics: A Guide to Christian Engagement (ISI 978- 1587433269). Paperback, 272 pages; $19.99.

In Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, Ronald J. Sider offers an updated edition of his 2008 book, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics. Ray Nothstine reviewed that book in Religion & Liberty (18.1) at the time, writing,

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.

Just Politics can be characterized in the same way. Sider's clear style and biblically- informed, right-of-center conclusions have much to commend them, but there is a serious problem that overshadows its merits. While the book may be "valuable source material," it hardly constitutes "A Guide for Christian Engagement," as its subtitle would imply. Indeed, Sider writes in his preface that "many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have not thought very carefully about how to do politics in a wise, biblically grounded way. This book seeks to develop an approach, a methodology, for doing that."

Unfortunately, the book does not successfully deliver such a methodology.

Just Politics may be a guide in the same sense that a field guide to birds can rightly be called a guide, but it does not succeed at being "a methodology"—like, for example, the scientific method—as is its stated goal. Or more to the point, unlike the Roman Catholic framework of subsidiarity, solidarity, and natural law or the neo-Calvinist framework of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace, Sider's framework (Part 3 of the book and the vast majority, nearly 140 pages) resembles more the things one would hang upon a framework than a framework itself. At best the true framework of the book is 1) to carefully interpret the Bible, which Sider admirably endeavors to do, 2) to briefly offer a cursory and often inadequate survey of a particular issue throughout all of Western history since biblical times, and then 3) to examine our present day context in that light with the help of recent empirical studies.

Unfortunately, while in one sense this is a methodology, it is no different a methodology than many evangelicals have used in the past. The whole point of the book is to bring evangelical political engagement up to the level of the "systematic reflection on political life that has been done for decades by Catholics and mainline Protestants." Yet, though Sider avoids the pitfall of isolating and narrowly focusing on only a few issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he still basically takes an approach that, contrary to his stated intention, feels far too much like proof texting in the end.

This is especially disappointing since Sider begins by noting and assessing the contributions of many sophisticated writers all throughout Christian history—Augustine's two cities paradigm from City of God, natural law in Aquinas, Luther's two kingdoms, and so on. The reader is given the impression that while Sider does not accept these views uncritically, he acknowledges their merits and will employ what is beneficial in them throughout the rest of the book. Yet after the end of Chapter 2, most of these writers and their valuable contributions to Christian political thought come up missing. When they are mentioned, they typically receive only superficial acknowledgment before moving on to contemporary issues and writers— nothing comparable to Sider's careful, though at some points questionable, biblical analysis.

Indeed, all throughout the book, Sider's neglect of the historic contributions of Christian tradition—which, of course, need not be accepted uncritically—leads to a lack of clear principles, a lack of a true guide or framework that could foster evangelical Christian engagement in politics. Why not, in addition to surveying the relevant biblical terms and material, use also the lens of natural law (itself a biblical concept, as Sider admits), which is the basis of natural justice—a consistent, Christian teaching from the patristic to the medieval to the modern era, even including many Protestant writers? Or instead of simply acknowledging that church, state, family, etc. all have social responsibilities, why not explore more carefully the distinct roles of the different spheres of society in accordance with Augustine's two cities, Luther's two kingdoms, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, or some other, distinctly biblical and evangelical principle? Doing so would have brought evangelical political engagement up to the level of the "systematic reflection on political life that has been done for decades by Catholics and mainline Protestants." But at the end of the day, despite the author's best intentions and admirable efforts, the only clear political philosophy that Just Politics offers is "according to Ron Sider the Bible says X, therefore Y." And that, sadly, is a scandal.