Ronald J. Sider, Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy and Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is also President of Evangelicals for Social Action. He has published 27 books, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, called by Christianity Today one of the 100 most influential religious books of the 20th century. He is also the publisher of PRISM magazine and a contributing editor of Christianity Today and Sojourners.
Mr. Sider's new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker, 2005), charges that "blatant disobedience" to the Bible has become "widespread in evangelical circles." Last year he was quoted as saying he was "within a hair's breadth of concluding that the [Bush] faith-based initiative is a cynical cover for ignoring the poor." WORLD has criticized over the years some of Mr. Sider's ideas, and we wanted to give him an opportunity here to make his case.
WORLD: You are pro-life. Given the millions of children slaughtered by abortionists, how can there be a more important social issue? How can Christians take seriously liberals' claim to stand up for the poor and marginalized, given their fanatical pro-abortion stance?
SIDER: I do not say that there is any issue that is "more important" than a pro-life movement to reduce abortion. What I do say-and so does the new official public policy document of the National Association of Evangelicals-is that anybody who wants to be genuinely Christian in their political engagement must embrace a "biblically balanced agenda." That means we must search in the Bible to see what it tells us about God's concerns. When we do that, we find that God cares deeply about the family and the poor, the sanctity of human life and racial justice and creation care. If we are going to be biblical, we must have a biblically balanced agenda.
WORLD: You make a strong biblical case that Christians should help the poor. But isn't "compassionate conservatism," with its personal involvement, faith-based initiatives, and individual attention to human needs, of more genuine help to the poor than welfare bureaucracies that subsidize poverty and therefore keep people poor?
SIDER: I have been an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush's faith-based initiative. I would be delighted if a revival of compassion would sweep through the churches with the result that every family on welfare would be "adopted" by a Christian family that provided more generously for their needs, and loved, prayed, and supported them into growing self-sufficiency and economic independence.
What I deplore is a failure to have the right kind of public policies that guarantee that any American who works full-time responsibly would get out of poverty and have affordable health insurance. Millions of Americans work full-time and do not even earn enough to reach the poverty level. Forty-five million lack health insurance. For the richest nation in history, that is blatantly immoral.
WORLD: You criticize Christians who support policies that are "pro-rich," meaning economic policies that are pro-business and pro-capitalism. But doesn't the evidence show overwhelmingly-for example, in nations like India-that free markets do more to eliminate poverty than socialistic welfare states?
SIDER: I am not anti-business or anti-capitalism. Read Chapter 8 of my Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (the fifth edition came out in April) where I explicitly argue that a market economy is the best framework we know today for organizing economic life. I also point out that the embrace of a market framework is the primary reason the poverty level has dropped dramatically in Asia in the last couple of decades.
What I object to are tax policies like those of the last few years that give about 70 percent of the tax cuts to the richest 20 percent. In fact, 26 percent went to the richest 1 percent. I embrace programs like expanded Pell grants so kids from poor families can afford college. I support expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit that rewards work and adds another 40 cents for every dollar earned by very low-income workers. I support removing the huge marriage penalty that still exists in the EITC. President Bush has rightly removed almost all other marriage penalties in the tax code, but not this one that hurts the working poor.
WORLD: You say that evangelicals should be working for "structural changes" in society and in the economy. Typically, those who demand structural changes are pushing for more governmental control of the economy. What structural changes do you think we should work for?
SIDER: In my chapter in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy I make it very clear that in a fallen world, centralized, unbalanced power is always dangerous. So I favor limited government. But that does not mean libertarianism. I develop a biblical argument that the king (government) is called by God to do justice for the poor. The key Hebrew words (mishphat and zedeqah) refer to both fair legal systems and fair economic systems where everybody has access to the productive resources so that if they act responsibly they can earn their own way and be dignified members of society.
What I want is a limited government that uses effective structural measures that discourage dangerous concentration of wealth in a few hands. I would have thought that conservatives would be worried about the current situation in the U.S. where the richest 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. I also favor wise structural measures (for example, Pell grants) that strengthen everybody's access to productive resources.
WORLD: Your Sojourners colleague Jim Wallis also has a bestselling book, God's Politics. Both of you call for a combination of conservative theology and liberal politics. Given, as you say, that liberals drove out Christians with their aggressive secularism, how would such an alliance be possible?
SIDER: I do not call for "conservative theology and liberal politics."
As an evangelical, I do subscribe wholeheartedly to historic orthodox theology. But when it comes to politics, labels do not fit me very well. On issues of abortion, euthanasia, family and marriage, the label "conservative" is accurate for me. When it comes to health care, overcoming racism, and overcoming poverty, the label "progressive or liberal" often fits. But I have absolutely no commitment to ideologies of left or right. I am unconditionally committed to Jesus Christ and biblical authority. And I try to get the best, most objective socioeconomic data I can find.
WORLD: What is the religious left's strategy to gain electoral victory?
SIDER: I am not a part of some "religious left" and have no interest in seeing it gain electoral victory.
WORLD: Democratic Party leaders seem eager to gain votes by adopting some of the rhetoric of the evangelical left. Christian conservatives are frequently asked if they feel the Republican Party is "using" them; how are pro-abortion Democrats using your work?
SIDER: Political parties use us when we uncritically identify with one party and fail to critique its failures on the basis of a biblically balanced agenda. I wish evangelicals who endorse the Republican Party would be far more vocal in promoting a biblically balanced concern for economic justice, creation care, and racial justice in the Republican Party.
If all the Democrats do in their current soul-searching about the 2004 election is adopt a bit of religious and moral rhetoric, I will be among the first to denounce this as superficial hypocrisy. What I hope the Democratic Party does is genuinely move to the center on issues of family, marriage, the sanctity of human life, and the importance of faith-based organizations in overcoming social problems. I wish Democrats would support substantive measures to restrict abortion and strengthen wholesome two-parent families and the historic understanding of marriage.
My norm will always be: How does a biblically balanced agenda call me to critique and challenge every political party and ideology? Jesus alone is my Lord.