Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action four decades ago, is the author of many books: The most famous is Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Here are excerpts from an interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
Born in 1939. Growing up in rural Ontario: Were farming and hockey big in your life? I loved the farm and every Canadian boy plays hockey—even though I had to wear glasses and we didn’t have helmets. They flew off but I never got my eyes poked out.
You got A’s at Waterloo Lutheran College and went on to graduate school at Yale: What was your developing view of government’s trustworthiness in carrying out certain public purposes? I did have a developing sense of call in the latter part of my six years at Yale to encourage the evangelical world to be engaged in issues of social justice. White evangelicals were at best silent and often on the wrong side during Dr. King’s great crusade. We had a black landlord the last two years in New Haven: We sat with him the night Dr. King was killed and were developing a sense of the tragedy of racism in American culture.
So at that point, the federal government, in terms of the civil rights movement, is the good guy in promoting certain virtuous objectives? I want to start with a biblically informed framework and say two things. One: Government should be limited, for two reasons. God created every person in the image of God. We’re all called to be stewards and to shape the created order. If all the decisions are made by a few powerful people, most of us cannot fulfill our creation mandate and can’t shape history the way God intends us to. Also, in a fallen world concentrated, unchecked power will always be used for the selfish advantage of the powerful. So, government must be limited.
Welcome to the conservative movement. But the other side: Government has a positive role in empowering poor people. My basic definition of economic justice comes from going back to the Old Testament, to an agricultural society: When the children of Israel move into the land, a few wealthy people don’t own all of it. The government doesn’t own all of it, or much of it. Every family gets its own land—a fundamentally decentralized economic system. The prophets shout and scream when a few powerful people, sometimes by legal trickery, sometimes by other ways, get the land.
So government’s positive role is ... Government should set up frameworks that enable people to have genuine access. I don’t believe in welfare programs that increase dependency, although if people are hungry, we ought to feed them. The essential role of government is to do the things that government alone can do to empower poor people.
What alone can government do? Can’t those who are affluent empower poor people by creating opportunities to work and glean? It’s better for private programs that help poor people to require work: better for their dignity, better for their own sense of not falling into dependency. But there are structural causes of poverty. The Old Testament says God doesn’t like poverty; some people are poor because they are lazy and should work hard; you should let the edges of your fields be gleaned by people who are poor. It also says that every 50 years the land goes back to the original owners, and every seven years, if you’ve fallen into slavery because of poverty, you’re freed with the resources you need to earn your own way.
Isn’t the greatest structural problem in American society right now the public school system: It traps some students in schools where they don’t get what they need to advance economically? One of the huge injustices is precisely the dreadful schools that large numbers of African-Americans, Latinos, and poor whites have to go to in our great cities. If you compare the kind of quality education that white suburbanites get to what large numbers of inner city African-Americans and Latinos get, it’s simply outrageous and immoral.
What if you compare the education that some inner city students get in good Christian schools, compared to what they get in their local public schools? We have two proposals for overcoming the awful education system today: One is to reform the education system, and the other is vouchers. I say, I don’t know which is finally better, so let’s take the very best reform proposals to reform the public schools and let’s test those in a dozen kinds of school districts—big cities, and smaller. Let’s take the best educational voucher approach and let’s test that. Whatever works better for minorities and poor folk, let’s do that. I do have a hunch that vouchers would work better, but I don’t know enough to say we should go that way.
Would teachers unions go for that? Teachers unions don’t want to havethe test. It’s also striking, that at least in some polls, the people most in favor of vouchers are African-Americans, at least between the ages of 25 and 35. Let’s at least have a major test and do what’s best for poorer people. We should certainly correct the injustice where wealthy white suburban folks spend vastly more money per person in their educational system than inner city African-American kinds of communities.
Would you be in favor of extending vouchers to social service programs? In what areas do you think that would be most effective? Let me start that by saying that I can blame you, or give you the credit to some extent, for my voting for George W. Bush in 2000.
This is a shock. I genuinely hoped that here we had a Republican who really cared about the poor and would come up with a different set of proposals. I have to say I was disappointed, although I do think President Bush did a great job with his White House faith-based office. I’m delighted whenever we can get private organizations to do more to deal with social needs—poverty and so on.
You don’t see a big role for them, though. As soon as Christians are more willing to be generous, and expand their programs, I am eager to have them take over more of those services. But Christians don’t give enough to do it, and the needs are so vast that it’s totally out of the question in the foreseeable future to have government step back.
I prefer poverty-fighting tax credits to vouchers: With tax credits Washington never gets its hands on the money, and individual taxpayers decide where to send it. What about an across-the-board tax credit of perhaps, 50 percent, for everyone giving to poverty-fighting groups? My first reaction is yes, absolutely. Even with the present system, I’m opposed to President Obama’s wanting to cut off at a certain level the tax deduction for people who give to charitable causes. I think that’s a mistake. We want more private activity, not less.