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by Randall Balmer
A Failure of Nerve
At a time when evangelical leaders were slobbering over Richard Nixon, Ronald Sider's voice was tonic—especially for a college student still puzzling over how a tradition once identified with social justice could have negotiated such a radical right turn. By the time Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger appeared in 1978, Sider had emerged as one of my evangelical heroes. Here was a man who had organized Evangelicals for McGovern in 1972 (whose entire caucus, I suspect, could be tallied on two hands), and who had been the guiding force behind the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern the ensuing year.
In light of the rise and the eventual dominance of the Religious Right later that same decade, the sentiments expressed in the Chicago Declaration seem quaint now. But it was a remarkable statement. "We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism," the declaration read, adding that evangelicals must "challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might." At the instigation of Nancy Hardesty, then an English professor at my Christian college, the Chicago Declaration included a passage that, harking back to the rich tradition of evangelical feminism in the 19th century, rebuked evangelicals for having "encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity" and called "both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship."
Following the Chicago Declaration, Sider went on to form Evangelicals for Social Action and to write a number of books (including Rich Christians), which generally fall under the rubric of evangelical social ethics. His latest contribution is The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?—a book that, on the whole, is as disappointing as Rich Christians was bracing.
Sider notes that the "absence of any widely accepted, systematic evangelical reflection on politics leads to contradiction, confusion, ineffectiveness, ...