The Common Good
February 2008

Ron Sider's The Scandal of Evangelical Politics

by Ronald J. Sider | February 2008

Tragically, Christian political activity today is a disaster. Christ­ians embrace contradictory positions on almost every political issue.

Tragically, Christian political activity today is a disaster. Christ­ians embrace contradictory positions on almost every political issue. When they join the political fray, they often succumb to dishonesty and corruption. Even when they endorse good goals, they too often promote their political agenda in foolish ways that frighten non-Christians, thus making it more difficult or nearly impossible to achieve important political goals.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have not thought carefully about how to do politics in a wise, biblically grounded way.

[This] contrasts sharply with what other Christian traditions, especially Catholics, have done. Roman Catholics benefit from over a century of papal encyclicals that have carefully developed and articulated a Catholic ap­proach to public life. Main­line Protes­tants—both through church declarations and the work of brilliant individuals like Rein­hold Nie­buhr—have also de­veloped a substantial collection of careful thought on politics. The evangelical community has simply failed to develop anything comparable.

It is through politics that country after country has come to enjoy democracy. It is through politics that nation after nation has stopped jailing and killing “heretics”—thousands of my ancestors in the 16th century were burned at the stake or drowned in the rivers by fellow Protestants who disagreed with our belief that the church should be separate from the state. It took centuries, but eventually more and more politicians in more and more countries decided that religious freedom for everyone is a necessary mark of a just political order. It is through politics that we develop laws that either restrict or permit abortion, allow or forbid “gay marriage,” protect or destroy the environment. Politics is simply too important to ignore.

The theological reason for political engagement is even more compelling. The central Christian confession is that Jesus is now Lord—Lord of the entire universe. The New Testament explicitly teaches that he is now “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to the Risen Jesus (Matthew 28:18). Christians who know that must submit every corner of their lives to their wonderful Lord.

Since we live in democratic societies where we have the freedom to vote, our votes—or even our failure to vote—shape what happens in important areas of politics. If Christ is my Lord, if Christ desires the well-being of all, and if my vote has the potential to encourage political decisions that will promote the well-being of my neighbors, then the obligation to vote responsibly follows necessarily from my confession that Christ my Lord calls me to love my neighbor. One way Christ­ians must live out our belief that Christ is Lord, even of political life, is to think and pray for wisdom to act politically in ways that best reflect Christ our Lord.

Why call it an evangelical political philosophy? Those who identify with the label evangelical have important things in common that enable them to work together in political life to move their societies toward wholeness. As we have seen, their first steps in the past couple decades have often been confused and imperfect. But evangelicals are ready to try again. All around the world, evangelical thinkers and politicians are wrestling at a deeper level with how to act politically in faithfulness to Christ. If even a modest fraction of that rapidly growing number of 500 million evangelicals and Pentecostals would develop a commonly embraced, biblically grounded framework for doing politics, they would change the world.

Adapted from The Scandal of Evangelical Poli­tics: Why are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? by Ronald J. Sider (February 2008), by permission of Baker Books.

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