What if scholars and pundits writing about white evangelicalism in the United States have it all wrong? What if the books published since 2017 arguing that white nationalism, racism, and toxic masculinity explained the outcome of the 2016 election missed the real story?
These questions came to mind while reading the obituaries of Ronald J. Sider, one of the most prominent evangelical scholars and activists on the left from the late 1970s until his recent death in late July. The tenor of most was respectful. A Canadian of Anabaptist descent, Sider received most of his education (including a PhD at Yale) and conducted his career in the United States. While teaching first at Messiah University and then at Eastern University (at its Palmer Theological Seminary), Sider also founded Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), a “justice-based” activist organization. In 2020, the organization changed its name to Christians for Social Action to create distance from evangelical support for Donald Trump.
Sider wrote close to thirty books while living modestly in the mixed-race Germantown section of Philadelphia. In his most famous book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider argued that poverty was as much a moral as an economic challenge. He pled with evangelicals to reform social structures that benefitted the rich instead of the poor. Sider did not divorce evangelism from a social witness. He insisted they needed to go together if believers were to be true followers of Jesus.
For all of Sider’s accomplishments, most assessments locate him on the fringes of American evangelicalism. In his book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, historian David Swartz writes that left-leaning evangelicals have “largely been forgotten.” During the Reagan Revolution, the religious right “upstaged progressive evangelicals” as journalists identified evangelicalism with conservatism. Christianity Today’s obituary for Sider also recognized him as “a key facilitator of the born-again left that emerged in the 1970s,” only to see “evangelicals largely turn away from concerns about war, racism, and inequality.”
These assessments misread the period of peak evangelicalism—the presidency of George W. Bush. From the perspective of that era, Sider was far more representative of white evangelicalism than his obituaries let on. ESA’s Crossroads Program, funded by the Pew and Luce foundations, brought together dozens of doctoral students from top-flight graduate programs for two-week summer seminars. This scholarly initiative was part of a wider efflorescence of evangelical scholarship that gained greater attention through the auspices of Pew at the University of Notre Dame under the leadership of Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and Mark Noll. Sider himself, based in Philadelphia, established ties to John DiIulio at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote a foreword for Sider’s 1999 book, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America. When DiIulio became George W. Bush’s first director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Sider had access to a Republican administration that few elites in the world of evangelical scholarship had.
Sider did the opposite of taking a back seat to the religious right. His combination of scholarship, activism, and zeal brought him even further into the circles of evangelical leadership. He played a leading role, along with Richard Cizik, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) committee on government affairs, in formulating “For the Health of the Nation,” a comprehensive guide to public policy. Two years later, evangelical leaders from several organizations produced “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.” Sider was one of the signers and insisted its prescriptions were in the evangelical mainstream. “There’s just no way you can describe these people as fringe,” he saidin an interview. Opponents of the “Call to Action,” Sider also believed, were “going to look really silly in another 10 years.”
During the Bush and Obama years, Sider enjoyed far more sway in evangelical and think tank circles than Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson ever did. Someone could plausibly argue that his faith-based activism was closer to Bush speech writer Michael Gerson’s heroic conservatism than it was to Richard John Neuhaus and Charles “Chuck” Colson’s coalition of conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals. As Ross Douthat wrote in his Slate review of Gerson’s book Heroic Conservatism, which could apply just as well to Sider, “a Gersonized GOP would set the federal government to work lifting up all the wretched of the earth, whether they’re death-penalty defendants and teenage runaways at home or Darfuri refugees and Chinese dissidents abroad.” Douthat added that progressive evangelicalism is “a stirring vision in its way, but there’s little that’s conservative about it.”
With policy proposals like Sider’s (and the NAE’s) percolating up to the Bush White House, why did the election of Donald Trump convince many observers that almost two decades of evangelical progressivism had disappeared? The overwhelming narrative told by historians and journalists since Trump is about how tarnished the movement is—by racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, homophobia, and more—going back even to the Great Awakening of George Whitefield. Instead of insisting that figures like Sider are eccentric, a better understanding of him is to show that evangelicals made great strides in assuming responsible positions in public and academic life. In fact, his influence should have inspired his admirers in the world of evangelical higher education and non-profits to fight for the soul of evangelicalism. His fellow travelers could have retooled and deepened Sider’s arguments for evangelicals to soften their attachment to Chamber of Commerce and Cold War-inspired foreign policy and move to the left.
Although I disagree with his policies (as opposed to the moral conviction behind them), as well as the way he used Scripture and theology to inform public policy, Ron Sider deserved better than the general tone of his obituaries, which indicate he was insignificant in the age of the religious right. He was hardly that.
D. G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College.
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