Review of Ronald J. Sider, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Brazos Press, 2012), xvii + 249 pgs..
To get an idea of Ronald Sider’s perspective in this book, we might begin with a look at the man Jim Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners, calls “one of our country’s most important public theologians.”
Sider is a noted evangelical who has written more than 30 books, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (InterVarsity Press, 1977), which was named as one of the 100 most influential books in religion in the 20th century. He is currently the professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, the seminary of Eastern University in Pennsylvania. But Sider is also the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a think tank that promotes “peace with justice for the oppressed and marginalized throughout the world” by combining “biblical scholarship with astute policy analysis to further economic wholeness, support multilateral rather than unilateral U.S. foreign policy, promote racial and ecological justice, and generally try to make the world a better place.”
Most recently, Sider publicly resigned from AARP, not because he thinks Social Security and Medicare are intergenerational wealth-redistribution schemes, but because AARP is “selfish and guilty of intergenerational injustice.” He favors increased Social Security payments for lower income Americans, higher Social Security taxes, modest cuts in benefits for seniors with higher incomes, and increases in the payments that seniors with higher incomes make for Medicare.
Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (hereafter Just Politics) is actually a new edition of an earlier work titled The Scandal of Evangelical Politics that was published in 2008. I wholeheartedly accept two statements that Sider makes in the preface to his first edition (which is printed in this second edition):
Tragically, Christian political activity today is a disaster. Christians embrace contradictory positions on almost every political issue.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have not thought very carefully about how to do politics in a wise, biblically grounded way.
Unfortunately, Sider’s new edition doesn’t offer correct solutions to these problems any more than his original edition did. In fact, his recommendations in Just Politics are not only contradictory, unwise, and unbiblical, they are just nonsense.
In the preface to his new edition, Sider mainly offers brief comments on the “flood of books on politics by evangelical authors” that have appeared since his first edition. I reviewed here one of the books he mentions, Politics—According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010), by Wayne Grudem. Although I found fault with some of Grudem’s conservative political ideas (I titled the review “Republican Politics According to the Bible”), I certainly didn’t chastise him for his “constantly negative critique in virtually all references to President Obama” like Sider does.
This second edition of Sider’s book is enhanced by subject and Scripture indexes. The thirteen chapters are titled the same, except for the rearrangement of the words in the title of chapter 3. Unfortunately, the new edition has the chapters arranged into the same grossly unbalanced four parts as the first. I say this because parts 1 and 4 each have only one 8-page chapter and part 2 contains just two chapters. This leaves part 3 with nine chapters that take up most of the book.
To being with, I see only four things in the entire book that Sider can be commended for. He opposes abortion, euthanasia, thoughtless and uncritical nationalism, and American exceptionalism. Really, that’s it. Here is the best statement in the whole book: “It is blasphemous idolatry to claim that the United States—or any other nation—is God’s new Israel to redeem the world.” The problem is that Sider makes a thousand other statements that are either not so good or just nonsense.
Sider seems to recognize the true nature of the state:
The state is that organization in society that has a monopoly on the use of coercion to help it achieve its purpose of overseeing just relationships among the individuals and institutions in the society.
It is a historical fact that virtually every state has tried to exercise a monopoly on lethal force to compel obedience to its laws and protect its borders.”
The state alone has the authority and power to use coercion to enforce its laws in every area of society.
It is a historical fact that, almost without exception, no state has tried to govern without lethal violence.
But then he says: “The state is a gift from God, not an invention of Satan.” It is “a crucial element of a good society.”
I have no problem with Sider’s biblical references to justice, but I take issue with his scope of biblical justice:
Biblical justice, however, also includes socioeconomic benefits, which are the responsibility of the community to guarantee.
When people cannot care for themselves, justice demands that their community provide a generous sufficiency so that their needs are met.
Sider believes that “social-economic rights are basic human rights.” This includes the right to food, productive assets, private property, health care, education, work, shelter, and clothing.
Sider’s fatal flaw is that when individuals, institutions, society, or the community doesn’t sufficiently provide these things, it is up to the state to do so:
When other individuals and institutions in the community do not or cannot provide basic necessities for the needy, the state rightly helps.
When indirect approaches are not effective in restraining economic injustice or in providing care for those who cannot care for themselves, the state must act directly to demand patterns of justice and to provide vital services.
Yet, he seems to argue against this when he says: “Any policy or political philosophy that immediately seeks state solutions for problems that could be solved just as well (or better) at the level of family violates the biblical framework that stresses the central societal role of the family.” And he even acknowledges that “behind every law and collection of taxes to fund social programs stands an implicit threat to use lethal violence.”
Justice according to Sider is the state taking—by deadly force if necessary—resources from some Americans and giving them to other Americans.
Sider is obsessed with public education:
One of the most important ways to implement the biblical teaching on justice is to offer quality education to all children regardless of race or family income.
Justice for the poor, in fact, demands that the state does pay for quality education, at least for the poorer sectors of society.
But it’s not just government schools he supports; it is government funding of education. He has no problem with the use of “tax dollars to pay for the costs of private schools chosen by parents up to an equal amount to that spent per pupil in government-operated schools.” Not surprisingly, Sider doesn’t stop with education: “Since the state also promotes the common good, a wide variety of laws for this purpose are also legitimate: to build transportation systems that everyone can use, to guarantee that all children have access to quality education, and to ensure that all citizens enjoy an appropriate level of health care.” He also supports using the tax code to encourage marriage and discourage divorce.
Sider deplores individualism, John Locke, and libertarianism. He condemns the “libertarian argument” that “caring for the poor is a task for individuals, religious groups, and private charities—not the state.” He likewise argues that “there is no basis in biblical thought to argue that the state should have no role in caring for and empowering poor people.”
Sider is not a fan of the free market either:
Market economies are simply failing to meet the biblical demand that everyone has access to productive resources.
Market economics tend to produce a consumeristic materialism that promotes devastating cultural decay.
He is especially troubled about market economies “becoming more and more unequal in distribution of wealth.”
Sider’s solution is, of course, more government intervention: “One important thing we need is the right kind of state intervention to correct the injustice in today’s market economies.” If done in the right way, “government intervention can correct the injustices in a market economy without destroying the basic market framework.” Sider sounds like George W. Bush, who told CNN: “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” If you oppose “government modification of supply and demand,” then it means you “worship a laissez-faire economic system rather than the God who is Lord of economics.”
It is Sider who embraces contradictory positions on political issues. First he sounds like a libertarian:
Not all that the Bible condemns should become a criminal offense punished by the state.
In a pluralistic society, people should be free to do many things that others consider stupid or sinful.
If our laws require the police and the courts to discover and punish sinful sexual behavior (whether adultery or homosexual sex) between consenting adults, we will violate personal freedoms and move toward a police state.
But then he says he supports laws against the use of heroin and cocaine, but not alcohol, because laws against it cannot be enforced. But Sider doesn’t stop with drugs: “Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking.” He actually includes smoking in a list with abortion, euthanasia, starvation, and capital punishment as destroying “persons created in the image of God “
Sider is also an environmentalist wacko—or do I repeat myself? It is not just that he recommends that everyone “reduce, reuse, and recycle (in that order),” use public transportation, and buy a fuel-efficient vehicle. Sider also believes that “our present behavior threatens the well-being of the entire planet.” He says that “we must act vigorously to combat climate change.” He supports “a heavy carbon tax.” He feels that “wealthy nations must be ready to slow their economic growth, if it is necessary, to restore a sustainable environment for our grandchildren.” It is not right “for a nation to keep all its wealth (even if it created all that wealth in entirely just ways) exclusively for its own use.” It should be redistributed to the world through “more generous” foreign aid.
Sider says some okay things about war and U.S. foreign policy (I actually recommend a book he edited, The Early Church on War and Killing (Baker Academic, 2012), but negates them all with this ridiculous defense of Obama: ““With the installation of President Barack Obama in 2009, American foreign policy changed significantly.” For a contrary view, see my many articles on U.S. foreign policy.
Sider says in the beginning of the book that Christians need a political philosophy, but not one adopted uncritically from some non-Christian source. I agree, and have articulated support for a Christian libertarian political philosophy here and here. One might say that it is the “just liberty” alternative to Sider’s collectivist, socialist, redistributionist, interventionist, and anti-biblical “just nonsense.”