Hi and welcome back! Recently, I got my hands on a classic evangelical book from 2005, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In it, Ronald J. Sider laments the current state of evangelicalism — and suggests some key reforms. It’s a funny little book, and I wanted to show it to you. Today, let’s look at what Ronald J. Sider considers to be the big problem here.
(You can find a condensed PDF of some of the book’s main ideas here. Also, I use terms like “tribe” and “tribalism” in their sociological/psychological sense, not in the colloquial sense.)
Everyone, Meet Ronald J. Sider.
Ronald J. Sider spends his finite lifetime advocating for evangelical reform and social justice. He works as a theology professor at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Among other notable accomplishments, he founded Evangelicals for Social Action.
His primary bugbears include fighting the endemic racism and domestic violence found in evangelical circles. Right after his book came out, Christianity Today praised him as “a burr in the ethical saddle of the evangelical world for decades.”
However, do not imagine that this guy represents some shining counter-example to the usual evangelical nutjob.
He’s still a die-hard authoritarian culture warrior.
Indeed, Sider fully endorses the biggest offenses against human rights that his tribe has created in its modern history. In this 2005 book of his, he calls for a federal ban on same-sex marriage as well as one criminalizing abortion.
I really don’t think this poor guy has ever understood that both of these modern culture wars flowed from evangelicals’ earlier failed culture war against racial integration. (See endnote for more info, if you’re new to this idea.) He understands that racism was a social-engineered culture war and why it came to be one, but he stops there. He never recognizes that the evangelical culture wars he personally supports come from the exact same sources and arose for the exact same reasons that that earlier one did.
Evangelicals’ utter lack of self-awareness just fascinates me. This guy has no idea that he commits the exact same “sins” that he’s identified in his tribe’s racists.
Basically, Ronald Sider likes these two culture wars, so they are valid, while he doesn’t approve of that earlier one, so it is not valid.
That’s who wrote this book.
A Brief Background of the Book Itself.
Ronald J. Sider published The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (which I’ll shorten to just Scandal in this series) in 2005. I’ve identified 2006 as being possibly the absolute pinnacle of American evangelicals’ cultural power and clout, so in 2005, evangelicals approached their very zenith.
So yes, in 2005 they wielded considerable cultural power. However, their hypocrisies also began to attract a lot of attention at this time.
Sider attempted to address those hypocrisies in his book.
Since its publication, Scandal has become a landmark evangelical book. I’ve seen countless critiques and reviews of it from evangelicals, including from big-name leaders. They are all very super-impressed with it.
One reviewer calls it “corrective teaching aimed at the evangelical community.” Another praises it as a “fiery manifesto that does for evangelical social ethics what Mark Noll did for our paltry intellectual life.” Still another declares that “Sider’s message is a timely one that ought not be ignored.”
My my. With that kind of praise, this must be some kinda book, huh?
We shall see.
The Big Problem Here.
Often, I mock evangelicals for declaring that something is The Big Problem Here. If they can solve this big problem, then everything will be just great! Yay hooray!
However, they usually miss a very important point: the problem they’ve identified comes from something way different than they think. In reality, the problem is something they absolutely don’t want to address, ever, because it forms an integral part of their worldview and belief system, or it benefits them so much on a personal or tribal level that they will fight to the death rather than let go of it.
As a consequence, their solutions to this stated problem, whatever it is, will sound downright surreal to anyone not dwelling alongside them in Wingnut-Land.
And Sider completely falls into that mentality in this book:
He identifies some big major problems in the tribe that must be addressed for them to stay at the top of the heap, but they’re not the real problems. The real problems come from something far deeper and more painful — and way more difficult for evangelicals to address in any kind of meaningful way.
So his solutions to these stated problems not only won’t work and can’t work, but will be guaranteed to backfire if anyone puts them into practice.
What Ronald Sider Thinks Is The Big Problem Here.
Here are The Big Problems Here that Sider identifies with his tribe:
- As a group, evangelicals do not practice what they preach.
- Evangelicals, as a group, are either indistinguishable from their overall culture — or fare considerably worse in any number of ways.
Yes, those are definitely problems for evangelicals.
But Sider sees them as end-all be-all problems in themselves. They’re not.
Because these aren’t actually the problems his tribe faces, the solutions flowing from these declarations are likewise hopelessly wrong.
What the Problems Actually Are Here.
More accurately, both these problems flow from a set of greater and way more difficult problems:
- Authoritarianism, as a social dynamic, produces harm and abuse. No divine force makes Christianity safe for members within authoritarian groups. Making matters worse, evangelical leaders refuse to enact real-world measures to do the job, largely because of the next point:
- People join and stick around evangelical groups because they respond to authoritarian, coercive overtures — or because they want to wield that kind of unilateral power against others.
As a result of Sider’s inability to clearly perceive what’s going on here, his solutions address the problems he has identified and not the real ones. Since Sider is himself an authoritarian person, and authoritarianism-disguised-in-evangelical-buzzwords works well for him as a social dynamic, he won’t want to address any of those two real issues.
Sider desperately needs to see Christianity’s authoritarianism as a divine mandate and its early success as deriving from its innate Jesus Power.
And somehow, “Jesus” isn’t telling him the truth.
Ronald J. Sider’s Utterly Surreal Solutions.
We’ll be going into way more detail about Sider’s oh-so-surreal solutions to the problems he’s identified, but you can probably already guess where he went in his book:
- Evangelicals need to Jesus harder!
- NEEDS MORE AUTHORITARIANISM
I had to laugh when I read his suggestions. Of course that’s what he decided would totally fix everything. Indeed, Sider all but promises his tribe explicitly that if they adopt his suggestions, then everything will be great.
Evangelicals themselves sure seemed to like his ideas at least in theory.
Fifteen years later, how’d these suggestions go for evangelicals? What of his ideas did they enact, and which did they reject? Did anything change for the better as a result? What lasting legacy did this book have on their culture?
Maybe Some Useful Lessons.
In a lot of ways, I see this book as a torch along the path of evangelicals’ decline. It highlights so many of their errors in so many ways.
But this book also offers us a cautionary tale and an opportunity to hone our critical-thinking skills.
To me, this book illustrates exactly how someone smart can completely snow himself. That’s a big part of why I’ve chosen to examine it in detail. If I just wanted to point and laugh at evangelicals’ folly, jeez, that’s not hard at all. The big mistake, though, would be imagining that this folly is purely limited to evangelicals. It’s not. The success of the anti-abortion culture war outside the evangelical fold speaks to that truth.
I want to be always testing my own ideas and making sure the solutions I pursue tally with reality. By moving outside my normal context, I can refine my thoughts, hopefully see my errors more easily, and then make necessary course corrections.
That isn’t something I could do as an evangelical, and it isn’t something I see evangelicals able to do today.
So in this short series, we’ll test some of Ronald J. Sider’s ideas — and perhaps notice where his mistakes crop up in other groups and movements. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me!
NEXT UP: Measuring evangelical misery.
About the origins of the two modern evangelical culture wars: The moral panic about communism stopped selling, and racism simply never sold well outside of the Deep South’s evangelical population. (Of course, culture wars never really die. Right now, some evangelicals still wring their widdle handsies about communism, and an embarrassing number still beat their freakout drums for racism.)
Evangelical leaders spent considerable time and deliberate effort to find a ginned-up, contrived cause they could create a moral panic around, all in hopes of pushing people to vote in ways that would benefit themselves. They trotted out one cause after another till finding something that sufficiently sparked evangelicals’ outrage. And they found one that worked beyond their wildest dreams: abortion.
The only reason abortion exists as a cause in evangelicalism now is that it sells so well.
If racism hadn’t stopped selling, way more evangelicals would be bellowing now about wanting the legal right to discriminate against black people. Indeed, most evangelicals happily embrace anti-LGBT policies to some extent or another, but the tribe’s largely moved on from this culture war because it stopped selling well enough. But abortion? Oh, that still works marvelously to gain evangelical leaders the votes and power they crave. Even many outsiders believe their wackadoodle rhetoric and vote to support their culture war.
If abortion stopped selling tomorrow, evangelicals’ Dear Leaders would simply contrive some new moral panic about something else. But I don’t think it ever will. Evangelicals’ warped misunderstanding of abortion has become their trump card.
And Ronald J. Sider just can’t allow himself to see this truth.
It’d be sadly hilarious if he wasn’t doing so much damage to human rights.
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