ESA’s History

A Reflection

by Ron Sider

At the first Calvin College conference on politics that Paul Henry organized in the spring of 1973, half a dozen folk including David Moberg, Rufus Jones and Paul Henry decided to call a weekend workshop over Thanksgiving, 1973. We invited a broad range of evangelical leaders to come and talk about the need for strengthening evangelical social concern. About forty came–older evangelicals like Carl Henry, Frank Gaebelein; younger evangelicals like Jim Wallis, John Perkins, Sharon Gallagher, Rich Mouw and myself.

We wrote and signed the now famous Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, confessing our failure to confront injustice, racism and discrimination against women, and pledging to do better. Looking back, the Chicago Declaration sounds pretty tame, but it was new and powerful in 1973. Dick Ostling of Time magazine said that he thought it was probably the first time in the 20th century that forty evangelical leaders spent a whole weekend discussing social action. And the Chicago Sun Times said that some day church historians may write that “the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place” at this gathering.

Out of the 1973 Thanksgiving event came a new group, Evangelicals for Social Action, with the Chicago Declaration as our founding document. But our only major activity was an annual conference in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

One immediate response to the 1973 Chicago Declaration came from mainline ecumenical Christians. They were delighted that evangelicals were talking about racism and economic injustice. In 1974 and 1975, we held at least two, two-day consultations with a Lutheran group and a United Methodist group, and I was invited to attend the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi in 1975.

It is hard today to remember how little contact there was between evangelicals and mainline Protestants thirty years ago. A funny story reported in The Christian Century about the group Religious Leaders for McGovern/Shriver in 1972 illustrates the situation. The leader of that group tells how he spent three days in the early fall of 1972 trying to contact evangelicals for the McGovern campaign. He says he would talk with one ecumenical leader after another asking if they knew any evangelical he could call. They would say: “No, but I think so and so knows one.” When he called that person, he got the same response. Then on the third day, his secretary took a call from Ron Sider who claimed to represent Evangelicals for McGovern. We talked and became part of Religious Leaders for McGovern/Shriver. One of the things ESA has accomplished over the years is to help build bridges–far more solid ones I hope than the McGovern campaign!– between evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

In the summer of 1978, we launched ESA as a national membership organization with three full-time staff and offices at The Other Side building in Germantown in Philadelphia. A little publication called the ESA Update, local ESA chapters, and the Disciple Workshop teams doing two-day seminars on world hunger and economic justice were our major activities. We made all the usual start-up mistakes plus some in the first three years. But in 1981, God sent along Bill Kallio who was living in Grand Rapids to be our new executive director. Bill had grown up in a secular, liberal New Jersey home that was deeply committed to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. When Bill came to Christ through an evangelical youth movement in high school, he decided he must go to an evangelical college. But when as a freshman at Wheaton in the early 70\’s his fellow students discovered that he was opposed to the Vietnam War and in favor of the civil rights movement, fellow students concluded that he was not a Christian and started knocking on his dorm door trying to lead him to Jesus. So he transferred to Gordon College.

Bill Kallio was ESA’s executive director from 1981-1987. After a couple years in Grand Rapids, Bill led us to transfer ESA’s offices to Washington. Bill was influential in leading ESA to a clearer consistently pro-life stance. ESA staff helped do the research for my book Completely Pro-Life that was published in 1987.

After a trip of evangelical leaders to Nicaragua which I organized about 1983, ESA decided to develop a prayer letter called Intercessors for Peace and Freedom: A Prayer Network for Peace, Justice and Freedom. ESA opposed the Reagan Administration’s funding of the contras waging guerilla war against the Sandinista government. But we also opposed the ways the Sandinistas were restricting freedom. So our newsletter carried regular reports about both the massacres by the contras and the violations of freedom by the Sandinistas and invited people to pray and work for peace and justice and freedom in Nicaragua. I am still proud of that balanced position.

We also worked for a bilateral, verifiable nuclear freeze in the early 80\’s. Perhaps the most vivid moment in that campaign came in an hour-long debate that I had with Jerry Falwell on a popular CNN evening program. Actually the debate only lasted forty minutes. At 9:00 when the show was to start, Falwell had not yet arrived at the New York TV studio. So the host said, let’s go anyway. But ten seconds into my first comment, the studio lost the satellite hookup for the first time ever on that program. For the next eighteen or so minutes, the technicians worked furiously to regain contact. Just thirty seconds before they succeeded, Falwell burst into the studio, apologizing for the traffic jam in the Lincoln Tunnel. As we went back on the air, the astonished host explained what had happened and said to Jerry: “I suppose you think God arranged all this.” “Of course,” he replied. We had a tough debate for the next forty minutes.

In the fall of 1987, we moved the main office back to Philadelphia. Up till then, I had been chair of the board, but for a couple years, starting in 1987, I became executive director and only taught half time at Eastern Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary). Van Temple was associate executive director from 1987-1992 and we soon developed a sizeable staff, moving the offices to the basement of Eastern Seminary in 1989. The ESA Advocate replaced the ESA Update in 1988. We also published ESA Backgrounders, somewhat substantial analyses of a series of specific socio-economic-political issues.

One major effort of these years was a national campaign to gather evangelical support for economic sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa. We sponsored a five- to six-week tour of about 25 evangelical colleges by a leading black evangelical, Moss Ntlha, from South Africa.

In some ways, this period was our most concentrated political period. From the beginning, ESA dealt with political issues, but our agenda was largely educational and always focused more broadly on developing a biblically balanced evangelical social concern. Politics was only one part of that.

But in 1987, ESA played a central role in launching JustLife, a Political Action Committee seeking to elect members of Congress who were consistently pro-life– i.e., opposed to abortion, but also committed to justice for the poor and to reversing the nuclear arms race. JustLife was an evangelical/Catholic coalition with its own board, but the ESA staff also served as the staff for JustLife and the same office served both organizations. JustLife is one of the visions that never really took off–but we gave it our best shot for a cluster of years.

1993-2000 is the next major period of ESA’s history. I now had the title President and had, already a couple years previously, returned to full-time teaching at Eastern Seminary. Cliff Benzel, a former vice president at World Vision, moved to Philadelphia to run ESA as executive vice- president. This was a period of major foundation grants, a large staff, and growing impact.

PRISM magazine replaced the ESA Advocate, arriving just in time for ESA’s 20th anniversary celebration in Chicago in 1993.

Major foundation grants from Pew and Luce enabled ESA to run the Crossroads program for doctoral scholars studying politics, economics and sociology at our top universities. They attended a two-week summer intensive helping them integrate biblical faith and theology with their secular academic work. Each young scholar wrote a monograph. We also had a track for senior scholars. We eventually published about thirty monographs in the Crossroads program, thus adding depth and sophistication to evangelical political thinking.

In the later 90’s, another major grant from the Bauman Foundation enabled us to assemble a circle of about fifteen top established evangelical scholars to work on various aspects of the following question: “If we really wanted to end poverty in America, what would a comprehensive, integrated holistic agenda look like?” We eventually published a huge scholarly volume with all those essays. I also wrote a popularization of the same material published in the book, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

In this same period, ESA began to devote more and more attention to helping churches combine evangelism and social action. We had always believed and advocated that balance, but in the earlier years, we felt it was evangelical social action that was especially lacking and needed emphasis. Now we felt it was time to stress the balance. I wrote Cup of Water, Bread of Life and Good News and Good Works (actually, the first title was One-Sided Christianity?), talking about the theology for and telling the stories about holistic ministry. Then in 1999, Phil Olson joined the staff as vice-president for church relations and director of Network 9:35–our new network of congregations and evangelical organizations seeking to truly integrate evangelism and social action-at the local congregational level. That commitment to holistic ministry continues at the heart of ESA’s vision and work.

The early nineties also saw the beginning of ESA’s intensive work on the environment. In 1991, I received a call from Paul Gorman in New York–someone I had never heard of before. Paul said a mainline Protestant friend had told him that I would be interested in the major new process he was putting together organizing religious leaders to care for the environment. I agreed to help bring national evangelical leaders to the event. As what is now the National Religious Partnership for the Environment–a coalition of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the National Council of Churches, a Jewish network called the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network–as this partnership was forming, I said, yes, ESA would put together the evangelical partner for this coalition. And we did–developing staff, writing the influential “An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation,” publishing books, organizing conferences and producing study materials.

Probably the two most public and perhaps most politically influential things we have ever done in ESA’s history, in fact, happened through EEN.

In the mid-term 1994 elections, conservative Republicans took control of the House of Representatives with very strong support from conservative evangelicals like Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. Every political commentator seemed to assume that all evangelicals embraced the new political agenda, including the attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act.

With sophisticated help from the NRPE, ESA and EEN planned a public day in Washington to tell the political world that many evangelicals cared about the environment and wanted to preserve, not destroy, the Endangered Species Act. We had a large meeting with the Secretary of the Interior and then held a press conference at the National Press Club. Word got out that a live panther from an Endangered Species would be there and the place was packed. I opened the press conference with prayer and then said we were there because God the Creator cared about his creation and therefore evangelical Christians must care for the environment. This blew apart all the current political stereotypes and we were a top story on the evening news. There were headline stories all across the country. The momentum for gutting the Endangered Species Act was reversed. In fact, secular environmental leaders have subsequently said: “We won that one because of the evangelicals.”

A few years later, EEN participated in a national campaign for fuel efficiency in our cars and trucks. Both the Jewish and NCC partners in the NRPE were also engaged. But Jim Ball, the director of EEN proposed that EEN’s contribution should be called: “What Would Jesus Drive?” Paul Gorman was skeptical, but I said I thought it would work; so we proceeded to develop a TV spot and other materials. On the day when the partners went to Detroit to meet with Bill Ford and other top Ford and GM executives, the WWJD slogan captured the attention of the media. We were on all the major TV news networks and on a variety of CNN programs (I again debated Jerry Falwell on CNN). In fact, the WWJD campaign was in about 500 different TV stories and in thousands of newspapers across the country. Nothing in our history has ever received so much national attention!

Some laughed–or mocked. Others got our serious point that if Jesus is Lord of all of one’s life, then one’s choice about the car one drives is an ethical choice that affects the environment and our grandchildren. The EEN became its own independent organization and is now self-sustaining and still doing great work.

Today, ESA serves as a catalyzing agent for Christ’s shalom via projects focused on cultural renewal, holistic ministry, political reflection and action, social justice and reconciliation, and creation care. Rather than a typical “think” tank, ESA is a “do” tank whose purpose is to mobilize movements for constructive social change.