AN EVANGELICAL CALL TO CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY: Ron Sider’s comments at the launch of the NAE’s new document
On March 10, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) held a three-hour session for religious leaders, politicians, and reporters on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington to launch its new document. Major stories in THE NEW YORK TIMES on March 10 and 11 reported on the document, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn), historian Mark Noll, and NAE President Ted Haggard spoke. The event also launched the book that contains the essays that undergirded the three-year process – TOWARD AN EVANGELICAL PUBLIC POLICY, edited by Ron Sider and Diane Knippers, the co-chairs of the process. Ron and Diane also spoke at the Washington event.
What follows are the remarks Ron Sider made at the meeting:
It has been an honor to serve the NAE and the larger evangelical community in this way, and I would like to say thanks to Ted Haggard and the NAE board for that privilege.
Four quick points about “For the Health of the Nation”:
ONE. This is the beginning of serious, communal evangelical reflection on political philosophy. In THE SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL MIND in 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll lamented the absence in the evangelical world of anything like the century of papal Roman Catholic encyclicals full of careful political reflection or like the work of people like Reinhold Niebuhr in Mainline Protestantism. We don’t pretend that this new book and declaration means that evangelicals have now filled that gap, but we have begun. And we will continue.
TWO. This is a broad consensus document. It does not say everything that Chuck Colson or Ted Haggard or I would say if we were each making our own statement. What is important is that we can and do say this much together. This declaration has a lot of common ground on both principles and specifics for a distinguished list of heads of evangelical denominations, prominent organizations, colleges and seminaries to say together.
THREE. A word on the process. It was not a hard, painful process, but rather an enjoyable, often exhilarating one. Of course we disagreed and argued. But we also listened hard and looked for what we had in common. The process itself is a model for future evangelical reflection on controversial political issues. I believe it is possible for evangelicals to expand the areas of agreement and consequently greatly strengthen our political impact.
FOUR. Finally, I want to highlight three parts of the declaration that I consider especially important:
a. Evangelicals have sometimes been accused of having a one- or two-issue political agenda. We have sometimes been accused of being concerned with the sanctity of human life only from conception to birth. Others can decide if that was ever fair. But this document makes it clear that a vast body of evangelicals today reject that approach. The declaration insists that it is precisely because the Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about marriage and the family and the sanctity of human life and justice for the poor and care for creation and peace and freedom and racial justice, that “faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda.”
This in no way represents abandoning a vigorous commitment to the sanctity of human life and a biblical understanding of marriage. But it does mean that racial and economic justice and care for creation are also central evangelical concerns. Especially noteworthy perhaps is that this is probably the first centrist, consensus evangelical document with a substantial section on creation care.
This document demonstrates that evangelicals are not one-issue voters.
b. Evangelicals have sometimes been accused of not understanding structures and systems. Some polls have found that most evangelicals think the only way to change society is one person at a time. This document is clear: social problems result both from bad personal choices and unjust systems and therefore we must correct social problems both by personal spiritual conversion and institutional, structural reform.
c. Evangelicals have sometimes been accused of confusing God and country. Again, this document is clear. “Our primary allegiance is to Christ, his kingdom and Christ’s worldwide body of believers, not to any nation.” We recognize the “potentially self-destructive tendencies of our [American] society and government.”
I think this is an historic document. If the 30 million evangelicals represented by the NAE vigorously apply this framework to public life and push their political representatives in the direction mapped out here, America and the world will become a much better place for everyone.
Ron Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action.