Randall Balmer on the scandal of evangelical politics

Randall Balmer has a review in Books & Culture of Ron Sider’s most recent book on The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? His review is a rather critical one, summed up well by the title: “A Failure of Nerve.” Balmer censures Sider for three reasons: (1) Sider does not identify any real scandal worthy of the book’s title; (2) Sider’s positive proposals are far less radical and significant than they could be, particularly in light of Sider’s earlier work (e.g., Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger); and, most importantly, (3) Sider locates the promise of “changing the world” in the act of evangelicals “doing politics.” Regarding the last of these three charges, Balmer quite rightly states:

Change the world by "doing politics"? That's a remarkable statement, especially from someone who hails from the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists understand better than most Jesus' renunciation of earthly power and his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world. The cautionary lesson from the sorry saga of the Religious Right lies not in the movement's political ineptitude, egregious as that has been, but in its devaluing of the gospel in the quest for political influence. The New Testament suggests that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power—a principle strongly reinforced by an overview of American history. Whenever people of faith begin grasping after power, they lose their prophetic voice. This was no less true of mainline Protestantism in the 1950s, tethered as it was to white, middle-class Eisenhower suburbanism, than it has been of the Religious Right in the decades surrounding the turn of the 21st century.

Am I arguing that people of faith should not make their voices heard in the arena of public discourse? On the contrary: I believe that public discourse would be impoverished without those voices. But we should never delude ourselves into thinking that "doing politics," to use Sider's phrase, represents the highest or the best or even a proximate expression of our prophetic mission. A prophet always stands at the margins, calling the powerful to account. Misplaced allegiance to political power represents a form of idolatry, and the failure of evangelicals generally and the Religious Right in particular to call politicians to account, especially those politicians they propelled into office, is the stuff of, well, scandal.

In this latest issue of Book & Culture, you can also read a review of Balmer’s most recent book, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.