It was the kind of quote from Pope John Paul II that was powerful and prophetic â but difficult to print on a political sticker.
“America will remain a beacon of freedom to the world as long as it upholds those moral truths that are at the very heart of its historical experience,” he said during his 1999 American tour. : if you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth – the truth revealed by God.
One American activist who paid particular attention was Ronald J. Sider, a Mennonite theologian who had already had a decades-long career in asking Americans to think about precisely this equation.
Politicians on the left and right would applaud when Jean-Paul attacked the modern world’s “culture of death,” Sider said. But, in private, Democrats and Republicans would grumble.
“People on the left are going to love what he had to say about the death penalty, racism and caring for the poor,” Sider said when I reached him by phone. âBut many liberals will squirm because he ties these issues directly to traditional Christian teachings on abortion, euthanasia and family life. Meanwhile, some right-wingers will squirm because the pope has made it clear that he associates these pro-life issues with the death penalty and poverty, disease, hunger, and even the environment.
Sider added, âWe live in a time of incredible relativism in this society and even in the church. We live in a country that seems to have gone astray.
These kinds of tensions have defined Sider’s own struggles as a hard-to-label political activist and ecumenical leader. He died on July 27 at the age of 82.
Christianity Today ranked Sider’s classic “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” as one of the most influential religious books of the 20th century. The flagship evangelical magazine also ran this headline with a cover story about Sider’s career – “Ron Sider’s Unsettling Crusade: Why Is This Man Angering So Many?”
Conservatives have often noted that one of Sider’s earliest forays into politics was creating evangelicals for McGovern during the 1972 White House race. This was just before the Roe v. Wade in 1973, when Senator George McGovern was best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
The religious left was upended in 2009 when Sider joined a Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical coalition backing the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto the Los Angeles Times called “irresponsible and dangerous.” He proclaimed that âno power on earth, whether cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiesceâ to centuries of doctrine on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of human life. Citing the First Amendment’s defense of religious freedom, the signatories vowed to reject “any edict that purports to compel our institutions” to compromise.
The political heat kept building, and in 2020 the organization Evangelicals for Social Action â which Sider founded in 1978 â changed its name to Christians for Social Action. In 2020, Sider edited a book of essays titled “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump”.
Through it all, Sider refused to compromise on core Christian doctrines and warned believers to be realistic about what political warfare can and cannot accomplish. In 2020, he told Australian newspaper Zadok Perspectives that he remains focused on the truth of Easter and as a result, “I’m not driven to make things happen or to deep despair when something doesn’t work out because I know where the story is going. â
Difficult questions were inevitable. So in his 1987 book, “Completely Pro-Life,” he offered an answer to that familiar question: “What does it mean to let Jesus be lord of our politics?”
“It means consciously deciding to examine every political thought and action by the standards of God’s Word,” he wrote. âIt means refusing to be a radical in the 60s and a neoconservative in the 80s just because the political winds have changed. It means an unquestioning resolve to vote and lobby according to the standards of Jesus’ rising kingdom rather than the values ââof the status quo.
Later in the book, he adds, âIt is only when the church truly models the values ââit proclaims that its political activity has integrity. Too often, Christian leaders ask Washington to legislate what their parishioners refuse to experience. It’s a joke.
Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a principal investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.