As the retirement gala for Ron Sider, the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) for the last forty years, got underway last weekend, emcee Tony Campolo lamented the difficulty of the task at hand. “How do you roast a peace-loving, simple-living Mennonite?” he asked. There just isn’t a lot of material. A long list of luminaries—including Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Jim Wallis, Tom Sine, David Gushee, Dean Trulear, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Heidi Unruh—tried. And a few of them landed some blows to the pacifist Sider, most of them having to do with his decidedly non-pacifist fishing habit and his penchant for wearing brown suits purchased at thrift stores. (In fact, gala invitations instructed attendees to wear “Ron Sider Casual,” which meant your thrift store finest). But most of the roasts “devolved” into paeans to Sider’s integrity, kindness, and love for Jesus. At the evening’s conclusion, Sider confessed to being a sinner with feet of clay, but the love-fest suggested that the man was a saint with angelic wings.
As a historian of progressive evangelicals, I found the roast—and accompanying conference called Follow.Jesus.2013—utterly fascinating. I met four surviving original signers of the 1973 Chicago Declaration. I heard about a new book that lays out future directions of ESA (more on this in my next post). I observed a surprisingly large contingent of younger evangelicals who are continuing Sider’s legacy of evangelism and social justice (in his closing remarks, Sider noted that white evangelicals of the 1970s needed to hear about justice. In the future, he mused, they may need to hear more about evangelism). I led two workshops that contemplated the legacy of Evangelicals for Social Action—and discovered that the man (Wes Granberg-Michaelson) sitting to my right was the star of the cover of my book!
The tone of the conference was equal parts wistful and celebratory. Wistful in that the evangelical left’s great rivalry with the religious right had been a rout—not in ESA’s favor. One of the running jokes of the weekend was how bad Sider has been in supporting winning presidents—starting in 1972 with his leadership of Evangelicals for McGovern. In terms of electoral politics, right-wing organizations and individuals such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Jerry Falwell, Jim Dobson, and Pat Robertson have swamped moderate wings led by Sider, Wallis, and Mouw.
The celebratory tone came from the recognition that Sider’s legacy is significant. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has now sold nearly half a million copies. And while ESA has remained small and Sider has been laboring for decades with little help on issues of poverty, women’s rights, and inequities in the global economy, the evangelical left seems to have anticipated contemporary evangelical concerns. Sider’s views are rapidly becoming standard among moderate evangelicals. For the Health of the Nation, which was released in 2005 by the National Association of Evangelicals, reads like a consistent-life tract that progressive evangelicals might have written back in the 1980s. (Ron Sider in fact co-chaired the committee that drafted the document.) In a statement that sounded like a description of Sider himself, historian Mark Noll remarked, “This document is, in unusual measure, compassionate, well-balanced, thoughtful, remarkably comprehensive, humble, well-informed, noncombative, irenic, and wise. Believe me, in over thirty years of lecturing and writing about the history of evangelical Christianity, I have very rarely been able to use all of those adjectives all at once about the same thing.” There may not be many card-carrying members of the evangelical left (my least favorite joke when I told people I was writing my dissertation on progressive evangelicals was: “The evangelical left—all three of them?), but their legacy is not insignificant. The steady, often saintly, leadership of Sider is one reason why.