Sider’s faith led him to reject the political bundling and ideological categories of our moment. But though he was a unique and important leader, he was not — and is not — alone. It’s critical to understand that Sider represents an entire movement. He helped build this movement, to be sure, but his work was institutional and relational. It always involved others. Today, when what it means to be an “influencer” is bound up with individual, personal branding, a striking part of Sider’s legacy is that he was delightfully unhip and unbranded. Instead, he worked to build coalitions, organizations, communities and grass-roots change.
In 1973, Sider helped convene a group of Christian leaders in Chicago to issue “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” a pivotal document in the history of contemporary Christian political engagement. It was a formal statement of repentance for evangelical silence in the face of poverty and racism and called for a renewal of evangelical political priorities. It was signed by over 50 prominent leaders such as Carl F.H. Henry, Richard Mouw, Sharon Gallagher, Samuel Escobar, John Perkins and Jim Wallis.
In his 2012 book “Moral Minority,” David Swartz points out that this meeting took place “nearly a decade before the Moral Majority” overtook evangelical politics. These young activists in Chicago were “strategizing about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action.” But, he says, that direction was to the left, instead of the right. He continues, “Sider and his colleagues condemned American militarism, sexism, economic injustice, and President Richard Nixon’s ‘lust for and abuse of power.’”
The religion scholar Brantley Gasaway tweeted that Sider’s career was a “bitter reminder of what modern evangelical politics might have but did not become.” This is true, but also what Sider’s life makes clear is that there has always been an alternative current in evangelical political engagement.
This remains alive today. I am from a generation of younger Christians who have been shaped by people like John Perkins, John Stott and Ron Sider. There are many of us. In his book, Swartz points to a growing movement, often among younger evangelicals, that may “suggest the possibilities of a revitalized evangelical activism on poverty, the environment, and human trafficking.” “The Chicago Declaration,” he wrote, “underscores the persistence of a progressive impulse in an evangelical tradition often portrayed as uniformly traditionalist and politically right.”
Many Christians, including Sider himself, watched with sadness and a measure of horror as nuanced evangelical political engagement appeared to go up in flames in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. The willingness — and at times exuberance — of conservative evangelicals to vote for a bloviating bully who, at the National Prayer Breakfast, stated his disagreement with Jesus’s teaching to love your enemies seemed to be the death knell of the evangelical left’s decades of activism.