Friday, April 5, 2013

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ronald J. Sider

Okay I admit I had a little too much fun with this one. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a born-again, morally superior diatribe about other people’s personal choices, or a sales pitch for Jesus that expounds on the joys of magical thinking, is in for an indulgent schadenfreude. It’s especially satisfying to see these fake smiles on legs getting capped by one of their own. Ronald J Sider is the ubermensch of evangelical superiority; the high priest of purity, telling some of the most sanctimonious creatures evolved from the earlier primates, that they aren’t good enough. And, the prelude to it all is a litany of their failure to live up to their hype.

The Introduction and first chapter are an airing of dirty laundry about how Evangelicals are no better, and sometimes worse, than the rest of us. “Divorce is more common among ‘born again’ Christians than in the general American population” (Sider, p. 13). In addition, “90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted Christ” (Sider, p. 18). Christians, who are admonished to give 10% of their wealth to charity, are giving 2.66% (Sider, p. 20).

Then we get to a section entitled “Sexual Disobedience.” When someone is na├»ve enough to couple the words “sexual” and “disobedience” with a straight face, you know it’s going to provide great comedy. I wonder what Christian Sexual Obedience Training looks like? Here, Sider quotes from a Columbia/Yale study of True Love Waits, a youth organization within the Southern Baptist Convention, to reduce adolescent sexual activity. It is as effective as you’d expect:  88% of teens who took the pledge lost their virginity (Sider, p. 23). I hope True Love wore a condom. But if you’re taking such a pledge, it's likely you're less prepared than the average teen. Also, you probably don’t have parents who will frankly discuss sexual safeguards; they’re expecting you to remain celibate.

In the face of all these changes imposed by the secular world upon the Christian time capsule, it should be comforting for born-agains to know that some Christian traditions have remained the same. Depressingly, those traditions are hatred and violence. Racism: “Baptists and evangelicals were among the most likely groups to object to black neighbors” (Sider, p. 25). Domestic Violence: “women are more likely to experience physical abuse in traditional marriages (where the husband is dominant) than in egalitarian marriages” and “a higher percentage of evangelicals than the general public live in traditional marriages” (Sider, pp. 26-7). Then there are the hatreds of which Sider approves. Homophobia: “We rightly seek an amendment to the US Constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman” (Sider, p. 76). Yes, we wouldn’t want those gays weakening the institution of marriage like the born-agains who divorce in greater numbers than the general population. The Right to Choose: “We rightly seek to make abortion-on-demand illegal” (Sider, p. 76). Subjugation is alive and well among conservative Christians.

So what is Sider’s solution? Here the book loses any originality and all comic value. First, he spends the next three chapters beating the crap out of his co-religionists.

“Weeping and repentance are the only faithful responses to the sweeping, scandalous disobedience in the evangelical world today. We have defied the Lord we claim to worship. We have disgraced his holy name by our unholy lives…Unless we repent, our Lord intends to spit us out” (Sider, pp. 122-3).

This is the book version of watching the latest televangelist, caught in bed with the village bimbo, crying his way to forgiveness. To summarize the chapters for anyone who doesn‘t feel like yawning through them: “Biblical Vision” discusses what Jesus expected of his followers. “Cheap Grace vs. the Whole Gospel” proclaims that you cannot half-heartedly commit. “Conforming to Culture or Being Church” is pretty simple: Culture bad; Church good. Throw in a little superstition (“Satan is a real, living entity” [Sider, p. 127]), add a final chapter on Christian groups and individuals who are living in “unconditional submission to Jesus” and you’re done.

Sider is so foolishly out of touch with the modern world, and so ignorant of history, that he doesn’t see how his strategy will fail. He offers the same old, unimaginative approach to the flock that has been used for centuries, and it’s how conservative Christians got where they are today. The secular world is just too enticing and liberating, and it has changed even conservative Christianity. With no fresh, imaginative approaches, Sider guarantees that the values and beliefs of his brethren will continue on a trajectory away from his goals. Christianity will undoubtedly continue for a long time. But as the world changes, so will it.

Sider, Ronald J. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005.

For an atheist perspective on St Augustine's The Confessions, see;

For a classic history on science vs religion, see: