A Plea for Conservative Radicals and Radical Conservatives

by Ronald J. Sider

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 1, 1986, p. 834. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We could make some progress toward a resolution by listening to each other more carefully. We need a kind of open, honest and fair-minded debate that might lead radicals to adopt some conservative strengths and conservatives to affirm some radical solutions.

Never before in this century have evangelical Christians been so involved in public life. From Sojourners magazine to Evangelicals for Social Action, from the Christianity Today Institute to Pat Robertson’s School of Public Policy and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Federation, theologically conservative Christians have entered the political arena with a new intensity and sophistication.

But ironically, just as evangelical Christianity has the chance to exert its greatest influence on American life, it threatens to self-destruct in a blaze of ferocious fratricide. Though there is a consensus among evangelicals that they should be involved in public affairs, there is much disagreement over the substance of that involvement. Jerry Falwell and myself, for example -- evangelical Christians both -- disagree enormously over what biblical faithfulness means in public life. Disagreements of this kind between conservative and radical evangelicals have increasingly spawned vicious name-calling and distorted attacks. If unchecked, this strife will quickly destroy evangelicals’ historic opportunity.

What can be done? Three things would help. First, a greater willingness to listen to, and affirm the strengths of, the opposing position. Second, a greater awareness of the complexity of political judgments and a more honest effort to locate the precise areas of disagreement. And third, a new commitment to debating the issues with respect, integrity and biblical faithfulness.

Acknowledging Each Other’s Strengths. Both conservative and radical evangelicals tend to accuse each other of bad faith. Each party charges that the other’s position is an ideological cover for even more dreadful errors. Conservatives, radicals suggest, stress democratic process and freedom more than justice in order to rationalize the economic self-interest that exploits the poor. In their more hostile moments, radicals even question the motives of neoconservatives, noting the huge sums of money flowing into neoconservative think tanks and movements. Conservatives, for their part, suggest that the radicals’ emphasis on justice rather than freedom conceals Marxist sympathies or at least a culpable naïveté about the evils of communist totalitarianism.

Conservatives, radicals charge, are blind to the evils of the American system. In their defense of "democratic capitalism," they ignore the many documented instances of unjust actions by American multinational corporations in Latin America and elsewhere. To radicals, the weak excuses offered for American cooperation with dictators in places like Chile, the Philippines and South Korea merely illustrate the blinding effect of right-wing ideology.

Conservatives, on the other hand, charge radicals with a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the evils of Marxist regimes. Radicals, they claim, selectively criticize Western-oriented dictators and seldom denounce the flagrant abuse of human rights in communist countries. To conservatives, the radicals’ description of the Sandinistas’ murder of Miskito Indians as "mistakes," caused by U.S. foreign policy, simply reveals the depth of their left-wing prejudice.

Both sides accuse the other of distorting facts. Radicals charge that conservatives dishonestly accept El Salvador’s election as a democratic success but regard Nicaragua’s as a totalitarian fraud, when independent observers have indicated that the Nicaraguan election was at least as fair as the one in El Salvador. Conservatives charge that radicals have ignored the evidence of a strong Marxist-Leninist element in the Sandinista government, and also ignored Nicaragua’s growing list of human-rights violations.

Charges of ideological blindness and distortion of the facts have been accompanied, not surprisingly, by harsh language. Radicals have been compared with Stalin and labeled Marxists or naïve fellow travelers. (See, for example, Lloyd Billingsley, The Generation That Knew Not Josef [Multnomah Press, 1985].) And conservatives at least feel that they are being compared with Hitler and regarded as fascists or callous oppressors lacking an ounce of compassion. "I feel urinated on," one conservative leader protested angrily. Given the decibel level of recent accusations, the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.

I am not so naïve as to suppose that disagreements of this magnitude can be solved easily or quickly. But I do believe we could make some progress toward a resolution by listening to each other more carefully. Both sides are making some good points, and both would profit by acknowledging the other’s strengths.

I want to make a plea for conserving radicals -- radicals who gladly affirm the conservatives’ desire to preserve what is good in the past. For radicals, too, should praise the American tradition of democratic process and religious and political liberty.

Why do some radicals hesitate to affirm the American tradition that has said to the world, "Give me your tired, your poor, your struggling masses yearning to breathe free"? Why should radicals not give Memorial Day speeches? Radicals should champion political and religious freedom as vigorously as they do economic justice. Neoconservatives have a point here, for some social activists in recent decades have not spoken as loudly or persistently about freedom as they have about justice. Radicals should protest (as Jim Wallis does in Sojourners [January 1986, pp. 4-5]) when Nicaragua restricts political and religious liberty.

Radicals dare not allow their important condemnation of the past and present injustices committed by Western powers to dull their sensitivity to the ghastly history of Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. Marxist-Leninists have murdered millions of people in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and elsewhere. Marxist-Leninists do claim to want to conquer the world and impose an atheistic world view and a one-party state. It is stubborn stupidity to ignore these facts. Selective criticism will not do. Nor dare radicals overlook the fact that Marxist-Leninists are trying to exploit Third World movements for justice. Thus, it was important that the Sojourners-sponsored Peace Pentecost in May 1985 protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That kind of activity should be a regular item on the radical agenda. One sign that radicals are biblically faithful rather than ideologically captive will be their readiness to champion religious and political liberty as vigorously as they do justice and peace.

At the same time, I want to make a plea for radical conservatives -- conservatives who are ready to critique and abandon what is not good in the past. Radical conservatives would more frequently criticize the evils of U.S. policy at home and abroad, defend economic justice as vigorously as they do liberty, and refuse to allow their valid opposition to Marxism-Leninism to lead them to regard all Third World movements for social change as Marxist-Leninist fronts.

Why do conservatives more often not admit the frightening way that power is concentrated in the U.S.? Large corporations, which own the media and influence the churches and the universities, have enormous economic and political clout. Consequently, our political life is not nearly so democratic as is often claimed.

Michael Novak is surely correct when he says that the U.S. is not the cause of most of the poverty in Latin America. But he is surely wrong when he fails to denounce the way U.S.-based multinational corporations and the CIA have contributed to injustice in places like Guatemala, Chile and Nicaragua. Though I would agree that, on balance, the Soviet Union contributes more evil to the world than does the U.S., that is no reason for neglecting to denounce the evils of Western capitalism. When one adds up the millions murdered by the communists, one also needs to count the Native Americans, black slaves and Third World children who have died because of Western policies. In the Bible, the prophets denounced the evils in their own society more often than they condemned Israel’s external enemies. If conservatives would be more forthright and balanced in their condemnation of American evils, radicals might become more vigorous in their praise of the good.

Why should not economic justice be as important a concern for conservatives as is liberty? Why does not the prophet’s ringing call for justice for the poor pulse more vigorously through conservative writings? Should not conservatives acknowledge the Sandinistas’ accomplishments in economic justice (the greater availability of education and health care for the poor) while denouncing their abuses of human rights? Should not conservatives lead the denunciation of economic injustice in places like South Korea and Central America?

Conservatives should not permit their important critique of Marxism-Leninism to exaggerate the presence of Marxist-Leninists in liberation movements in the Third World. The first thing that needs to be said about Ferdinand Marcos’s Philippines or about Central America or South Africa is that gross injustice there cries out for prompt correction. To be sure, Marxist-Leninists are there to exploit a valid desire for change, and since the Marxist-Leninists are ruthless and well organized, we who care about freedom as well as justice must not be blind to their totalitarian goals. But to defend Marcos and South African President P. W. Botha as Jerry Falwell has done, saying that a Marxist takeover must be prevented, is to play into the hands of the communists. The Western defense of injustice makes Marxism-Leninism appear the only hope for genuine social change. Precisely because they want to prevent more socialist governments in the world, conservatives should lead the attack on economic injustice.

Nor is selective criticism acceptable. Why do not the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the National Association of Evangelicals condemn human-rights violations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile as vigorously and frequently as they do human-rights violations in Nicaragua? Should not the same standards apply in all places? One sign that conservatives care more about biblical revelation than about right-wing ideology will be their readiness to champion economic justice as vigorously as they do freedom and democracy.

Locating the Areas of Disagreement. Reaching a conclusion about the best and most biblically faithful position, whether on welfare or our policy toward South Africa, is an exceedingly complex undertaking. It demands more than a few biblical proof-texts and a casual glance at the morning paper. Evangelicals would understand their different political conclusions better and progress more quickly toward resolving their disagreements if they were more conscious of the components that contribute to a conclusion and if they tried harder to isolate the precise areas of disagreement.

We all carry assumptions and convictions derived from our family, church and education. For example, I carry assumptions about individualism and free enterprise that come from growing up on a farm, and biblical assumptions that came from growing up in a pietistic Anabaptist family and church. Those who want to be biblical must vigorously and consciously seek to evaluate every element of their inherited assumptions on the basis of Scripture. But no one can succeed fully in this critique. Therefore, we should always welcome those who help us discover how our unconsciously inherited ideology -- whether of the left or right -- still shapes our thinking.

The Bible is the norm for all who want a biblically informed political agenda. But a common commitment to biblical authority does not preclude major disagreement. Sometimes we disagree over the exegesis of specific texts. For instance, some think that although literal meaning of Matthew 25 is that Christians must feed and clothe brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus’ extension of neighbor love to include everyone in need (Matt. 5:43-44) means that Matthew 25 also summons Christians to offer food and clothing to all the needy they can assist. Others would limit the application of Matthew 25 to fellow Christians. The way to overcome disagreements of this kind is to exegete more carefully and do so in the company of those who challenge our interpretations.

Sometimes we disagree when we attempt to summarize central themes of Scripture or try to provide a comprehensive overview of biblical teaching on a particular topic, such as the family or economic justice. When I listen carefully to what the Bible says about economic justice, I hear it saying that God has a special concern for the poor, the weak and the marginalized; that God is opposed to extremes of wealth and poverty; and that God as the only absolute owner wants the productive resources of the earth distributed in a way that allows individuals and families to earn their own way and cooperate with God in the shaping of history. (Therefore, I am not a socialist, if socialism means state ownership of the means of production. I favor decentralized and limited private ownership rather than state ownership or the concentration of power in huge corporations.) Others, of course, disagree vigorously. Again, the way to try to resolve these disagreements is to challenge the specific biblical work that provides the foundation for the biblical generalizations.

Different readings of history create another area of disagreement. We often differ both in our interpretation of the broad sweep of history and in our understanding of what is really the case (the "facts") in a particular situation. My study of the history of 20th-century Marxist-Leninist states leads me to conclude that despite some positive results, their overall impact has been so negative that we ought fiercely to resist any expansion of Marxism-Leninism. Another broad historical conclusion I would draw is that Western colonialism has had massive evil components as well as positive elements. Obviously, others would disagree.

It is not easy to agree even on specific facts. What "really happened" when the pope visited Managua? How strong is the hard-core Marxist-Leninist element in the Sandinista party? (If my answer to the latter question had been "totally dominant," I would have supported a different U.S. policy toward Nicaragua in the past seven years than I have.)

Disagreements over matters of fact are difficult, but not impossible, to resolve. If they result from a mere lack of information, sharing facts will help. Joint exploration by groups like Evangelicals for Social Action and the Institute on Religion and Democracy would be one way to resolve such disagreements. If either side is afraid of such a joint exploration, the public should know and draw the appropriate conclusions. When disagreements result from conflicting methodologies in the social sciences, the process of adjudication is far more complex, but not impossible. In any case, we dare not give up trying to help each other see the facts more accurately. Whether or not the impact of British colonialism in Nigeria or U.S. political and economic involvement in the Philippines has been positive is, in part, a factual question. If we resist regarding disagreements on such questions as a moral failing, and instead look more carefully at the data together, we will make more progress.

Finally, we disagree over the broad generalizations (or ideology) that we consciously derive from the complex of previous decisions. I believe that on balance a market economy (within certain parameters, to restrict injustice) rather than a state-owned, centrally planned economy as in the Soviet Union is more likely to produce both freedom and justice. I believe that a pluralistic political process with more than one political party is more likely to produce liberty. And I believe that many independent centers of power (church, media, economy, schools, the state) rather than one center of state power controlling all the others leads more surely to peace, justice and freedom. Again, others -- including faithful Christians -- disagree.

The more we can become clear about precisely where we disagree, the more we can at least understand each other. It is essential that a disagreement over the specific meaning of Matthew 25 not be construed in terms of someone’s lack of compassion for the poor or endorsement of Marxist-Leninist politics. If you disagree with someone on this point, you need to question that person’s exegesis, not his or her compassion or his or her politics. It is tragic to see a particular judgment about the degree of Marxist-Leninist influence in the Sandinista party regarded as the sign of an ideological commitment to Marxism-Leninism. And it is dishonest to portray as a person lacking compassion someone who has honestly concluded from history and the Bible that democratic capitalism is the surest path to justice for the poor. Those who disagree should question that person’s broad reading of history and Scripture, not that person’s concern for the poor.

A New Covenant of Integrity in Debate. Finally, we need to commit ourselves to debate civilly, honestly, fairly and biblically. The debate should be fast but not furious, vigorous but not vicious. In particular, evangelical leaders need to covenant together to avoid and publicly condemn name-calling, slanderous stereotyping, inaccurate, one-sided depictions of another’s position, distortion of facts and an unwillingness to test one’s views against others on the basis of Scripture.

Though I disagree intensely with President Reagan’s nuclear policy, I believe he desires peace in the world as much as I do. It is valid for me to argue that his nuclear buildup will probably lead to nuclear war, but it is immoral for me to call him a warmonger. Similarly, it is quite proper for someone to charge that my advocacy of a bilateral verifiable nuclear freeze increases the danger of nuclear war or even a Soviet takeover, but it is slanderous to call me a Marxist.

We need to promise to portray each other’s opinions fairly. We all know how tempting it is to exaggerate one aspect of an opponent’s perspective and ignore another. There is a fairly simple way to check whether we have accurately understood and fairly summarized another’s views. We can ask the other person! I suspect that at least half the current battles in church circles would end if the major contestants consulted each other personally to see if the views they were denouncing were actually held by the other person. One criterion of honesty in debate is stating the views of the person being criticized in such a way that that person would say, "Yes, that is what I mean." Until we do that, we have no right to criticize.

I am not saying we can never object to someone’s views without first picking up the telephone. But I do think that evangelical leaders would take an enormous step forward if they covenanted together not to engage in any major public criticism of each other until they had personally checked with the other party to make sure they were accurately stating the other’s views.

Finally, we need to covenant to search the Scriptures together. It is a farce to have Jerry Falwell and myself continue forever telling the American public that our contradictory public policy stands are thoroughly biblical. There is a way to work at that. Evangelical leaders could sit down privately twice a year for two days of confidential conversation to explain prayerfully and openly to each other the biblical foundations of their political views. As we survey church history, we see that even Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley occasionally got it wrong. Since we are making at least as many mistakes, we desperately need the insight of other Christian leaders who are striving to submit their total lives to biblical revelation. (I know that some try very hard to do this and that others persistently refuse to cooperate.) One criterion of the integrity of evangelical political leaders should be a willingness regularly to test the biblical validity of their views with other biblically committed Christian leaders.

Evangelicals face an unprecedented opportunity in this era. In order not to squander it, we need to acknowledge the valid arguments of those who disagree with us; we need to be more aware of the precise areas where we disagree; we need to commit ourselves to debating with integrity. If we do all these things, we will still have different perspectives and organizations. But radicals would adopt some conservative strengths and conservatives would affirm some radical solutions.

Is it too much to ask God to give us more conserving radicals and more radical conservatives?