by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
October 8, 2008 - In a recent essay, Dr. Ron Sider, President of Evangelicals for Social Action, suggests that a “biblically balanced” approach to relevant issues surrounding the upcoming election “will not allow one issue to trump all others.” He celebrates the fact that a growing number of evangelicals are “seek(ing) to let the full range of God’s concerns shape their politics.” In Sider’s view the “full range of God’s concerns” include: “environment, family, healthcare, human rights, international affairs/peacemaking, poverty/economic justice, racial justice, religious freedom, and sanctity of human life.”
Sider’s essay is an example of a growing trend among high-profile evangelicals who believe that historically, evangelicals in the United States have been held captive by an impoverished conception of political and social engagement – one that is personified by the uncharitably-labeled, “single-issue voter.” The single issue voter is one whose political reflection is narrow-minded, whose passion for social action is lacking, and whose Biblical and theological understanding of “the Kingdom” is grossly deficient. According to such a view (as, for example, expressed in the recent “Evangelical Manifesto”), a more fully-orbed understanding of such matters recognizes a greater range of political and social concerns than say, abortion alone. To think that political reflection and associated engagement is strictly a function of a mere handful of “hot-button” issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage) is to think far too myopically in light of the totality of Scripture. After all, as Sider and other like-minded evangelicals are right to point out, Scripture is deeply concerned with our response to the sufferings of the poor, the widow, the orphan, those in prison, the homeless, and so on.
In pointing to the need for evangelicals to concern themselves with the full range of those things that concern Christ, Sider is not alone. The late Carl F.H. Henry (for whom this Institute is named) offered a similar challenge to mid-twentieth century fundamentalists in his groundbreaking work The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Thus, Sider is to be commended for his prophetic work in reminding Christians to embody the present reality of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, even while they await its final consummation.
Still, the suggestion that in a “biblically balanced agenda” no one issue trumps the others is naïve at best, misleading at worst. As James Kushiner has pointed out, the naïveté stems from a failure to recognize the distinction between ends and means. Evangelicals of goodwill can reasonably disagree about matters of prudence (i.e., means) – how best to accomplish the good ends upon which we all agree (e.g., the need for stewardship of creation, for access to healthcare, for racial reconciliation, for international peace and stability, for the alleviation of poverty). However, issues about ends are always more fundamental (hence, trump) matters of prudence (i.e., of means). Consequently, any political figure who fails to grasp that human life is an end in itself is someone who cannot have a “biblically balanced agenda” regardless of the degree to which his or her policies of prudence may, in fact, be likely to succeed in achieving other good ends about which everyone is in agreement.
Whatever other faults single-issue evangelicals may have, a proper appreciation for relative weight of human life in a biblically balanced agenda is not one of them. Single-issue evangelicals seem to grasp something that Sider does not. While every issue is important, some are more important than others. Allowing issues of ends to trump issues of means might make one’s political reflection in this election season just a little bit less complex and sophisticated, but contra Sider, it does not thereby make one’s perspective biblically unbalanced.