Ron Sider is president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and professor of Theology and Culture at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twenty-five years ago, his groundbreaking book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" challenged American Christians to confront poverty in the U.S. and abroad. Sider spoke with Beliefnet after the 2004 election about Bush's next term, and about his upcoming book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

Many conservative evangelical Christians in America have taken President Bush's reelection as a mandate to push an agenda that includes an amendment banning gay marriage, nominating a certain type of Supreme Court judge, encouraging prayer or religious displays in public places, and that sort of thing. What do you think of the "values vote," and what should the evangelical agenda be now?

It's important to acknowledge that a very significant number of American voters cared deeply about questions like the sanctity of human life and the meaning of marriage, and related kinds of questions. At the same time, one needs to be careful not to overstate that. The way the question about values was asked in the exit polling was too broad to be very precise. My second comment is that Evangelicals for Social Action, my organization, has long argued that if you're going to be significantly Christian in your politics, you have to ask, what's the balance of things that biblical faith tells us God cares about? It's pretty clear that God cares very much about the sanctity of human life, but also very much about the poor, and economic justice for everyone. God cares very much about the family, but also about racial justice and creation care.
Meaning environmental stewardship? Right. The recent National Association of Evangelicals document For the Health of the Nation is now the official policy for the NAE, which represents 30 million Americans. That document explicitly says that while individual persons and organizations are at times called by God to concentrate on one or two issues, faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically-balanced agenda. That means that we need to urge President Bush to make overcoming poverty a more central agenda in the next four years. Given limited time and resources, if you had to choose the top three priorities for evangelicals right now on that list, what would they be? Precisely that kind of question gets one into trouble. It's not good enough to say, this one is far more important than all of the others. If you let me choose five... (Laughs) OK, I'll take five. I would say that renewing wholesome, stable, two-parent families is absolutely crucial. In biblical faith and in historic Christianity, not to mention many other civilizations, marriage is between a man and woman. So fighting gay marriage should be an evangelical priority.

Absolutely. That's one part of it, but the issue is vastly bigger than that. Over 95% percent of American families are heterosexual. So if the family's in trouble, and it surely is, it's overwhelmingly in trouble because heterosexual Americans, including vast numbers of evangelicals, are not keeping their marriage vows.

The place to start is for heterosexual Christians to be faithful parents and spouses.

That seems like something that would happen on a personal level, not really on a government level.

Primarily, certainly. Mostly that's a task for the churches and synagogues and mosques. But government can do some things. I mean, Bush has gotten rid of the marriage penalty in the tax code. That's a good thing. It's a good thing in the welfare bill to encourage marriage. The one exception, interestingly, to the elimination of tax penalties for marriage is in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is what affects the working poor. I would urge him to get rid of that tax disincentive for marriage as well. The stats are just so overwhelming. Sociological study after sociological study show that children need their mom and their dad. There wouldn't be any debate about that whatsoever on the basis of the science if there wasn't so much prejudice around in some communities, a fear and unwillingness to simply say straightforwardly, kids need both parents.

Why do you think there's unwillingness to say that children need both parents?

For more than thirty years, we've had a significant section of American society abandoning historic norms with regard to sexuality, and embracing promiscuity, suggesting that single parenthood is just as fine as two-parent families, and so on. The facts simply contradict that. So we've got to work at that.

What's issue #2?

Second point would be poverty and economic justice. The poverty level has grown in this country in the last three years. The number of people without health insurance has increased in the last few years. And globally we're not even coming close to meeting the goal set out in 2000, the Millennium Goals of reducing poverty and hunger by half by the year 2015. The president has actually endorsed some major increases in American economic development for overcoming poverty and working on HIV-AIDS. He endorsed increasing American funding for economic development by ten billion dollars, and in fact this past year has increased it by several billion. It's the first time in more than a decade that we got any significant increase. That's economic development money to dig wells and do micro-loans and any number of things--

So in other countries? Like USAID money?

That's right. But the Congress has not funded that at the level that Bush has proposed it. So that needs to increase. The other major issue we need to deal with is the growing poverty in this country. One of the principles that comes out of biblical faith, that evangelicals have to agree on, and Americans generally, is that if somebody works full-time responsibly, they ought to get out of poverty and have health insurance. We've got millions of people who don't do either of those.

And that's a moral outrage. Evangelical Christians should all rise up and say that's wrong we're going to insist on a whole set of changes so that in fact that's changed.

What would some of those changes be? An increase in the minimum wage?

I'm willing to let the economists, the policy experts finally figure out what's the best way to do that. But some combination of increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, getting rid of the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit, making the child-care tax credit refundable, and increasing the minimum wage.

That's two priorities: the family and poverty. What are the other three?

The sanctity of human life is enormously important. It's not just abortion, it's euthanasia, it's whether or not we really want to take one developing human life and wipe it out for the sake of some others, that's the embryonic stem cell issue. The fourth issue is creation care, a responsible environmental stewardship that acknowledges the overwhelming science that we're creating global warming, and to do something about that. The fifth one is the international role of the U.S. in peacemaking. We need to learn better how to work cooperatively with other nations.

What do you think of the war in Iraq?

I was not convinced that it was a last resort. According to the just war tradition, which most Christians use as their framework, wars must be a last resort. I think we had not exhausted all the possibilities, and we should not have rushed in when we did.

You've mentioned several good things that you feel Bush has done, or tried to do. What are some other good and bad things you think Bush has done in his first term, and what do you hope he will do in his second?

Well, I think the faith-based initiative is extremely important and essentially right. I've been very enthusiastic and supportive of that. I think that we must give him credit for No Child Left Behind, for saying it's not tolerable any more to simply overlook the fact that inner-city kids and minority kids are falling way behind in our educational system. Whatever one thinks in terms of educational criteria about testing, at least it has the merit of saying, we're going to force everybody to look honestly at where the schools are failing.

That's a step forward. I actually think we ought to test educational vouchers. Catholic schools have been, for a couple of decades, getting better results with inner-city kids on about half of the money that public schools use. So let's pick 12 sites, in 12 different types of places, and then pick another 12 comparable places, and run the best educational voucher proposal, where parents really have a choice. Let's find out which works better for poor minority kids. Whichever does has my vote.

On the negative side, Bush has been absolutely abominable on environmental issues, and in spite of overwhelming science, has not been willing to move ahead. I think that's tragic and eventually we'll pay for that. I think his tax cuts have been simply immoral. The way they've been overwhelmingly slanted to the richest ten percent. I think it's striking that the conservative Republican Governor of Alabama tried to persuade his state in a referendum to develop a more progressive tax structure. He lost, but he's still committed to the project. That's the kind of bringing moral values to public policy issues that we need, and I think we'll slowly get more evangelicals to see this connection between justice for the poor and the tax code.

If everything went perfectly in the next four years--and everything you wished would happen did happen--four years from now, what would America be like?

I wish that Bush and Condi Rice would develop a much more multilateral, cooperative foreign policy. I wish that we would use this enormous opportunity that we have right now in the Middle East, with Mr. Arafat's death, to pressure the Israeli government to in fact agree to a viable Palestinian state, and really resolve that festering sore. That in itself would dramatically change the whole situation in the Middle East, and the whole Arab-American dialogue. I wish that Mr. Bush would really come through on his compassionate conservatism, and internationally devote substantially more money to overcoming poverty. And domestically develop a set of policies so that anybody who works responsibly full-time gets out of poverty and has health insurance.
I wish that we would pass a Constitutional amendment to say that marriage in our society means a man and a woman. I wish that we would restrict abortion in this society. It's perfectly clear we're not going to outlaw all abortion. A vast majority of American people want it to be legal in some cases, but also a large majority want it to be more rare. I wish we could make it more rare. Related to that, let's do the things in terms of adoption services and better support for single moms, the economic issues. There's a clear connection between economic poverty and increased abortions. We need to work at the economic justice issues, in part precisely because we're pro-life and want to reduce abortions. I wish we could make some more progress on racial justice and cooperation in this country.

If we could get things like that, I'd be a happy camper.

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