Ron Sider

Evangelicals For Social Action
The Role of the United States in Light of the Perceived Materialism and "Moral Decline" of American Culture

Ronald J. Sider (Ph.D., Yale) is professor of theology, holistic ministry and public policy and Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and President of Evangelicals for Social Action. A widely known evangelical speaker and writer, Sider has spoken on six continents, published twenty-seven books and scores of articles. His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was recognized by Christianity Today as one of the one hundred most influential religious books of the twentieth century. His most recent books are The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America and Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works (with Phil Olson and Heidi Unruh). Sider is the publisher of PRISM magazine and a contributing editor of Christianity Today and Sojourners. He has lectured at scores of colleges and universities around the world, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford.

The Role of the United States in Light of the Perceived Materialism and "Moral Decline" of American Culture

Current Situation
Materialism (indeed growing materialism) and moral decline are not just alleged things "perceived" by some peculiar people. They are clear, objective aspects of current American society.

Evidence of the materialism appears in many ways:

  • The average giving of Christians to their local congregations has declined from 3.1 percent of income to 2.6 percent from 1969 to 2004, and this has happened while the average income of Christians living in the richest society in history has grown substantially;
  • The level of savings in the U.S. has dropped over the last several decades and now is about zero;
  • The American public is content to tolerate huge budget deficits knowing that our children and grandchildren will have to pay the bill;
  • In spite of recent increases under President Bush, U.S. economic foreign aid is at the pitiable level of about .2 percent of GDP.

There are also striking markers of moral decay in other areas:   

  • Relativism and individualism shape the decisions of most Americans;
  • Sexual perversion permeates popular culture (movies, TV, the Internet);
  • The family is dangerously undermined as one-third (c. 31%) of our children are born out of wedlock and almost one-half of all new marriages end in divorce.

One should be careful not to overstate the moral decay. In recent years, there has been a slight improvement in some areas. The U.S. has made real progress in the last fifty years in terms of reducing racism and treating women more fairly. We continue (in spite of glaring inconsistencies) to champion human rights (promoting religious freedom, opposing sexual trafficking, etc.). And, in spite of the growing materialism, there is also growth in evangelical circles in concern for the poor (e.g., the decades-long growth of evangelical relief and development agencies; Rick Warren's vigorous work; the new NAE statement). Not everything is hopeless.

But the U.S. reflects a dangerous level of materialism and moral decay that undermines our ability to exercise wise, just global leadership:

  • Some nations and cultures are horrified by the view of America they see in the popular culture we export (movies, TV, music, etc.). That is especially true of Muslim societies, and their revulsion complicates our relationships with those societies;
  • We are in fact corrupting other parts of the world with the ideas on sex, family, divorce, etc., that U.S. media spread around the globe;
  • The self-centered materialism makes it difficult for the U.S. to exercise the leadership it should in overcoming global poverty. (At the peak of the Marshall Plan in 1947, the U.S. gave about 2.75 percent of GNP in economic foreign aid; cf. today's approximately .2 percent)

A Christian Perspective for Addressing These Problems
The first point is to be clear that a Christian view of society and the state means that government is not the primary place for solving these cultural problems. It is churches, synagogues, mosques, and a vast array of non-governmental associations that must engage in a long-term process of moral renewal. That does not mean there is nothing for government to do, but it means that the most important work must be done by other sectors of society. In our society, where the vast majority claim to be Christians, what is most important is that the Christian churches develop and effectively teach a thoroughly biblical understanding of the human person, truth, morality, justice and community (see below).

Future Actions to Address Problems
1. The most important task is to develop vigorous, sustained programs in churches and voluntary associations to renew family life, sexual integrity, and develop a biblical understanding of materialism, possessions, poor people, etc. We need more, better programs like: the Fatherhood Initiative, city-wide agreements by all churches not to marry people unless they participate in a pre-marital program, Marriage Savers, True Love Waits, Call to Renewal's Covenant for a New America, etc., etc.

2. Christians should take the initiative to develop a sustained dialogue with leaders from the center of the Muslim world to discuss a broad range of issues including materialism and other aspects of moral decay, exploring the areas of common ground and ways to cooperate on shared values.

3. Appropriate agencies of the U.S. government, in cooperation with scholars, should do a careful extensive analysis of whether, to what degree and in what concrete ways moral decay in the U.S. impacts U.S. foreign policy and the ability of the U.S. to advance legitimate U.S. policy interests.

4. The government should play a limited, but still significant, role in promoting wholesome two-parent families, reducing out-of-wedlock births, strengthening marriage, etc.

Theological Foundations
At the core of our problem is a loss of belief in transcendent truth and moral norms. Unless we succeed in overcoming the current, widespread individualistic relativism that encourages each person to do what feels good to and for oneself, our culture will continue to decay. Unless we can recover a biblical understanding that persons are made for community and achieve wholeness only as they give themselves to seek the common good of all, we will not reverse excessive individualism's destructive efforts.

If we can nurture large numbers of citizens who believe there are truths and norms that transcend their own person and society, then we can teach biblical views about the dignity of the human person, material possessions, justice and poor people which will, if lived and promoted by large numbers of Christian citizens, slowly permeate the whole culture and transform public policy.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.

1. Payne, Richard J. Global Issues: Politics, Economics, and Culture. Longman, 2006.
2. Sine, Tom. Mustard Seed vs. McWorld, Baker, 1999.
3. Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 5th ed. W Publishers, 2005.