Unlike many figures of the Evangelical and Religious Left, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) has sustained an integrity that many conservatives have grudgingly admired. Unlike many of his activist cohorts, he has not prevaricated on Christian teachings about sex, marriage, or abortion. And unlike many of his fellow religionists on the left, Sider has maintained a rigorous concern for the global persecution of Christians when others prefer silence over criticism of Islamist or communist regimes.
Now Sider, as he nears retirement from 40 years as ESA founder and head, has again distinguished himself by dissenting from the Religious Left on the untouchable sacredness of the federal welfare and entitlement state. Sider has very publicly resigned from the Association of Retired People (AARP) to protest its refusal to compromise on entitlement reform.
Calling AARP “selfish and guilty of intergenerational injustice,” Sider chides the self-professed lobby for seniors over its adamant opposition to any reform of Social Security and Medicare. He notes that the “federal government spends about $4 on every senior over 65 and only $1 on every child under 18.” And he notes that the 22 percent poverty rate for children percent is much higher than the 9.7 percent rate for seniors.
Sider describes what is obvious to most but still resisted by much of the Religious Left. “We have a large, unsustainable federal budget deficit,” he writes for Huffington Post. “If we continue current patterns, by 2025 all federal income will be needed simply to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (health care for poor Americans) and interest on the national debt!”
Specifically Sider criticizes AARP for opposing any increases in Medicare payments even by wealthier seniors or requiring co-payments for “unnecessary use of doctor visits and medical tests by seniors.” He also complains that AARP opposes any reduction in Social Security payments for wealthier seniors. Sider asked: “Is there any reason why a senior with a total income (Social Security plus other income) of $100,000 should not pay income tax on all of their Social Security income?”
Sider is rhetorically unsparing: “The AARP is a selfish lobby demanding things for seniors even though modest sacrifices would help us reduce the deficit and enable us to spend more on crucial things like better education for our children.” He implores seniors to rise above “selfish” interests and “make some sacrifices for our children and grandchildren.” And he urges other seniors who care about “intergenerational justice” to follow his example in quitting AARP.
This denunciation of AARP and call for entitlement reform contrasts with the atmospherics of the “Circle of Protection” of 2011, when religious groups effectively sided with President Obama against congressional Republicans during the federal debt ceiling crisis. A coalition of Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches, U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and Sider’s ESA urged tax increases and denounced any spending limits affecting “low-income people” in pursuit of deficit reduction. “Circle” representatives met with President Obama, who presumably welcomed the impression of their aligning with his opposition to entitlement reform.
In fairness to Sider, the “Circle’s” official statement specified protections for low income recipients of entitlements. And Sider is now asking for reforms affecting upper income seniors. But few of the other “Circle” participants are forcefully echoing Sider’s demand for responsible Medicare and Social Security reform. And few are likely to.
More typical of the Religious Left is a critic of Sider’s AARP stance who opined his response in Christian Century. Robert D. Francis is a lobbyist with Lutheran Services in America, which seems to have endorsed the “Circle.” He complains that Sider pits “investments” in seniors against those of children.
“Such thinking leaves out other ways America spends its money — the military, tax breaks that largely benefit the wealthy and corporations,” Francis complains. “It also assumes a fixed overall level of public investment, as though we as a society could not decide that we should actually pay for the level of government that we say we want.” He frets over Sider’s “false choice” of throwing “today’s seniors overboard, or tomorrow’s children.”
Francis also has faith that Obamacare will reduce health care costs and alleviate pressure on Medicare. Faith indeed. He hopes Sider “rethinks his rhetoric of ‘greedy geezers’ and intergenerational conflict, whether or not he tapes his AARP card back together.”
Most Religious Leftists like Francis think more Big Government, fueled by tax increases, will solve impending national insolvency caused by Big Government. Naturally they resent their colleague Sider’s disputing their illogic. Sider has had his own infatuations with Big Government over the decades. But he is sufficiently theologically grounded to understand there’s nothing sensible, much less Godly, in flirting with bankruptcy and defrauding one generation to retain the political allegiance of another.