National Review: A Decades-Old Warning for Evangelical Christians Is More Relevant Than Ever
This article was originally posted at National Review.
In the years after the Second World War, an American theologian delivered a dire forecast about the future of Protestant Christianity. Unless the Evangelical church in America grappled with the great social questions of its time, warned Carl F. H. Henry, it “will be reduced either to a tolerated cult status” or become “a despised and oppressed sect” within two generations. That was in 1947.
Henry’s book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published 75 years ago, challenged the Evangelical church to tackle problems such as racism, materialism, economic injustice, and international aggression. Although himself a thoroughgoing Evangelical, Henry had worked as a reporter for the New York Times and got his Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University. He was attuned to the issues that were shaping America’s future — and that demanded, in his view, a Christian response. “There is no room here for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man.”
For Henry, the post-war years brought those needs into focus. The 1940s saw the start of the civil-rights movement, as African Americans returned home from war to confront racial segregation; massive labor strikes, including a rail strike that triggered the intervention of federal troops; the formation of the United Nations to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”; and, at the international trials at Nuremberg, the startling revelations of Nazi atrocities.
Yet, as Henry observed, American fundamentalism had adopted habits of thought that isolated the Christian message from the central debates of the modern world. The broader Evangelical movement, he warned, was in danger of making the same mistake. He recalled a meeting with more than 100 Evangelical pastors and asking how many of them, in the previous six months, had preached a sermon addressing problems such as “aggressive warfare,” “racial hatred and intolerance,” or “exploitation of labor.” The result: “Not a single hand was raised in response.”
The church of the apostolic age, Henry explained, transformed the culture of pagan Rome because it offered a compelling and aspirational vision of human life. By contrast, he said, modern fundamentalism had reduced the gospel message to one of condemnation: “Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it has narrowed to a world-resisting message.”
The rise of the “social gospel” — the attempt by liberal Protestantism to address social ills while downplaying the biblical doctrines of individual sin and redemption — led to a backlash:
Fundamentalism, in revolting against the Social Gospel, seemed also to revolt against the Christian social imperative. It was the failure of Fundamentalism to work out a positive message within its own framework, and its tendency instead to take further refuge in a despairing view of world history, that cut off the pertinence of evangelicalism to the modern global crisis.
A plea to change course, The Uneasy Conscience was deeply controversial. Henry’s diagnosis of Evangelical retreat could be severe. His warning about capitalism without moral constraints seemed at odds with America’s economic dominance. To an audience hostile to Catholicism, he praised the Catholic Church for taking seriously the task of statesmanship. “The Roman Catholic Church has trained its candidates for world diplomatic posts with singular vision; in today’s world the ministry of world affairs is no less important than any other.”
Nevertheless, no one could accuse Henry of going soft on Christian orthodoxy. Man’s fundamental predicament was his “revolt against God,” and thus the “supreme aim” of the church was “the proclamation of redeeming grace to sinful humanity.” Henry reinforced these themes in his magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority. In the latter half of the 20th century, probably no individual worked harder to rescue Evangelicalism from the anti-intellectualism and self-imposed exile of fundamentalist Christianity.
Three quarters of a century after the publication of The Uneasy Conscience, what might Henry say about the Evangelical church in America?
That question was the subject of a recent conference co-sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. It brought together scholars, pastors, historians, college presidents, and others to reflect on Henry’s legacy. To some of the participants, widespread negative perceptions of Evangelicalism confirmed Henry’s prophetic voice.
Yet there was broad agreement that Evangelicals are among the most crucial actors in civil society: notably, in charitable efforts to help people in need, regardless of their background or beliefs. Motivated by their love and obedience to Jesus, Evangelicals occupy what Anne Snyder, editor of Comment, called a “sacred sector.” Evangelical organizations, in fact, often lead the way in providing disaster relief, drug treatment, prisoner reentry programs, and education and mentoring for at-risk kids.
Henry brought his expansive vision into every institution in which he served, including Christianity Today, World Vision, and Prison Fellowship. “The cries of suffering humanity today are many,” he wrote. “No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dares respond in the name of Christianity.” Put another way: When the representatives of the gospel fail to speak to the whole person, their message goes unheard.
If the Evangelical conscience appears uneasy, Carl Henry’s challenge might just be the tonic it requires.
Joseph Loconte is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Grove City College and Senior Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He’s also the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The trailer for the forthcoming documentary film series based on the book can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com.