ENCORE: The Failure of the Church and the Success of Secularism: Carl Henry on the Crisis of Evangelical Engagement

ENCORE: The Failure of the Church and the Success of Secularism: Carl Henry on the Crisis of Evangelical Engagement

As Christians look to upcoming elections and consider vital issues facing our public square, we must not be found silent nor unintelligible in our ethical convictions. Silence and underdeveloped theses for the verity of our moral vision are both an affront to our mandate and the duties of discipleship. At a bare minimum, Christians must express our biblical convictions in the voting booth, electing candidates that will uphold justice and promote the good. Christians must also articulate our convictions on abortion, marriage, and why the entire array of the LGBTQ rainbow revolution spells disaster for any nation that hopes to achieve flourishing. We also need Christians contending for the rights of children against the onslaught of “gender medicine.” In short, evangelicals must be more political, not less.

“If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.”[1] The twentieth-century theologian Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003) made that argument in 1964. Regrettably, his thesis has held true over the past sixty years. But this doesn’t have to be. The moral decadence of American politics and culture can be reversed, but only through a God-given combination of spiritual graces. Theological conviction, moral clarity, and public courage on the part of American evangelicals are what is needed, and in this essay I hope to show how Carl Henry’s public theology is a good model for engaging our secular world.

The Disconnect Between Profession and Voting Practice

Consider, for example, the November 2023 elections. The various electoral contests in that year revealed a disturbing insight into the state of American society: our cultural consciousness has been discipled by a resurgent neo-paganism. Indeed, ever since the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement has endured significant setbacks and legislative defeats; and these failures occurred in what we thought to be deeply conservative states with high church attendance. In 2023, Kentucky reelected its Democratic governor who supports little to no restrictions on abortion. The residents of Ohio, where 73% of adults claim some manner of Christian faith (and 29% are evangelicals), passed a constitutional right to abortion in 2023.

These developments were captured in Ligonier’s 2022 “State of Theology” survey, which uncovered troubling realities not only about society, but amongst those who called themselves evangelicals. On the question of whether gender identity is a matter of choice, 42% of Americans agree that it is. Amongst evangelicals, that number is only slightly better at 37%. While 91% of evangelicals believe that abortion is a sin, exit polls from Ohio’s recent vote to enshrine abortion access as a constitutional right show that at least a quarter of white evangelicals support unfettered access to abortion. There is clearly a disconnect between what evangelicals believe to be unjust and their actual vote for unjust practices.

That same Ligonier survey also revealed the following about evangelicals: 43% believe that Jesus is not God; 26% say the Bible is not literally true; and 38% contend that religious belief is mere opinion rather than about objective truth. Is it any wonder that secularism triumphs when those who apparently bear witness to the truth of God’s revealed will have strayed from their obligations as disciples of Jesus Christ and have departed from the authority of God’s Word?

There is no Middle Ground

Our minds will either be conformed to this world or transformed by the Word (Rom. 12:2). In this scheme, no neutrality exists. The absence of obedience and the lack of abiding in Christ spells disaster for the Christian. We will find ourselves imaging this world, looking less and less like Christ with minds contorted by godlessness and worldliness.

This principle extrapolates into the broader culture. The Christian worldview rejects the myth of moral and ethical neutrality in the public square. Carl Henry stood upon that conviction, declaring that every contour of society—from its customs and culture to its legal structures—would either abide in the verity of God’s created order or conform to something else. Either the central truths of the Bible and its comprehensive moral framework would guide our civil and political communities, or a neo-paganism would nourish a national collective consciousness.

Indeed, Henry believed that “the fate of the Bible is the fate of Christianity and even of civilization itself.”[2] The eviction of the Bible and a biblical worldview as the ballast for society means the abandonment of the only stable source for societal flourishing. Dislodging the binding authority of God’s eternal law and his Word coincides with the embrace of ethical relativism and moral malleability. The result of this condition, Henry warned, was “society’s inevitable theological, spiritual, and moral suicide.”[3]

Failure to relate God’s revealed will to the broader society means surrendering our neighbors, communities, states, and nation to the ravages of a humanistic paganism. True human rights and human liberty, rightly understood, will disintegrate under the corrosive acids of moral relativism. Indeed, the democratization of ethics created the conditions for suffocating the vitality of families, the life of the unborn, and the recognition and respect of ontological reality in sex and gender. The stakes could not be higher.

Carl Henry’s Clarion Call

Carl Henry dedicated much of his career to the issue of public theology. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1947, called for a renewed evangelical engagement in the public square. He cast a vision for an evangelical movement that avoided the isolationist tendencies of fundamentalism while also providing a theologically orthodox alternative to Protestant liberalism and the social gospel.

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