Why Evangelicals Have Trouble Moving from Protective to Transformative Social Ethics

Every evangelical today should thank God for the courage of Carl F. H. Henry. In the first half of the 20th Century, he was in the vanguard of a new group of Christians calling themselves the “New Evangelicals,” a group that wanted to move beyond the limitations of the Christian Fundamentalism of their day.

The fundamentalists responded to the rise of secularism by withdrawing from the institutions of influence (such as colleges and politics), thus ceding the intellectual ground to their opponents. The neo-evangelicals sought to re-engage culture. The leading voice in this re-engagement was Henry—providing the theological and philosophical groundwork that shaped the late 20th Century’s evangelical political thought.

The book that was the manifesto for this new movement was Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1947. In that same year, Harold Ockenga asked Henry to become the first professor of theology at the new Fuller Theological Seminary. In the mid-1950s, Billy Graham tapped Henry to be the first editor of Christianity Today. The new magazine extended Henry’s influence as many evangelicals joined in the neo-evangelical movement. Christianity Today was the most influential publication of social ethics in the evangelical world.

Henry insisted that sin not only affects individuals but also all of society, and thus the gospel is meant to affect more than just individuals; it is to ripple out to affect society. His influence continued through his magazine and his other books; many evangelical leaders in politics basically now say the same as Henry said all throughout the middle-to-late 20th Century.

“Although the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society, it must not on that account neglect the role of education and legislation in preserving what is valuable in the present social order. Christian social theory needs to distinguish between transforming and preserving, and to recognize that education and legislation can serve only the latter of these ends. But preserving the good in society is worth doing, and the Church dare not yield total control of education and legislation to secular agencies.” (Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics [1964] p. 72).

Now, this was a major step forward for evangelicals in the mid-20th Century. Henry led the way for people like Charles Colson (who invited Henry to be a “Lecturer-at-Large” for Prison Fellowship in the 1990s) and other evangelicals to begin engaging education and politics.

But when you read Henry’s solution, and watch those who have followed in his footsteps, you see that “Protective Social Action” at work that I've been blogging about the last few days (what Henry called “preserving”). What this means is that evangelicals have mostly engaged in politics from a conservative framework (seeking to “conserve” what is valuable in what Henry called “the present social order”).

The framework for evangelical social engagement has been to "preserve," not to "transform," the social order. This is why evangelicals would rather be "conservative" than "liberal" (defined as "favoring proposals for reform") or "progressive." Most of their social action has been in order to conserve, not so much has been done to progress.

Henry’s belief is this: We cannot expect fallen humans to be able to do anything for the common good. Because of sinful alienation from God and total depravity, humans cannot have a correct perception of truth. Therefore, the cultural task starts with the conversion of individuals.

“The evangelical task primarily is the preaching of the Gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration by the grace of God, in such a way that divine redemption can be recognized as the best solution of our problems, individual and social.” (Uneasy Conscience, p.88)

J. Budziszewski, in his new book, Evangelicals in the Public Square (Baker Academic) writes, “Surely it would be naïve to think that better laws eliminate the need for God’s grace. But it is equally unrealistic to suppose that conversion cancels out the need for better laws.”

Henry, for all the good he did, bequeathed to 21st Century evangelicals a mindset that in order to really change society, we must convert people and then place converted people in office. I've heard many of my evangelical brothers and sisters say something like, "We cannot ever trust those of other faiths or of no faith in public office, for they are totally depraved." And, "We must elect Christians to office, for they alone can do what God wills be done in public office." And, "We can only change society one heart at a time." And, "We cannot expect society to change until a majority of people in our society are Christians." And, many evangelicals go further and say, "But unless God brings a major revival in America, the only thing we can do is protect our Christian values against the humanists in our society and the godless in our public offices." This is the conservative thrust of contemporary evangelical political engagement: Protective, rather than transformative.

Budziszewski then points out that Carl Henry, four decades after Uneasy Conscience, began to be critical of his own focus on individual conversion for social change. He quotes from Henry’s 1987 lecture at Fuller called “The Uneasy Conscience Revisited.”

“There was…a notable weakness in my concentration on regeneration as the guarantee of a better world. For Uneasy Conscience failed to focus sharply on the indispensable role of government in preserving justice in a fallen society. Essential as regenerative forces are to transform the human will, civil government remains nonetheless a necessary instrument to constrain human beings—whatever their religious predilections—to act justly, whether they desire to do so or not.”

Also read:
Moving From Protective to Transformative Social Action
More on Protective vs. Transformative Social Action

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DLW said...

upon further reflection, it seems that this really is a helpful frame to understand the history of evangelical political activism.

My additional spin would be that we are political no matter what(even not voting is a political statement) and, inasmuch as how we act politically affects our ability to form relations with others; relationships where we can share about our faith, we need to deliberate on how we can integrate how we act politically within our missional witness to the world.

From a missional standpoint, I don't think one can simply focus on individual souls. How we act as groups also plays an important role, as did the way the Swedish Baptists initially fostered democracy in church, state and industry through their strong association with the Swedish Unionist movement. It was only later when they discontinued this association that it went on to become the Social Democrats that came into power and became a powerful force for secularization in Sweden.

The personalization of the faith in much of Protestant Europe, moreso the non-Calvinist parts, is accountable as due to the attacks of the Enlightenment on Christianity, but they have definitely hurt its witness before the world.


Ted Gossard said...

Great post, Bob. And great comment from dlw.

I was thinking that many evangelicals abandoned this belief of their's (certainly not all) when they voted for Gerald Ford (I think, attended church, but not an evangelical) over fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter- in 1976. I know of one godly man, a pastor, who did it because Ford as a Republican would be more likely to put forward Supreme Court nominees who would vote to overturn Roe v Wade. And I joined him in so voting, at the time.

But I don't agree with our good brother James Dobson, that it is our duty to vote for an evangelical Christian running in a race. Surely thinking through everything, is much more messier than that. I don't buy the idea that nonChristians can do no good in the world. If that's the case, than I guess the passages on Cyrus in the OT need to be cut out of our Bibles.