The Uneasy Conscience of American Evangelicalism

“If the Democrats are the anti-God party, then the Republicans are the anti-human party” – Barnabas Piper

This past week I read Carl F. H. Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. This book, written in 1947, addresses Henry’s concern that fundamentalist Christians were ill-equipped to address modern cultural and social concerns. During this period, those like Carl Henry and Billy Graham split with fundamentalists including Bob Jones, leading to what is referred to as “neo-evangelicalism.” Henry calls for a new reformation in which the fundamentals of the Christian faith would be combined with a progressive understanding of culture and society. As I read this book, I couldn’t help feeling as if not much has changed in nearly sixty years. Much of how Henry describes the fundamentalists of that time period could also be applied to contemporary American Evangelicals.

(It is important to note that in 1947 the terms evangelical and fundamentalist were used synonymously and I will be using them synonymously in this post so, when I refer to fundamentalists, I am not referring to backwoods, snake-loving, independent Baptists that think that Obama is the anti-Christ; I am talking about American Evangelicalism.)

Throughout this year, I have seen conservative evangelicals respond to many social issues in ways that I cannot call anything short of disgusting. These include immigration, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I will leave the issue of race alone in this post as I commented on that extensively before. As for the first two issues, I find it appalling that many conservative Christians would support sending thousands of homeless, orphaned, immigrants back to poverty in Mexico and Central America simply because that is what the GOP supports or that they will unconditionally support Israel as they slaughter hundreds of innocent children who have nowhere else to go. (I suggest you look in your Bible about what it says about the poor, the immigrants, the homeless, and the orphans.)

Before I get called a liberal, I want to point out that I am a 4.5 point Calvinist (I go back and forth on the L in TULIP), that I love John Piper and Tim Keller, and that I believe that abortion is one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Having said that, I see a largely socially unconcerned majority in American evangelicalism. We are more concerned with the publication of the new Rob Bell book or Phil Robertson getting suspended from A&E than the death of Eric Garner or the plight of countless Central American orphans. American Evangelicals are largely socially ignorant. We look like disciples of the GOP more than Jesus. As a result, as Carl Henry wrote, “fundamentalism is the modern priest and Levite by-passing suffering humanity.” When the Supreme Court threatens our religious freedom we scream as if the world is ending, but when children are sent away at our borders we go silent. I am not against advocating for our religious freedom, but as Bonhoeffer said, “the church is her true self only when she exists for humanity.” The church in America is far from this. We are so concerned about our position in society but not about those who stand outside our doors, and we wonder why no one takes us seriously. People know evangelicals are against same-sex marriage and abortion but do not know that they are for the gospel and the flourishing of humanity in all areas of life.

We must become more socially and culturally adept to handle issues of the modern world. We must break out of this false dichotomy between the left and the right. I am not sure that I 100% agree with the following statement but I definitely agree with the sentiment when Lesslie Newbigin, Scottish missionary, commented on the “Religious Right’ by saying that “this confusion of a particular and fallible set of political and moral judgments with the cause of Jesus Christ is more dangerous than the open rejection of the claim of Christ in Islam.” We must become issue-focused not agenda-focused. We must care about the oppressed. We must care about human flourishing. If that means letting in orphans, supporting a Palestinian state, increasing gun control, or creating business regulations to protect workers’ rights, we must support them. If that means compromising with secular liberals on some issues, we must do that. That doesn’t mean compromising the faith. Obviously not everyone will agree on everything, but we must become less self-focused and more others-focused. In the introduction to Uneasy Conscience, Harold J. Ockenga recalls a man coming up to him after a sermon he preached and saying,

“I became a political liberal on my knees though I am a fundamentalist in the faith. Why must the church be on the wrong side of every major social issue?”

This is largely how I feel now. I am still moderately conservative in some aspects, but I no longer identify with the “Religious Right”, and I despise that this is America’s idea of Christianity. Ockenga writes “it is impossible to shut the Jesus of pity, healing, service, and human interest, from a Biblical theology,” and I am afraid this is what we have done. Henry said,

“there is no room for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor the global man. The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dare respond in the name of Christianity.”

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