Carl F.H. Henry’s Has Democracy Had Its Day?

It’s impossible to read the late Carl Henry without receiving at least some benefit.  To be sure, Richard Land overreaches in the Introduction when he observes that “Carl F.H. Henry is undeniably the twentieth century’s greatest evangelical theologian, and arguably its most important theologian of any perspective” (iii), but Henry was, no doubt, a great theologian, and a great mind, and his works will remain important for a very long time.

In Has Democracy Had Its Day? (published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC in 1996), Henry explores the titular question with characteristic precision and insight.  Written almost 13 years ago, there are aspects of the work that are a bit dated, but the question is no less pressing for our day than for the day that saw its original publication and Henry’s thoughts on the matter are still more than worthy of serious consideration.

In this work, Henry deplores the threat to democracy that had come about by the ascendency of a “secular humanism” and “naturalistic relativism” (62) that had detached democracy from its transcendent underpinnings, had called into question the very existence of truth itself, and had come to deplore the Judeo-Christian heritage that has played such a crucial role in our nation’s life from its inception.  He is not unaware that “Christianity stipulates no one permanent form of government in the name of divine revelation” (3), yet he pursuasively argues that “the biblical emphasis on human depravity and the consequent temptation to divert political power to inordinate ends argues for limited government as least oppressive.  A democratic political context apppears the most promising framework for fulfilling the public duties incumbent on human beings.  A democratically chosen and constitutionally limited government seems to be the political structure most compatible with the Christian insistence on human worth and liberty and most likely to accommodate the promotion and protection of human freedoms, justice, and peace” (6).

Yet, Henry argues, democracy is in peril.  His diagnosis is compelling:  “A generation that elevates the essentiality of human rights to intellectual priority yet simultaneously contends that all philosophical affirmations are culture-conditioned sooner or later will engulf those very rights in moral relativism” (9).  Henry saw this happening in his own day, and, of course, the intervening 13 years have done nothing but solidify the prophetic truthfulness of his contention.  Furthermore, Henry’s observation that “were [the United States] to vanish suddenly from the globe, the remnants of the Free World would be plunged into grief and mourning” (54) remains a great truth, if less self-evidently so in light of the media’s constant funneling of anti-American sentiments into our homes and, to be sure, the presence of some very real anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world today.

One of Henry’s repeated themes is that Christianity’s despisers nonetheless must use the fruits of Christianity to rail against it.  “Even the nonreligious feed on the very creeds they have rejected” (21).  And even more poignantly, “Those who assail democracy from radical perspectives themselves avoid despair only by munching on facets of faith anchored in beliefs they now demean as outworn” (45).

Henry continues the theme he laid out in his tremendous The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalismby calling on conservative believers to be involved in social engagement and not to retreat into their sanctuaries.  This is true enough, but I will state again as I have stated elsewhere on this blog that our prophetic witness to the power of Christ will accomplish more than political activism ever could even though Christians should be involved in political activism.  It is a matter of priority and perspective.  I think Henry would agree.

Interestingly, Henry calls in this work for co-belligerency between Protestants and Catholics and, indeed, between believers and non-believers where they are able to stand together against certain common threats.  While there are corners of the church that believe co-belligerency to be a sellout, I do not think so.  Again, it’s all a matter of perspective.  What are we trying to accomplish?  It would be absurd and blasphemous to check our Christian convictions at the door for political expediency, and, on the gospel itself, there can be no compromise, no matter how noble the social cause.  This must never happen.  But if I can maintain my Christian witness while standing beside whomever in the fight against, say, abortion, then fine and good.  Yet the witness must remain and the gospel must not be compromised.

Finally, Henry was good at turning a phrase.  Some of the more memorable quotes from this little book include:

“If we are going to abandon democracy, we had better be sure of the alternative we are welcoming.” (viii)

“Jesus did not, to be sure, say to the disciples: ‘Go ye into all the world and teach democracy, capitalism, and privatization of business.’  He did not name a political apostolate.  He gave priority to a gospel that sutains freedom, justice, and grace.” (4)

“Only two alternatives lie before a democracy:  either self-restraint and self-discipline, or chaos and authoritarian repression.” (10)

“In an age when accepted standards of right and wrong are scorned, when absolutes are demeaned as a return to the superseded past, when doubt threatens to evaporate great national beliefs and political principles and weakens inherited guidelines, when new conceptions degrade the minds and corrupt the lives of the newly emerging generations, those who refuse to abandon history to the forces of decadence must speak out.” (23)

And, finally:

“No government can perpetually survive on red ink, but without ethical imperatives it is unworthy of survival.” (49)

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