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)

Os Guinness’ Time for Truth

There’s really no such thing as a “little” Os Guinness book. Most of them are fairly short, but none of them are “little.” Guinness has achieved what most social commentators lack: the ability to communicate deep truths with brevity. Time for Truth (like Dining With the Devil and Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It) is no exception.

To be candid, when I realized that I was holding yet another book by yet another Christian about the issue of moral relativism I was apprehensive. I have personally reached yawn status with this theme because much Christian writing and sermonizing is beginning to sound like a stuck record and most of the old standard arguments are simply being repackaged and rehashed in new but safe formats (probably more for the benefit of Christian publishers than for the average Christian in the pew.) I approached this book with a “Here we go again!” mind set. I am glad to be proved wrong.

Guinness does indeed make many of the arguments on which writers such as Chuck Colson and the late Francis Schaeffer have spoken eloquently (yet repetitively). The notion of objective truth has been rejected by the culture at large. The arrogance of Postmodernism now reigns supreme. Yet man cannot live consistently within his own parameters, so he must live in hypocrisy. Guinness then goes on to exhort those who hold to the Biblical world view (a word he perhaps mercifully avoids) to defend an objective view of truth, founded upon a recognition of God’s presence.

What makes this book a departure from the standard conservative line, however, is Guinness’s powerful narrative examples of modern man’s despair and inconsistencies, and his challenge to Christians to get the whole argument out of its rut and to re-articulate our case with a new vigor and force.

Most striking, Guinness warns those holding to the idea of the objectivity of truth against merely repeating the old arguments against relativism. For instance, the argument that moral relativism cannot stand up to its own criteria is not sufficient in and of itself to make the case for objective truth. “Relativizing the relativizers” is only one argument and (as Guinness rightly points out) it is a necessarily negative argument.

We most go beyond this to stress the positive argument against “radical relativism.” Namely, we must argue against relativism by “pointing out the signals of transcendence.” (p.101) He explains: “Whereas ‘relativizing the relativizers’ is negative because it highlights the negative consequences of false assumption, ‘pointing out the signals of transcendence’ is positive because it point toward the positive conclusions of true aspirations, unnoticed before.” (p.101)

This is a much-needed admonition. Moral relativism, when closely examined, does reveal many such “signals of transcendence.” Time and again, the relativist must be shown that his very arguments have within them evidence of that which is outside our perceived reality. If this can be realized and utilized, the Christian hoping to communicate truth to those who doubt its existence will go much further than merely calling the relativist inconsistent.