Originally published in 1947, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism provided a manifesto for evangelical Christians who are serious about bringing their Christian faith to bear in contemporary culture. In this classic book, Carl F. H. Henry, the father of the modern evangelical movement, pioneered a path forward that avoids, on the one hand, the error of disengagement and apathy towards today’s social ills, and, on the other hand, the error that is the social gospel. In our current cultural climate, in which evangelicalism is still wrestling with how to engage social matters, this book is as relevant as ever.
What the “Social Gospel” & “Christian Nationalism” Both (Ironically) Have in Common
There’s an ironic similarity between (1) “the social gospel” — reducing the gospel and Christian mission to advancing social justice — and (2) “Christian nationalism” — hitching the Christian mission to the church having/maintaining cultural dominance.
Christian cultural and social impact, of course, I believe are good, and flow out of the Christian mission.
But interestingly/ironically, these two socially and politically polar opposite viewpoints — (1) “the social gospel” and (2) “Christian nationalism” — err seemingly in the same way: they misplace the center of the church’s mission with a usurping concern over their social presence.
To the “social gospel” we say, Yes, social justice is a biblical imperative, and its outworking is entailed in Christian mission. But social justice is not itself the gospel, nor should it be equated with biblical “salvation.”
To the “Christian nationalist” we say again, impact on society is admirable. But it’s not the end-all-be-all. Our witness comes first. Cultural domination is not our mission. And when we conceive of it as such, we can find ourselves pursuing it at the expense of our witness.
In short, both (again, ironically) make cultural and social impact paramount at the expense of the soteriological center of our mission.
And ironically both chastise the other for doing what they themselves do: equating their mission with the pursuit of a particular political vision, either the Left’s in the case of the “social gospel,” or the Right’s in the case of “Christian nationalism.”
They’re polar opposite on the political spectrum. But underneath, they share the same warp and woof.
Theological Liberalism(s): The Many Faces of a Christianity Domesticated and Repurposed
Theological liberalism (as J. Gresham Machen described it so well) is anything that seeks to tame Christianity and use it for its own purposes.
It can take the form of the social gospel, where Jesus becomes little more than a means to relieving poverty and oppression, things that are certainly good, but Christless and gospel-less when you remove the cross and the necessity of conversion.
It can take the form of the prosperity gospel, where God is simply a means for the realization of my health and wealth — a cosmic vending machine if you will; a genie to grant me my selfish desires.
It can take the form of so much of what goes on in mainline evangelicalism, where sermons are no more than pop psychology lessons cast in Christianese, where Christianity is “Life in the Suburbs 2.0,” here to make your life a little bit more comfortable and functional.
And it can take the form of the Religious Right, where particular political ideologies and agendas get baptized as Christian, where appeals to faith are shallow attempts to mobilize Christians as political allies, and where scripture gets abused (think “people of God” texts for [insert United States here]) are used for one’s own end and as ammunition in a misguided expression of culture war.
On the other hand is a theological conservatism: Jesus does not exist for my purposes; I exist for his.