Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Satisfied Mind of American Fundamentalism

Speaking of the Bible, I just read Carl F. H. Henry's 1947 tract The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry (1913-2003) was a prominent fundamentalist / evangelical divine and intellectual, a founding editor of Billy Graham's neo-evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

The book is still in print after seventy years, which isn't surprising because fundamentalism ought to have an uneasy conscience quite apart from the doctrine of Original Sin.  Most serious human problems tend to persist despite much handwringing about them, which is why people mistake older complaints for prophecy.  I thought Henry's book might be worth reading because it reminded me of Albert Mohler's We Cannot Be Silent, which I confess I still haven't read yet: a heartfelt cry that traditional Christianity must stop being so narrow and address modern issues sincerely or it will die out, and then what will happen?*

I was also curious to see which issues made Henry's conscience uneasy in the 1940s.  Homosexuality and gender were issues in those days, but in different ways.  Women had just lost some of the gains they'd made during the war, forced out of jobs they'd held successfully in order to free them up for returning men.  Gay people who'd gotten a taste of freedom, despite official prohibitions, found that they were no longer indispensable; and many were discharged dishonorably and had to rebuild their lives.  The postwar gay and feminist movements emerged from these problems, but they had little visibility or influence for a long time.  So what did Carl Henry think evangelicals had failed to deal with in 1947?

Henry lays it out right away:
[S]uch admitted social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, and exploitation of labor or management, whichever it may be.  

The social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.  In fact, Fundamentalist churches increasingly have repudiated the very movement whose most energetic efforts have gone into an attack on such social ills.  The studied Fundamentalist avoidance of, and bitter criticism of the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America is a pertinent example [loc 105 of the Kindle edition].
So far so good, I guess.  Since 1947 "the liquor traffic" has largely been replaced by a concern with "drugs," and "the exploitation of labor or management" is an intriguing bit of false equivalence.  Henry repeats the phrase several times but never expands on the point to make sense of it; later he says that the "The problems of management or labor were now referred not to a regeneration-conditioned submission to the divine will but rather to the leftist precepts of political Socialism or Communism" [loc 220-225], which is not much help.

Fundamentalism, says Henry,
was a Bible-believing Christianity which regarded the supernatural as a part of the essence of the Biblical view; the miraculous was not to be viewed, as in liberalism, as an accidental and superfluous accretion [loc 125].
I don't see that this stress on the supernatural makes much practical difference.   Henry warns that
to become articulate about evangelicalism and its social implications was not an easy task.  There is the danger that it might involve an unstudied and superficial analysis of the specific modern evils.  For example, one recent Fundamentalist discussion of the social program of the Federal Council of Churches bitterly condemns the Communist leftist trends in that group, while exhibiting a contrasting silence about the evils of a Capitalistic system from which the redemptive reference is largely abstracted [loc 245].
There's always the danger of an unstudied and superficial analysis of specific evils, no matter where you're coming from.  Nothing, as far as I can see, prevented Fundamentalists from producing a studied, deep analysis.  They would have claimed that "the supernatural" guided them away from "leftist Communist trends," but why didn't it guide them to something better?  Henry frets about this, but he has no answers.  Over the long haul, Fundamentalism has consistently chosen the unstudied and superficial.  There were individual exceptions, of course, but they weren't representative or influential in the movement. 
It should be emphasized that this despair over the present world order grows, for contemporary Fundamentalism, not out of any lack of confidence in the ability of the supernaturalistic Gospel. Rather, it issues from the fact that the Scriptures, as interpreted by premillenarians and amillenarians, hold forth no hope for the conversion of the whole world, and center upon the second coming of Christ as crucial for the introduction of a divine kingdom.  The despair over the present age, then, is grounded in the anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel, rather than in any inherent defect in the message itself [loc 200].
I wonder about this.  When the Southern Baptist Convention broke with other Baptists in the 19th century to support slavery, the "despair over the present age" Henry mentions was hardly present.  Nor was it when the Southern Baptists joined with other denominations to defend white supremacy after Brown v. Board of Education a few years after The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was published.  A couple of times Henry writes something like "There are here and there conservative denominational groups, like the Reformed movements and the great Southern Baptist Convention, which have maintained or are beginning to reflect a vigorous social interest" (loc 606).  I wonder what "vigorous social interest," aside from Jim Crow, Henry thought the SBC was maintaining.  White racist Fundamentalists did not seem hampered by an "anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel" they proclaimed.  People don't choose their courses of action because of their interpretations of Scripture; they interpret Scripture to rationalize the course of action they choose.

Henry isn't entirely unaware of this.  Early on he admits
the shifting standards in various sections of the country among Fundamentalists themselves.  Among evangelicals, for example, smoking is hardly considered that sin in the southern tobacco-growing states that it is in the north.  And the northern Baptist pastor who would join his wife for mixed public swimming would be called before his board of deacons in many a southern church [loc 145-50]
And so on.  But, like racial segregation, these who promulgated these regional differences would have regarded them as God's will, questioned only by Communist haters of Christ.  Henry laments that
While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is troubled because the historic Christian message is dismissed arbitrarily as a dead option for dissolving the ills of Occidental culture [loc 175].
But why shouldn't it be dismissed?  In the case of slavery and white supremacy, the "idealistic atmosphere of judgment upon its environment in any age" (loc 259) Henry touts came down squarely against emancipation and racial equality.  The SBC later (in the 1990s) repented and apologized for those judgments, but why?  If Christians don't stand firm against the spirit of the age, how surprising is it that their message is dismissed -- not at all arbitrarily -- as a dead option?  And now that Fundamentalists like Albert Mohler are drawing a line in the sand over sexual orientation and gender identity, why should anyone credit them with any moral authority?  While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is more concerned with whether the Thousand Year Reign of Christ will happen before or after the Rapture.
As against secular humanism, Fundamentalism has consistently witnessed to the fact that any culture from which the redemptive element is absent is essentially distinct from the kingdom of God [loc 366].
I don't imagine that even in 1947, Henry would have wanted to claim that "the redemptive element" was present when Southern Baptists executed a schism in support of slavery.  But why not?  Surely the SBC would have claimed that it was.  As an atheist, I am neither competent to, nor interested in deciding where the redemptive element was present and where it was absent.  I think such cases show that appeals to the redemptive element are at best irrelevant, even frivolous.  Far from leading, Fundamentalists have usually followed, and then tried to take credit for whatever improvements were enacted.

And here's a curious claim.
No political or economic system has utopian promise if the essential redemptive ingredient is missing from it. A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa. But the very element which is abstracted from currently proposed solutions is this redemptive element [loc 565].
As I've said before, I'm not much interested in utopias.  Leaving that aside, what the hell is a "redemptive totalitarianism"?  I don't think Henry would consider the antebellum South to have much of the "redemptive element," because its elites weren't evangelicals.  No doubt he thought a redemptive totalitarianism would be tolerable -- to him -- because it would be run by people like him. Whether it would be tolerable to those groaning in its dungeons and torture chambers, even if they were evangelicals, is another question.  By contrast, a nonredemptive democracy, while filling its citizens' stomachs, providing them with an education and shelter and medical care, would allow Fundamentalists to seek and preach redemption on their terms.  This would not be enough for Henry, or for his theological descendants; he wanted evangelical domination.

Evangelicalism, Henry declares, "must contend for a fair hearing for the Christian mind, among other minds, in secular education ... [T]he universities seem studiously to avoid the competent presentation of the Hebrew-Christian view by those who hold it" [loc 533].  A fair hearing might not, probably would not, lead to the outcome Henry assumes it would.  Like political conservatives of a later generation, Henry is essentially calling for affirmative action for his sect.  Of course I'm not being quite fair there, because affirmative action is not supposed to give positions to the unqualified.  If anything, the Reagan era showed that liberal humanists were all too willing to tolerate and even endorse incompetent clowns from the religious or cultural right.  There have been Christian, even Fundamentalist thinkers who are competent, capable of deep, studied analysis; but they were generally attacked by their brethren and kicked out of their institutions.  But those aren't the Fundamentalists Henry has in mind when he whines that "It is quite popular at the moment to crucify the Fundamentalist" (loc 449).  (Shouldn't a real Christian celebrate that, especially since the 'crucifixion' he's talking about is purely figurative?)

There are those who point to the participation of Christian ministers and laypeople in the Civil Rights movement to try to vindicate religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a moral force.  It's important to remember that that movement, opposed by many (most?) white evangelicals, was not driven or motivated by religion: rather it used religion as a lever.  Both racists and antiracists claimed  to possess the "redemptive element."  Henry is no help.  On his own account, as you can see from the passage about "redemptive totalitarianism," it seems to be irrelevant in dealing with these questions.  He has no substantive suggestions for social amelioration or reform, and as can be seen by the sides they took in the following decades, neither did other evangelicals.

The reason I think it's worthwhile to examine this old book is to compare it with the work of today's evangelicals.  Little has changed in their assumptions, basic claims, or complaints about how unfairly the larger culture has treated them.  Their consciences may be uneasy, but their confidence, indeed their pride in their right to dictate to the world, is intact.

Having said all this, I must add that neither liberal Christianity, any other religion, secular humanism, or revivalist atheism has authority either.  Every important question has to be approached critically, with awareness of human limitations and our abundant history of failure.  No one has a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom.  Even Fundamentalists may participate in the discussion, not because they are believers and not despite it.  I suppose they should be allowed a minute or two to preach when goals and tactics are being evaluated, but if they can't address the issues apart from that, they're declaring that they have nothing to contribute, that Fundamentalism is a dead option.  The choice is theirs.

* Indeed, Mohler contributed a chapter on Henry to a 2001 book on theologians of the Baptist tradition.