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Serving the Claims of Justice: The Thoughts of Paul B. Henry - Conclusion


Paul Henry spent his adult life integrating Christianity and politics, a complex, demanding task. He often shared his thoughts with others, a happy fact that makes this volume possible. Paul repeatedly made two fundamental points: One, political action will never lead to a perfect society even if led by intelligent and well-meaning Christians; two, active involvement in American politics is a fully legitimate Christian activity. Weaving these two themes together in most of his writings, he developed and applied them in response to a variety of political and social events. Perhaps, with more time in life, he might have written a grand summa to guide those interested in the integration he came to.

Many of the personal essays included in this book give brief evaluations of Paul's thought and action. But analysis is not their major purpose, nor is it the goal of this conclusion. Rather, this concluding essay is intended as a beginning: to initiate a more informed conversation about Paul Henry's contribution to Christian political thought by highlighting five points of his thinking that put it in a larger context.

Intellectual Antecedents

The first important point to make about Paul's thought is its intellectual backdrop. Of course, merely living in the Carl F.H. Henry household steeped Paul in the knowledge and application of the Bible and evangelical theology. But Paul's writings on Christianity and politics rely on sources beyond those usually tapped by orthodox evangelicals. Many of these additional influences can be traced to his graduate years at Duke University, especially when Paul discusses the limits of Christian activity in politics.

Paul's masters thesis at Duke was "Eric Voegelin's Concept of the Gnosis," a sympathetic treatment of the thinker and his views. Voegelin was a political philosopher known most widely in America for The New Science of Politics, his 1952 University of Chicago Walgreen lectures. In them Voegelin argued that modern ideological movements such as communism and fascism repeated the gnostic heresy of early Christianity. Early Christian gnosticism separated a person's "spiritual" elements-claimed to be real-from his or her "material" parts-claimed to be unreal. Jesus was perfect because his spirit-his reason and motivation-was perfect. Gnostics believed humans who grasped this true could also achieve perfection on earth and not have to wait for the eschaton.

Voegelin argued that in modern times gnosticism has become politicized. Politicized gnosticism asserts that personal and social perfection is possible. Such perfection, however, usually requires a few sages who understand the truths and who must sometimes rather ruthlessly and violently impose "perfection" on others. Both fascism and communism, according to Voegelin, are gnostic-like attempts to "immanentize the eschaton;" that is, to overcome the limitations, anxieties, and uncertainties of human experience for an enlightened vanguard to build a "heaven on earth." (A wonderful theory, its implementation always goes astray.) One destroys real democracy and politics in the process of imposing a "perfect" social vision.

Without mentioning Voegelin, Paul Henry applied that philosopher's critique to at least some politically conservative Christian political actions and actors. In Morality vs. Moralism, one of his latest writings, Paul asserted that "(t)oo often, religious groups enter the political arena with inherent disdain not only for the political process, but in opposition to the concept of politics, in itself. And once again, it reflects a yielding to the temptation to secularize the eschaton in the name of the Kingdom of God."

Paul's other major thrust, his defense of the political sphere as worthy of Christian action, also relied upon thinkers whom he studied during his years at Duke. Paul's doctoral dissertation reviewed the various attitudes toward natural law held by Protestant theologians from Calvin and Luther at the Reformation through the likes of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann in mid-twentieth century. Paul grappled with questions such as the extent to which natural law conforms to God's divine law, the distinctions between natural law and "laws of nature," and how much weight to give general and special revelation. Paul favorably comments on theologians who assert that general revelation is quite expansive and accessible to secular thinkers.

His generous reading of general revelation led Paul to several important conclusions about politics. For example, it allowed him to argue for the American political system's compatibility with Christian principles without requiring America's founders to have a firm or self-consciously Christian worldview. Paul could see God's providential hand in the American founding, yet avoid claims that America is God's chosen nation, or other elements of American civil religion. And to Christian critics of the American system Paul could respond that, through the working of general revelation at the founding, the system is at least "good enough" for Christian political involvement. Thus Paul urged Christians to get involved in American politics because the system is already suitable, not because Christians bring special insight to public policy or political action.

Paul's position on general revelation is directly related to his view that humans are made in God's image. Unlike many other Christian intellectuals, Paul believed that one does not reflect God's image better merely if one is a believer in Christ; one's reasoning ability, especially, is not necessarily improved. In fact, he argued, applying Christian thought to the political sphere might do more harm than good, because deep Christian faith often is used to excuse poor political thinking.

Relationship to Reformed Christianity

The second important consideration for anyone examining Paul's political thought is to compare his views to characteristic Reformed Christian views about religion and politics. Paul rightly claimed that his views were in that tradition, and he openly claimed allegiance to it, distinguishing his views from Anabaptist and Fundamentalist traditions in "Reflections on Evangelical Christianity and Political Action."

Paul agreed with the Reformed tradition's expansive view of creation. In this view, creation extends beyond the material world to "orders of life," which include political and social systems. This expansive view is critical to Paul's defense of politics, because politics then becomes one of many spheres that God in God's providence uses. And the use is not merely negative-to restrain evil by instituting order-but positive-to advance good by promoting justice. To those Reformed Christian critics who don't like the compromise that politics demands, Paul stayed truer than his critics did to Reformed doctrine. He admitted that compromise is part of politics. But, he quickly added, in a fallen world compromise is part of every social interaction. Why should politics be held to a higher standard?

Paul's wide berth to general revelation put his views outside the mainstream of Reformed thinking, but not entirely outside the tradition. Here his writing is at odds with some Reformed Christian thinkers who criticize America's complicated system of separated powers, federalism, and unprincipled political parties. Mixed with his skepticism about the unique power of Christian reason, Paul's appreciation for general revelation allowed him to reject as unnecessary and unrealistic some of the strict Calvinist notions for political reform, such as proportional representation or Christian political parties.

There are other aspects of Paul's thought that, though they are not shared by most Reformed Christian writers, do not disqualify him from being considered Reformed. First, Paul was skeptical of the "transformational" language common in some Reformed discussions. While he embraced the point that Christians have a special calling to be involved in political institutions and processes, he did not see much need for their transformation and often regarded such language as arrogant and reckless.

Finally, Paul's political agenda was a bit different from that of many Christians. He thought organized Christian political action too often rested at one political extreme or the other. Theologically orthodox and evangelical, and so in that way conservative, Paul argued that conservative theology should not immediately translate into conservative politics. Faithful scriptural interpretation would highlight issues such as racial reconciliation and poverty, not common on the conservative agenda. On the other hand, for Paul these "issues of the left" would not necessarily lend themselves to solutions proposed by a left that is too optimistic about changing human nature through politics.

The Nature of Politics

A third important consideration for understanding Paul's thought is his view of the essential nature of politics and government. Paul appeared to accept the pluralistic definition of politics common in traditional political science. His politics is procedural and allocative, not quite value-neutral but certainly not value-centered. Paul's favorite definition of politics was Harold Lasswell's, who described politics as the process of deciding "who gets what, how, when, and where." In a few places Paul expressed a more value-oriented view of politics, defining it as "the authoritative allocation of values and resources for all society." But Paul used the term "values" differently from those who want to use politics to reinforce particular social values. For him, "values" referred back to resource allocation. By mentioning it, Paul was merely noting that all decision-makers bring their own personal (including religious) values to bear on decisions about allocating resources. While these values would clash in some allocation decisions, such as government funding of abortion, it was not right to immediately assume Christian values should control such decisions. Rather, Christian values help improve the allocation process, but do not change the fact that resources must somehow be allocated to all claimants.

At times Paul even seemed to exclude moral questions from political discussion. In Moralism vs. Morality, for example, Paul implied that a necessary requirement for a question to be deemed political is that it is "amenable to resolution through governmental policy," hardly a description of many issues advanced by the extremes of right and left.

Paul was no supply-sider on economics nor movement conservative on social issues, even as these two trends came to dominate his Republican Party. On economic and fiscal policy Paul was very much a "balanced budget" Republican, willing to cut spending on defense and social programs and perhaps even raise taxes to balance the government's budget. And while Paul shared social policy views of many movement conservatives, he spent the bulk of his time tending to the material concerns of his congressional district rather than the moral agenda of conservative religious leaders.

Paul applied his pluralistic definition of politics to the work of Christian elected officials. Such officials, he argued, have an obligation to represent the views of all their constituents-Christian and non-Christian, supporters and opponents. In "Love, Power, and Justice" he stated, "Christianity does not condemn the advocacy of interest per se. Rather, it tells us to take up our neighbor's interest with the same intensity that we defend our own. Disdain for 'interest-group politics' or 'special interests' reflects a lack of understanding of the inherent nature of the political process."

For Paul Henry the political task for the Christian elected official is to "perfect pluralism," to ensure one faithfully represents the needs and concerns of one's neighbors. This will sometimes mean sacrificing one's own sense of what is appropriate to advance different views strongly held by one's constituents. The closing lines of "Strategies for Political Action" should be understood in that context: "The Christian who enters politics learns to make the needs of his neighbor his own. In doing so, his search for justice becomes an act of sacrificial love."

Paul's support for the American political system, his discomfort with moral issues, and his pluralistic view of politics are logically connected. Paul trusted that the broad outlines of history followed God's providential intent, and that these outlines included the American system of government and style of politics. Christians and non-Christians alike should promote their own ideas of justice within our pluralistic system, which is adequately structured to reconcile these competing claims. If Christians faithfully carried out their political roles and obligations, their faithfulness would be honored with a public order that provided imperfect but sufficient justice for individuals, groups, and society as a whole.


A fourth point important for understanding Paul Henry's thought it to see it as a whole. On first impression one might easily conclude that Paul became more conservative over time. His earliest writings urge evangelicals to pursue a fairly specific Christian agenda, similar to that proposed at the time by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. His latest writings, on the other hand, seem to argue that it is impossible to know the Christian position on any particular issue, or even to know what issues should compose a Christian agenda.

A closer examination, however, finds that Paul was quite consistent in his basic objectives. First, the context of Paul's writings changed far more than his basic premises. The earlier writings lay out a positive agenda for politically reluctant evangelicals, urging them to combat poverty, racism, and the causes of war. These issues demanded concern about social morality, not just individual morality, and required long-term dedication to solving complex and difficult social evils. Paul's call to engagement in these early writings is mixed with criticism of evangelical individualism which allowed it to ignore and misdiagnose these social ills that Paul believed were critical to the evangelical political task.

Paul's later writings came after the explosion of evangelical political engagement that focused on abortion, an issue that reinforced the very individualistic worldview Paul had criticized so strongly. While Paul agreed with the newly active evangelicals on abortion, he was dismayed that their focus on the issue (and similar issues such as homosexuality and school prayer) reinforced an individualism that inhibited effective political engagement on important structural issues. Simultaneously, Paul was frustrated with politically moderate and progressive evangelicals, mostly in the Anabaptist tradition, who held policy positions close to Paul's own but whose theological views blocked direct political engagement. Caught in these twin frustrations, Paul emphasized that mixing Christianity and politics did not necessarily lead to the kind of Christian political engagement that was everywhere around; rather, faithful Christian politics would manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Also one must note the change in Paul's personal situation. At Calvin College Paul could exercise a great deal of academic freedom. Rooted in a deep and intellectually developed faith, he could range widely and freely in his early discussions of the interplay between Christianity and politics.

In his later writings, however, Paul seems ever mindful of his public position. He knew his once-uttered thoughts would never be "off the record" nor immune from distortion. In these later writings Paul never completely leaves his job as a Representative; indeed, his position becomes engrained in his thinking. In these writings politics becomes even more pluralistic, almost completely defined by the clanging competition one finds in campaigning and lawmaking. So Paul did not fill in the details of the broad outline of Christian politics he developed earlier at Calvin, frustrating both his friends and opponents. Rather, he presents a more narrowly focused commentary on the proper role of a Christian elected representative.

Too Much Humility?

It is unfortunate that Paul's original works only sometimes reveal his personality. Paul Henry was an extremely enjoyable person to be around. He had a sharp and self-deprecating wit, a warm and charismatic personality, and a humility that is rare among politicians. Fortunately the essays by Paul's friends relate many instances where these characteristics shone through.

Paul's personality, especially his humility, directly affected his political thought. One looks in vain for bold assertions about the "true end" of politics, expositions on the ideal political system, sweeping solutions to chronic problems, or overly confident assessments of politics and policy. In the place of such self-assured pronouncements are calls for humility about the ends and means of the political process. As he states in "Getting Involved in Politics":

We cannot simply reduce the Christian message to some sort of religious party platform from which incontrovertible political specifics can be drawn. The Bible and the teachings of the Christian community point to broad principles which we dare not neglect in our Christian witness to society. But we must guard against the temptation to exploit those principles on behalf of particular applications when other equally plausible affirmations of Christian conscience can be drawn from them. We must avoid the temptation to manipulate or exploit Christian conscience on behalf of hidden agendas, thereby using God rather than being used by God. One cannot simply deduce political particulars from the transcendent truths of God's revelation in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.

Paul Henry's politics is a struggle open to all persons of good will. Respect for the pluralism of religious belief and unbelief is at its core. Respect for others forces Christians to reflect appropriate humility about their own knowledge and reason, a humility that should (but often does not) follow from their understandings of sin and salvation. To counter the natural tendencies of superiority to which they are not immune, Christians in public office must constantly acknowledge and critically engage their motivations and their arguments to ensure that their views are not overly elevated and the views of opponents not overly discounted. As Paul wrote:

We must be mindful of the principles of civility, tolerance, and civil rights, which God ordains to be enjoyed by all. We dare not abuse the norms of justice in the pursuit of justice, lest the means employed undermine the ends pursued. Above all, Christian conduct in the public order ought to be marked by sensitivity toward those outside the Christian community who may disagree with us at the most fundamental level, as well as sensitivity to those within the Christian community who may disagree with us at the practical level.

Paul Henry possessed a real, and perhaps too great, humility about his ability to clearly see and communicate a comprehensive Christian vision for politics. No crusader, he was, instead, a servant of the real but ambiguous claims of justice. May all Christians seeking political justice find instruction in his life.