Carl F.H. Henry Conference: Paul McNulty Address

Mark Tooley on February 16, 2024

The following lunchtime address was offered at IRD’s Conference on the 75th Anniversary of Carl F. H. Henry’s “Uneasy Conscience” of American Evangelicalism on November 10, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Thanks to Josiah Hasbrouck for preparing the following transcript.

JOSEPH LOCONTE: Thank you, Caleb, for that really impressive presentation. As a historian, there is nothing more exciting than finding lost letters that no one has found—and they tell us something new, fresh and important. So best wishes on that project, and we look forward to the book that comes out of that.

Our keynote speaker is Paul McNulty, president of Grove City College. Paul has just done an amazing job in helping the college to reaffirm its fundamental Christian commitments. And I’ll be serving there with great delight in the spring, teaching a couple of courses. Every interaction I’ve had with the Grove City faculty and students over the last several years has been so impressive. So, I am really looking forward to being there. Paul. 

Paul has a very lengthy and impressive resume. I’ll just say this: One of the organizations in Washington, D.C. that has been in operation for nearly four decades is Faith and Law, which brings together the policy community in D.C., the Capitol Hill crowd, public speakers, Christians talking about the topics of the day through the lens of faith. It has been a haven of sanity and clear Christian thinking in the city, and there is nothing like it anywhere in the country. And Paul McNulty was one of the co-founders of that organization. They have been faithfully serving this political community for decades. So that’s just one of his many achievements. He served in the White House, he has high-level policy experience, academic experience, and experience with the institutions of civil society. Please give a warm welcome for Paul McNulty. 

PAUL MCNULTY: Thank you, Joe. I’m glad that you did the introduction. He just does a much better job than anybody I’ve ever run into. It’s a great joy to be here with you. And what I hope to do in my time is shift some attention to higher education. 

I first want to offer a sort of retrospective of my own journey as an evangelical involved in public life, going back to Faith and Law, which we founded in 1983. I want to share what I have learned from that experience, how it impacts what I see is the mission of the Christian college, and hopefully you’ll see a connection between the two. 

At Grove City College (GCC) we are extraordinarily blessed with an incredibly dynamic and inspirational football coach. One of his distinctive practices is to use a treasure trove of short sayings to mold and motivate his players. One of his sayings is “4, 40 and forever.” It’s a way of reminding his student-athletes to appreciate the impact of their GCC experience during their four years of college, and their 40 years of employment, and then eternal life (4, 40, and forever). Some of your college and work experiences may have felt like an eternity, but that’s not his point.

Well, 40 years ago today (and by the way, many of us were shooting for more than 40 years of work), I was in my third year of law school and contemplating a move to Washington, D.C. to begin what I hoped would be a career in public life. I wasn’t into politics. 

My dad was a Truman Democrat. He fought in World War Two. He grew up on a farm in Ohio. Very poor. Went to Ohio State on the GI Bill and moved to Pittsburgh with my mom. And we were all raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Pittsburgh. And my dad was very proud of the fact that he voted for George McGovern in 1972. So, I had no politics as I came out of college and into law school and came to Washington.

I didn’t know what I would be doing or where I would even find employment. But that was not my principal concern. Instead, my developing evangelical mind was focused on whether my freshly minted biblical worldview was actually compatible with a career in public service. I was anxious to learn whether I could faithfully pursue my Christian calling in the halls of political power. 

I was, in God’s kind Providence, a product of a new evangelical generation which strenuously subscribed to a view of the world, in the words of Carl Henry, that “metaphysics and ethics went everywhere together.” There was, “a divinely related social order with intimations for all humanity.”

As I saw it, following Dr. Henry’s influential call in 1947 for the evangelical and for the engagement of modern fundamentalism in public life, evangelicals increasingly embraced a more expansive understanding of God’s redemptive plan for individuals and society. A major milestone was the 1974 Lausanne Conference on Evangelicals and the enormously consequential Lausanne Covenant, written by John Stott. Under the heading “Christian Social Responsibility,” the 2000-plus signatories affirmed, “that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrine of God and Man, our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ. This occurred while I was still in high school. 

A courageous role model for me in those days was Senator Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon. I came to disagree with where he settled on some specific policies, but his explicit, unambiguous, and Christ-centered profession of faith and worldview was tremendously encouraging. I read his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. As I was coming out of college and going into law school, I was inspired by someone who would so clearly profess faith and serve in such a significant place in our public life. 

Another person who shaped my thinking was Carl Henry. In 1984, 35 years removed from The Uneasy Conscience, Dr. Henry published a book entitled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. By this point, he appeared less concerned about the willingness of evangelicals to engage on social questions and more troubled by secular headwinds they were encountering, which he called “the burgeoning secular mindset.” He worried that politically engaged evangelicals were becoming discouraged by “debilitating forces in American society.” He specifically pointed to education and the media. 

Yet, even as he expressed these concerns, he outlined a bold and inspiring summons to public service. For the Christian, he wrote:

“Politics is the obedient service of God in the midst of changing history. The norms and principles are fixed, and Christ at his return will demonstrate the superiority and durability of their uncompromised translation into history. In a society in which human beings remain free to mold their immediate political destiny, the principal politician will stimulate the conscience and will of his generation to reach for the lasting good. The political leader serves his country and God best—and his own constituency as well—if he risks all other claims to promote what he confidently believes to be right and just. The scriptural norms and principles will identify the worthiest alternatives.”

What a great statement about calling for anyone considering public life. And it was certainly a very formative influence in my life. So perhaps at this point you can see how this conference brings me back full circle, 40 years later, to the challenging questions of Christian engagement in politics and public life, which, of course, is just one expansive context of social engagement. The current evangelical conscience is still uneasy, or at least it should be, but now for additional reasons.

First, the evangelical mind and muscle on both ends of the political spectrum have moved from an attention to first principles to a rigid adherence to specific proposals. There is a loss of interest in cultivating and sustaining a biblically informed framework for developing wise solutions to complex social problems. Indeed, deviation from the established platform on hot-button issues such as guns, race, immigration, and the environment, risks tribal rebuke and likely ostracism.

The foundations for this approach developed in the 1980s, at the very time, coincidentally, that more moderate evangelicals were focused on domestic and international social-justice questions. In a 1981 essay by Reverend Jerry Falwell entitled “The Fundamentalist Phenomenon,” the prominent founder of the Moral Majority asserted that his organization was political “and is not based on theological convictions.” The Moral Majority’s purpose (and the same could be fairly said about Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition) is to oppose “moral cancers that are causing our society to rot from within.” Falwell challenged evangelicals to turn away from academic acceptability and “stop trying to accommodate the gospel to the pitiful philosophies of unregenerate humankind. You have the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

I think it’s fair to say that the moral cancers of the 1980s have spread within the human community and remain largely unresponsive to political treatments. However, this is not an excuse for Christians to abandon the calling of the “principal politician,” to quote Dr. Henry, “who is prepared to stimulate the conscience and will of his generation, employing scriptural norms and principles to reach for the lasting good.”

A second reason for the evangelical conscience to remain uneasy is the breathtaking decline of kindness by express believers towards all perceived opponents, including and particularly fellow Christian followers. Desperate times seem to justify desperate measures, especially with social media. Anyone who follows David French is well aware of this scandal. He recently wrote that “the idea that the times are so hard that they somehow relieve Christians of basic obligations of kindness, honesty, or humility actually renders the church an oppressor. It can make us even more cruel than the alleged enemies we seek to defeat.”

Russell Moore, in his 2022 foreword to Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience, reminds us that Dr. Henry “proposed that that gospel Christians hear what they were already saying, that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable’ (2 Timothy 3:16). “That would require Christians to seek a kingdom that speaks both to the cosmos and to the person,” Moore writes, “both to the community and to the individual, both to the body and to the soul, both to faith and to obedience, both to the mind and to the conscience, both to love of God and to love of neighbor.” Moore concludes: “Every generation or so we need a reminder of how the conscience can work to evade the parts of the Word of God it wants to evade. We need that reminder now as much as ever. The evangelical conscience is, after all, still uneasy after all these years.”

How then, will evangelicals rebuild the walls of scriptural fidelity in public life? Since God has called me these past nine years from Washington, D.C. to Grove City, I am particularly appreciative of Dr. Henry’s wise words about the critical importance of education. He notes, “Beyond doubt, the time is here for an all-out evangelical education movement. The maintenance of… evangelical colleges and universities, with the highest academic standards, promises most quickly to concentrate the thinking of youth upon the Christian world-life view as the only adequate spiritual ground for a surviving culture.” I’m especially impressed with Dr. Henry’s admonition to churches to build college facilities rather than worship structures that only get used once or twice a week.

I’d like to suggest three ways today’s Christian college should be equipping its students for this cultural moment: worldview, wisdom, and winsomeness. First, the work of equipping must begin by teaching a biblically grounded theology of social engagement. Henry stresses the importance of a biblical anthropology as a critical and distinguishing starting point in this work. “The fundamentalist,” he writes “holds that primal man was a divine creation endowed with moral righteousness, so that man is not a sinner by a necessity of his original nature [as materialistic determinism would insist], but rather by voluntary choice; consequently, the hope for a better order is directly proportionate to the appropriation of redemptive grace in human society. I love that language, the appropriation of redemptive grace in human society.” This should be the energizing vision for the Christian college student, one that the secular academy, preoccupied with the indoctrination of progressively, social-justice policies, cannot provide. 

At Grove City College, every one of our 2,200 students, regardless of major, must complete a 15 credit-hour core of humanities courses involving biblical studies, history, philosophy, literature, and the arts for the purpose of building and strengthening a Christian worldview. The integration of faith and learning across all academic departments further equips them to be world-changers in their various callings. We want them to have an eschatologically orthodox “kingdom now” sense of calling. 

Second, Christian college students must be equipped to think and act wisely. The issues of primary concern for society will not be resolved in a polarized political environment where evangelicals show greater loyalty to a political candidate or party than they do to biblical norms and principles. The world needs Christian leaders capable of making prudential judgments, employing theologically sound and robust rational capacities. The sheer number of ever-changing and perplexing issues requires this capacity. 

This proverbial form of wisdom is indeed a tall order in our current environment, but we know that God grants wisdom to those who fear him. This is a sure hope.

Third, Christian students must learn that virtue is not an option. It’s not just the “what”; it’s also the “how.” As God’s image-bearers, they are called to reflect the character of their heavenly Father—blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 

Peter’s epistle summarize this mandate quite clearly (2 Peter 1):

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason, make every effort, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and short-sighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

I like Joe. This morning you talked about this aspiration to take on the character, the character of Christ. And that’s the other critically important thing for our students to learn. So it has to be about, you know, how they think. The wisdom that they are skilled to use. 

Here is some good news. From what I’ve observed, young Christian adults are ready for this reformation. They’re distressed by polarization and this worldliness so present among professed Christians. They crave godliness. They love community. They want an authentic faith. And they’re ready to take up the calling of faithful presence. 

As the sociologist James Hunter has so beautifully stated, “We are not bound by the ‘necessities’ of history and society, but are free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in the cities. May God grant that it be so.

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  1. Comment by Roger on February 16, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    Our Methodist Schools need to get back to the Body of Christ and the Gospel of Grace. Princeton University in 1888, President, Francis L. Patton saw the down fall of Bible Study in our Schools, and said” the only hope of Christianity is in the rehabilitating of the Pauline Theology. It is back, back, back, to an incarnate Christ and the atoning blood, or it is on, on, and on to atheism and despair.” Pastors, today ignore Paul’s letters. Students need to know the Gospel of Grace, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 4. If our students don’t know Jesus crucified and Resurrected, we are lost. If Resurrection is not part of our salvation belief, we are still in our sins, per 1 Corinthians 15: 17. Even a greater warning is given to us by Paul, if we preach another Gospel besides 1 Corinthians, you are accursed, per Galatians 1: 8 – 9. It’s a repeated warning calling for emphasis.
    Jews are kingdom believers, because God promised this to Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Gentile today are Body of Christ believers. Let’s get the Methodist Church, including Students back on the Grace track.

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