This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. Reprinted here with permission.

The summer of 2014 gave us the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby on the side of religious liberty. The summer of 2015 witnessed another culturally controversial 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which carries potentially ominous implications for religious liberty (particularly according to the dissents of Justices Roberts and Alito). Meanwhile, some legal scholars are forecasting a massive public policy paradigm shift in coming years over another hotly contested issue—the right to life. Fordham University’s Charles Camosy, as a case-in-point, sees such a dramatic shift as not only possible but indeed inevitable.[1] He offers several lines of evidence: an unprecedented increase of pro-life legislation advanced across both red and blue states over the last few years;[2] the strong right to life slant among American demographics who will hold an increasing share of legislative clout in coming decades (most notably, millennials and Hispanics);[3] an upsurge of pro-life feminism;[4] the fact that the majority of Americans now believe that abortion should be legal in “few” or “no” circumstances;[5] the proliferation of social media and better technologies (e.g., smartphone apps to hear the child’s heartbeat en utero, medical advances in surgical procedures for prenatal children, 3-D and 4-D fetal imaging, with pictures joyfully plastered all over social media, etc.), among other factors that render it increasingly implausible to deny the humanity and rights of the unborn. [6] These trends (among others) lead Camosy to conclude, “The question is not if the American national abortion policy will undergo a substantial change, but when.”[7]


Given the high stake issues of life and liberty that loom on our nation’s public policy horizon (along with the 2016 Presidential election right around the corner), this is hardly the time for reactionary, superficial or haphazard Christian politics. It is a time for carefully reasoned Christian engagement with public life, a time to ask with renewed seriousness: What does Jerusalem have to do with Washington D.C.? How should Christians engage the political process? What normative role should the church play in public life and legislation?

These are 21st century iterations of what have been perennial questions throughout church history. This much we know (though we need consistent reminders): First, God is sovereign, and from this theological truth it follows that he, not any human court, is really supreme.[8] Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, and, as my colleague Russell Moore often points out, no court ruling can put Jesus back in the grave. Doom and gloom, therefore, are not options. Neither is bowing to any human authority when it oversteps it’s circumscribed, delegated powers to challenge and usurp his Lordship.[9] We also know that God is holy. God’s holiness and his mission to create a holy people mean that becoming chameleons who lose all of our distinctive Christian colors in an effort to appear “relevant” in public life is also not an option. Furthermore, we know that the God of holy transcendence is simultaneously the God of profound immanence—an involved God, a God who draws near, an incarnate God. If we are concerned about mirroring that God well, then a church that adopts a guns-and-gold strategy—a self-imposed mountain exile from politics and public life—is also not a live option.

Why the need for such theological reminders? Hunter Baker observes that, “Politics is exciting… [and] partakes of the nature of sporting events.”[10] It is easy to get so swept up in “this horse race aspect of politics” that it becomes more enamoring to us than God Himself. This generates the kind of horizontally fixated political activism that bears the moniker of God but does very little to accurately mirror and shine His character and attributes into the world of politics. Beginning with (and sustaining) a vertical view, however, our horizontal perception becomes more vivid. We begin to see the sphere of politics as a place for fearlessness because God is sovereign, distinctiveness because God is holy, and redemptive involvement because God is incarnate (among other postures toward culture that follow from God’s justice, compassion, grace, love, etc.).

We all need such reminders. But they still leave some important questions hanging: What exactly are Christians to do so fearlessly, distinctively, and incarnationally in the world of politics? Should the church endorse specific public policies? Should church leaders take sides on legislative questions and rally support from the pulpit for (or against) specific candidates? Should policy and voting questions be left to the consciences of Christians as individuals, or do they fall within the proper scope of the church as an institution, or perhaps both?


These were the questions brewing in the mind of Richard Mouw in 1967 when he submitted an article for publication to Christianity Today. Mouw wanted to rouse the dosing church in America to engage the social evils of the day with more political clarity and verve. Carl F.H. Henry—the founding editor of Christianity Today (1956-68) and one the most rigorously thoughtful and respected voices in 20th century evangelicalism—offered Mouw an instructive critique. According to Henry, individual Christians may engage the political process by endorsing specific policies; whereas the church as an institution should stick to declaring the general principles of a biblical worldview as they relate to socio-political issues, while stopping short of explicit public policy endorsements. For Henry, the institutional church can and should voice negative verdicts on bad policies, but lacks the “mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.”[11]

Mouw “grudgingly accepted what [he] considered a less-than-fully satisfactory compromise arrangement,” while remaining convinced that “the church could rightly say a bold ‘yes’ to specific policy-like solutions.”[12] Forty-three years later all of that would change. In January of 2010, Christianity Today published Mouw’s updated reflections under the humble and candid title, “Carl Henry Was Right.” Why did Mouw, over the course of four decades, come to side with Henry in placing specific policy endorsements beyond the purview of the institutional church’s mission and mandate? Was Carl Henry right?

The current edition of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought (see the link below to read the full issue) opens with the 2010 Christianity Today article (reprinted with permission) in which Mouw explains why he has come to see his “youthful conviction as misguided” and that “Henry was right.”[13] This article sets the context for the rest of this issue in which top Christian thinkers—professional theologians, ethicists, and lawyers—weigh in on whether Henry was right, that is, whether the institutional church should refrain from declaring “a bold ‘yes’” to particular public policies.

Hunter Baker (Professor of Political Science at Union University) builds a case for a more expansive, policy-affirming role for the church in American politics. Jordan Ballor (Research Fellow at the Acton Institute) draws on the thinking of Martin Luther, Abraham Kuyper, Paul Ramsey, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to further reinforce and nuance Henry (and now Mouw’s) position. Brian Mattson (Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership) finds Henry’s position unnecessarily constricting as the church seeks to fulfill its transformative role in society. Francis Beckwith (Professor of Philosophy and Church Studies at Baylor University) highlights a major worldview shift since Mouw first engaged Henry, namely, the loss of a general cultural awareness of key features of a traditional Christian worldview, particularly as it relates to human nature and responsible ecclesiastical engagement with public life. Jeffrey Ventrella (Senior Counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom) argues that the pulpit is not only a proper but indeed an essential outlet for both negative and positive political pronouncements. Myron Steeves (Dean of Trinity Law School) contends that Henry was indeed right, and that, given the compromises that go with the political enterprise, the church risks undermining its prophetic role and tarnishing its gospel proclamation if it ventures too intimately into the political realm. The discussion concludes with the responses and reflections of Dr. Mouw five years after his CT piece, and some forty-eight years after his first exchange with Henry.

When Mark Noll surveyed (and often lamented) the role of evangelicals in 20th century politics, he saw in Carl Henry a bright ray of hope for a resurgence of serious Christian political reflection, deeming him “the most visible figure reawakening a concern for social and political thought” while celebrating Henry’s “extraordinarily positive influence toward a recovery of an evangelical politics.”[14] Henry’s brief work The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, while written in 1947, remains a treasure trove of insight for anyone concerned with biblically faithful socio-political engagement. With such works as Political Evangelism (1973), Politics and the Biblical Drama (1976), When the Kings Come Marching In (2002), Uncommon Decency (2010), among others, and his most recent work with Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought on recovering civility in the public square, Richard Mouw stands firmly within Henry’s legacy of thoughtful Christian engagement, and moves that legacy forward. Both thinkers are deeply connected by the conviction that the Lordship of Christ cannot be crammed into some Platonic box of other worldly forms, but stretches out over the whole terrain of existence, including social and political existence. It is our hope that the following dialogue contributes to a clearer vision of Christ’s comprehensive Lordship as it relates to the church and our role in the nation’s political future. What does Jerusalem have to do with D.C.? How should Christians engage the political process? Was Carl Henry right? However we ask it, there is far too much at stake for us to ignore the question.

Click here to read the full issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought.

[1] See Charles Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, Ch. 1 (Eerdmans, 2015).

[2] Id. at 34-35.

[3] Id. at 36-39.

[4] Id. at Ch. 5. Highly notable in this regard is the work of Hastings Center Distinguished Scholar, Sidney Callahan. See Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism in On Moral Medicine, 3rd Ed., Therese Lysaught et. al., Eds., 938-44 (Eerdmans, 2013).

[5] 62% according to a 2013 CNN poll. For further analysis of shifting American demographics on right to life issues see Camosy, at 26-40.

[6] Id. at Ch. 2.

[7] Id. at 39, emphasis in original.

[8] When the early church in Jerusalem faces a harsh legal ruling to cease evangelizing or face prosecution and death, they open their prayer with the word—Despotes—meaning “Sovereign Lord”—as a reminder that God, not the assorted political powers, sits on the throne of the cosmos (Acts 4:24). Their prayer goes on the acknowledge that when the ruling came down to execute Jesus, the political forces involved were doing “what the hand and will of God has predetermined to take place” (4:28). With such a robust theology of divine sovereignty, they “continued to speak the word with great boldness” (4:31). For extended discussion of this crucial text see Thaddeus Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 83-101 (Brill, 2011).

[9] As Peter and the apostles tell the Jerusalem senate: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

[10] Hunter Baker The Church as a Public Policy Actor in a Democratic Republic in this issue of the Journal.

[11] Carl F.H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian, 270 (Word, 1986).

[12] Richard Mouw, Carl Henry Was Right, Christianity Today, 32 (January 2010).

[13] Id. at 32.

[14] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 221-222 (InterVarsity, 1994).