American Evangelical Isolationism in Carl F.H. Henry’s Day and Ours

Carl F.H. Henry maintained a consistent opposition to socialism through the entirety of his life. One of his consistent criticisms was that socialism and the totalitarian governmental system that necessarily accompanies it endangers religious liberty. Correlative to this, democratic systems provide the natural preconditions for religious liberty to flourish. Thus, for Henry, the expansion of just and democratic systems should lend itself to more libertarian religious environments in which evangelism can flourish. For this reason, the existence of these systems is a kind of pre-evangelism. Henry bemoaned the isolationist impulse of fundamentalism because he believed that this impulse led to the expansion of global socialism post World War I.

Today, totalitarianism is rising globally again. If Henry (and other promoters of religious liberty) are correct, threats to religious liberty and its pre-evangelistic environment are rising alongside totalitarianism. At the same time, American evangelical isolationism is rising again. This isolationism is different in kind but same in effect. In Henry’s day, the fundamentalists retreated from social participation altogether in pursuit of spiritual affairs. Today’s American evangelicals are isolationist as a political choice, limiting their concerns to domestic affairs through an “America first” ideology. This posture represents a potential threat to global religious liberty and to the flourishing of global evangelicalism.

This paper will compare the spiritual isolationism of Henry’s day with the political isolationism of contemporary American evangelicals to present a common threat to global religious liberty. The paper will review Henry’s works on evangelical isolationism and global threats to religious liberty. It will also examine literature that suggests American evangelicals are more becoming more isolationist in their socio-political concerns. Finally, it will connect Henry’s concerns about isolationism with today’s isolationism as they both present a concern for religious liberty.

Paul Rowe’s 2019 article, “The Global—and Globalist—Roots of Evangelical Action,” in The Review of Faith & International Affairs touches upon a similar point. In it, he describes an inherent tension in the growing isolationist impulses of evangelicalism with its global concerns. However, this paper provides the additional clarification that this impulse has existed for some time, though it has changed in its specific permutations. Taylor Lassiter’s 2023 dissertation, “The Case for the ‘Theologian-Evangelists’: Carl F.H. Henry as Missional Theologian,” develops Henry as a theologian with global concerns. However, his work does not address Henry’s political-theological concerns as they relate to religious liberty.