Writing at WORLD magazine, the latest imperial conquest of the fundamentalist fiefdom over which he presides, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler has responded to David Brooks’s recent New York Times piece on evangelical dissenters. Let’s break it down:
Here is Mohler:
Brooks writes of division within evangelicals: “While differing over politics and other secondary matters, they are in theory supposed to be unified by their shared first love—as brothers and sisters in Christ.” Indeed, the authentic church of the Lord Jesus Christ is unified in that shared first love, but a visible unity of the church must be founded upon a sufficient consensus in beliefs and convictions, and that consensus is very different than what Brooks has in mind.
Based on what we know from Mohler, his “sufficient consensus in beliefs and convictions” boils down to the inerrancy of the Bible (if you do not believe in inerrancy you are not an evangelical), an affiliation with conservative politics (Democrats are not welcome in the evangelical fold, or at least that’s how it appears), a vision of politics focused on winning the Supreme Court and presidency even if that means supporting Donald Trump, a complementarian view of women in the church (egalitarians are heretics), a traditional view of marriage and sexual ethics, a soft belief that the United States must become more Christian, and a staunch belief that Roman Catholics are not Christians.
Brooks, who has been an unrelenting partisan for President Joe Biden, accuses evangelicals of being overly partisan. According to Brooks, the proof of evangelical nefariousness is the fact that, according to the essay, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020. End of story. Evangelicalism hears this prophecy in every generation, usually made by those who crave the approval of influencers like David Brooks and want the cultural cache of being favored by The New York Times.
Three things are interesting here. First, Mohler subtly suggests that one of the reasons we should discredit Brooks’s piece is because he supports Biden. I imagine that this reference will draw cheers and huzzahs from WORLD readers. In Mohler’s mind, the rejection of Joe Biden is a marker of evangelical identity. Second, Mohler is playing the “Evangelical Elites” card. In other words, he claims that the people mentioned in Brooks’s piece are not men and women of intellectual integrity, but mere opportunists and social climbers who want to earn the approval of cultural power-brokers. I’ve responded to this here. Third, Mohler’s piece is obsessed with The New York Times. Again, this is a dog whistle to those in his fiefdom. If he mentions The New York Times enough he will get his WORLD readers to rise-up in righteous anger against the so-called liberal media trying to destroy orthodox Christianity. More on this below.
Let’s be clear—evangelicals are the heirs of the Protestant Reformation, and we must always be working for the reformation of Christ’s church by the Word of God. Critics of evangelicalism can serve us, even unintentionally, by pointing to sins among us that point to the undeniable need for such reformation. And there are sins for which repentance is due and challenges to be faced. We also have to recognize that politics does present Christians with hard choices and ethical challenges.
One gets the impression from this paragraph that the “critics of evangelicals” mentioned in Brooks’s article are no different from, say, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or the Houston Chronicle. We can learn from the criticism of these outsiders, Mohler claims, and sometimes God can use them to point out our sins, but they are not part of our community.
But let’s understand what we are looking at in this essay. David Brooks is not an evangelical Christian. The New York Times “Review” section is not a forum for determining a faithful future for evangelical Christianity, and that is not the paper’s goal. In recent years, Brooks has identified himself as a spiritual seeker attracted to both Christianity and the Judaism into which he was born—but on his own terms. He asked himself in his book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019): “Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?” and “Do I believe his body was gone from the tomb three days after the crucifixion?” He then tells us, “The simple, brutally honest answer is, It comes and goes.”
Here Mohler’s fundamentalism comes into full view. He is certain that Brooks is not an evangelical Christian and The New York Times is not the place to discuss the future of evangelical Christianity. This, of course, is coming from a guy who is always ranting about a greater role for evangelical religion in the public sphere. Frankly, I think it is wonderful that The New York Times is tackling evangelical Christianity in America. I am sure that if the editors of the New York Times asked Al Mohler to participate in a conversion on evangelicalism he would jump at the chance. If that happened, I imagine he would stop calling The New York Times an inappropriate “forum for determining a faithful future for evangelical Christianity.” It is also worth noting that Mohler seems to have no problem with The Washington Post (and here and here) and CNN (and here and here and here) as sites for conversations about evangelical Christianity.
Evangelicals must recognize that we are facing a demand to abandon evangelicalism. Every few years, we are told by those working their way out of conservative evangelicalism that if we do not change our convictions and get with the cultural program, we will lose all the young people and find ourselves in the dustbin of history. For any number of reasons, that might actually happen, for we are not promised cultural influence or numerical strength. But evangelicalism hears this prophecy in every generation, usually made by those who crave the approval of influencers like David Brooks and want the cultural cache of being favored by The New York Times.
Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, and David French (all cited approvingly in Brooks’ essay) regularly castigate evangelicals to their right, and they are not alone. There is cultural favor to be found in putting distance between yourself and the unwashed evangelical horde.
Again, Mohler plays the “Evangelical Elites” card. Rather than engaging with the issues raised by the voices in Brooks’s piece, or seeking out some kind of unity in Christ that includes them, he responds by drawing boundaries. He suggests that anyone who disagrees with him is bowing a knee to those in cultural power.
The future of evangelicalism can be found in the voices of Russell Moore, Kristin Du Mez, Thabiti Anyabwile, Tim Dalrymple, Peter Wehner, David Bailey, Karen Swallow Prior, David French, Rachael Denhollander, Beth Moore, Lecrae, Justin Giboney, Eugene Rivers, Mark Labberton, Walter Kim, Tim Keller, and Michael Gerson. The future of fundamentalism runs through Albert Mohler and his fundamentalist empire.
There was a time when I had respect for Albert Mohler. That time passed some years ago. Never trust people who are absolutely convinced they are right.
In other words, the future of evangelicalism depends upon pronouncing fealty to a political party that declares its highest priority as seeking absolutely no limits on killing unborn children. (No, I am not a Republican and do not tar me with that brush. But you have declared more than once that the Democratic Party is THE Christian party.)
As for Michael Gerson and others, they heartily endorsed the American invasion of Iraq in which U.S. forces killed thousands of innocent people, created a huge refugee crisis, and destroyed whole countries, all in the name of some huge lies. If killing innocents is the future of evangelicalism, then count me out.
It’s really interesting how often detractors of the dissident white evangelicals start making it out to be a political issue. Abortion didn’t come up in Brooks’s column; why? Because these dissidents by and large don’t talk about abortion, and when they do offer a broad range of views. Their issues with current white evangelical leadership are religious, not political; yet their detractors act as if it’s all about Republican vs. Democrat. I wonder why; perhaps it’s because they no longer recognize the difference?
John Fea says
Hi William. Can you point out where I have said that the Democratic Party is “THE Christian party?” Moreover, I don’t think many of the people in Brooks’s article would affiliate with the Democratic Party. In fact, a lot of them have much in common with Mohler. My argument here is more about the boundary drawing. It is a fundamentalist trait. There is little room for different faithful approaches to these issues, including abortion.
John Fea says
thanks for this Shawn. Growing up Catholic I used to say every Sunday: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” I don’t see too much mystery in Mohler’s fiefdom. Their understanding of cultural engagement goes something like this: Read the New York Times and all the leading thought journals so you can show why they are wrong. I teach my students that reading and thinking always begin with humility–the idea that the person you are reading is smarter than you are and has something to teach you.
In answering your missives, first let me point out that I am married to an African-American woman and am a member of a Black church (COGIC), so you can stop with the “white evangelical” attacks that are so prevalent on this website. Believe me, I have no desire to make excuses for what has happened in the past with white Christians, but neither am I willing to deligitimize the faith of evangelicals who are white as you often do in this site. (It is interesting how THEY really are morally and intellectually inferior to you and act very much like someone who sees himself as elite. Yet, if someone points it out, you come back with the “there you go again” nonsense on “elites.”)
No, John, you did not say the Democrats are the “Christian party” in this article, but you have said as much in many other articles and from what I can tell, you and members of the Messiah and Covenant college faculties see it your duties to be grooming students to be progressive Democratic activists.
Years ago, I criticized Christian colleges (and especially Patrick Henry College) for seeing their main duty as using students to be Republican shock troops. I see little difference between what they have been doing and what you are doing now. Furthermore, the one word that I believe applies to people like you and Jay Green, de Mez and others is arrogance. There is nothing humble about anything I ever have seen you write.
Interestingly, a while back you lamented the fact that the University of Vermont probably would dismiss you out-of-hand today because of your stated faith, which was not the case in 1999 when they offered you a position. Yet, you continue to push the very political views of those that are in large part responsible for pushing Christians to the margins.
Now, I agree with you in part that Christianity does better in a secular environment than an environment in which Christians are seeking political power. I really don’t want to live in a “Christian” country in the sense that the Christianity is political Christianity. Now, unlike many of you, I believe that historically, Christianity has been a force for good and for development of civilization. I am unwilling to say that anyone who does not think like John Fea or Jay Green and whose Christian faith does not dovetail with your politics thus qualifies as being “toxic.” Indeed, your arrogance is quite toxic enough.
John Fea says
Just to clarify:
1. I am not in the business of “grooming students to be progressive Democrats.” There is a fundamental difference between what I write here and how I teach.
2. To claim that I am a progressive Democrat suggests to me that you are selectively reading my stuff. I think there are many truly progressives who would laugh at the idea of me being a “progressive Democrat.”
3. We have many readers and writers at CURRENT who identify as conservative or are members of the Republican Party.
4. Again, I would ask that you point out an article or blog post where I have said that the Democratic Party is THE Christian Party.
Thanks for reading and engaging, William.
Should abortion be as the determining factor in how we vote? It seems like a black and white issue, but maybe not. I contend that it is a black and white issue for those on both ends of the spectrum. They would like everyone else to see it their way. Makes voting easy. Yet I think reality is more nuanced. It is a small minority who believe life should not be hindered from coming to be. Any stoppage is evil. This is the official pronouncement of the Catholic Church. Birth control is wrong if it involves pills or IUDs. It is even a minority of Catholics who follow this teaching. A larger, but yet sill a minority, of people believe that life begins at conception and any human action to stop the growth of the embryo from that time until birth is murder. The older that embryo gets the more people who would oppose abortion.
From the other side, it is a small minority who believe that at any place along the gestation period it is the right of a woman to abort her fetus for any reason. In this case, as the fetus grows more people would oppose an abortion. Most people I think are more in the middle of this continuum. Abortion is not a happy event for anybody.
As John has pointed out many times, there is an area in which agreement can be found. Even if some states make abortion illegal, it will still take place. We must question why there is such demand for abortions. That demand side will not go away when the supply becomes more limited. If we want babies to be born, we should also want them to have a decent trajectory towards flourishing. This not the case now. Those who think abortion should be legal and easy to obtain would welcome changes in our society which make abortion less desired by women. Why can’t the other side see this. It seems to me that it is because the minorities on each end of the spectrum want to make this a political divide and resist any kind of rapprochement. The vast middle needs to speak up.