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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Poor, Poor Al

Poor, Poor, Al.

Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, has written an editorial for the Washington Post about the impending marginalization of evangelicals in American society based on the recent momentum that the homosexual marriage issue has gained.[1] He notes with astonishment the speed with which the nation has changed its mind on the issue, commenting that “before you finish reading this column, another major development may well have taken place. The pace of this moral revolution is just that swift.”[2]
            The rate of change within our nation with respect to gay marriage[3], openly homosexual members in the military[4] and clergy[5], and even the Scouts’[6] recent deliberation over the issue seem to represent a critical mass of support in our land for the equality of homosexuals in most walks of American life. Mohler sees the sum total of these issues as a tide of change: “In terms of the cultural tide, evangelical Christians have every reason to feel left behind.”[7] From his perspective, evangelicals have been marginalized by the trends in politics and social action to the point that his ilk may soon find the American social landscape unrecognizable. In short, Al is crying one last time that he wants his country back.
            But that’s not the point I wish to make about Mohler’s perspective. Notice the sad tone of defeat in Mohler’s comments about evangelicals vis-à-vis the cultural mainstream:

“Churches and other groups that cannot accept the full normalization of same-sex relationships will find themselves driven further and further from the cultural mainstream.”

“We are accustomed to standing within the political and cultural mainstream, comfortable in an America that shared much of our moral worldview.”

“Much has been made of the fact that evangelicals are losing political clout, but the much greater loss is measured in cultural influence…Evangelicals are increasingly out of step with the cultural creatives, Millennials, and an electorate that is trending libertarian.”

“Evangelicals appear to be headed for some kind of marginalization, and this will hurt.”[8]

Dr. Mohler is confident that the Church can return to its marginalized roots (e.g., under persecution from governments and rulers) and thrive by demonstrating the love of Christ from the edges of society. His conclusion that evangelicals “don’t need a slot on the inaugural platform in order to be faithful to Christ” is intended to communicate confidence in the future of the evangelical movement in terms of survival, but all hope of the sweeping cultural influence of Mohler’s imagined years-gone-by is gone for good.
            Let me say that Al Mohler does not speak for me either as an evangelical Christian or as a Baptist. I wear the former lightly – like a jacket on a spring day in Mississippi – but the latter I don with pride. Mohler is betraying his misunderstanding of Baptist principles and some of the more basic realities of the Gospel.
            First, when Mohler laments the loss of whatever cultural influence the SBC or the Moral Majority or any other coalition has had in decades past he neglects that the Baptist position vis-à-vis government has always been one of marginalization and resistance.[9] To be a Baptist is to celebrate religious freedom as a minority while maintaining that freedom of conscience that drove our spiritual ancestors to be willingly executed rather than conform to the prevailing culture around them. It is only now, at the end of a relatively short period of cultural influence, that Dr. Mohler seems to have forgotten his roots. Baptists are the people of the margins, not of the mainstream. His implication that at some point in the past evangelicals (read: Southern Baptists) have carried the day in the American arena of morality is patently false; even at the high-water mark of cultural influence Baptists and evangelicals at large could only claim a participatory place in politics and culture-shaping.
            By allowing himself to mourn the loss of cultural and political influence that evangelicals in America once felt, Mohler betrays his belief that even his Fundamentalist perspective of Baptist Christianity can be counted among the evangelicals that once claimed a victory over social mores.[10] I doubt that throwing in with other Christians who fall under the fuzzy term[11] evangelical would sit well with him from a theological standpoint, although I can imagine Dr. Mohler holding his nose and joining up with other evangelicals in the name of social influence. The bottom line is that Mohler is lamenting the loss of power and control of a movement that in reality never really had as much power and control as it imagined.[12]
            Finally, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is never in the mainstream. Jesus’ ministry is counter-cultural at every point and should never be confused with even the most successful culture war campaigns in this world. When Mohler mourns the waning of evangelicals’ ability to shape American values and culture, he announces a retreat to the sidelines where all he will be able to do is preach the Gospel, in love, to the world that has forgotten him and his friends. What a sad place for someone so convinced that evangelical America was becoming the real America.
            But this is not so sad. If all we have is the Gospel being proclaimed in love from the margins of society, then we have everything the church has ever needed. If we, as Baptists, can stand as faithful witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, then we have no need for mainstream influence in American culture.  The only way to be broken-hearted over the perceived loss of evangelical influence in American life is if we have totally misread the Gospel which is not about empire-making or culture-owning or worldview-shaping; it is time to have a funeral for that perspective and all that comes with it.
            I mourn with Al, and I mourn with all who mourn the loss of such a delicious fiction. What the rest of us must prepare to do, then, is to lend a shoulder, a hand, and a heart to those who mourn so that they may feel welcome in our churches and communities on the margins. We must be ready to welcome them home.

[2] Ibid.
[10] Martin Marty, “At the crossroads: evangelicals have become major players in American culture, and that may be their biggest problem.” Christianity Today 48 no. 2 (2004), p. 38-40.
[12] See Dean Curry, “Where have all the Nieburhs gone? Evangelicals and the marginalization of religious influence in American public life.” Journal of Church and State 36 no. 1 (1994), 97-114. “The fact that evangelicals are marginally relevant to the formation of American public life is, sociologically speaking, not surprising. Nevertheless, the ability of evangelical leaders and institutions to meaningfully take part in American public life is further hindered by the nature of the dominant evangelical public philosophy which can be described as "biblicist" in its worldview.”

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