Al Mohler Fumbles – Word&Way
Looking at evangelicals trying to codify their religious beliefs in government today, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer likes to ask, “Where have all the Baptists gone? After all, Baptists used to open the way by arguing that church and state should be separate. I think of Balmer‘question pretty much every time Al Mohler talks about issues between church and state.
The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was back on Thursday (April 28) as he spoke on his podcast about an important school prayer case the United States Supreme Court heard this week. His remarks not only pushed for more Christian nationalism, but also included a bizarre rant against those who understand that true religious freedom for all requires a strong separation between church and state.
Judges Monday heard oral arguments in a case stemming from a former high school football coach who filed a lawsuit after his school in Bremerton, Wash., ordered him to stop holding prayer rallies with students and to other people on the 50 meter line immediately after games. Some students felt compelled to attend and with his audible prayers and devotional pep talks suggesting the school’s endorsement of a religion, his district rightly sought to shut down the show. They even offered to put the coach up so he could pray quietly somewhere else immediately after the game (much like Jesus teaches).
Mohler in his podcast spent much of his time not on the facts of the case, which he muddled, but on the attack Americans United for Separation of Church and State to represent the school. He said he was “shocked, very shocked” to see them as lawyers. This use of “very ideological lawyers”, he added, means the school was trying to answer “big constitutional questions”. Of course, he didn’t mention that the coach Lawyers at the First Liberty Institute are, how could one say, “very ideological” and raise “big constitutional questions”. And as Mohler himself said on the podcast, the case “may well now set an important precedent.” When the case raises big constitutional issues, why wouldn’t the school district have attorneys who specialize in those issues? It’s almost like Mohler complaining that the school is actually trying to win.
Mohler went on to call the UA “anti-Catholic” noting that it began as Protestants and other Americans united for separation of church and state, with many early efforts aimed at stopping government funding of Catholic schools. Mohler even hinted that this history means the band today cannot be trusted to “just try to maintain some kind of natural, constitutional balance.” But it’s a particularly odd claim considering all the things Moher didn’t say, not the least of which is that the AU is now a broad coalition of Catholics and those of all religious traditions or without religion. In other words, people and organizations can improve. But Mohler omitted that part of the story.
Facts Mohler left out include that Southern Baptists helped start the AU, such as pastor and former international missionary Edwin Poteat Jr. and pastor and SBC executive committee member JW Dawson. Southern Baptists helped devise the organization because of a belief in the separation of church and state. Where did all the Baptists go, indeed.
Mohler’s argument, which has itself been called anti-Catholic, is also interesting because it seems to suggest that if a group started out with a sin, then they cannot repent and walk away from it. One such argument involves the Southern Baptist Convention for its own anti-Catholic advocacy (both in helping start the AU and in its own initiatives). Moreover, the idea that an organization cannot get rid of an original sin is ironic for a man who runs a seminary. started by slaveholders to defend slavery theologically! I believe that Southern Seminary is not hopelessly doomed to be a racist, pro-slavery organization – but they must make amends for this past. Maybe people living in glass mansions should be more careful when throwing historic stones.
Mohler used the attacks on the AU to advance his real agenda, which is the government’s prayer in public schools. This the case concerns more than what happens under the Friday night lights in Washington State. Mohler made this clear when complaining that the AU and “the Supreme Court and cultural elites” during the latter half of the 20and century pushed a “secular understanding of the role of national government”. He claimed it made it “very, very difficult for religious believers” – “Christians in particular” – to practice their faith in public. And what did he offer as an example?
“Like in public schools, where of course you not only had the official school prayer ruled unconstitutional, but ultimately, as we just saw in this case, you had a high school football coach fired,” a Mohler said.
Here it is. Mohler sees 1962 as a problem Engel versus Vitale decision that prevented coercive government prayers in public schools. But his position is not religious freedom; it is Christian nationalism. And opposing such prayers is not “cultural secularism” or “resolutely secularist” as Mohler argued. This is a long standing Baptist understanding. Like Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in North America, Put the“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Where have all the Baptists gone? Some of us are still there. But you apparently won’t find them in the office of the president of Southern Seminary.