Christianity,  Culture,  Politics

Albert Mohler on Evangelicals and Christian Nationalism

Astead Herndon of The New York Times recently interviewed Dr. Albert Mohler about politics, American evangelicalism, and Christian Nationalism. The interview is a part of “The Guardrails” episode of “The Run-Up” podcast. The New York Times has made a transcript available, which I have excerpted below.

This is a fascinating interview on a number of levels. The interviewer is adversarial, but in a polite way and allows Mohler to make his points. Mohler does a better job than just about anyone I’ve heard at parrying charges of Christian Nationalism.

It’s fascinating that so many media personalities do not seem to understand that there is no such thing as Christian Nationalism but rather Christian Nationalisms. In other words, Christian Nationalism is a broad label encompassing a wide variety of political viewpoints. Media personalities tend not to be aware of the scholarly conversation on Christian Nationalism. Rather, they seem to define it as everything they don’t like about politically engaged Christians.

That means that for some of them, every politically engaged pro-life Christian is a Christian Nationalist. For them, “Christian Nationalist” has become a useful label to slap on anyone they wish to vilify. It’s just uncareful, sloppy thinking. What’s interesting about this interview is how effective Mohler is at blowing up this strategy. Really well done.

Astead Herndon (intro): Dr. Al Mohler has been an influential evangelical leader for decades. He’s the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in the world. And in that role, he’s responsible for training future church leaders who are defining this next era of the evangelical church.

So he’s maybe one of the best people to talk to understand the way in which church leadership has followed the grass roots. And when we talked, he told me that part of his own transformation is because of what he feels are the consequences of an increasingly-secular world.

Al Mohler: Secularization, just sociologically defined, is the decline of the influence of religion, but in the case of the United States, of historic Christian theism in the culture. And so that means that the message preached by evangelical Christians and other Orthodox communities of faith is more out of step with the direction of the culture than would have been the case in the 1950s. In the 1950s, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and the leadership of the United States and Congress or corporate America or all of us would have been seen as part of the same world. That’s not so much the case now, I think we just have to say, honestly.

Astead Herndon: Is that because of certain issues? I think we can infer. But I would like for us to be clear.

Al Mohler: You could take the issue of abortion. You could take — I’ll tell you the most explosive issue, undoubtedly, is the sexuality issues, which even in the — this is my 30th year as president. But let’s just say that entire alphabets have been developed that didn’t exist in public conversation in 1993. And so the context of conservative Christianity in America is that, quite frankly, on many of these moral issues, the society agreed with us. Now the society disagrees with us. That’s a fundamental change.

Astead Herndon: And that is driving, what you say, has changed the work and the role that you all play at the school. That has created the urgency to train these pastors in this new way?

Al Mohler: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. And I think they sense that they have a different challenge in the cultural sense than their, say, grandfathers would have had.

Astead Herndon: So is the basic premise that the Democratic party’s embrace of LGBTQ politics and embrace of those people and the embrace of pro-choice position has moved the party away from a position where you feel like it can be compatible with your Christian faith?

Al Mohler: Oh, absolutely.

Astead Herndon: I’m curious what you think of people like Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who have said that they’re tired of the separation of church and state, that church needs to play a greater, explicit role in government. Is that something you would agree with?

Al Mohler: I wouldn’t put it that way. And Representative Boebert has a different style than I have. I don’t like the language of separation of church and state because that’s not constitutional language. So —

Astead Herndon: What do you mean?

Al Mohler: That’s Thomas Jefferson language. The constitutional language is the language of the Constitution, which prohibits Congress to establish a religion and ensures the free exercise of religion. Those are two different things. And I do not want a Christian church in charge of the United States government.

I do not want a religious test for public office as administered by the government. Those things are clear in terms of our Constitution. But I do believe that our Republic is based upon certain religious assumptions, and without those assumptions, the entire project is very much undermined and subverted.

Astead Herndon: What are those assumptions?

Al Mohler: I think they’re assumptions of the inheritance of Christianity concerning human dignity, human rights. When you say all men are created equal, well, that implies a creator, not only implies, it explicitly declares a creator. Where do those rights come from? So this isn’t some kind of abstract discussion. I don’t think a secular state is a neutral state.

Astead Herndon: It seems to —

Al Mohler: I wouldn’t call for the end of the separation of church and state. I do not want an established church. I do believe that there is no such thing as a secular nation. And I don’t believe that our constitutional compact can exist without the basic theological presuppositions that gave birth to the country.

Astead Herndon: I have a couple of images of the relationship between evangelical Christianity and politics stuck in my mind over the last 10, 15 years. And I think one of them I cannot forget is the January 6 day, where you saw a lot of imagery, particularly of Christ and faith, that people were using as justification to then attack the Capitol. I was curious, as someone who saw those same images, what did you think of them?

Al Mohler: I thought they were a freak show. I am a Christian theologian and I do not want to see the symbols of Christianity co-opted by anyone. Some of the people there, no doubt, were well intended and just trying to say, we’re claiming Christian continuity with the American constitutional experiment. But I was not there on January the 6th, would not have been there on January the 6th. And I want to be honest, I found much of it to be an absolute freak show. And so do just about all the Christians I know.

Astead Herndon: Even if you personally disagreed, why do you think there was space for the ardent supporters of Donald Trump, a man have expressed personal disagreements but also endorsed politically, why do you think there was an alignment between the symbols of your faith and his most violent supporters?

Al Mohler: Well, I will simply say we don’t have an evangelical Christian authority. We don’t have any authority that says you get to show up with this — anybody can show up right now, in front of the White House, today, with any kind of symbol, with no one’s authorization. So I simply want to say, that does not represent mainstream evangelical Christianity in the United States.

Astead Herndon: With that view in mind, how do you feel about the term Christian nationalist? I have heard that come up in response to the 6th. And I’ve seen some statements where you have seen to go from disliking or disavowing that term to embracing it, or at least embracing parts of it. Is that fair?

Al Mohler: Yeah, I still don’t like the term. What I said was, people will throw that term against any conservative Christian who believes in the importance of nation and conservative political convictions, and will claim you’re a Christian nationalist if you believe Christianity should influence the nation. I said I’m not going to run from that.

But many in the media, and certainly people on the left, they try to discredit Christian influence by saying it’s the radical right. It’s the reactionary right. It’s the Christian right. The latest thing is to say it’s Christian nationalism. Well, unapologetically, I believe in the importance of nation. Our constitutional order is around a nation.

I want to defend this nation. But all throughout the 20th century, particularly, the word nationalist also includes — which I don’t use. It’s not on my business card. I’ve not described myself as a Christian nationalist because I don’t associate with the extremes that show up on the right.

Astead Herndon: But you say you’re not going to run from that term?

Al Mohler: You can’t run from it. There are people who would say, I don’t like Baptists. Well, I don’t know which Baptists you don’t like. But I’m a Baptist. I can’t run from being a Baptist. I can try to argue with you what Baptists rightly means but —

Astead Herndon: But I guess I’m saying —

Al Mohler: — put question the other way. How would I run from it?

Astead Herndon: I’m saying, if you’re saying that you don’t agree with what Congresswoman Boebert is saying about separation of church and state, why not disavow the term Christian nationalist because —

Al Mohler: Because I’m not giving her the term. I’m not giving anybody that term. I’m not giving you the term. And I’m not arguing that you don’t have the right to your definition. But there’s no fixed definition there that demonstrates that what that must mean is Oath Keepers or some group that showed up on January the 6th. In other words, if I say abortion ought to be illegal, and you say that’s — I’m not saying you, excuse me. But if you say that’s Christian nationalism, I’m not going to say, well, then, never mind. I don’t have a position on abortion. I’m not going to run away at that argument.

Astead Herndon: You’ve recently talked about how it could be, quote, “unfaithful” to God to vote the wrong way. What did you mean by that?

Al Mohler: I think there are certain issues that have to have primacy for Christian voters in our context. At that meeting, I was speaking to voters in Georgia. And I said two things in particular — I was very clear — the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage. And I said those would be the predominating issues for me. I think Christians must faithfully uphold those two principles. There’s more to politics. But I’m arguing there’s not less.

Astead Herndon: So again, it’s coming back to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Al Mohler: LGBTQ rights in one sense is the way you’re going to describe it. I’m going to say the most important thing is defending marriage. And the Supreme Court, in the Obergefell decision, declared its judgment on the fact that no state may prevent or fail to recognize what is defined as lawful, same-sex marriage. I understand that. I’m not holding a sign outside the county courthouse, protesting that. I believe it’s a mistake. I believe that it will weaken this entire society.

And that issue right now is front and center precisely because, not of the Supreme Court and not even because of a state measure, but because the United States Congress is taking up legislation that would codify the Obergefell decision. And yeah, I think if you find conservative Christians, you’re going to find people who believe that would be a grave mistake.

Astead Herndon: I understand that’s your belief. And I’m not actually trying to push on that belief. I am saying, you’re saying the primacy of those two issues for you and what you are articulating for Christians should come before other issues. Is that what I hear you saying?

Al Mohler: That is what I said. They’re prior. I think they’re both prepolitical, by the way, which is Christian ethical language for, this is prior to what should be the regime of politics.

Astead Herndon: How should one measure those issues against, say, the peaceful transfer of power? Why isn’t an issue like democracy just as important as abortion or gay marriage?

Al Mohler: Well number one, I don’t that is, in the midterm elections right now, a crucial issue. And it’s not as defined, candidate by candidate or even party by party right now. And by the way, if you look at the record of what I said on January the 6th and subsequent to January the 6th, I called for and consistently have called for a peaceful transfer of power.

Astead Herndon: Well let me change the question to phrase it in actual candidates in this midterm elections. You have candidates who stand against abortion, and I would say, mirror some of your conservative values, but have also explicitly attacked the idea of Democracy. I’m thinking of Kari Lake in Arizona. I’m thinking of Doug Mastriano, who was at the Capitol on January 6. Do you support those candidates?

Al Mohler: Yeah. This is where we have a two-tier situation. And I want to be intellectually honest. So if I were living in those jurisdictions, I’d face the question of voting for them. But I’m not running from your question. And I’m simply going to say that in both parties, right now, in order to have a majority, there are going to be people with whom the majority in both party disagree. But nonetheless, they’re going to count them in the number. They’re going to hope for a majority.

So that is the difficulty. We live in a fallen world. I want to be an honest Christian. There are horribly difficult decisions to be made. Let’s put it this way. I generally want, in almost every case — in every case. Let me take away the conditional. I want, in every case, the genuinely-conservative candidate to win, who will uphold the issues that I believe are paramount. I forswear and give up the idea of a perfect candidate. That’s the best way I to put it.

Astead Herndon: OK, so it sounds like you’re saying you would support them if you were in those districts and you could vote in those races. Is that fair?

Al Mohler: If I were in districts or in a state, or in a statewide or congressional district election, I had to choose between someone who supports life and someone who does not support life in the womb, I’m going to vote for the one who upholds the sanctity of human life.

Astead Herndon: Is there something that a candidate who supports your vision on marriage and abortion could do that would stop you from voting for them?

Al Mohler: Yes, if I felt like they could not uphold the Constitution of the United States I would not vote for them.

Astead Herndon: And being at the January 6 Capitol does not cross that line for you?

Al Mohler: No, you switched two things. You got to the Capitol — because my understanding of January 6 is that there were multiple gatherings. Let’s put it this way. Anyone who showed up to invade the Capitol, I think, would have a very hard time taking the Oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Astead Herndon: OK. What if they defended people who invaded the Capitol?

Al Mohler: I do not feel competent or honest, at this point, to know exactly what that means. I will say this. That oath of office is the precious foundation of the political compact. And I would not vote for anyone that I believe could not honestly and earnestly take the Oath of Office. But quite frankly, I am in no position to think I know of a major candidate that today would fit that description.

Astead Herndon: For something like the midterm elections, what do you charge Christians to do this November?

Al Mohler: Well, I’ve spoken to that. Christians in the United States, who have the ability to vote, will vote one way or another. Even not voting is no abdication because you just strengthen and weight the vote of those who do vote. There’s no refuge from political responsibility here. I would say we need be good stewards of the vote. And that means we’ve got to know, in our minds, what is first and primary. And that’s going to be the sanctity of every single human life and what leads to the strengthening of marriage and the family as the basic building blocks of civilization.

Astead Herndon: So you’re saying, even for you as a voter, you have set all of those other things aside for those two issues. And you’re saying that in the charge for Christians this November, it sounds like you’re saying that they should do the same thing.

Al Mohler: Yeah. I know you’re not trying to misrepresent what I said.

Astead Herndon: I’m not. I’m not. I thought that was a fair representation of what you said.

Al Mohler: I did not say set them aside.

Astead Herndon: OK.

Al Mohler: I said as a matter of priority.

Astead Herndon: OK. Deprioritize.

Al Mohler: Yeah, no, that’s fair. So all of me shows up all the time. I am saying, clearly, honestly, it is an issue of secondary or tertiary priority to me. If the abortion issue were settled in favor of the sanctity of human life, I’d look forward to some great debates on some other issues. But right now —

And look, I’m not alone in this. The left is making the same argument. Some of the loudest discussion on abortion right now, not coming from the right, it’s coming from the left. And look, there are an awful lot of Democrats who I think would — all are honestly saying, the most important thing you can vote on is abortion rights. So in other words, I don’t think we misunderstand one another in this cultural conflict.

Astead Herndon: Is it fair then, to see what you’re doing at the seminary and in your preaching, as preparing pastors across the country for what you see as these core American fights, in addition to theologically, but culturally?

Al Mohler: I will have to say — again, when I just said I’m not running from things, I’m not running from the fact that I’m concerned about that. I am. But my first responsibility is to make sure they the difference between Genesis and 1 Kings, is to train them how to teach and preach the word of God, to make sure that the doctrines of the Christian faith.

Astead Herndon: But it’s hard for me to hear that, though. I’ve got to say it’s hard for me to hear that when you have backed someone who didn’t second Corinthians from 2 Corinthians. How do we square those two things?

Al Mohler: Well, yeah, that was clever, by the way. That was a good job.

Astead Herndon: I’m just being honest. I’m just being for real.

Al Mohler: Yeah, but I’m being for real. I’m training pastors, first and foremost. I’m not training presidents. I don’t think I am. I’m not training —

Astead Herndon: But you are influencing president choices? You don’t see yourself as doing that?

Al Mohler: No, I didn’t say that. In this school, I am training preachers. I thought that’s what you asked me about. I’m training preachers. I don’t primarily talk to them about politics. You come here — and I’d invite you to come here — you’re going to find classes, New Testament, Old Testament, systematic theology, apologetic theology. And that is what I live in. I am more concerned about the city of God than the city of man.

But because I love God, I’m also concerned about the city of man. So yes, I do lean into those issues. And look, they’re the ones that interest “The New York Times.” “The New York Times” doesn’t want to come and ask me for an articulation of substitutionary atonement versus other theories of Christ’s atonement. That is where I spend, actually, most of my time.

Astead Herndon: Mm. What’s your bet for the future of the country? You seem to be describing really existential terms, a country that’s moving further and further away from your vision of Christianity, an embrace of urgent, political moment on national politics and in this midterms. A lot seems to be intersecting in this time. Tell me what you think the future looks like.

Al Mohler: Well, I think you’ll hear the biblical refrain when I say, I’m neither the prophet nor the son of a prophet. But what I do know is this. I do believe we’re down to issues of deep and daunting division in the United States. And I think everybody senses this who’s observing what’s going on in the country. You can talk about red versus blue America. You can talk about urban versus rural America. You can look at any number of ways to describe it.

Look, I have hope for this country. I still believe that it is one of the most enduring constitutional orders, indeed, in terms of written Constitution, still the most enduring constitutional order. I don’t believe it can exist if it’s cut off from its foundation. But I don’t believe the vast majority of Americans have any intention to cut it off from its foundation. I think we’re going to have to work through some of these issues.

I don’t think there are any assurances. God never promises the United States of America that it will survive. But I’m going to work for it. And look, I’m glad to have had this conversation on the podcast today. I just hope it was helpful.

Astead Herndon: Dr. Mohler, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

Al Mohler: Honor to be a part of it. God bless you.

Astead Herndon: Thank you.