Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Al Mohler: Conservative Christians Want a 20% Theocracy!

Historian Bruce Gourley, Assoc. Director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University (Macon, GA), has an article on the Mainstream Baptists’ Group Blog that all those concerned with religious liberty and church-state separation should read. Gourley refers to a recent radio program by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., current president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and an increasingly influential figure of the U. S. Religious Right. (Full disclosure of my own bias: I have known Mohler since the mid-’80s and there has never been any love lost between us. That personal dislike became extreme after Mohler became SBTS president and preceded to destroy my alma mater and came close to ruining the lives of many of my favorite professors, whose reputations he did his best to destroy through incredible falsehoods. I have tried to get over this and time has helped, along with revival of most of my professors’ fortunes in other settings, but I am still likely to interpret anything Mohler says or does in the worst possible light. Readers should allow for that bias as they investigate for themselves.)

In this radio program, Mohler tries to redefine the term “theocracy,” claiming that the Puritan church establishments of New England were NOT theocracies, despite the long use of that term by historians to describe the way the Standing Order of New England Puritanism controlled virtually all the laws and persecuted all dissenters. Mohler went on to claim that contemporary conservative Christians like himself did not want a theocracy in the U.S., but only wanted control of “about 20%” of the U.S. government!!!!

Which 20%? The Dept. of Education? The IRS? The Dept. of Health & Human Services? The Supreme Court?

This rejection of church-state separation would shame early Baptists of all theological and political stripes. In any nation where they have not been a persecuted minority, Christians have tried to influence policies in a moral fashion, Baptists included, but not in any form of control. As Gourley reminds us, early Baptists did not just argue for their own religious freedom but protected the rights of others, including Jews, Turks (Muslims), pagans (Native Americans), Deists, atheist skeptics, and more. Now, when Baptists are a large minority within the U.S. and, in some states, a majority, they cannot forsake liberty loving values of their heritage for a mess of majoritarian pottage.

I’m sure that Roger Williams, John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, John Leland and other early Baptists are horrified at these words from a spiritual descendant. If anything could dim the joy of Glory, surely it is this betrayal.


September 14, 2006 - Posted by | church-state separation


  1. First, Michael, before writing this post did you actually listen to Dr. Mohler’s program or did you accept Mr. Gourley’s analysis as fact? Second, please do two things – 1) Quickly read my comments I posted on the Mainstream Baptists site before they are deleted for length (though I didn’t see any specific commenting rules and would be sorely disappointed if one decided to delete it) and 2) if you did not listen to the broadcast before you posted this blog and haven’t since then, please go do so. It is 38 minutes long, but I think you will see that what Mr. Gourley wrote was a mischaracterization of what Dr. Mohler said and I think you should be aware of this in case you feel you need to amend your post after reviewing the broadcast. Thanks and I hope you have a great day.

    Comment by D.R. | September 14, 2006

  2. Hmmm… he’s still a Baptist, right?

    Comment by graham old | September 14, 2006

  3. d.r., I never report or link to anything I haven’t read or listened to. This is true even though I prefer to read transcripts than to listen to Mohler. Mohler, like Bush, has a voice that grates on my nerves, so I prefer to read transcripts.

    The point that Mohler makes about secular people in the Bush admin being more scary than religious ones is an either/or that isn’t necessary. There is some panic by people on the Left that religious Left people always are saying “don’t be religio-phobes.” But Mohler and his guest dismiss all such worries in a stupid way.

    Mohler tries to argue that Jimmy Carter doesn’t understand the way that religion influences policy any more than Oxford’s militantly secular Richard Dawkins. Carter used religious language. Randall Balmer cannot be dismissed as a secular liberal–he is an evangelical.

    Mohler misses the point, or deliberately misleads, constantly. It’s not the desire to get rid of abortion that is theocratic, but the strategy they use for doing so. And the constant comparison with the civil rights movement is incredibly disingenuous.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 14, 2006

  4. D.R., If you would ask me, I would place Mohler technically with the “Christian Nation” crowd (which I still believe to be wrong and dangerous) rather than with the true theocrats such as the Dominionists. Mohler attempts, however, to dismiss worries about things APPROACHING theocracy by saying “well the Rushdoony Reconstructionist movement peaked in the ’80s” without talking about how watered-down versions have become very influential.

    Mohler and Douthat speak about a real problem: secular liberals who are just complete religion-phobes, but then conflate this with ALL worries about theocratic impulses (not necessarily full theocracies), such as the way they both dismissed Randall Balmer & Jimmy Carter and Rabbi James Rudin, etc. Michelle Goldberg of U. of Chicago was also quickly dismissed although she is also a believing Jew, not a secularist, and an excellent sociologist whose conclusions were based on close study of individuals, churches, etc. activities.

    You, like Mohler, have argued to me often that Christian members of the Right are just concerned about gay marriage and abortion. This is not true as all the constant attempts to legislate mandatory prayer in public schools (or to confuse the public about what is and is not forbidden), 10 Commandments in courtrooms, attempts to call “Intelligent Design” science and place it in science classes (in a philosophy class, I would have no problem exposing students to it), etc.
    As recently as 2 weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Harris (R-FL) argued to the Florida Baptist Witness that church-state separation was a lie and the failure to elect Christians to Congress was “political sin.” This was widely defended by Florida Baptists! So, you can’t say that no theocratic impulses exist!

    The other thing that shows, not full theocracies but theocratic impulses, is the WAY Mohler and others attempt to ban abortion, etc.: Holding “Justice Sunday” rallies that argue that the nomination and confirmation of particular Supreme Court justices are a matter of the life and soul of the nation; arguments for banning abortion that do not recognize religious pluralism (there are other kinds of arguments against it), the same for arguments against same-sex marriage, etc. These arguments are made in a way, as one of Mohler’s callers pointed out and Mohler acknowledged, that says “You should enact law X because we are Christians and what we say goes.” (Paraphrase.) That’s not just bringing your faith to the public square, that’s a coercive move.

    It doesn’t just worry secularists like Richard Dawkins, but people who know very well what personal faith is all about like Jimmy Carter. Carter witnessed the the ambassador from China when in office! He knows that church-state separation doesn’t mean forbidding religious discourse. He used the common religious ground between him as a Christian, Begin as a Jew, and Sadat as a Muslim to help negotiate the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty–not one line of which has been broken! To place Carter’s remarks in such a dismissive way with secular fears is to trivialize real problems–to hide or obscure what even many people of faith see as a real problem in our pluralist democracy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 14, 2006

  5. Ok, let me get some clarification quickly on a few things. Short answers or yes or no will be fine (I realize I am asking a lot, but I do think you are saying a lot with this post that needs to be addressed).

    1. I was confused in how you worded your answer to my first question, so, forgive me, but are you saying that before you posted this piece you did indeed listen to the entirety of the Albert Mohler program for that day, or are you saying that you read a transcript of the program (and if it is the latter can you send me a file or link – I couldn’t find one and still would like to have it so I don’t have to go back and listen to it over and over again)?

    2. So are you saying that after reviewing the program you still contend that what Al Mohler meant when he responded to the following statement by Douthat:
    “I think if all the leaders of the Religious Right were suddenly put in a room and allowed to set public policy they wouldn’t be able to agree on what policies to set.”

    by saying,

    “Well, and as a matter of fact, I can almost guarantee you that they don’t want to set policies having to with any range of things that government has to do with – as a matter of fact probably about 80% of what government has to do with.”

    that he was trying to say that “Conservative Christians want a 20% Theocracy?” (the title of your post) and that “contemporary conservative Christians like himself . . . only wanted control of ‘about 20%’ of the U.S. government!!!!” (note also the 20% in quotations was not a quote from
    Dr. Mohler, but rather Bruce Gourley)? Is that indeed what you are saying Michael? Do you honestly contend that Al Mohler meant that in this statement?

    3) I may have missed the part about Jimmy Carter that you addressed — where was it in the program that he spoke about Jimmy Carter other than noting that he had another upcoming book soon to be released?

    4) Exactly what part of the strategy for getting rid of “abortion” (the example you brought up) is theocratic? Futher how is it any different than the strategy of NORAL who employs thousands of lobbyists, encourages voters to vote for particular candidates, tries to influence the votes of senators, holds rallies, and pickets, and denounces specific judges as being ideologues? It seems the only difference between what those on the right do from those on the left is that their views are informed by a religious perspective and those on the left are not informed by that. Does that make those on the left more able to influence public policy than Christians? I honestly don’t see a difference and think it borders on a hinderance to religious freedom to tell someone they cannot have the same voice that another group or individual has because that voice is informed by their religious views. And so far, that’s the only difference I see here. Maybe you can explain how you see this differently.

    5) When you say “And the constant comparison with the civil rights movement is incredibly disingenuous”, would you also say the same thing about those who seek to frame gay marriage advocation in that same light? How would those differ in your estimation? Does a child not have rights until after they emerge from the womb and are wanted by the mother?

    6) I don’t think Mohler dismissed anyone including Carter, Goldberg or others, but rather simply stated that the term “theocracy” employed by them does not apply to the situation in this country – a charge I have yet to see anyone address in this discussion (either on the Mainstream site or here). And would you not be doing the same to dismiss his argument and that of Douthat?

    7) Finally, you brought up some other issues like teaching intelligent design, abortion, and influencing Supreme Court nominees. These are much more complex than the space given for us to discuss them, but if in the future you want to discuss them I would be willing to post on the subject on my blog and harvest dialogue on these issues. Let me know if you are interested. I do want to add one thing — your statement “arguments for banning abortion that do not recognize religious pluralism (there are other kinds of arguments against it)” is quite incredible given that one of the main arguments against abortion deals with science, especially in regard to the baby’s heartbeat, sustainability outside the womb etc. I recently read a rant by a woman protesting the use of ultrasound machines at women’s clinics to show that indeed it was a child inside of a woman with a full developed heartbeat at 6 weeks (something that has been terribly sucessful for pro-life advocates and something that should be cheered by all religious people, especially given that the large group of those who go through their pregnancy give their children up for adoption to families who desperately desire a child – an very real show of Christ’s love). She claimed this was a horrid practice. Why? Because it backs up what Christians have been saying all along? That life, unless it is ended artificially, will sustain itself inside the womb and that it is immoral at the worst and unethical at the least to end that very life that (in over 90% of cases) you helped to produce through your own actions? That’s not a religious argument – that’s a rational one.

    Sorry again for the length, but I think these issues are important given the title of your post and the major impact this story would have if indeed what you claim is true of Mohler’s statement.

    Comment by D.R. | September 14, 2006

  6. 1) That was confusing. I listened to the program despite my distaste because, like you, I could not find a transcript.

    2)Yes. Both Bruce Gourly (and me following him) gave this a title that would catch attention (like a newspaper headline), but I think it was fair. Mohler was trying obsfuscate the issues by saying that Christians wouldn’t even be concerned with 80% of government policies. He still wanted to control what was left. Douthat’s dodge that Religious Right leaders couldn’t agree on everything hides the fact that they believe THEY should have the final say and not others, not even liberal Christians, never mind non-Christian Americans.

    3) You’d have to listen again. He mentioned Carter twice with recent and upcoming books. Both times he contended that Carter’s books, like Randall Balmer’s, with warnings about theocratic tendencies, could be dismissed in the same way one dismissed secular fears.

    4)Okay, I wrote about this when I wrote my series of posts on religious liberty and included one on the religious liberty dimensions of the abortion debate. Google the blog. I’m not going to repeat that here.

    5)The civil rights movement when it used religious language did so in a way that respected pluralism. King, for instance, spoke out of his particular faith as a Black Baptist from the South–but spoke in terms that invited Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and others to find common moral ground. Its why he also appealed America’s founding documents, philosophy, etc. By contrast, the Religious Right, no matter what moral issues it addresses, uses faith language to say: “I understand the Bible to say X about Y, therefore X ought to be the law of the land. If you interpret the Bible differently, or if you belong to a different faith or no faith–tough.” That’s what is disingenuous about the constant comparisons the theocrats and the Christian nationalists with theocratic impulses make between their attempts to coerce everyone to legislate their views (and often to give them special legal and tax statuses too) and the civil rights movement’s use of religious language ALONG WITH OTHER ARGUMENTS to argue for the justice of their cause.

    6) I disagree with your characterization of Mohler’s comments.

    7) I only brought these issues up to say that, contrary to what you claim, the Right does not want to impose its views on just one or two issues. If you want to blog on them, fine. I’ll visit and comment. You’ve left your blog without new material for two long.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 15, 2006

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