Leading evangelical Christian theologian, commentator talks about future of ministry, society
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Leading conservative Christian theologian, educator and minister Albert Mohler Jr. says he first considered a career in law and politics. "I wanted to go where the ideas were most interesting and (where) I thought the opportunity to shape culture and lives was most direct," he said.
But growing up in a home where the local Southern Baptist church in Lakeland and later Pompano Beach, Fla., was the central focus in life, Mohler realized his most exhilarating ideas were rooted in his faith. He also experienced what he called a life-changing recognition of the "short-term impact of politics and the long-term impact of the gospel."
"I was at my church so much and enjoyed it so much that I imagined doing what the pastor did, and it struck me, 'This must be what a call to the ministry looks like.' I talked to all the people who would know and they said, 'Yes, that's exactly it,' " he recalled.
More than 30 years after that decision, Mohler has maintained his passion for interesting ideas, a keen interest in politics and a sense of mission about taking on contemporary culture from a conservative Christian worldview. In addition to his duties as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mohler produces a daily podcast on current news and events, writes regular commentary posted on a personal blog, and fits in interviews with leading thinkers for his periodic "Thinking in Public" podcast. He also tweets several times a day to his nearly 70,000 Twitter followers.
"I don't sleep a whole lot," he said in an interview Tuesday at the end of a two-day visit to Utah, where he met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spoke at Brigham Young University. Described in the popular press as an articulate voice and intellectual leader of evangelical Christianity, Mohler spends about one-third of the year traveling to speak and lecture. "Another strategic time for me to work is on airplanes," he said, explaining how he gets it all done.
At the end of a day of meetings with LDS Church leaders — and before spending an evening with young evangelical church planters in Salt Lake City — Mohler shared his views on the next generation of evangelicals and the challenges an increasingly secular society poses for religion in America.
In your speech at Brigham Young University, you talked about a "breakdown in the immune system of human society." Elaborate on that analogy and what is causing the breakdown.
What I mean to depict is an individual has an immune system that's necessary to fend off things of which we are not even aware. Illness is a breach of that immunity system. We have rather intentionally lowered the resistance level in our society to some very dangerous developments, and we find ourselves in a situation of enormous and fairly radical moral change.
What's at stake are the most basic institutions of human life and basic moral instincts and intuitions that make social life possible and lead to human happiness and human flourishing. I want to affirm that marriage and the family were given by God to human beings as two of his greatest gifts. Anything that weakens or redefines or subverts those gifts will lead to profound human unhappiness.
What do you see as posing the biggest threat to marriage: divorce of heterosexual couples or same-sex marriage?
I don't think I can answer the question in those terms. I will say this: Divorce has done far more damage to human lives than same-sex marriage has. ... Same-sex marriage is different in that divorce, if society decided to address it, can at least be remedied not by changing the institution (of marriage) but by returning to it — by returning to the notion of enduring monogamy as the expectation and the enduring nature of the marriage covenant. Same-sex marriage changes that because it actually redefines what the institution is.
So long term, we are going to be hard-pressed to say what causes the greater damage. But my intention is not to point at those advocating same-sex marriage or who have been divorced and say, "You've killed marriage." ... But we do need to say that divorce has horrifying consequences and the redefinition of marriage will have incalculable long-term consequences that I believe rob human beings of happiness and flourishing and weaken the basic molecular structure of human civilization itself.
Is religious liberty threatened more today than it was in the past, or is the current debate a natural tension that has always existed in a democracy?
When you have competing liberties, society is always going to have to make a choice on which liberty is greater than the other. In the history of the United States, the greatest tension on this has been on individual liberty against the demands of a larger democratic process. What we have (today) is what I identify as "erotic liberty" against "religious liberty." ... What's being claimed is, someone's freedom to be themselves requires your accommodation to their sexual orientation and lifestyle. So you look at some of the bigger issues, and what can be called erotic liberty is at the very essence of so many of the most controversial cultural movements of the last half century ... issues of gender, sexuality, reproduction, you go down the list.
The question is, how will society adjudicate and work out a way of deciding which liberty is going to have to give way? ... For instance, on the question of the contraception mandate (in the Affordable Care Act), the argument being made by the Obama Administration is the reproductive liberty of women trumps the liberty of Christian institutions to refuse to participate in either the funding or distribution of contraception or of ... possible abortifacients. The same issue would be true on same-sex marriage where the same claim of liberty can be used to say, "My sexual orientation liberty trumps the ability to say you will only place babies from your Catholic adoption agency in homes headed by a heterosexual couple." ... The collision of liberties isn't new; you can read about them in the federalist papers. But this is a new form.
What do the students coming into Southern Baptist Theological Seminary today bring that is different than when you entered to study for the ministry?
I am a baby boomer, so my childhood and adolescence was in an intact, suburban America. People identified with some form of the Christian faith simply because it was so much a part of the culture. I arrived at the seminary having come from a wonderfully happy two-parent home and intact family.
The generation coming now is very different. They've had to swim against a secular tide that was only beginning to be evident when I was an adolescent. They've had to defend their convictions, they've had to work out the responsibilities of Christian discipleship at a very different age. So in one sense they are rather battle-hardened, or at least more mature and experienced. They understand in a very personal and experiential way the kinds of challenges they are going to face in Christian ministry in the future.
Because young adults have grown up in such a different environment than their parents, they may question whether they fit the description of evangelical Christians. Does the term "evangelical" apply to today's youth?
The term "evangelical" has always been a somewhat disputed term, and yet there is no substitute for it. Every new generation tries to come up with some new label, and it doesn't work. The evangelical word was branded in the most specific sense after World War II by a generation then known as the "new evangelicals" to provide intellectual leadership. It especially defined evangelical in terms of an engagement with the culture rather than a withdrawal from it. It was intended to be uncompromising gospel Christianity that engaged the culture.
Do you believe the growth trend of unaffiliated young adults, sometimes referred to as the "nones," will have a negative impact on the Christian church?
If anything I think the (Pew Research Center) numbers are underestimated simply because there is still some continuing cultural pressure to at least have some religious identity even if you don't have any theological or spiritual commitments. Under age 30, that "nones" group jumps from one out five to one out of three, so you realize this is a trend, not just a snapshot. It's a picture of a generation in movement, and the movement is over about a 10-year period, so you fast-forward 10 years and you can imagine what that number might look like.
Every generation despairs of the young. But I have a lot of hope for this younger generation, especially Christian evangelicals. There is an enormous energy, commitment and passion among these younger evangelicals. But let's be honest: There are fewer because evangelicals have been reproducing at a much lower rate. ... And then we are facing the increased challenge to maintain our hold on young people. . The church has only one response to it, and that is to do what we know to do. We are not a corporation trying to figure out a new product to sell to the American public. The Christian church teaches the same gospel that is fueled by the same mission. And if we think our times are changing now, just think of what it was like to live during the fall of the Roman empire, or the American Revolution, or the rise of the Industrial Revolution. These are strategic times, but we should not exaggerate their significance.
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