The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has fallen on hard times! Lately we’ve been looking at Al Mohler’s response to the scandals engulfing his beleaguered denomination. He wrote an essay seeking to distance himself from those scandals–and to exonerate the entire Conservative Resurgence from culpability. Of course, he failed on both counts. Today, I’ll show you the techniques he used to manipulate his flocks. These are common manipulation techniques for abusive people, so it pays to know about them to protect ourselves. Then we’ll plunge into Al Mohler’s essay to see just how terrible it is.
Spoiler: It’s baaaaaaad.
Al Mohler’s essay, written May 23, is titled “The Wrath of God Poured Out – The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
That title reflects his overarching goal: to re-center concern away from one place and focus it elsewhere.
He fully expects us to see these growing scandals as he does: as a “humiliation” for the SBC. He doesn’t see legions of abuse victims crying out for justice–or even the simple human dignity of recognition. Instead, he sees a powerful elite torn apart by scandal. He’s way more concerned about his fellow elites than he is about the victims those elites have harmed.
This refocusing attempt is a tactic we often see out of abusive people. They try to redirect accusations and concerns away from themselves. Then they paint themselves as the real victims here. Years ago, I showed you how William Lane Craig, one of the stars of the Christian apologetics industry, managed the trick:
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.
Al Mohler commits the same offense in his essay.
Literally for decades, the SBC’s leaders have silenced and ignored a lot of very real humiliation. I refer here, of course, to the many thousands of victims of their predatory ministers. But now, the “humiliation” that matters is that of the SBC itself.
(All indented quotes from here on out are from Al Mohler’s essay.)
The second strategy we see in this essay is moral leveling. In moral leveling, the manipulator seeks to paint their offenses as being on-par with other offenses. Their offenses then fade into background noise. Often those other offenses are nowhere near that level of damage.
We saw this tactic on display when the accusations against Josh Duggar became public knowledge. Out of nowhere, legions of fundagelicals swarmed out of the woodwork to declare that gosh, everyone’s a sinner after all, so it was unfair and meeeeeeeean of people to single Josh Duggar out for his own particular offenses.
Al Mohler’s attempt to level his denomination’s offenses comes early:
Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear.
Did you see that? That was a manipulator seeking to set the SBC’s scandals into a backdrop of the entire history of scandals. A Christian reading this essay might well believe that scandals are simply inevitable, since they believe sin itself is inevitable.
The third and most significant tactic in this essay is prebuttal, also known as procatalepsis. Christians do this all the time–especially in apologetics and evangelism. When used to manipulate audiences, the tactic often involves crafting a strawman to attack; manipulators will sometimes poison the well, too.
In this tactic, the manipulator calls out a potentially-serious criticism of their position. Then they immediately issue a response to that criticism that is supposed to take care of it.
Now, this is a perfectly reasonable tactic to take when someone is dealing honestly with audiences. Lawyers in courtrooms might use it, or debaters. The tactic ensures that important points won’t get overlooked.
But Christians misuse it to lead people further astray. The responses they offer to their self-raised criticisms do not actually adequately answer the criticism. Their audience, if fooled by the manipulation, mistakenly believes that the responses are reasonable, and goes on its merry way unaware that the criticism is still sitting out there like a turd in a punchbowl, unresolved.
Christian leaders use this tactic damned near constantly. When I talk about how they try to defang honest doubt, that’s how they do it. They present a warped, debased form of doubt that they can actually defeat with rhetorical tricks and emotional manipulation, and their flocks come away from these performances thinking that yes, they have totally defeated doubt this day! And it works, for a little while at least, for some of them at least.
As we go along in this essay, I want you to be noticing all of these tactics.
The last few weeks have been excruciating for the Southern Baptist Convention and for the larger evangelical movement. It is as if bombs are dropping and God alone knows how many will fall and where they will land.
Translation: WOE IS US! We can no longer ignore all the abuse victims coming forward! I mean, it’s not like any of these accusations are brand-new. We successfully ignored these victims for decades. But now we finally have to deal with all this stuff, so right now, we are in crisis.
America’s largest evangelical denomination has been in the headlines day after day. The SBC is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment.
Still no word about the actual victims of the SBC predators who made their lives a living hell. Al Mohler is 100% focused on preserving the SBC–and the Conservative Resurgence in particular.
At one of our seminaries, controversy has centered on a president (now former president) whose sermon illustration from years ago included advice that a battered wife remain in the home and the marriage in hope of the conversion of her abusive husband. Other comments represented the objectification of a teenage girl. The issues only grew more urgent with the sense that the dated statements represented ongoing advice and counsel.
You can almost hear him whining OH MY GOD why are you people all still talking about this? Notice here that he used two different distancing statements: “from years ago” and “dated statements.” Fundagelicals have short attention spans, thanks to decades of manipulation. Al Mohler is one of those manipulators. He wants fundagelicals to think that the SBC’s critics are dragging up old business.
But if that old business never got addressed and resolved, then it’s still new business.
“Almost Too Much to Bear.”
Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear.
We still haven’t heard a lick of sympathy for the legions of victims of that “sexual misconduct.” But we do hear about how the “avalanche of sexual misconduct” is “almost too much to bear” — for Al Mohler.
It’s always been “almost too much to bear” — for Al Mohler. That’s why he didn’t bear it until he absolutely had to. If the SBC didn’t feel completely compelled now to finally address the “avalanche,” trust me, they would be dealing with it in the same exact way they’ve been dealing with it for 40+ years: ignoring it, silencing it, suppressing it, and thinking it’d all go away eventually.
You know what?
I bet the victims of all that “sexual misconduct” thought their abuse was “almost too much to bear” too.
I’d like to point something else out, while we’re at it.
“Sexual misconduct” is only part of the scandal engulfing the SBC. The other part involves truly ghastly counseling and pastoring that encouraged women to stay in abusive relationships, keep quiet about sexual assaults, and put up with rape culture. Al Mohler touches on that fact, but he’s very much focused on the “sexual misconduct” part of the SBC’s image problem right now.
“A Roman Catholic Problem.”
Now we launch into the meat of Al Mohler’s prebuttal.
We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority.
I remember that exact same mindset from back when I was Christian myself in the mid-1980s. We were years away from the full blowing-open of the Catholic child-rape scandal, but priests (and nuns) had reputations even back then. In essence, our suspicions centered around how Catholic clergy had to practice what for many people is quite unnatural: mandatory, enforced celibacy. We felt that when someone who wasn’t cut out for celibacy tried to practice it for too long, it warped their minds and twisted them.
Years later, I can see a bunch of things wrong with that mindset–starting with what an insult it is to the many men and women who’d like to have sex but can’t find a partner for the deed, and who somehow still manage to avoid rushing out to molest children. For that matter, some people have low sex drives, or else are asexual. “Lack of sex” doesn’t mean someone’s a risk to children. Further, we see sex-abuse scandals hitting denominations and religions that do allow their clergy to be married.
This accusation scapegoats celibacy, pure and simple, the same way that today’s gun-control discussions sometimes scapegoat the mentally ill.
I wholeheartedly agree that forcing sexual rules on people can seriously screw them up, yes. But Catholics aren’t the only jerks doing that to people–as we’ll see in a minute here.
“I Did Not See This Coming.”
When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.
For what it’s worth, I believe Al Mohler didn’t see this current crisis coming his way. A lot of other people did, however.
He’s going to reveal shortly what we already suspected, that he had plenty of those people warning him about what to expect. But to be fundagelical, someone has to be able to ignore lots of contradictions. These people have antiprocess shields set to deep-fat-fry any contradictions to their beliefs. If you’ve ever tangled with a fundagelical, you’ve likely already noticed how easily they completely forget stuff that isn’t flattering to their self-image. Those predictions of doom likely went in one ear and out the other with Al Mohler–and all his Resurgence pals.
Literally for years, people have been warning the SBC’s leadership that they had a sex abuse crisis coming their way. But the people issuing those warnings were tribal enemies. The first thing newbies learn in Fundagelical School is how to ignore criticisms and warnings from outsiders. Fundagelicals only accept instruction from recognized tribal leaders, or at the least people who are coming in through leader-approved channels. And in both cases, those authorities have to be parroting party lines.
If Al Mohler had been capable of accepting feedback from others, he wouldn’t be in this situation right now.
What’s hilarious is that he thinks that this evasion of blame helped him somehow, when in reality he just hammered home his unsuitability for leadership. He managed to miss something this big and this serious for 25 years. It doesn’t matter if he missed it because he is weapons-grade stupid or if he is weapons-grade malevolent. He still missed it.
But Who Shall We Blame?
After distancing himself from all hint of blame for his denomination’s staggering infestation of scandals, Al Mohler moves swiftly to the blame portion of the show:
We cannot blame a requirement of priestly celibacy.
This sentence contains multitudes of nonsense.
It’s true that a “requirement of priestly celibacy” had nothing to do with the SBC’s current turmoil. I question whether it had that much to do with the Catholic child-rape scandal. Regardless, we’re meant to ignore that the SBC certainly did and does force quite a lot of unnatural lifestyle demands upon its people.
Think about all those fundagelical rules about marriage, all that advice about how to live as an adult, and all those guidelines meant to instill discipline, respect for others and self, and good citizenship.
Every. Last. One. Of. Those. Rules. Are. Flat. Out. BAD FOR PEOPLE.
Al Mohler would love it if people would think that the SBC’s various rules are totally blameless and unimpeachable, and thus be as mystified as he is about how on earth all these perfect rules could possibly result in such a seriously abusive and abuse-riddled denominational culture.
But happy, healthy groups do not produce a “hotbed of [pastoral] burnout,” as one SBC writer confessed in 2016. They definitely do not produce a Good Ole Boys’ Network full of cover-ups and lies, either.
Conspiracy of Silences, Defined.
We cannot even point to an organized conspiracy of silence within the denominational hierarchy. No, our humiliation comes as a result of an unorganized conspiracy of silence. Sadly, the unorganized nature of our problem may make recovery and correction even more difficult and the silence even more dangerous.
This, right here, is a masterstroke of pure manipulation.
Al Mohler draws a clear distinction between an organized conspiracy of silence, which he’s likely accusing Catholic leaders of, and the disorganized conspiracy of silence that he thinks the SBC is guilty of.
And again, for what it’s worth, I believe him. I don’t think the SBC’s top brass went out of their way to formally organize a suppression and silencing of all scandals. But I do absolutely believe that those leaders went out of their way to craft an organization that produced the same result.
For many years, the SBC resisted efforts to create a nationwide predator database. Their excuse was that the denomination’s member churches were just toooooooooooo “autonomous.” Yep. That autonomy was soooooooooo important to the SBC’s leaders that they could not possibly demand that member churches gather information for a database or use it consistently before hiring anybody.
Autonomy. That’s what they’re going with.
Oh, they’ll still convene special meetings to throw those totally for realsies and for sure autonomous member churches out on their ears if they refuse to sign on to the SBC’s culture war against gay people. They just won’t push for a database that would protect the people those selfsame leaders have been steadily stripping of power and rights for 40+ years. Nope, they can’t possibly ask for that level of organization!
“Is the Problem Theological?”
Next, Al Mohler seeks to defang the many criticisms arising about the Conservative Resurgence.
Is the problem theological? Has the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention come to this? . . . Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, YES. But he’s going to try to make a case for the opposite. Remember, the Resurgence is his 40-year-old baby. He can’t disavow it without sacrificing himself on the pyre. And fundagelicals have never been known for their ability to endure hardship.
In the Conservative Resurgence, Al Mohler’s pals pushed for lockstep on a particular doctrinal stance called inerrancy.1 Firm belief in that doctrine–and all the ones flowing from it like fetid ichor–became a requirement for all these “autonomous” churches.
This is exactly what those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence warned would happen. They claimed that the effort to recover the denomination theologically was just a disguised move to capture the denomination for a new set of power-hungry leaders. I know that was not true. I must insist that this was not true. But, it sure looks like their prophecies had some merit after all.
Maybe he did indeed act from the best of intentions. But intentions aren’t a magical shield. What he created was a system uniquely suited to predation. It allowed predators to enter SBC churches, gain power, and entrench themselves. At the same time, it stripped those predators’ victims of all ability to find help and gain justice for crimes committed against them.
Al Mohler thought that if he could just make his denomination as Jesus-flavored as humanly possible, churches would be safe and leaders would act wisely and compassionately at all times.
He didn’t put any teeth into that expectation, and predators certainly did not feel bound by it.
Quick! Look Over There!
Of course, the big problem here is obviously liberalism.
As I recently said with lament to a long-time leader among the more liberal faction that left the Southern Baptist Convention, each side has become the fulfillment of what the other side warned. The liberals who left have kept marching to the Left, in theology and moral teaching. The SBC, solidly conservative theologically, has been revealed to be morally compromised.
That “more liberal faction” thing might refer to the 1900 churches of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which broke away from the SBC in 1991. They objected mightily to the Conservative Resurgence.
The CBF ordains women to pastor positions. Though officially they are bigoted against gay people, they don’t kick out churches that are more inclusive. And we see the CBF showing up here in a Baptist News Global piece about Baptists who support reproductive rights.
Al Mohler sounds surprised here to think that the CBF has somehow escaped scandals and “moral compromise” despite “marching to the Left.” He should be. Conservative Christians take as a point of dogma that their teachings and overreach are all that hold civilization back from the brink of chaos and rampant savagery.
And yet it’s almost always conservative churches that we find as the settings of the worst scandals.
Gosh, you guys, it’s almost as if the Christians who try the hardest to enforce brutally authoritarian regimes in their groups are the ones most prone to abusing people.
PS: Did you notice how he compared becoming a bit more liberal to becoming a hotbed of hypocrisy and abuse?
“Is Complementarianism the Problem?”
Al Mohler then seeks to defang an even more pressing question.
Is complementarianism the problem? Is it just camouflage for abusive males and permission for the abuse and mistreatment of women?
Again, the answer here is an unqualified yes. But Al Mohler won’t be able to engage with that simple truth. The idolatry in his heart for male supremacy cannot even be put into words. The Resurgence was about power: the naked grab for it, the keeping of it, and the growing, constantly, of it. Every move the SBC has ever made since those early days of the takeover has been about cementing male power and increasing it.
Complementarianism is, at heart, a doctrine that hands unilateral, uncontested power to a few at the expense of the many who are expected to labor for them.
Through a careful series of machinations, the leaders of the Resurgence enshrined complementarianism into law in the SBC. It wasn’t even hard.
After convincing fundagelicals that inerrancy was of utmost importance, and that nobody ever had to worry about tallying a doctrine’s effects up with reality, the SBC’s arch-conservative leaders could feel free to institute whatever rules they wished. All they had to do was make sure they could fold, spindle, and mutilate a bunch of Bible verses to support their demands.
Blah Blah Blah.
The rest of the essay is basically Mohler’s defense of complementarianism, and I won’t bore you with his mini-Bible study here. Suffice to say that despite having lots of Jesus approval for complementarianism, the fact remains that this teaching sure is responsible for a lot of misery and abuse in the everyday lived realities of millions of Christians.
Literally, the only solution Al Mohler can really offer up–beyond the usual y’all just have to Jesus harder nonsense that we’ve come to expect from fundagelical leaders–is to hint that church leaders should totally call the cops whenever a case of abuse hits their desks.
He won’t do anything to threaten his own power base.
The church must make every appropriate call to law enforcement and recognize the rightful God-ordained responsibility of civil government to protect, to investigate, and to prosecute.
But I seriously doubt the SBC is going to make this a requirement for member churches. They are, remember, autonomous. See how easy it is to avoid taking any action in the SBC?
The SBC has been condemning abuse for years–here’s their 1979 Resolution on Domestic Violence, passed at the beginning of the Resurgence–without any discernible improvements on that front. I’d like to point out that in the Paige Patterson cases, both times, he was presented with clear cases of abuse and yet didn’t call the police. Al Mohler appears to have forgotten that fact.
Whatever he’s on about here, the SBC’s stated approach doesn’t work to protect the innocent or eject the guilty from SBC ranks.
No, It’s Our Critics Who Are Wrong.
This bit near the end made me laugh, though:
A church, denomination, or Christian ministry must look outside of itself when confronted with a pattern of mishandling such responsibilities, or merely of being charged with such a pattern.
If Al Mohler could have managed even the most basic level of humility,2 this feedback would have been his decades ago. The SBC doesn’t have to “look outside of itself.” The feedback is right there for the having! It always was! People were always trying to offer it, even decades ago!
Will fundagelicals remember that, though?
Alas, I already know the answer to that question.
I also know the answer to the next question: Would he actually listen to it, anyway?
NEXT UP: A huge part of Al Mohler’s essay involves his unspoken premise: correct doctrines lead to correct actions. This premise leads Christians to all manner of mischief! So we’re coming back to it this week. Next time, though, join me for a look at a purely human weakness, one that leads many people into untrue beliefs and terrible decisions. See you next time!
1Inerrancy means, roughly, that the Bible can’t possibly ever be wrong or contain anything but true, factual claims. There’s a lot more to it than that, but basically, that’s what it means. This doctrine is exactly the point where evangelicals became fundagelicals. Until then, only fundamentalists went in for that sort of belief. It was seen as weird and extremist by evangelicals. I know–I was one of those weird extremists!
2 My Houstonian church said “humbleness,” pronounced UM-bull-ness, instead of “humility.” We pronounced “humble” as “UM-bull” because that’s how the town of Humble’s name is pronounced. It was bizarre for me to see college-educated, well-traveled people mispronouncing the word “humble” all the time.
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