Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you the re-eruption of a decades-old slapfight going on in evangelicalism: whether or not evangelicals should allow women to be pastors. This archaic-sounding squabble represents a central issue to the usual gaggle of Christian Right bigots-for-Jesus. And very few of them despise the notion of women pastors quite like Al Mohler does. He fights against the idea with all the radicalized passion of a convert — because that is precisely what he is. Today, let me show you a very different Al Mohler: one who fully supported women pastors, and then, I’ll show you the force that brought him up short one fateful day.
Everyone, Meet Al Mohler.
Most folks won’t have any idea who Richard Albert “Al” Mohler, Jr. might be. But Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) folks sure do. The more an evangelical shares in common with Al Mohler’s doctrinal worldview, the more likely that evangelical is to know about him. Is that evangelical one of Mohler’s ingroup? Or one of his tribal enemies?
For many years now, Al Mohler has worked for the SBC — mostly at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Kentucky. He began working there in 1983 around the age of 24. He gradually worked his way up the ranks, getting noticed along the way by the seminary’s powers that be (PTB). Just a scant ten years later in 1993, the PTB appointed him to be the official president — yes, around the age of 34! And he’s been there at SBTS ever since.
In addition to leading the SBC’s flagship seminary, Mohler sticks his nose into pretty much every issue that ever pops up in evangelicalism. Back in 2016, The Economist called him “one of America’s most influential evangelicals.” The occasion: Despite calling Catholicism “a false church,” in 2009 Mohler signed some anti-gay declaration that Catholics had put out.
The culture wars might be the only thing Al Mohler loves more than his own white male privilege.
Al Mohler, Culture Wars, and How Women Pastors Fit In.
Ah, the culture wars! These nonstop right-wing Christian political crusades and moral panics draw together even the most vicious, bitter tribal enemies! And that is where Al Mohler really fits into the tapestry of Christianity.
For many years, Al Mohler has been a very firm Calvinist. In fact, that is very likely how he initially came to the attention of the architects of the Conservative Resurgence when their planned hijacking process began. It’s clear he came to their attention very early, and probably because even at a young age, he sounds like exactly that kind of tiresome young know-it-all who goes whole-hog on religious blahblah. I’m sure they quickly recognized what a good mouthpiece and useful idiot Al Mohler would be.
Indeed, Al Mohler is a die-hard, 100-and-crazy-percent, completely committed culture warrior. He has not once, not ever encountered a single evangelical culture-war topic he did not embrace and declare to be Jesus’ own opinion.
Not only that, but he’s completely incapable of feeling shame for fighting in the culture wars. He’ll flip and flop everywhere, change his mind and entirely forget he ever held any other opinion, and embrace the most unthinkable ideas imaginable, as long as it all fits in with his tribe’s current causes du jour.
You know, like he did with Donald Trump. Initially, he spoke against Trumpism. By the 2016 election, he was Trump’s very own bootlicker. And despite how Trump has tanked evangelicals’ credibility and devastated Christians’ entire witness, Mohler continued to support him. Once bought, Al Mohler stays bought, I guess. Maybe that’s why the Conservative Resurgence’s leaders immediately brought him on board.
But alas! Al Mohler once had one teensy-weensy little flaw that their leaders needed to correct — like, immediately:
He fully supported the notion of women pastors.
Yes. Yes, he did.
Back When Al Mohler Supported Women Pastors.
What I’m about to tell you is kinda old news. It blew up around 2010, in fact, according to Baptist News. That was one of the previous slapfights evangelicals had over women pastors.
That’s when Al Mohler gave a sermon to SBTS students. In that sermon, he talked about his onetime support of women pastors — and about how embarrassed he still was over that support.
Yes, he was embarrassed about that one time he accidentally took a stance that wasn’t cruel, hateful, and loaded with the potential for abuse.
Remember yesterday when I showed you that 1984 resolution from the SBC about women pastors? The one where they flat-out denied women the opportunity to lead churches and said the very idea made their imaginary friend upset? Al Mohler, who’d been an SBTS student and newbie employee at the time, remembered the huge outrage that resolution sparked.
And he’d been one of those outraged people.
How Al Mohler Supported Women Pastors.
Years later in 2010, Al Mohler described the situation and how he handled it. In his chapel sermon, he told his seminary’s students (The Gospel Coalition thoughtfully transcribed the speech):
That [resolution] incited one of the most incredible denominational controversies — in the midst of that great controversy of the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s — that one could imagine. Many people took umbrage at that statement. Many people were hurt and outraged and stunned that the Southern Baptist Convention would say that a woman ought not to be pastor.
I was one of them.
I was a student in this institution. This institution at that time taught monolithically that women, just as men, could and should be called to serve as pastors of churches. There was no CBMW [Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood]. There was no book on recovering biblical manhood and womanhood.
Yes, because “recovering biblical manhood and womanhood” sure isn’t just a modern attempt to grab and hold male dominance over women. It’s just regular ole sexism, just with a little coat of Jesus frosting to push it through the flocks. Nope, it can’t possibly be just earthly, fleshly sexism and male privilege freaking out! Because if that’s all this fight was about, that’d mean that there’s a very good reason why the SBC didn’t have any of these sexism-reinforcing, male-dominance-grabbing groups until the Civil Rights Era. Oopsie!
So how did young Al Mohler respond to this controversy? Well, he told his students what he did:
When the denomination adopted that resolution in 1984, I not only took part, I led an effort to protest it. We bought an ad in the [Louisville] Courier-Journal and made a statement about God as an equal opportunity employer.
By the way, I did this while affirming biblical inerrancy, absolutely sure that the Bible was the infallible, inerrant Word of God.
Of course he did. I do not doubt that in the least.
Evangelicals Don’t Take a Dump, Son, Without a
There’s a funny observation in the movie The Hunt for Red October (1990). As the American hero, Jack Ryan, is trying to get some Naval officers on board with his plan to help a Soviet sub commander defect, one of them asks him a simple question:
And this observation turns out to be completely true in the movie’s case. The Soviet sub commander, Marko Ramius, has indeed already come up with a very carefully-laid plan to get himself, his officers, and his submarine to America safely. All the Americans must do is figure out what it is, so they can help him execute it.
Well, evangelical leaders (and those aspiring to such leadership) are like that with prayer. You may count on what I’m about to say as gospel truth. Heck, it might just be truer than anything in the actual Gospels.
Evangelicals don’t take a dump, son, without praying about it first and at least gathering some Bible verses together in support of it.
There is no way, no how that young Al Mohler did not pray extensively about his position and assemble supporting Bible verses. I promise you, I assure you with everything that is within me, that after those prayers he would have been absolutely certain of Jesus’ very own approval for his support of women pastors.
And you may be sure of this, too: When young Al Mohler protested the SBC’s misogyny and helped pay for that newspaper ad, he was 100% certain that Jesus AND the Bible were solidly on his side — even he doesn’t use the word “pray” even once in his speech or directly refer to exactly what in the Bible had led him to that opinion.
(There’s a reason for that omission. We’ll talk about that reason later. For now, just put a pin in the idea.)
So What Happened?
(Everyone, Meet Carl F.H. Henry.)
Al Mohler went on with his bad self, supportin’ women’s rights and all, for about a year and a half by his own reckoning. However, that support ended abruptly, Baptist News tells us. And it ended because of a fateful encounter Mohler had with a very august visitor to SBTS, Carl F.H. Henry.
This is a much more obscure name than Al Mohler, so let me fill you in right quick so you’ll understand how he so devastated Al Mohler at that very formative stage.
Carl F.H. Henry was a big-name Calvinist theologian. He died in 2003. During his lifetime, he was extremely influential in evangelicalism starting around the early 1950s. Among other things, he helped start Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, and a bunch of other stuff. SBTS adores him — they started the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement in hopes of continuing his legacy.
Dude flew all over the world to teach and preach at various evangelical colleges. I’m sure he had a huge fanbase of college-aged evangelicals, especially evangelical men aspiring to ministry — men just like young Al Mohler.
And in 1978, we find Henry signing a major document that represents Calvinists’ coup: The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Remember Biblical inerrancy? That’s the idea that Calvinists needed SBC leaders to accept so they could push through all the other stuff they wanted.
Then, in 1983 Henry published a huuuuge six-volume work called God, Revelation and Authority. This work kinda kickstarted that whole idea of presuppositional apologetics. Yes, that unadulterated blahblah is his fault.
About a year after Al Mohler protested the SBC’s sexism, Carl F.H. Henry visited SBTS. And Al Mohler, already a huge fan of his, got assigned by the seminary to be his idol’s host for that visit.
(Somehow, I suspect Mohler lobbied for what was likely a hotly-contested task — or perhaps it was a reward of some kind. Basically, I don’t think this assignment came out of the clear blue sky to randomly land in Mohler’s lap. But I don’t know for sure how he happened to get the assignment.)
How Al Mohler’s Soup Cracker Got Sandblasted by Carl F.H. Henry.
As Baptist News describes it, Al Mohler was just thrilled by the assignment. He loved Carl F.H. Henry’s books and greatly admired the guy personally. So he was omg so excited squeeeeeeeeee over getting to spend some personal time with this incredibly influential, well-regarded theologian. They’d get to walk around together! They’d get to hang out a little! OMG SQUEE! Mohler described the situation in his speech as an “incredible privilege,” adding:
He was already a mentor to me by his writings. I had been anchored in orthodoxy and in inerrancy as his books had had an influence on me.
I actually kinda like thinking of Al Mohler as young and excited about anything that isn’t destroying human rights and lives. Dude looked up to this guy in a major way. I wouldn’t be much different if Joan Vinge visited my town and I got to be her host.
I’m also deliberately building this collision up because what came next had to be absolutely, positively devastating for young Al Mohler. As he recounted it years later in that seminary sermon:
As I was walking him along, he brought up the issue of women in the pastorate. He asked me my position on the issue. With the insouciance of youth and the stupidity of speaking more quickly than one ought, I gave him my position. He looked at me with a look that surprised me and said to me, “One day, this will be a matter of great embarrassment to you.” That’s actually all he said. When Carl Henry tells you that on the seminary lawn, the effect of that embarrassment was instantaneous…
The shock on his face was enough to arrest me. We talked more; we didn’t get close to that. [TGC]
I could almost hear the grimace, the wincing in those written words. We may be sure that this is still a very painful memory for him. And then, Mohler asked plaintively:
What do you do when Carl Henry tells you, “One day this is going to be a matter of great embarrassment to you?”
Al Mohler’s Crisis Begins.
As Al Mohler’s hero delivered this pretentiously-imperious (and I’m sure humiliating) rebuke, Al Mohler was beyond upset.
He was horrified.
OMG. What if he’d been WRONG all this time?!?
To an ambitious authoritarian blowhard like our boy Al Mohler, not much could possibly have been more painful to contemplate. What happened next was a perfect example of how authoritarians handle such situations.
No gods were required for anything that happened here, despite Al Mohler’s later assertions. In fact, his metamorphosis into his late-stage form is all very natural and easy to understand — in light of how power-hungry, authoritarian Christians operate.
And that is where we’ll take up tomorrow.
NEXT UP: How — and why — Al Mohler changed his mind about women pastors. See you then!
(I’m already laying out the paper cutout feet on the floor for us to follow.)
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Last thoughts: In 1984, I was in my early teens and just getting into D&D. In my headcanon, Al Mohler discovered the game that year, met a nice nerdy gamer-girl who refused to play complementarian house with him and made friends who gave him a few other outlets to consider for his early-Gen-X feels, and gradually cooled down his wackadoo religiosity…. We can dream, eh?