Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking lately about the re-erupting squabble in evangelicalism about women pastors. In particular, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) hate the idea — Al Mohler in particular. Long ago, he fully supported women pastors. But now he’s 100% against them. And today, I’ll show you why and how Al Mohler changed his mind about women pastors.
(When I talk about evangelicals as a “tribe,” I’m using the term in its sociological sense. Here’s a decent writeup of how tribalism works. It’s not a good thing for a group to be tribalistic.)
Quick Recap: That Fateful Moment on the Seminary Lawn.
Jusssst to recap the sitch, around 1985 Al Mohler was in his mid-20s. He was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), the big flagship seminary of the SBC. In addition to studying there, he also worked for SBTS in a minor capacity. At the time of the incident, he was probably SBTS’ Coordinator of Foundation Support (I could find no information whatsoever about this position and only Al Mohler is named as having held it). At the time, he also assisted the SBTS President, Roy Honeycutt.
(Eventually, he’d be elevated to the SBTS presidency in 1993 — in his early 30s, no less, and replacing Honeycutt! His elevation was part of the Conservative Resurgence. The masters of that takeover needed loyal yes-men in key positions like that, and they realized early on that nobody gave yes quite like Al Mohler, nor stayed bought quite like he does.)
So one day, Mohler got a plum assignment: he’d be escorting a much-admired Calvinist theologian, Carl Henry, around campus. Carl Henry was like the Kanye of the evangelical world at the time, and Mohler was a total fanboy for him.
As they walked, Henry just-so-happened to oh-so-casually ask Mohler about his position on women pastors.
Well, Al Mohler fully supported them! He not only claims to have led protests in their support, but also to have participated in the purchase of newspaper ads to express his support. Thus, he claims he was very deeply involved in trying to get the SBC to allow women to be pastors.
So naturally, Mohler proudly told his hero about his position.
And Carl Henry responded in a shocking way:
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.
This cruel rebuke threw Al Mohler into a huge crisis — as it was intended to do, I’ve no doubt.
In response, Al Mohler ended up changing his mind swiftly — and never looked back.
Al Mohler Meets His Destiny.
Al Mohler is a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian follower. So he tends to mirror whatever his superiors’ opinions. If the dude has a superpower, it’s craven sycophancy. It’s what makes him so unpleasantly, off-puttingly inhuman-seeming — but also so perennially powerful behind the scenes. Like a lot of authoritarians, he doesn’t have a firm sense of who he himself really is, nor does he seem to understand exactly why he believes whatever he says he believes.
Instead of figuring this stuff out for himself, he takes his cues from the people who have power over him. Mirroring authoritarian leaders is just about the only way for followers to semi-safely navigate an authoritarian-controlled world. In a lot of ways, Al Mohler reminds me of that famous fundagelical bumper sticker that I saw everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s:
God said it, I believe it, that settles it!
Except I’ve no doubt Al Mohler thinks the middle phrase should be removed (which is what my first Pentecostal pastor thought too).
So just imagine meeting your all-time hero: someone whose books you’ve bought and read and admired, someone who’s really a complete rockstar in your world. You have somehow finagled one-on-one time with this hero of yours.
And now you learn your hero regards your passion for equality as an “a matter of great embarrassment.”
I’m sure that for decades afterward, the mere memory of that rebuke would make Al Mohler groan in his bed late at night.
Evangelical Shame, Al Mohler Edition.
We may talk about evangelicals having no sense of shame. But that’s not completely accurate. They do have shame. Oh yes, they have plenty of it! Really, their whole lives are bounded about by shame. In many ways, shame represents one of the most potent weapons in the evangelical emotional-manipulation arsenal. Leaders deploy it constantly against their followers.
Evangelicals just don’t feel shame the way non-authoritarians feel it. They don’t feel shame about their hypocrisy and overreach, nor about the abuse they commit against the vulnerable people in their tribe. To a certain extent, they don’t even feel shame about pushing their religion onto others, or flat-out lying to sneak indoctrination into venues where they know they’re not wanted (or places where they’re not actually legally allowed to go, like public schools).
Their Dear Leaders scorched that shame out of them long, long ago.
You’ll never see an evangelical express shame for being wrong, either. In their tribe, admissions of wrongdoing of any kind represent expressions of weakness — and authoritarians only have one response to those, which is to attack to gain power for themselves at the weak person’s expense.
To get an evangelical to feel shame, you must be above that evangelical in social rank — or someone they admire or want favor from — and you must be using shame to get the evangelical to fall into line with what you want them to do.
That kind of shame is the weapon Carl Henry used on young Al Mohler. And it worked.
What Al Mohler Did Then.
In the seminary chapel speech Al Mohler gave about 25 years later, I can still hear the sting of shame as he recounted the event to his students. What his hero said to him had hurt him to his core.
But it’d also made him aware that his chosen “mentor” had a very different opinion than he did about women pastors. I’m sure that completely confused him. He needed to figure out why Carl Henry disagreed.
In his speech, Mohler implies that he took immediate action to resolve his distress (emphasis from transcript):
Well, I went to the library. I looked for every book I could possibly find on the subject. Frankly, the urgency on me was such that I didn’t think I could eat or do anything until I found out why I was going to be so embarrassed. The campus was full of people who appeared to be wonderfully unembarrassed about the issue.
However, this story takes place very early in the Conservative Resurgence, so he didn’t find many books on the topic of sexism-for-Jesus. He claims he found one book supporting Carl Henry’s viewpoint, which Mohler studied carefully. Oh yeah, and he totally did “some Scripture study.”
By morning, Al Mohler had completely changed his mind — on the basis of one book that he found like a needle in a haystack full of opposing books, and of course a sharp, humiliating rebuke from his hero.
ZOMG Y’ALL, ITZA MEERKUL!
How Al Mohler Positioned His Flip-Flop.
Twenty-five years later, in his seminary speech, Al Mohler seems to be fully aware of what his flip-flop looks like: like the result of a profoundly humiliating encounter with a big name in his tribe. He tries very hard to position it as anything but that:
Now… Carl Henry didn’t change my position, but he sure did arrest me. It was the Scripture that changed my position. I had to come face to face with the fact that I had just picked this up, I had just breathed this in, and I’d just capitulated it out without checking it according to the Scriptures. By the way, going to the Scriptures, it doesn’t take long. It was not like I embarked on a lifelong study to discover what Scripture says about this. It didn’t take long at all.
I realized that indeed Carl Henry was right. One day I would be very embarrassed about this. When I saw him the next morning, I was already in a different world.
We’re supposed to believe that Al Mohler supported women pastors without having studied the Bible and read at least a few books on the topic? That he never once even prayed about this position to make sure his imaginary friend was okay with it? He led protests and took out newspaper ads, but he’d never once checked out what existed in his canon to support the cause?
That’s the impression he wants to give, at least.
Speaking of Prayer: The Missing Reason.
I’ve been mulling this story for a while now, but it was only yesterday that I realized that the word “pray” does not once appear in either the transcript of his speech (relink) or the Baptist News writeup of the story (link).
To me, that is an absolutely gobsmacking omission. Al Mohler does not discuss prayer even once, nor even imply that it was a factor in any of his decision-making. Remember what we said yesterday?
Evangelicals don’t take a dump, son, without a prayer.
Just a few years later when I was a teenybopper evangelical myself, I encountered people who literally claimed to pray before deciding what fast-food restaurant they’d visit for lunch. Who knew? Maybe they’d encounter someone who needed Jesus there!
Indeed, our leaders encouraged us to pray about everything.
So y’all, I absolutely, positively refuse to think Al Mohler did not once, not even once, pray over his support of women pastors.
But I can also understand why he doesn’t bring up prayer as a factor in that support.
Evangelicals tell a lot of utter lies constantly about prayer. I mean sure, evangelicals admit to the truth about it all the time under their breaths, like Lee Strobel did that one time. However, they still use prayer as a marketing gimmick to impress marks and rubes, so officially it’s a party line that evangelicals pray all the time.
However, Al Mohler absolutely, positively cannot say he prayed about his support of women pastors. That opens a lot of uncomfortable doors. He’d rather take the hit for strongly implying that he didn’t pray at all about it until his rebuke.
And I say again: Sure, Jan.
About Confirmation Bias, Generally.
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias. That means that it’s something our brains just do without us knowing about it, and everyone’s mind is at risk of doing it. We have to work to overcome that bias, and that work begins with recognizing that it can happen to literally anybody who isn’t careful.
In confirmation bias, people search for materials that agree with their own beliefs or positions. Once they find that material, no matter how weak it is or how scarce, they decide it’s PROOF YES PROOF of their correctness.
Moreover, in that searching people ignore anything that contradicts their beliefs or positions. If they find anything that’s kinda ambiguous, then they convert it into PROOF YES PROOF.
And the stronger someone’s opinion is, the harder they’ll try to protect it with confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can really distort our thinking. That’s why critical thinking seeks so hard to overcome it — as do fact-finding processes like the Scientific Method, used properly. But an authoritarian would have a tough time learning how to move past confirmation bias. Almost every step in learning to deal with confirmation bias would deeply violate authoritarians’ comfort zone.
Confirmation Bias, Al Mohler Style.
Remember, Al Mohler tells us that he found one book agreeing with Carl Henry: Stephen Clark’s Man and Woman in Christ (1980). That’s it.
Dude didn’t even bother wondering if these two were maybe colleagues or something (which I suspect), which would definitely explain why they had the same opinion about women pastors!
But there’s more to the picture than that. We’re looking at a weird example of confirmation bias
In this particular authoritarian’s case, Al Mohler didn’t initially agree with Carl Henry. However, he looked up to Carl Henry to an incredible degree. And he would have known, with an authoritarian’s lifelong training in the language of power, that the tribe would likely agree with Henry rather than siding with the young upstarts trying to change the SBC’s entrenched culture. That meant that if Mohler’s opinion did not end up being the dominant opinion in the SBC, then he was in for a world of emotional pain — and likely his career aspirations would end then and there.
Al Mohler is not a brave man. Not even close to it. Authoritarian followers don’t tend to be. They can be belligerent, brash, and pugnacious, and even aggressive. But they are not often brave. Indeed, Al Mohler’s support of women pastors existed only as long as the position cost him nothing to hold. The moment he realized it might, indeed, be a costly position to hold, it stood in jeopardy.
Thus, our boy was strongly motivated to find ANY material that agreed with his hero, rather than confirming his own opinion.
Once he found it, whatever he’d already found to support his original position became like dust and ashes under his feet.
That stuff had not convinced Carl Henry, and so it no longer convinced him.
A Pitiful Loss of Potential.
Now, Al Mohler could have told Carl Henry, “I’ll never be embarrassed to support my sisters in Christ to be all that Jesus has called them to be!”
However, to do that he’d have needed to be someone entirely unlike Al Mohler.
Instead of doing the right thing without a care for what it’d cost him, you know, like the Bible flat-out commands repeatedly, Al Mohler showed throat to one of the biggest names in one of the hands-down worst and most evil flavors of Christianity ever concocted. And then, he actively helped them become the cackling cabal of abusive, power-maddened, and abuse-shielding villains they are today.
Still, in his description of his encounter with Carl F.H. Henry, I can perceive great distress echoing decades later. After all, his idealistic pursuit of Christianity had just collided — hard — with the reality of the SBC as a totalitarian, authoritarian, nationalist political movement devoted to protecting the dominance of white men.
Maybe he thought he could cross the streams — achieve great heights in the group while also supporting compassionate, progressive causes.
If so, his idol sure set him straight there. No, Al Mohler would not become a big-name leader without embracing entrenched misogyny and all that it entails.
Presented with that choice, Al Mohler folded. Instead of questioning his allegiance to his tribe, as I did when I experienced the same collision, he decided to drill down harder on his loyalty to these awful people.
That’s the kind of political reptile Al Mohler is. He’s a made man through and through, and he’s got a ship-rat’s uncanny nose for his own interests.
But don’t you worry none. His leaders have richly rewarded him for his bootlicking, and they will continue to do so — as long as he behaves.
NEXT UP: Well, one of Al Mohler’s work friends sure didn’t behave! Tomorrow, we’ll see how Russell Moore finally reached the end of his association with the SBC.
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Last thoughts: Remember, women are totally driven by emotion and men are the only ones capable of using critical thinking and rational thought. /s