How deeply has secularism infiltrated our society and the church? In his latest book, The Gathering Storm, Dr. Albert Mohler argues that Western civilization and the church stand at a consequential crossroads in regard to its future. Scott interviews Dr. Mohler about the ideologies threatening society as well as the church and how to best contend for the faith today.
About our Guest
Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been recognized as a leader among evangelicals by organizations such as Time and Christianity Today. He hosts “The Briefing,” which is a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview and “Thinking in Public,” a series of conversations with the day’s leading thinkers. He is the author of multiple books including The Gathering Storm.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics here at Talbot School of Theology on the campus of Biola University. Sean is normally my cohost, but he was called to emergency jury duty this afternoon, so he will not be with us, which is too bad because he was especially looking forward to our guest, Dr. Albert Mohler, who is present at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the place where Sean got his PhD from.
Dr. Mohler, we're really delighted to have you with us. Let me say a little bit more just to introduce him. He has been called by the Economist Magazine, one of America's most influential Evangelicals, and by Time Magazine, the reigning intellectual of the Evangelical movement. He's got a couple of his own podcasts that you might be interested in, called The Briefing, and Thinking in Public. His got more books out than we have time to introduce, but he's appeared on lots of mainstream media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Today Show, Good Morning America, we can go on and on with that for some time.
He's the author of a brand new book that we want to highly recommend to our listeners, called The Gathering Storm, subtitled, Secularism, Culture and The Church. And we look forward to taking the next few minutes to unpack some of this really terrific book.
Dr. Mohler, you've done a great job with this, both at the 35,000 foot level, the big ideas, but also at the level of the details in terms of what's current out there in the news and in the courts, and in popular culture. So welcome, really delighted to have you with us.
Albert Mohler: Well Scott, thank you so much. I appreciate you and your good work, and also of course, the work that Sean does and the two of you together on this podcast. So it's a real honor for me to be with you. I think these issues are just incredibly important, especially as Christians seek to be faithful in these very strange times.
Scott Rae: Now the title from the book, Dr. Mohler, comes from a very powerful story that you introduced the book from Winston Churchill. Can you share what inspired the title of The Gathering Storm out of Churchill's experience in World War Two?
Albert Mohler: You know Scott, it's really very personal, because I wrote a little paper on Winston Churchill when I was about 13 and was assigned to write a paper on a historic character, and Churchill just really came alive in my eyes. I was born in 1959, so 14 years after the end of the 2nd World War, but I'm surrounded by people, uncles, neighbors and all the rest, and a holocaust survivor across the street, who were living World War Two. And what surprised me, even as a 13-year-old kid, was the fact that everyone should have seen this coming and no-one seemed to do anything.
About the time I was kind of coming into teenage years and thinking about these big questions, they were in my neighborhood, and I just could not understand, but neither could Winston Churchill who became of course Prime Minister even as the 2nd World War was in its earliest weeks. And they turned to Winston Churchill because he was the only person who told the truth, and prophetically so, for a matter of about a decade. And when Churchill wrote his history of the 2nd World War, he entitled the first volume of that six volume work, The Gathering Storm. And it's an excruciating work, it's an entire volume in which you can now sense that what is happening is that, people are denying what's right before their eyes, and it came with horrific consequences.
And so I just wanted to help do what Churchill did, and that was to help connect the dots so that The Gathering Storm could be explained, so people could know what it's really all about. And so I just borrowed it from Sir Winston Churchill, and I think the title has a great deal to with where we're living right now.
Scott Rae: Well, the title, I think, is particularly appropriate, especially given the context in which we're in today, because I think in the book, you both connect the dots but you also sound an alarm that the church and the culture need to see this gathering storm for what it is. So tell me-
Albert Mohler: Yeah, American-
Scott Rae: Just for-
Albert Mohler: Excuse me.
Scott Rae: Go ahead.
Albert Mohler: No, I think it's just profoundly true that American Evangelicalism is used to having the cultural wind at its back. We're used to having a position of admiration and cultural influence, and we've sensed, I think most Evangelicals sense a very significant change in the cultural context, but they don't know where it came from, and they don't know why it's so powerful, and they don't know where it's going. I think that's what Churchill tried to explain in his first volume, and it's what I've tried to explain in this book. The subtitle of it is, Secularism, Culture and The Church, I'm just trying to say this is what explains the storm.
Scott Rae: Yeah. We feel those headwinds, particularly in the State of California here. So for our listeners who may not be familiar with some of the terms, in The Gathering Storm you refer to as secularism, what do you mean by secularism and its cohort term secularization?
Albert Mohler: Yeah. You know for a long time in the United States, we really thought that we were the cultural exception, but secularization is what the early sociologists said would happen as the modern age would dawn, as human beings would dam rivers, and divide the atom, and gain control over the entire natural order, and define reality on our own terms. They said what will recede is belief in God, and they actually meant just about every form of religion. It turned out they were wrong, strange forms of religions have persisted, but it's theism that has been in decline. You look at Western Europe, theism has been in decline now for almost a century. And the binding authority, that's what I define secularization as, it's the loss of the binding authority of theism.
And secularism is different, because secularization was described as a process, but secularism is an ideology. And the reason why it's secularism that's on the title of the book and right there on the cover, is because what is really significant right now, is that the culture is aligning itself, or at least the commanding heights as Linden would say of the culture, are aligning themselves according to a very aggressive agenda and ideology of seeking to expunge the influence of any binding theism.
Scott Rae: Now you described this as something that is particularly taking hold in the elite institutions of influence in the culture. Even though the average person on the street probably wouldn't identify himself or herself as secular, what specifically convinces you that this gathering storm of secularism, is overtaking the U.S.? Can we be a little more specific about that?
Albert Mohler: Yeah. So for instance, just looking at the culture at its hottest fronts right now, there's no doubt that the LGBTQ issues are just front and center, and they didn't come out of nothing. They didn't come out of a vacuum, they came out of a general renegotiation of morality that western societies have been involved in for the last century. But in order to do that, you've got to get rid of the moral order that exists. And that's what I think most American Christians just don't recognize, that the people who are trying to, and very successfully, seeking to change the morality, can only do so if they displace the Christian structure of morality. And the way they're doing that is by saying, "Look, it's patriorical, it's oppressive, it's a part of a giant system of oppression, and the only way we can liberate humanity is to be rid of it." And being rid of it is basically now, just the assumption of most of the elite academic institutions.
And as you well know, as a significant academic leader, lesser institutions just model themselves on the greater institutions of prestige. And so right now, the chance that, and let me get concrete Scott, the chance that a convictional Evangelical Christian could be appointed to an English department in a major American university right now, is very low.
Scott Rae: I think we interviewed the British critic, Helen Pluckrose, not too long ago, and she called herself-
Albert Mohler: Oh yeah.
Scott Rae: ... she called herself an exile from the humanities, even though she's an atheist, but still holds to things like objective truth and objective morality and found herself completely on the outs in terms of her academic discipline and field.
Albert Mohler: The interesting thing here, is that many of these people would say, "No, we don't ask are you an Evangelical Christian, we don't discriminate that way, we wouldn't do that." What is really happening, is increasingly the requirement of positive moral affirmation. So it works this way, so you have a faculty search, or an executive search, and you bring someone in, and what you require of them is to make a positive affirmation for example of the new morality, and particularly of LGBTQ issues, or you can go down the list of current frontline moral concerns. And the failure to make that positive declaration, just means your application gets thrown in the waste basket. They don't say it's because you're a Christian, but it's because no-one who's holding to a biblical worldview, can make the affirmation that they require.
Scott Rae: I think this is one of the reasons why I've argued with my students for a long time, that there's a new absolutism that has taken over in the culture. And the things like the cancel culture, that if you are out of step with the prevailing secular ideology of the general culture. The consequences are much more severe than they were even 10 years ago. How do you account for that?
Albert Mohler: No, that's a key insight. So one of the things that I'm trying to underline these days, and probably in a way that I'll have to put in a new book, and it comes down to answering the question, what kind of pressure is most effective? And I think social capital pressure, it turns out to be the most effective pressure point. And it comes down to the fact that you don't get to sit with the cool kids in the cafeteria. If you hold anything close to an historic Christian worldview, you're just not going to be with the pretty people. You're not going to be with the people who are in, you're going to be an out, and that's an enormous social pressure.
And there's a sense in which conservative Evangelical Protestants have always known, we've never sat at the high table, but at least we were in the room. But increasingly we're being told, "No, now you're not going to be in the room." And so you mentioned that social pressure, and Rod Dreyer calls this a soft totalitarianism, and I had a conversation with him on my Thinking In Public broadcast, and I simply said, "Look, I understand what you mean, but there is no such as soft totalitarianism. The end result is totalitarianism, and it's not soft." But I understand what he means, it's social marginalization and cancellation is the big power now. And look, 14-year-olds feel it in this society.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I think increasingly what our students tell us, is that they feel like they're exiles in their own neighborhoods and in their own cities-
Albert Mohler: Yeah.
Scott Rae: ... for some of the views that are part of historic Christian orthodoxy, that are no longer in cultural vogue today.
Albert Mohler: And that's a long list, isn't it?
Scott Rae: It is.
Albert Mohler: I mean, it used to be that Evangelical Christians were on the college campus. I can remember this when I went to a secular university, a major secular university for a year as a 18-year-old, and I can still remember that it wasn't just seven day creationism that was absolutely rejected, it's any belief in divine creation or design period. And it used to be issues like that, but now it's a list that is so long that even the left can't keep up with it. So even the older liberals are finding themselves on the wrong side of history.
Scott Rae: So when you describe this secular storm, I take it that's more of an American and European phenomenon that you're describing. Would you say that that's also true in places say, south of the equator, or in the developing world, or is that a more uniquely western thing?
Albert Mohler: Well that's a very good question, and I would say answering the question as best I know, it's everywhere that European culture exerts a really strong influence. And so yeah, if you look to Australia, New Zealand, I know that's not primarily what you mean, but where you look at where you have westernized, highly industrialized technologically advanced cultures and economies you see that. But to get to your point, I think increasingly it is showing up in what Ross [Delfeit] calls the Zambezi Line, it's not just crossing the Rhine now, it's crossing the Zambezi, these western ideas.
And I see evidence of that when I look at some of the concerns that are coming to me from Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in Latin America, and they're saying, "Look, the problem is, our people come back from your universities and they bring all these toxins with them." And so I think just given globalization, given social media, given the power of communications, all this is taking place in a faster timeframe in the global south.
Scott Rae: So Dr. Mohler, one of the places I think in the book that's one of the most compelling stories, is your discussion of the fire that almost destroyed the most recognizable cathedral in the world at Notre Dame, and you tell a story about secularization based on that experience of the fire at Notre Dame. Tell our listeners a little bit about how you connect those two.
Albert Mohler: Yeah. You know the site of Notre Dame Cathedral on fire was just heartbreaking, because anyone who knows the history of western civilization, just of world history, knows that that's not just another historic building in the history of Christianity. That particular cathedral has at many turns in not only French history, but our history, played an outsized role. It really represented the great establishment of Christendom, and the unitary understanding of truth that marked the medieval world. But the French Revolution also had to tell part of the story inside that cathedral, and explicitly Godless revolution, an explicitly secularist revolution, and of course they took out the statue of the Virgin Mary and put in a statue of a Goddess Reason.
And it's fascinating that by the time that that cathedral burned, it wasn't even owned by the Roman Catholic Church, it was owned by the people of France as a secular trust. They just let the priests do their thing inside that cathedral, and of course, it was a great tourist attraction. But it's fascinating. Even since the book's been published, Scott, the director of the program to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral, had to make a public statement that so far as he was concerned, Notre Dame should continue as a church. And you just think about that, what else would it be? But in a country that is now so secular that less than 2% of people attend religious services in a given year in a city like Paris, the reality is, if you're going to spend all those millions of dollars to rebuild it in an increasingly secular society hostile to Christianity, why would you make it a church?
It's just fascinating that that became an open question, and still is by the way.
Scott Rae: Yeah, amazing that that would actually have to be declared, that it's still-
Albert Mohler: And it's not a settled issue. It's not yet a settled issue. I think it probably will be a church, but the question then is for how long?
Scott Rae: Yeah. Now, throughout the book you describe the incursions of secularism into various segments of the culture, the family, the right to life, place of religious freedom, gender and sexuality, a whole host of areas, and we could spend the rest of the day going through each of those areas, but I want to recommend the book to our listeners to go through all of those in detail. And part of the merit, I think, of each of those descriptions, is how timely the examples are that you give to illustrate the incursion of secularism into these various places in the culture. One of the most disturbing parts to me, was in the discussion on the family, and the incursion of secularism into the realm of parental rights, particularly in Europe. Tell our listeners a little bit about some of the things you've discovered about how parental rights over the right to raise children as parents see fit, is being chipped away at by the forces of secularism.
Albert Mohler: Yeah, something fundamental has happened here. So if you go back just in the long story of western civilization, which was birthed out of a Christian worldview, and neither of us would say that at the time that everyone was a believing Christian, but Christianity was the only available worldview, morality, reality, creation, meaning. And if you go back to that period, which includes well into the experience of the United States, the family, the generative family mother, father, children that are produced by their union, that is considered a pre-political institution, so much so, that when Marx and Engles wrote their communist manifesto, they had to go at the family arguing that it was not supposed to be a pre-political institution. In other words, the Christian assumption that our civilization shared, was that the family pre-exists the state, and the state has no right to invade the rightful sphere and privilege of the family.
But that's over. Now most of the people driving family policy in the United States, and you see these rulings when parents are told that they don't get to say what the gender identity of their child is, they can't prevent a child from undergoing a so-called gender transition, when you have homeschooling outlawed in countries like Germany. And I mean, not just outlawed by a policy, but outlawed with the force of law separating children from parents. You've got a fundamental reshaping. And so now parents are convenient agents of the state, so long as the state considers parents convenient. And if parents hold the wrong convictions, then increasingly, children are taken away from parents.
And look, we see that already in western Europe as you underlined from the book. Yes, we see that already. And look, just in the course of the last year or so at Harvard University, you had a major very esteemed professor there, argue that parents ought not to be assumed to be authoritative in the educational decisions concerning their own children, including preschool-aged children. So I mean, these ideas don't stay on the other side of the Atlantic, they come over here pretty fast.
Scott Rae: Now in the area of sexuality, one of the questions, I think you raised a really insightful question is, when it comes to the LGBTQ agenda, where will it stop, and when if at all, will the average person in the culture reflect back on this and say enough? Do you see that day coming?
Albert Mohler: Well, not yet. I mean, there's a sense in which as a Christian Theologian, yes, I'm absolutely certain that day will come, but I have no idea how much carnage is between now and then, or how much time. But you know, this revolution requires two fundamental shifts. One is to dethrone that historic Christian morality, and that's been pretty successful in the culture. But the second thing, and to be honest Scott, I don't think most Christians saw this coming, and the second thing that happened was making every issue of sexual morality an identity issue. And if you do that, and it's been so successful, then it's not that you oppose what I do, it's that you oppose who I am.
Now the problem with that is, that there is no limit to the who I am, and so for instance, you just take LGBTQ and you look at both T and Q, they're absolutely indeterminate right now. In other words, there's no limit. We're told there's not a gender binary, we're even told that there's no particular reality in the entire gender spectrum. I just saw a report from Canada on transgender abortion rights, you just look at that and you go, "Okay, there is no end to this."
And the other thing that you see here, is that in the Q, which these days it began as questioning, now it's queer. It's the revolutionary embrace of transgressive sexuality. Well you know, the problem with that is... I mean, let me put it this way. The problem for that movement, is that there's no end to transgression, so they have no... In other words, if you destroy the objective morality such that anything is objectively right, and anything's objectively wrong, and everything's a question of identity, then you have as many different identities not only as there are human beings on the planet, but as there are seconds in the day.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I think this is one of the outgrows of what you describe as the destruction of a general Judeo-Christian sense of objective morality, because once that's gone-
Albert Mohler: Yeah, and by the way, and example-
Scott Rae: Go ahead.
Albert Mohler: No, I just want to say as an example of what I'm talking about here, the issue of polygamy has been reframed by polygamy advocates as now polyamory as an identity. And so that's exactly the way this works, okay? So most Americans hear polygamy, they say, "That's wrong," but when someone says, "My identity is as a polyamorous person," well they've successfully changed the argument from what I do to supposedly who I am. And Anthony Kennedy famously in the Casey decision back in 1992, actually wrote that into the majority opinion of the Supreme Court. Everyone is entitled to his or her... Those words are updated, aren't they?
Scott Rae: Yes.
Albert Mohler: To any individual's understanding of reality. And Antonin Scalia responded to that, he called it the Oh Sweet Mystery of Life Clause. But he responded to it saying, "There is no limit to that. There is no limit to what anyone may claim to be their reality." There's no boundary on that at all.
Scott Rae: Let me help have you connect a couple of other dots that I think will be very helpful for our listeners. In the chapter on marriage and sexuality, you make a number of arresting statements there, but one of them is a society that disbelieves in God will eventually disbelieve in marriage. Help us connect the dots there.
Albert Mohler: You know, I didn't always see that, it had kind of a dawning awareness. But marriage is by nature a limiting institution, and it's always a public institution. The whole point of marriage is that every society has found a way to say, you have an exclusive pair here who are recognized, they're given privileges, they're given rights to each other that aren't given to others, but marriage it turns out is just about in every imaginable situation, if it's really marriage it has a theological dimension. And Christians have known that from the beginning. You go back to the Book of Common Prayer, which is what I often like to point to of the Church of England, it points out that this is a covenant made between a man and a woman, yes, but it's actually their covenant made with God.
And so without that theistic anchor, without that divine anchor to marriage, then marriage is either just redefined, and of course ever since no-fault divorce it's just been redefined as a matter of convenience. But these days marriage is actually, it's increasingly hated by the society. And I mean, they're not going to come right out and say that, but then again, they really are. I saw a state document, a document from one of our 50 states, that described the problem of heteronormativity and it had to do with marriage. And by the way, I have a copy of Louisville Bride on my desk right now.
Louisville Bride you may wonder. Well, I have it here for a very important reason, it has a picture of-
Scott Rae: I was going to say-
Albert Mohler: ... two men-
Scott Rae: ... you are going to explain why you have that, right?
Albert Mohler: I'm going to explain it, I'm going to explain why actually sent an intern in to get it to his own embarrassment. But it has on the cover two men in an embrace, and the title of the magazine is Louisville Bride, but the cover text says, Clearly, it's time to change our name, help us with that. Okay, so now you can't have Louisville Bride. Okay, it's just a sign of what I was mentioning, you can't have marriage. Not marriage as any kind of objective ontological reality grounded in creation and it being, no. You can have marriage if it's just a temporary relationship, but you can't have marriage in any sense that virtually ever civilization has recognized it for millennia.
Scott Rae: Now Dr. Mohler, you have an also very insightful chapter on religious liberty here, and I know one of the things that befuddles a lot of people in the Christian community, is this notion that the allegation that "religious liberty is just code for bigotry." How would you help the church respond to that in a way that's both insightful, and winsome?
Albert Mohler: Yeah, and that's a real challenge, isn't it, to be true and winsome at the same time? We know as Christians, that the unity of all perfections and God means that truth and love are actually the same thing, but in a fallen world we find it quite challenging. I think one of the things to point out here is that, the average person doesn't really think politically in the most general sense, and that is that every society has to come up with its own rules of conduct, what's acceptable and what's not. And the problem for Bible believing Christians, is that we're increasingly, what we believe is increasingly on the wrong side of what is acceptable and what is not.
So fights over religious liberty in the American founding, were classic debates over religious liberty. The debates over religious liberty now, are largely questions as to whether or not Christians can exercise Christianity in any form in public consequence. Or for that matter, it's not even public anymore. To make the point, even in teaching your own children, or making decisions about their education, or discipline, or teaching. And so as you look at this, religious liberty is put in quotation marks in the press these days. I has three examples of it just yesterday, in which religious liberty is put in scare quotes, as if it's not really a thing, but that's what Christians claim.
And so I don't have a great answer Scott, I'll admit, about how to do this winsomely and convincingly, but that's our challenge. And so as winsomely as I can be, and as convincingly as I can be, I'm trying to make the case for the fact that religious liberty is necessary as a precondition of other liberties. And by the way, one of the strange things that has come out of this, is the acknowledgement on the part of Christians, that religious liberty really means conscience liberty, in the sense that there is a freedom that is not just expressed in public faith, that's crucial, but also in the private sphere.
And I think one of the things that we have to do is, show the wreckage of what happens when religious liberty is denied. And by the way, if religious liberty is denied, the founders of our own experiment in ordered liberty, understood that every other liberty will also fall. Because if one is not free to express one's deepest convictions, then one's more subsequent convictions can certainly be dispensed with.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I think it's fair to make the argument, that if you are not free to express your deepest convictions, you're not free at all.
Albert Mohler: Absolutely. And that's something that even someone like Thomas Jefferson would eagerly affirm.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I think most of the founders though, their religious convictions were all over the map. I think they correctly understood that as the first freedom, and most fundamental freedom, for the reasons that you suggested.
Albert Mohler: Yeah. One of the interesting things about that, and Scott you're exactly right, their theological convictions were all over the map, but one of the things that's interesting to think about, is the fact that whatever they understood about religious liberty, they understood the fact that they wanted every single one of those people and their beliefs, represented with full freedom of expression and liberty in the American experiment. And so actually the fact that they were all over the place theologically, points to the fact they really did believe in religious liberty.
Scott Rae: Dr. Mohler, one final question here, what advice would you have for the church? So what would be one big recommendation you would make to the church, for maybe how not to respond to the rise of secularism, and then how to respond to it?
Albert Mohler: You know, I think that's another great question, Scott. I think that the worst Christian responses are grounded in fear, and the hardest commandment Jesus may have given us is fear not, because it's so counterintuitive. And so people often say, "Well, don't say fear not after you wrote this book." Well, hey the church is told fear not after the book of Revelation.
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Albert Mohler: So we aren't to live in fear. Fear produces a defensiveness and a suspicion that just isn't healthy. It's like I tell people, "Look, you don't have to hold to a conspiracy theory, because the secular elites are telling us exactly what they want to do." You don't have to go some Internet bulletin board to figure out what they're saying, they're saying it right out loud in the pages of the New York Times. But here's the thing, the most powerful message on earth, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the most powerful institution on earth, the only one that's going to survive this age, is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the most powerful bond on earth, is the bond between a husband and wife in marriage, and between parents and their children, and we just need to lean into that. And eventually, we either believe our theology or not.
Either we believe that those realities are more powerful and more enduring than everything the world claims and controls, or we don't. I actually think that they're much more powerful than everything else the world controls.
Scott Rae: That's a terrific word for our listeners here, do we really believe the theological convictions that we say we believe? And maybe if we did and live them out more consistently, secularism would not be on the rise like it is today.
Dr. Mohler, I want to thank you for coming on with us and for your book. I want to recommend to our listeners your book, The Gathering Storm, subtitled Secularism, Culture in The Church. It is a rich resource of just things that we need to be aware of as thinking Christians, who are engaging in an increasingly secular culture. So we're very grateful for your time today, thanks so much for coming on with us, and I will give Sean your best.
Albert Mohler: Well, Dr. Rae, thank you, it's been a privilege to be with you, and I really appreciate the insightful conversation. And please tell Sean that I missed him, but I'm very thankful to have had this conversation with you today. And I hope your listeners find it helpful.
Scott Rae: Well, I'm sure they will.
This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Al Mohler and his book The Gathering Storm, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.