Wednesday’s ruling was a significant and welcome re-affirmation of a principle that, we should hope, is firmly entrenched in American constitutional law.
If political liberalism means anything, it means a civil law that does not take sides in religion. It therefore commits us to at least a limited form of secularization (i.e. secularization of the law). Thus, the important arguments against liberalism will always include Christians who oppose it because it is a form of secularization. While much attention has been paid to Catholic integralism lately, a new book by Albert Mohler, Jr., The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture and the Church provides an opportunity to consider an equally important type of illiberal Christian argument against liberalism—evangelical Christian nationalism.
Gathering Storm can help us see two urgent threats to the liberal political order. Mohler’s jeremiad (in the original, biblical sense of that term) against our state of moral decay reminds us how secularization of the wider culture—i.e. secularization not just of the law but of everything in the public square—undermines the social conditions of individual moral virtue, institutional integrity, and community solidarity the liberal social order presupposes. The survival of liberalism thus requires that its secularization of the civil law not become a domineering force that secularizes all spheres of social life. In this concern, Mohler echoes figures like Patrick Deneen (whom he approvingly quotes). However, the strategy Mohler favors—resisting cultural secularization by mobilizing religious believers for a culture war—is equally unable to provide a social basis for a liberal order. The logic of culture war culminates in an illiberal religious nationalism that is inconsistent with liberalism’s commitment to authentic religious freedom.
Secularism as Gathering Storm
Mohler borrows his title from Winston Churchill’s postwar book about the failure of the British and French to realize the Nazi peril in the 1930s, despite Churchill’s considerable efforts to make them see it. Mohler says that he sees himself as raising a comparable alarm, against a comparable failure of vision—this time not about Nazis, but secularization or “dechristianization”:
Historical analogies are always imperfect. The storm of the secular age is not so easily identified as the rise of the Nazi threat, nor is it focused on one movement, one leader, or even one readily summarized set of ideas. But, make no mistake, it is a storm. My main point in borrowing Churchill’s title is to borrow his main argument as well—the first task of faithfulness lies in understanding reality. Understanding the storm and seeing it for what it is turns out to be a necessary first step.
Gathering Storm’s chapters take up a succession of topics: liberal theology, sanctity of life, sexuality, family, “moralistic therapeutic deism,” Hollywood depravity, religious liberty. Those who follow Mohler’s daily political commentary, or the general discourse of evangelicalism on the political Right, will find the content familiar. The book ends with an appendix on the indispensability of the courts (not, say, local churches) as the make-or-break institution upon whose fate the future of Western civilization rests—and which Mohler seems to want to make law on the basis of the Bible.
On each of these topics, Mohler shows the damage done to Western civilization by its dechristianization. A social order that does not begin with respect for human life has no non-arbitrary basis for public justice or legitimate authority. A social order that understands sexuality in terms of radical autonomy rather than natural design will be unable to resist the descent into unlimited political control of the most intimate areas of life. A social order that treats religion as an idiosyncratic private hobby that some people happen to enjoy in their spare time, rather than as one of the primary activities of normal human social life, will one day wake up to discover that politicians have become its priests, government its church, and the state its god.
Culture War as Gathering Storm
The inherent difficulty I see in Mohler’s attempt to position contemporary evangelical social activism as an across-the-board opposition to secularism is not in the substance of his positions on these issues. I love Western civilization, for all its warts, and I give ground to nobody in my militancy for the historic evangelical positions on all these issues. The problem I see is twofold. In the short run, evangelical social activism that defines its agenda solely in terms that serve the political Right lacks the spiritual credibility it would need to stand as a real alternative to secularization, and Gathering Storm moves it in the wrong direction on this front. In the long run, evangelicals have not seriously confronted the hard theological questions that any Reconquista from secularization would demand, and Gathering Storm helps them avoid doing so.
Mohler has drawn even more attention than usual lately, after dramatically reversing his 2016 position that evangelicals should not vote for Donald Trump. Then, he said Trump’s character rendered him unfit, and evangelical support for Trump would damage evangelicalism’s spiritual credibility. Now, he says he’ll vote Republican for the rest of his life no matter who the candidates are, as long as the GOP doesn’t change positions on social issues.
Gathering Storm shows what is sacrificed by those who go all-in on politics in this way. The agenda it sets for evangelical social activism will only reinforce the suspicions of most Americans, who look at evangelical Christianity and see not a religion but a pseudo-religious ideology for a right-wing political program.
Mohler says Gathering Storm is a call for a “theological protest” against secularization, not for a “political movement.” If so, the theological principles by which its agenda has been selected are not obvious. Where is the chapter on care for the poor, who are being destroyed by the secularization of welfare systems, including even secularization of church benevolence and missions? Where is the chapter on racism, the ugly anthropological face of secularization? Why no chapter on the idolatry of science, including our largely uncritical use of artificial intelligence? For that matter, what about cheap grace and anemic discipleship in evangelical churches? Tithing and generosity? Hospitality toward the cultural “other” and even enemies? Might the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials” have some relevance to resisting the destruction of Western civilization by secularization?
Worse than this cherry-picking of “theological” topics in service to the political Right is Gathering Storm’s reduction of the complex problems of politics to a simplistic us-versus-them paradigm. Under the spell of his Churchillian controlling metaphor, Mohler attributes to the Christian West a coherence and stability it never really had, and thus has no explanation for its moral decline other than to round up the usual anti-Christian suspects. In every chapter other than the one on moralistic therapeutic deism, admirable heroes and constructive solutions that the church might offer up for the life of the world are either absent or ephemeral, while enumeration of villains is plentiful.
Mohler fails to see how, despite the real existence of secularists promoting anti-Christian ideas, secularization is much more an effect of complex historical changes that weren’t part of anybody’s intentional agenda. He draws on figures like Peter Berger and Charles Taylor for their descriptions of how secularization changes society, but he fails to inform his readers that these authors show how secularization is primarily an unintentional byproduct of factors like economic and technological development, and even a result of Christian efforts to reform society to respect the rights of all people.
Those who see no causes of secularization other than evil secularists will never have any response to secularization other than to fight our enemies harder. Even as this self-defeating approach continues to produce no positive results after generations of wasted effort, they still just keep saying, “we must not be trying hard enough! Fight harder!” Thus, we remain trapped in a perpetual contest of Nietzschean wills to power. There can be no victory, only endless destruction.
The only winning move is not to play. Conflict is a necessary part of the church’s prophetic ministry to the world, and the work of opposing particular evils is indispensable. But if culture war is the center of the church’s social activism, that activism surrenders its prophetic independence and thus its spiritual credibility. The “war” consumes the “culture” without remainder.
There is more than one way you can fail to see a gathering storm. And this storm is as big a threat to the liberal political order as secularization.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Illiberal Religious Nationalism
Liberalism is the 800-pound gorilla in all discussions of Christianity and Western civilization, so unsurprisingly it is an important theme in Gathering Storm. But Mohler is uncharacteristically shy about making his real position on political liberalism clear. He sidesteps the theological questions about political liberalism that matter most.
Mohler denounces “moral liberalism” and “theological liberalism” forthrightly. But about “political liberalism” he delicately confines himself to saying that there is “robust debate.” He adds that political liberalism is “breaking down.”
In substance, Mohler’s logic leads him to repudiate political liberalism in Gathering Storm and demand an illiberal religious nationalism in its place. Mohler argues that the civil law, which has been dechristianized by secularization, needs to be rechristianized, although he is frustratingly vague about what that means:
We can now see what so many have long denied—that the experiment in liberty and self-government known as the United States of America is premised upon an affirmation of human dignity and human rights that only makes sense within and can only be sustained by a worldview that is based on at least an inherited Christian conception and an affirmation of natural rights.
Religious freedom is truly the First Freedom, for without this prior freedom all others become fragile and contingent. As a Christian theologian, I would ground that First Liberty in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible.
Many of Mohler’s readers will miss this, but his position entails a root-and-branch repudiation not only of the American experiment, but of a thousand years of Western Christian political thought. The political liberalism Mohler repudiates to save the Christian West is one of its most precious legacies. The doctors of the church began affirming as early as the 12th century that individual human rights are universal and are grounded in the design of our nature, and are therefore knowable independent of special revelation. If this were not the case, unbelievers could not be morally accountable for their actions, nor could we justify legitimate authority for non-ecclesial social institutions.
Nevertheless, it is not hard to see how Mohler got here. If all political history is simply a contest between Christian and anti-Christian ideas, the Constitution itself can only be either a Christian document or an anti-Christian one. Politics more generally can only be either the illiberal imposition of a Christian worldview by force or the illiberal imposition of an anti-Christian worldview by force. To admit the political ambiguity and complexity liberalism requires would collapse the culture-war worldview.
Mohler himself says that political liberalism is the whole basis of the American political order and the only historic framework for understanding freedom on both the American Right and Left. He ought to know that he is playing with fire. When he demands we rechristianize the civil laws, he owes us an account of why our Christian ancestors were wrong for almost a thousand years as they built Western civilization on a natural law tradition that culminated, and logically must culminate, in political liberalism. He owes us an account of how we can rechristianize the civil laws while respecting the religious liberty of unbelievers on equal terms. And he owes us an account of how it is possible to rechristianize the civil laws without our politics descending into a perpetual Nietzschean war of beliefs. (We are also owed answers to these questions from our Catholic-integralist friends, who reach the same dead end by a different route.)
Mohler is fond of J. Gresham Machen, and as an Orthodox Presbyterian Churchman, I’m glad Mohler exhibits this infallible sign of election. But Mohler does not quote Machen’s defense of political liberalism, which distils a thousand years of development in Western Christian political thought and experience into a single shattering statement: “It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.”
Only Mohler Can Save Us, Just Not the Way He Thinks
Can we dechristianize the civil laws without dechristianizing all of culture, descending into a materialistic narcissism that destroys the social conditions liberalism presupposes? For that matter, can we dechristianize the civil laws without creating moral anarchy in our political order? Is it possible to share our country by building moral consensus among people of different faiths—to have a common good without a common god?
These are hard questions. No one has easy answers. I’ll be first in line to admit I don’t. But if political liberals are looking for a strategy to reinforce the social conditions liberalism presupposes, or if evangelicals are looking for a way to resist the dechristianization of culture without rechristianizing the civil law, I know where I think they should start.
You can defeat things you hate, but you can only change things you love. The deep structures of culture can only be changed by people who go out into their workplaces and communities every day on a mission to love their neighbors. If you want to stop an injustice, your model may be William Wilberforce; if you want to reverse the dechristianization of culture that threatens to collapse political liberalism, a better model is Josiah Wedgwood. Seeing his “secular” work as a calling from God, he reinvented the 18th-century factory by introducing humane and dignified working conditions, which catalyzed explosive growth in economic productivity—and brought a huge influx of factory workers into the churches of the Wesleyan movement.
To achieve a social vision like that, the first step is religious leaders who know how to orient social witness in a constructive way. While prophetic resistance is vital, we need pastors who inspire and equip people to go out on a life-giving mission throughout all the tasks in their daily work.
Where will we get such pastors? From Mohler.
You would never guess this from his prolific political commentary, but Mohler punches his timecard every Monday morning as the president of one of America’s biggest and best seminaries. His school trains thousands of church leaders whose tireless and unglamorous work holds back the collapse of the liberal social order—not by prosecuting a culture war, but by shoring up the social conditions of individual moral virtue, institutional integrity, and community solidarity as shepherds of their congregations. That never-ending rearguard action of holding back the tides of decay needs to become a constructive mission of building a new culture of neighbor-love.
But seminaries are in big trouble these days. Even before the current public-health emergency, they have struggled to respond to huge changes in their economic landscape. Judging from results, and recognizing the imperfection of all our endeavors, it looks to me like Mohler must be doing something right at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I doubt it has much to do with political commentary. I’d love to know what it is.
I hope Mohler’s next book ends with an appendix on seminaries, not courts, as the vital-but-vulnerable institutions that desperately need to be saved from destruction for the sake of both the church and civilization—Western, or any other kind.