Rotted Fruit: Al Mohler and the Conservative Resurgence

Rotted Fruit: Al Mohler and the Conservative Resurgence June 2, 2018

Hi! Last time we met up, I showed you something Al Mohler wrote in response to the big scandals going on in his denomination. His essay is called “The Wrath of God Poured Out – The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Last time, we covered the first part of his goal in writing that essay: to distance himself from any hint of blame in the Southern Baptist Convention’s many scandals. His second–and perhaps even more pressing–goal was to exonerate the SBC itself from blame. Today we’ll take up there. We’ll see how he secured a movement that is so important to him that he will quickly, happily even, destroy millions of people’s lives to protect it. And we’ll see why he’s so intent on protecting it, even after it’s been shown to be so damaging to both his denomination and to millions of people’s lives.

the happy memory of the conservative resurgence
Joachim Beuckelaer, “The Well-Stocked Kitchen, with Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background.” 1566. CC license.

An Overview of the Conservative Resurgence.

Last time, we briefly covered this important phase of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Today I want to go into more detail, because this movement is such an important part of Al Mohler’s life.

The Conservative Resurgence is a long, protracted war within the SBC that ended with hardline fundamentalists taking complete control over the denomination as a whole. The SBC wasn’t exactly what anybody would have called moderate before that, but plenty of moderate voices existed in the group. Leadership positions represented a great many viewpoints. The hardliners who took over the SBC called this takeover the Conservative Resurgence. At least a few of their more moderate enemies simply called it The Fundamentalist Takeover.

One theme I’ve raised repeatedly on this blog is that evangelical Christianity has changed dramatically since I myself was a Christian. This Resurgence is a big part of how that change happened. Back in my day, the SBC was considered quite “evangelical” and Pentecostals (like me) were “fundamentalist.” We didn’t even like being called evangelical, though officially we fell into the same category! We saw the SBC as distressingly lax about its doctrines–which manifested in our eyes as hypocrisy and a lack of “holiness.”

Well, fast forward a couple of decades. Now I look upon a denomination that in many ways has lapped my old Pentecostal crowd.

The Resurgence is how they did it.

To Crush Your Enemies.

First and foremost, the people who devised the strategies in the Resurgence sought to push very conservative friends into positions of power in the SBC. William Powell, at the time the editor of an SBC journal, had come to a shocking realization: if someone could get conservative candidates into the denomination’s presidency for just ten years, that power grab would ripple down through the ranks. It would create a conservative majority throughout the SBC’s power structures that would be damned near impossible to untangle.

In fact, if such a conservative cabal could time things perfectly, they’d end up with their pals in all of those power structures. Their stranglehold on the denomination would then become the gift that kept on giving.

This truth revealed a grievous weakness in the denomination. Instead of addressing and repairing it, these opportunists decided to exploit it. Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson, and all the rest of the hardliners who took the denomination over didn’t destroy the SBC. The SBC was already choking to death in the water. The only question remaining was when the death would occur.

Anybody who wasn’t conservative enough was eliminated–either by losing elections or being fired or retired from their jobs. After a few key victories, the rest came more easily.

(I hope you’ve noticed a few similarities to current events here.)

To See Them Driven Before You.

Wikipedia credits Al Mohler as one of the Resurgence’s “chief architects.” Though he came into the process later, when he arrived on the scene he dove in without reservations.

He enters the picture almost tangentially. Roy Honeycutt was the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1982-1993. He was a moderate, relatively speaking, but that’s not the sole reason he had to go. Last time in endnotes I mentioned that he was driven from office in a “spectacularly dramatic” episode.

Mr. Honeycutt vocally opposed the Resurgence almost from its beginnings. In 1984, he made a thunderous speech declaring “holy war” on the “hijackers” who were seeking to control the SBC. He warned the SBC that the Resurgence would destroy the denomination’s “heritage” and “Christian witness.” As the Resurgence claimed more and more power, eventually Mr. Honeycutt found himself boxed into a corner. He took an early retirement in 1993. Nor was he the only moderate to leave. Along with him, some 40 other full-time faculty members left over the next few years. In leaving, they ceded control of the seminary to conservatives.

Al Mohler was one of Roy Honeycutt’s assistants in those days–from 1983 to 1989. After Mr. Honeycutt left, Al Mohler swooped into his position.

The next year, in 1994, a similarly-moderate president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Dilday, got ousted in a fashion so similar to Mr. Honeycutt’s forced retirement that New York Times (NYT) alluded to the earlier situation in their writeup of it. Mr. Dilday had similarly opposed the Resurgence.

In fact, a great many vocal opponents of the Resurgence met that same fate. And almost all of them offered the same objections to what Al Mohler and his pals were doing.

And To Hear the Lamentations of Their Women.

The SBC stands on the wrong side of history consistently. That’s kind of its thing.

From the very origins of their denomination, Southern Baptists stood on the pro-slavery side of the Civil War divide. For decades, even centuries afterward, racism baked further and further into the SBC’s culture and leadership. Just as it seemed like the denomination might improve a little, in the early 1970s, a backlash against perceived increasing liberalism shut the door forever on any kind of progress. That backlash was the Conservative Resurgence.

The Conservative Resurgence took the denomination in an altogether new and disturbing direction. Oh, the racism remained part of its culture, but now a bizarre fixation on political and temporal power overtook the new leaders of the denomination. This fixation centered around a new-ish idea called inerrancy. It meant basically fundamentalism, in the hands of the Resurgence. With inerrancy fueling them, the SBC’s hijackers created a new culture for Southern Baptists. In this new culture, what mattered most was fervor– in the correct belief system. And that belief system was, of course, the only one they allowed to be sold.

From there, the Resurgence’s new majority-conservative leaders began ruthlessly, brutally suppressing dissent. Any leader who seemed suspiciously “liberal,” like Russell Dilday, got shown the door. In fact, in his case, his seminary changed his office’s door locks on him.

When the dust settled, the SBC looked like it does now: viciously misogynistic and bigoted, still quite racist, and facing a power differential so huge between members and leaders that literally nobody can hope to bring about any kind of change in the denomination.

At every single step of the takeover, however, every single one of its opponents voiced the same concerns about what its leaders were doing.

The Objections.

Even as the SBC consolidated its power base and began writing increasingly regressive platforms into statements of faith, and even as they then required every single Southern Baptist layperson and minister to sign off on those statements of faith, the same objections sprang up. The Resurgence’s leaders ignored them, if not outright suppressed and silenced them.

Besides Mr. Honeycutt and Mr. Dilday, the SBC’s Resurgence leaders had to contend with a great many other dissenters.

Duke McCall, Southern Baptist Theological SeminaryHe declared that the Resurgence was about power, not theology. “Theology is simply the flag they wave.” He also compared the Resurgence to a “communist takeover.”

W. Randall Lolley, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: In a now-classic speech called “Quo Vadis, Southeastern Seminary?” that ended up examined in a Christian magazine called Enquiry, Mr. Lolley threw down a gauntlet. That issue of  Enquiry contained a great many essays supporting his dissent against the Resurgence. Its editor stated the obvious: the Resurgence was about “political maneuvering, blatant authoritarianism, strong-armed tactics, and a winner-take-all mentality.”

And it all happened anyway, thanks to that vulnerability identified years earlier. Southern Baptists streamed away from the newly-reshaped denomination like rats from a sinking ship–some 1900 churches altogether, and countless deposed leaders who refused to fall into line. But more than enough folks remained to solidify the denomination’s refashioning.

Then Everything Went to Pieces.

For quite a while, that authoritarian atmosphere kept abuse allegations and scandals quiet. The denomination stripped more and more power from women in particular, creating a completely authoritarian tribe focused upon complete repression and control of human sexuality, gender roles, and even gender identities. This most idolatrous tribe turned inward further and further, worshiping orthodoxy of belief over simple human decency–and crafting an institution predicated upon and completely in thrall to white conservative male supremacy.

This belief system can’t survive without recruitment. The men in this system strive, always, to gain more power for themselves. But power is meaningless without people to flex power at. As the number of leaders grows, the perks of power for each individual man in the system grows. And the engine of power needs more servants to make it all run. But scrutiny over individual masters decreases. The motivation to protect abusers–and thus the system itself–increases, and abuses sprout up like daisies after rain.

Increasing numbers of victims sought help from their pastors, only to be silenced. A star preacher or pastor could do whatever he wished, as long as he made sales and said the correct things. Predators whose scandals and crimes finally reached visibility could count upon their pals in ministry to keep the matter away from the police–and to shuffle them around from church to church.

For a few glorious years, I’m sure that the Resurgence’s leaders thought they were the kings of the world. They ignored the festering rot behind the walls because they could. Nobody could force them to engage with it or even recognize it. So it was never addressed.

The Second Goal.

Now inescapable scrutiny has finally reached a denomination so tightly locked up with male privilege that I wondered if it could ever be shattered. People have finally made a connection between the SBC’s fixation on authoritarian power and the legions of abuse cases springing up in its wake.

Nobody knows better than Al Mohler what past criticisms of the Resurgence involved. He ignored those criticisms then. For that matter, he’d be ignoring them now if he only could. Ignoring problems has worked marvelously well for him in the past!

That Resurgence is Al Mohler’s baby, his legacy. When he dies, the Resurgence will be tied to his name in obituaries. People will reuse past evaluations like “architect” and “hero of SBC Fundamentalism.” If it turns out that the Resurgence was actually a horrifically bad thing, maybe not even divinely-commanded at all, then Al Mohler will be in a very deep pile of bantha poodoo.

Thus, when I read Al Mohler’s essay I found myself most struck by its frantic tone. Al Mohler is panicking about preserving his power base and his reputation.

That’s likely why he subtitled the thing “The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.” It’s such a comically-misplaced sentiment. Predatory ministers at the highest levels abuse victims with complete impunity. Families break apart constantly under the strain of impossible gender roles. Children flee from Christianity the moment they can manage it. The denomination Al Mohler crafted hemorrhages members faster every year.

But what matters to Al Mohler is that his child, the bully of the school, is weeping after a stunning comeuppance in the playground. Instead of focusing on the bully’s victims, he cares only about repairing his bully child’s hold on the school.

What Are the “Fruits” of the Conservative Resurgence?

Christians are fond of talking about “fruits” when evaluating a doctrinal stance. The custom comes from Galatians 5:19-23, about “the fruit of the Spirit.”

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and sorcery; hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, carousing, and the like. . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law.

At a quick glance, anybody can easily tell which category fits the Resurgence better. And this outcome should, by fundagelical Christians’ own reckoning, be completely impossible. Correct doctrines + complete fervor should = fruits of the spirit.

That’s not what’s happening.

Take a look at this Wartburg Watch post about Paige Patterson’s downfall. Literally for years, female victims in particular have sought justice for the crimes committed against them. And because the Resurgence focused so narrowly upon power, and male power above all, those victims’ pleas fell on deaf ears.

Its “fruits” are rotted to the core.

Money and Power.

NEXT UP: To close this part of my examination, I’ll look to Gareld Duane Rollins’ lawyer. Mr. Rollins is the fellow bringing a second lawsuit against Paul Pressler. And that lawyer has some choice words concerning the Conservative Resurgence itself:

In a first amended complaint filed March 26 in United States District Court, Rollins’ attorney calls the inerrancy movement a “sham” purporting to care about doctrinal integrity but in reality driven by the desire for money and power.

I’ve got no doubt that Al Mohler is aware of that complaint, too, and was thinking of it at least as much as he was thinking about Paige Patterson when he crafted his essay last week. We’re going to take up there on Tuesday, because I want to show you how beyond-dishonest Al Mohler is. I mean, we knew that. Yes. But this rabbit hole goes deeeeeeeep. This guy’s spent decades honing a talent at political grandstanding, and this essay could well be his masterwork. I hope you’ll join me–see you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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