How Al Mohler Accidentally Highlighted Evangelicals’ Idolization of Literalism

How Al Mohler Accidentally Highlighted Evangelicals’ Idolization of Literalism May 20, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Wow, Al Mohler is just a handful, isn’t he? This big-name Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader has discovered what so many of his colleagues have over the years: the stuff they do in the shadows doesn’t always stay hidden. This time around, the sunlight shone on a comment Al Mohler made back in 1998. In an interview, you see, Al Mohler defended slavery as a practice. He did it for a very simple reason, and one he can’t escape any more than his tribemates can. Today, let me show you what the story’s about and how it highlights one of the most important golden calf idols of evangelicals: Biblical literalism.

a shepherd tending sheep
(Biegun Wschodni.) It still amazes me that Christians are totally okay with calling themselves sheep. It’s like they have no clue why shepherds tend sheep.

(Previous posts about dumb stuff Al Mohler has said: When They Are Grown; The Worst Reaction to Churn Ever; What Jesus Isn’t Telling the SBC; Al Mohler Creeps One Inch Forward (Sorta); He Just Had NO IDEA About All That Sexual Harassin’ in the SBC; Rotted Fruit: Al Mohler and the Conservative Resurgence; Al Mohler: No, It’s Our Critics Who Are Wrong; An Unexpected Backlash; HumanGate: Al Mohler’s Dishonest Game; HumanGate and Al Mohler’s Emotional and Weak-Minded Amnesia; Selfishness: Al Mohler’s Big Gun; The Leadership Lesson Al Mohler Never Learned.)

A Skirmish in the Culture Wars Begins.

This past week, Religion News brought us a story that ultimately wasn’t really very surprising.

I found some good info about the background of the whole situation in a Google Books entry on Baptists in America: A History. Here’s how it went:

Back in 1998, Al Mohler appeared at a round table discussion with Larry King. The discussion involved a topic that had been dominating the news lately: how wives should, in many Christian leaders’ opinions, behave toward their husbands. Jerry Falwell Sr. was also part of that discussion along with Patricia Ireland, then the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral.

The SBC had just issued one of their fiats about wives and submission. They’d added the notion to their denomination’s confession of faith. The move touched off a firestorm almost immediately. The book’s authors felt that this provocation was actually “part of its purpose” in the first place.

Obviously, the bulk of Christian culture-warrior leaders agreed.

The fight was on.

What the Fight Concerned.

The doctrine under fire was complementarianism, in which husbands rule the roost like tin-gods and everyone else serves their interests, flatters them constantly, obeys their every whim, and fulfills their every desire. Wives, in this scenario, function as bang mommies: live-in maids and surrogate mommies that these men can take to Pound Town whenever they like.

It’s a gruesome recipe for dysfunction and divorce for most couples. But Christian culture-warrior men tend to love the idea of having unearned privilege, undeserved power, and unilateral control of others.

So Al Mohler flung himself into that fight with relish. In fact, he called the rising tide of egalitarian marriages “a real crisis in the culture over the family.”

But he probably did not expect that 1998 conversation to turn to slavery.

Unfortunately for him and hilariously for us, that’s exactly what happened.

An Obvious Progression.

White evangelicals believe that their god set in place a mandatory way for society to work. That way involves certain demographics being reserved for certain roles. If people try to move outside their lane, then everyone suffers — even those who don’t seem to be affected by those people’s choices at all. For optimum societal functionality and happiness, everyone must comply with their roles’ demands.

Thus, Jesus appointed white men to function as the governors, kings, commanders, grand marshalls, emperors, and general minders of society. All other demographics serve their interests in various capacities. Women are absolutely not allowed to assume any real leadership roles because then society would disintegrate, men would get sad boners, and nobody’d be happy.

In that light, perhaps it’s very easy to see how evangelical-style sexism flowed naturally from their opinions of slavery. In particular, the SBC only came to exist because a lot of Baptists really wanted to keep slaves and legal slavery in America. Consequently, they won’t let go very easily of its ingrained and entrenched -isms.

I’m not kidding. The entire SBC itself began in 1845 when white southern Baptists split from their fellow Baptists up north. They rationalized the split “on the premise that slaveholding was morally legitimate,” in the words of their very own report on one of their seminaries’ checkered racist past (p. 9).

So in the roundtable discussion, the conversation turned to slavery, since it’s so related to white evangelical men’s notions of submission and how everything should operate as extensions of their divine wills.

Here’s Al Mohler, Missing the Point As Per Normal.

On May 15 (last week), when the comments he’d made on that show returned to bite him on the bottom, Al Mohler completely missed the point of why his interview went so poorly in the public court of perception.

Mohler declared that “it sounds like an incredibly stupid comment, and it was.” He’s using the singular here because he thinks only one comment was The Big Problem Here. In fact, he whined about having fallen “into a trap” over it.

What was that one comment, then?

He made it in discussion of a Bible verse, Ephesians 6:5:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Remember, the group interview actually concerned not slavery, but Mohler’s regressive, troglodyte man-child doctrine of complementarianism. So yes, I’m sure this Bible verse figures very prominently in his conceptualization of marriage.

Pushing A Terrible Belief To Its End-Run.

But Larry King took him up on that belief and asked if he thought it applied to slaves who’d run away from their masters. He asked Mohler if that Bible verse meant Jesus would send escaped slaves to Hell. As an example, he drew on the story of Harriet Tubman.

In response, Mohler gave a mealy-mouthed answer:

“Well, I want to look at this text seriously, and it says submit to the master,” Mohler replied. “And I really don’t see any loophole here as much as, in terms of popular culture, we’d want to see one.”

So yes, he’s saying. That’s exactly what the verse means, and that’s exactly what his imaginary friend would do to Harriet Tubman and other escaped slaves. They’d disobeyed their masters by running away, and that Bible verse says they should have stuck around and obeyed their masters like they were Jesus himself.

That’s the comment Al Mohler thinks is bothering everybody. He’s acting like it’s literally the only part of that interview that could ever bother anybody.

It’s mind-blowing to see someone this important in evangelicalism acting this bereft of even the barest scintilla of self-awareness.

SIDEBAR: Jerry Falwell’s Glib Escape.

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell insisted that if he’d lived during America’s slaveholding days, he’d totally have “started and operated an underground railway to Canada.”

What a shameless and unspeakable liar.

In reality, years ago Falwell was a vehement opponent of civil rights and racial equality. He even owned and operated Lynchburg Christian Academy. As one of the first proudly-racist “seg academies,” it was open only to white students. But since those days, Falwell apparently figured out how poorly racism and segregationist impulses sell outside of diehard evangelicals in the Deep South (and, obviously, he has moved on to better-selling culture wars).

Beside Jerry Falwell’s preening, self-congratulatory oh-so-evolved act, Al Mohler looked like a thrice-damned idiot for defending a practice that even one of the evangelical movement’s worst racists had learned to lie about supporting.

It must have looked hilarious to anybody who knew about Falwell’s shameful past.

The Golden Calf Idol of Literalism.

Really, though, Mohler couldn’t really say much different than what he did.

A very long time ago, he hitched his wagon to that cherished evangelical star of Biblical literalism. This one doctrine became the basis of his entire career.

Larry King pushed him to the ultimate end-run of that belief. Worse, he’d pushed Mohler there in public.

In fact, Al Mohler really only had two real choices at that point:

  1. Deny his idol. He’d have faced the wrath of his tribe instantly, of course. But he could have said that slavery was an unfortunate reality in the Bible’s stories but one that obviously humanity’s grown past as a whole, and thus that he wrestled mightily with how to reconcile slavery with his vision of an omnimax deity. In this scenario, he could easily concede that Harriet Tubman had been right to run away and fight against her former masters.
  2. Embrace his idol. Find a way to hand-wave away the sheer evil and brutality of slavery. Keep the vision of an omnimax god intact. Maintain the doctrine of literalism as perfect and unquestionable. Also, coincidentally, please his tribe. In this scenario, he had no choice but to declare that Harriet Tubman had disobeyed Jesus himself by running away.

Obviously, Al Mohler chose the second option.

But he’s been choosing it for years, by which I mean for years and years and years.

So has his tribe.

What Literalism Is.

Obviously, literalism involves a whole lot of details. Several different schools of thought exist around it, as well, and they have their own names and permutations. I’m simplifying all of them here for ease of discussion, but yes, I know that there are kinds and kinds of literalists.

In literalism, Christians believe that the Bible is wholly correct and accurate in every single way, in every single detail, in every single story, and in every single command. It is not only divinely inspired but divinely written, meaning that each and every word in their favored translation (whatever it is) was put there deliberately by Jesus himself. Everything it says is inerrant in every way.

This idea naturally means that Christians should spend tons of time figuring out exactly what the original Greek and Hebrew says, so they’re extra-dextra-sure of the translation.

So literalists believe that Creationism really happened exactly as the Bible says, as did the Fall of Man, the Great Flood, the destruction of Jericho and those other cities, the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ life and the early years of Christianity, Heaven and Hell, and all that other tosh.

Literalism’s Kid Brothers, Prescriptiveness and Authoritativeness.

More than that, even, literalists think that the Bible’s rules and commands aren’t just products of their time. They’re eternal demands on humanity, ones people ignore at their great peril. They were meant by Jesus himself to be obeyed for all time by everyone, except the ones that evangelicals don’t wanna follow (like eating shellfish or getting divorced). Those are completely optional because reasons.

Otherwise, they’re all totally sacred laws forever.

When I was evangelical myself, we called these for-realsies rules prescriptive, which meant people always had to follow them. Otherwise, they’d just be descriptive, meaning they were just there as a description of how ancient people operated in the faith. And that would make these rules far less important to follow, which evangelical leaders simply can’t have.

Evangelicals attach great importance to the authoritative nature of the Bible’s rules, as a result.

A Wholly Acceptable Idolatry.

With all of these facts in mind, years ago I called literalism a form of idolatry for evangelicals. (Amusingly, that post also dealt with some dumb thing Al Mohler said.)

Literalism became idolatry because evangelicals began to revere the doctrine of literalism itself above actually doing what Jesus told them to do. (They despise all that boring stuff: above-and-beyond charity, kindness, forgiveness, meekness, humility, and turning the other cheek, you name it.)

Evangelicals elevated literalism to the level of perfection. They made it so sacrosanct nobody can even question it anymore. Worse, they turned this idolized doctrine into the end-all be-all of Christianity itself. Now, it functions as a dealbreaker belief. As a result, the tribe’s rank and file must hold it, or else they might as well just leave the entire religion.

It’s absolutely ridiculous. Millions and millions of Christians know that. But evangelicals toil tirelessly to PROVE YES PROVE that literalism is totes for realsies the only correct way to Jesus.

They do it for one very simple reason.

Why Literalism Is So Necessary.

Literalism gives evangelical leaders an incalculably-powerful authority to borrow from when they need to get the flocks moving in the right direction. It is absolutely, positively, inarguably essential to their entire desired way of life.

Without literalism, the flocks can just run off in whatever direction they like with interpretations of the Bible’s various mishmash of commands and exhortations.

Indeed, they do exactly that, yes. That’s because the Bible’s impossible to pin down about much of anything. Any Christian’s hot take is about as valid as any other’s.

Evangelical leaders do the same thing. However, they all point to literalism to make their quirky lil hot-takes sound more authoritative. With literalism, their interpretation becomes way more true and accurate to the original Greek and Hebrew than any competing interpretation. And once the dominant member of the flock makes their own quirky lil hot-take known, it then becomes the dominant one in that flock.

(The fun really begins when two equally-ranked evangelicals with competing literalist hot-takes combat each other to win the title of Most Authoritative Hot-Take of All. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any evangelical convince another of their hot-take, but they never stop trying. It ends up being an endless serial appeal to authority. Both parties keep offering coins that their opponents don’t even accept.)

Thus, literalism becomes a necessity for any evangelical seeking to gain or maintain dominance. Without it, their arguments fall apart. Their demands become hollow and toothless.

And they know it.

The Outgrowths of Literalism.

Without literalism, these other beliefs fall completely apart:

  • Straights-only marriage
  • All the repressive rules about sex, generally
  • Complementarianism
  • Forced prayer in schools
  • Creationism
  • Opposition to integration and mixed-race marriage/relationships
  • Anti-LGBT bigotry, generally

Here’s why:

If Al Mohler tells his flocks that the Bible commands that only straight opposite-sex couples can marry and cites Bible Verses Such-and-Such, then the tribe will immediately believe what he says. Then they’ll vote accordingly.

If the SBC puts wifely submission into its confession of belief, citing Bible Verses These-and-Those, then quite a few evangelical men will consider this submission their divinely-granted due. Meanwhile, a lot of evangelical women will work themselves to the breaking point trying to fulfill a totally unworkable set of social rules that only exists to excuse and rationalize their exploitation.

And if some nitwit Creationist declares that without sneaky indoctrination schoolchildren, the world will dissolve into murder and rape in the streets because understanding humans’ place in Christian mythology is all that holds all societies together, then every fundie on social media will spread that Creationists’ memes far and wide.

Otherwise, these leaders’ flocks would just shrug and say “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” That’s a perfectly accurate observation to make. So these Dear Leaders must avoid leading the flocks that way.

Where This Idolatry Leads, Inevitably.

Whew! We’ve made quite a journey into the grosser sides of the evangelical psyche today. Next time, we’ll dig into why Al Mohler’s belief in literalism led him straight into a serious gaffe. Because it had to lead him there. As the night follows the day, literalists run into trouble with their idolized belief system.

Jeez, it’s too bad they can’t idolize doing the boring stuff they keep saying Jesus told them to do. If they did that, it’d probably fix their churn problem as well as solve their public-relations problems.

But that’d erase evangelical men’s assumptions of dominance and destroy their expectations of obedience and deference. That’s why they joined and stuck around evangelicalism in the first place.

Literalism is literally all they’ve got. It’s the only path they can possibly imagine to achieve those dreams. Thus, I’d sooner expect them to give all they have to the poor than to give up on their dreams of undeserved power and unearned dominance. It’s so pathetic, and it’s even more transparently self-serving.

And I wonder if more and more people are kinda awakening to the reality of this quintessentially evangelical form of idolatry.

NEXT UP: Why literalism inevitably leads evangelicals into public-relations nightmares.


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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 volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and 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. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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