Every generation of Southern Baptists has its larger-than-life characters. Some have been scoundrels; some have been saints. The 19th century saw the outsized influence of “company men” like James Petigru Boyce and rabble-rousers like James Robinson Graves. The early 20th century was dominated by legendary figures like B.H. Carroll, E.Y. Mullins, J.B. Gambrell and eventually George W. Truett.
The post-war Southern Baptist Convention was led — at times behind the scenes — by men like Louie Newton and J.D. Grey, while other prominent and charismatic pulpit giants held sway: R.G. Lee, H.H. Hobbs, and W.A. Criswell.
The early 1970s were full of interesting developments and colorful leaders, but their contributions are all largely lost to history once the 1979 convention occurs. Even James Sullivan, who one current entity head described to us as the “smartest man to ever lead the convention,” fades into the background once Adrian Rogers is elected and the so-called “resurgence” gained full steam.
For many Southern Baptist who have come of age in the post-1979 convention, Adrian Rogers is pretty much all that matters. He stands above every other leader. His voice is the one we still want to hear. His legacy is secure, probably because he was never worried about his own legacy. He was just worried about his church, shepherding the flock of God and tending that portion of the Lord’s vineyard entrusted to him.
Some have suggested that the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is the Adrian Rogers of this generation. Others have said he is the E.Y. Mullins of the 21st century. Less charitable critics prefer adjectives rather than comparisons. Words like “opportunistic,” “pragmatic,” and “ruthless” are thrown around on social media and in private conversations.
Whatever your opinion of Al Mohler may be, he doubtlessly casts among the widest shadows to cover the contemporary evangelical landscape. His instincts are swift. His pen can be sharp. And his determination to safeguard both the institution he faithfully serves and the legacy he meticulously cultivates is evident.
Infallibility, however, is the exclusive province of Holy Writ. Not even Mohler’s most ardent apologists will ascribe infallibility to Southern’s president.
Enter President Donald J. Trump, a man whom Mohler was content to position “beneath the baseline of human decency” a mere fortnight ago. To be honest, we were not aware of Mohler’s prior gastroesophageal convulsions about the man who would become our nation’s 45th president. Like most voters, we pay little attention to election year endorsements.
Elites always assume their endorsements mean something to the average voter. Southern Baptist elites often act as though their endorsements will be received like so many Mosaic pronouncements by wandering Israelites who live in the lowly valley and never behold the face of God.
To be sure, Al Mohler is a student of history. Perhaps more than any living Southern Baptist scholar, he pores over multiple tomes of biography and history every week. He mines them for illustrations, and effortlessly summons the most salient points from the most arcane narratives in casual conversation and public peroration alike. Even a few minutes talking to Mohler about the smallest of subjects can leave one’s head spinning in awe.
We, too, enjoy a good bit of history. And we’ve come to certain conclusions about most great men: they often stay too long and they ask for too much. Just ask Winston Churchill.
The presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention now seems like too much. What once seemed a fait accompli now sounds like a bad idea. When the concern of many was to have a steady hand – a known quantity – succeed J.D. Greear as convention president during a tumultuous election year that threatened our ecclesiastic and missionary unity, Mohler seemed like the best available choice.
For some, he was the least bad choice.
But the ground has shifted beneath our feet, and Mohler’s about-face on Trump landed like a thud. Of course, we welcome any man – particularly those in positions of prominent leadership – to let everyone know exactly where he stands. But Mohler broke a cardinal rule of crisis management: never answer a question that nobody is asking unless it serves a strategic purpose.
Nobody was asking about Mohler’s thoughts on Trump’s re-election at the height of a global pandemic. Even his own faculty and administrative council were caught off guard by his penitential political shift. In one interview, he managed to whiplash many key supporters and offend a good many others. And what did he gain from this ill-timed endorsement?
About the same thing he gained in 2016 from his denunciations: nothing.
Not one evangelical voter who previously thought President Trump was “beneath the baseline of human decency” will march to the polls in November wearing a MAGA hat because Mohler got the Almighty’s “OK” to pretend he hadn’t said those things about then-candidate Trump. And that line about voting Republican till the day he dies?
Some have said they felt as though Mohler stood before the Grand Old Party a few weeks ago and said, “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. And your god will be my god.”
That’s probably hyperbole, and most certainly unfair.
But we don’t mind putting a finer point on it: Mohler’s endorsement not only broke a cardinal rule of crisis management; he forgot a basic election-year principle that every precinct chairman knows. Make your endorsement when it will will have maximum impact for the candidate you endorse. But Mohler dropped his endorsement when it would have little impact. It made no sense.
Which means one of two realities for Southern Baptists: either the president of our largest seminary grossly misspoke four years ago when he assailed a fellow bearer of the imago dei, or he has himself dropped below the baseline of human decency to embrace with both arms someone he once labeled “a casino titan who posed for the cover of Playboy.”
If he misspoke, then he owes the convention more than an op-ed. And he owes Donald Trump more than an endorsement. He owes both an apology.
Add to that the debt he now owes the community that comprises his primary stewardship before God: He owes Southern Seminary an irrevocable assurance that his full energies will be directed to preserving the school during its most difficult days in more than a century. Fifty years from now, nobody will care who Al Mohler endorsed in the 2020 election cycle. But they will care how the school fared in the final decade of his administration.
Count us among the Southern Baptists who would have eagerly voted for Albert Mohler at the annual meeting in Orlando next month. But that meeting will not happen, and these are different days than we anticipated.
Which is of course similar to what Mohler himself said of his newfound support for Donald Trump: “It’s 2020, not 2016,” he told the Washington Post. Indeed circumstances change; and thoughtful men should be afforded every opportunity to change their minds.
And we have changed ours. Not because of Mohler’s endorsement, mind you. But because we believe in the future of Southern Seminary and are confident that no other man in the Southern Baptist Convention is better equipped to walk our oldest theological institution through this dark hour of destiny.
The degree to which Mohler channels his unparalleled gifts into the school for the remainder of his days will be the degree to which his legacy will remain intact.
But dabbling in national politics or aspiring to convention office is already proving a distraction from Mohler’s primary stewardship at best. At the worst, it is revealing the kind of narcissistic ambition that can only flourish beneath the baseline of human decency.