R. Albert Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has finally entered the fray into the social justice conversation.
In recent years, questions of social justice and systemic racism have been the hot topic of conversation among American evangelicals, with some voicing support for the movement while others side against it. Things came to a head at the 2018 Shepherd’s Conference, when a panel of pastor-theologians were clearly divided on the issue. On the one hand, you had Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan, who were more inclinced to talk about systemic/racial injustice (which is reflected in organizations that they are involved with, such as “The Gospel Coalition” and “Together for the Gospel“). On the other hand, you had Phil Johnson and John MacArthur of “Grace to You” ministries, who expressed deep concerns about the idea of social justice. Somewhere in the middle was Al Mohler. All of the panelists are lifelong friends with deep respect for one another. All of them are white, conservative evangelicals. And yet they disagreed strongly on the issue. Such has been a microcosm of American evangelicalism.
Since that time, John MacArthur and Phil Johnson briefly went on a short-lived anti-social justice crusade, which I critiqued in a previous blog post. Dever and Duncan had moved on with their respective ministries (Duncan even wrote the forward for a book titled “Woke Church,” which I highly recommend). But Mohler remained uncharacteristically reticent on the issue, and as a well-known Christian cultural commentator, his silence felt conspicuous.*
But with the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Mohler has broken his silence and weighed in on the discussion surrounding racial justice in an episode of his daily radio program “The Briefing.” For those like me who might prefer to read a distilled version of it online, you can click this link here to access an article that Mohler wrote which contains the same content.
I was pleasantly surprised by what Mohler had to say. Mohler recognizes the need to combat structural and systemic racism, while cautioning against some of the more overtly Marxist iterations of the problem and solution (exactly what I’ve written about in the past). In what follows, I want to commend Mohler’s analysis while critiquing some of his finer points. I will end by offering an analysis of my own.
Mohler begins his analysis where I would hope every Christian would begin: Scripture. He writes, “As Christians, we must begin with a biblical understanding of sin.” This informs his entire worldview and anthropology, and he continues,
We must also recognize that when we sin, we often do so corporately. Structural sin, therefore, simply affirms the corporate reality of human sin and the truth that sin invades every aspect of human life and society. Sin corrupts every institution and every system because, one way or another, sinful human beings are involved. This means that laws, policies, habits, and customs are also corrupted by sin.
Mohler then uses an analogy that all fellow conservative Christians can understand (and one that I have used before as well): abortion. There’s no denying that abortion has both individual and corporate (i.e. “systemic”) dimensions to it.
Using this logic, Mohler concludes,
The relationship between individual sin and structural sin is thus reciprocal. Individual sins eventually take structural form. The structures then both facilitate and rationalize ongoing and expanding individual sin.
The same is true when it comes to our nation’s history with racism. Mohler writes,
Our national history unquestionably reveals structures of racism. When the nation was founded, the Constitution allowed for race-based chattel slavery. Black human beings were viewed as less human than those with lighter skin. Not only do we find systemic racism in the institution of slavery, but also in the era that followed the American Civil War in the Jim Crow South, and in pervasive notions of white supremacy that, for example, can be traced to President Woodrow Wilson in the White House. States and local governments codified race-based discrimination and enacted economic policies that harmed African American communities.
Each of these examples from the past and the present reveals a system of racism that, from a biblical perspective, is unjust. It is a violation of the biblical principle that every single human being is equally made in the image of God.
Racism has been enshrined in many of our country’s historical documents (such as the three-fifths compromise and 13th amendment), so that even after repeals they have had devastating effects in our communities over decades and centuries that have compounded.
Mohler is not alone in understanding this among evangelicals. A few weeks ago, a video by Phil Vischer (famed VeggieTales creator) went viral for detailing America’s history of racism from the Civil War up to the present day (all in under 17 minutes). The awareness of systemic injustice for the black community has risen substantially among the collective conscious of evangelical subculture.
Coming from a biblical perspective, Mohler speaks to the reality of systemic sin, writing, “The Bible speaks to the category and reality of systemic sin… In the Old Testament…there are also examples that reveal Israel as a nation sinning against God. The Bible does not speak only of individual sin—though that is the main reference—but to Israel rebelling and turning to idols.” He references Lamentations 5:7, which says, “our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.”
Again, Mohler is not the only evangelical drawing on these biblical parallels. In a talk titled, “Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective,” Pastor Tim Keller fleshes out more fully the biblical basis for understanding the sin of racism on a corporate level as much as individual, referencing things such as Daniel 9, where the prophet Daniel asks for forgiveness for the sins of his ancestors. Keller shared the floor with evangelical Baptist preacher John Piper, who preceded him in his talk.
The implications are that although we may not be personally culpable for the sins of previous generations, we are still responsible to act in ways so as to advocate for the marginalized and the disadvantaged; to use our privileged positions to advocate for those that are less privileged. (Vischer again writes about a similar concept with an article entitled “Racial Injustice has Benefited Me“.) Scripture has the language and vocabulary for this in spades, such as when Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
Before ending, Mohler devotes the last third of his article to warning against our concerns for justice devolving into just another form of the “social gospel” and “liberation theology.” (The “social gospel” was a 20th century liberal development that stressed social change at the expense of preaching the forgiveness of sins and the need for repentance. “Liberation theology” likewise had explicitly Marxist overtones and envisaged liberation of the oppressed through a revolutionary upheaval of society, again to the neglect of gospel preaching.) I share some of Mohler’s concerns, which is why I have written about anchoring our discussions about social justice in the Bible and biblical concepts (for example, here and here). However, I believe that the bigger and more immediate problem in the white evangelical church is ignoring the reality of systemic injustice so as to render our social witness to our communities inert.
Where It Falls Short (The “Cultural Toolkit”)
There is much to commend Mohler for here. His analysis is much more nuanced than many conservative pundits. Yet it is also lacking in a few respects.
I submit this humbly. As a millennial Christian, Mohler is certainly my senior, and he has been doing this for far longer than I have. Yet I also submit that every generation has insights to contribute to previous generations with new ways of looking at things (e.g. the Civil Rights). With respect, I submit that Mohler’s analysis suffers from a weakness that tends to be a common characteristic of white evangelicalism. What is that?
In their groundbreaking book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” Christian sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith demonstrate–with years of surveys and statistical research–the great divide between black and white evangelical Christians in their understandings of racism in America. Put simply, black evangelical Christians are far more likely to understand racism as both individual and structural, while white evangelicals view of the problem tended to remain solely at the individual and interpersonal level. Emerson and Smith attribute this pattern to what they refer to as white evangelicals’ “cultural toolkit” (a combination of ideas, beliefs, etc. that a particular group draws from). For white evangelicals, for example, their faith and subculture tends to be highly individualistic (e.g. you are accountable to God and to others for your own actions). This is seen in their emphatic stress on personal salvation, being born-again, and personal piety (e.g. “quiet times”), etc. But it also means that they have tended to limit the problem of racism (and solutions to the problem) to the individual level. They are simply drawing from what they know, or their “cultural toolkit”!
One way this shows is in the way that Mohler talks about sin. At first glance, Mohler goes out of his way to highlight both the individual and systemic dimensions of sin. But a closer examination of his article suggests that it is still the individual that is the predominant driving force behind his argument, such as when he writes, “we understand…that individuals are sinful and bring their depravity into the larger society.” For Mohler this is still simply the result of an aggregation of sinful individuals.** While this is true for a society’s origins, these structures take on a life of their own once they are created and become an inherent part of the system. This means that the structures and systems that we create are themselves sinful by nature (not simply by extension). Tim Keller talks about this when he writes, “When people institutionalize something, they create structures that keep the practice going long after the founders of the practice leave the scene.” Systems are more than just the sum of their parts. Furthermore, each system is influenced by the sinful system that preceded it, further highlighting the need for structural change. Finally, these systems influence individuals from the top-down as well, and it becomes a vicious and never-ending cycle.
The result is that Mohler’s solution remains relatively individualistic. He writes, “Politics can change the culture, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ can produce a new heart.” As an evangelical myself, I ultimately agree with this in principle and affirm it. But in practice this line of thinking has historically been used by white evangelicals to unwittingly downplay the need for structural and systemic change, and it has often resulted in complacency and inaction.The Civil Rights Movement was largely mobilized by black Christians, pastors, and churches, while too many white Christians were hesitant to speak up for fear of becoming “too political.” We do not say that nearly as much when it comes to abortion (nor should we).
The solution is to expand our “cultural toolkit” as evangelicals in order to talk about racism more holistically. This is exactly what the Southern Baptist Convention aimed to accomplish when they labeled the insights of “critical race theory” and “intersectionality” (or “CRT/I”) as “analytical tools” during last year’s annual convention (found in “Resolution 9”). Although the Convention stressed that the “CRT/I” framework as a comprehensive worldview is at odds with historic Christianity at critical points (and therefore should never be “absolutized”), they nevertheless acknowledged that one can glean specific insights from those fields with discernment. Recent articles and posts by orthodox Christians (e.g. here and here) have aimed to do just that.
This really isn’t all too surprising. Christians believe in “common grace”: the belief that all people (including unbelievers) are gifted with insights about the world regarding general revelation, and that there is much that Christians can learn from other disciplines insofar as they don’t contradict Scripture at crucial points. If the white evangelical subculture is ill-equipped when it comes to the “cultural tools” that are needed in order to think and talk about racism in consistently systemic terms, then it would behoove us to expand our repertoire.
But we don’t need CRT/I for that.
Black churches were fighting for racial justice while conserving biblical orthodoxy long before “critical race theory” and “intersectionality” entered the lexicon. The reason that the language of “CRT/I” became part of common vernacular is because it provided black Americans (and other marginalized groups) with the language and vocabulary to articulate what they had been experiencing for decades even after the Civil Rights Movement. Such a provision did not come from the white evangelical church, by and large, and it was too often that white churches failed and neglected to give black Americans a voice and a platform. As I once put it: If a liberal organization has a trademark on the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” it’s because conservative evangelicals failed to say it first (or at the very least failed to say it loudly enough). If we were to partner with black churches and ministries more consistently, we would learn much from them. (This, in fact, is what Emerson and Smith argue is needed for systemic change.)
Moreover, we have the greatest resource at our disposal: the Bible. As was shown earlier, Scripture is a bountiful resource for understanding systemic sin. For some reason, white evangelical churches, with their strongly individualistic emphasis, have failed to utilize that. CRT/I as “analytical tools” are helpful in seeing the specifics of how the sin of racism plays out in our communities and society, but it is insufficient in itself to provide the remedy that a holistic Christian worldview has to offer.
Striking a Biblical Balance
I’d like to end with some concluding thoughts and some “takeaways” from this discussion.
“Sin has both individual and corporate dimensions.” White conservative evangelicals tend to limit their understanding of sin to a strictly individual level and fail to account for how social structures influence people. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to limit their understanding of sin to the systemic level. But a truly biblical worldview provides us with a way of of understanding both. Sin is a disease that is not just genetic, but also airborne. It is in our spiritual immune system as it is in our societal systems. It is in our DNA and in the very air we breathe. Sin is all around us. It is a pervasive part of the human condition.
“The Gospel has both vertical and horizontal implications.” White evangelicals, with their individualistic focus, tend to emphasize personal salvation (the “vertical” dimension) at the expense of societal implications. Progressives, on the other hand, “preach” social change to the exclusion of the gospel–the “good news” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the salvation for sinners that accompanies it. But the Bible speaks about both the vertical AND horizontal dimensions; repentance AND the kingdom of God being established (e.g. Mark 1:17). Which leads to my last point.
“The kingdom is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ here at the same time.” “Liberation theology” and its Marxist origins seem to promise a future utopia through the revolutionary upheaval of society, if only drastic changes take place. A biblical worldview tells us that such a thing will not be fully accomplished, fully realized, or fully consummated until Christ returns to establish his kingdom. And yet in the meantime Christians are also called to be ambassadors of this future kingdom in the present, and churches are meant to be embassies of the kingdom of heaven. This can be done not only in the way that we evangelize, but also in the way that we advocate for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged. This biblical concept of the kingdom being “now and not-yet” here simultaneously protects us from two things: First, it shields us from the naive belief that changing systems and structures in themselves will necessarily lead to a more perfect society in this life. On the other hand, it protects us from complacency and spurs us to advocate for social change as a sign of the kingdom coming. Christians are called to be agents of change in our neighborhoods, communities, and societies. It is part and parcel of being “salt and light”, and a “city on a hill” (Matt. 5:14)
Mohler is certainly no social justice warrior or “woke” poster-boy. He is a conservative through and through. But if more conservative evangelicals could talk like Mohler, then maybe we can get somewhere and the church might be galvanized to act more proactively.
Overall, Mohler’s analysis is astute and largely accurate, and I agree in large part. There is nothing that he said which is untrue. But I wonder if it is enough, or if it is sufficient. And it seems to me that he could use a healthy dose of “expanding his cultural toolkit” every once in a while, without ever abandoning the biblical lens which we hold dear.
Soli Deo Gloria.
*With Mohler poised to become the next SBC president while straddling the line between the various circles he runs in, wherever he landed would have profound implications for the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicalism at large due to the large platform that he occupies.
**Emerson and Smith’s research suggests that this line of thinking has undermined evangelical efforts at racial reconciliation because they fail to view systems as more than just the sum of their parts.
***The progressive diagnosis of the human condition is incomplete in itself and fails to sufficiently account for the sinfulness of the individual human heart in that it views humans as “basically good” if given the right environment, which is why it is so focused on changing societal structures. Conservativism, on the other hand, has often failed to extend its view of human depravity and responsibility to the systems that human beings construct. (This can be seen by Mohler’s quotation of John Hirschauer, who seems to downplay or overlook the ways in which even good things such as capitalism, immigration enforcement, and even patriotism have often been historically abused to perpetuate the status quo of systemic racism.) Both are incomplete and defective ways of viewing sin. Keller once again has a more nuanced take in his talk on structural/systemic racism from a biblical perspective.
Author’s Note: Every evangelical Christian should read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, which details how the white evangelical church has often failed to advocate for black Americans. It will help to understand the great divide between white and black Christians understanding of racism. Another book I recommend is “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby, which further details the history of the church’s complicity with racism. Both are eye-opening, sobering, humbling, convicting, and at times, heart-breaking.
One of the best talks you’ll find on the topic of racism from a biblical perspective: