Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a young earth creationist. That is, he believes the earth is 6,000 years old (give or take a decade).
When I stumbled across this fact in a Peter Enns column, I was stunned. Dr. Mohler didn’t pick up his young earth views in school. My theological education is exactly the same as his. In fact, we studied under the same professors during roughly the same period. No one at Southern Seminary was taking issue with the unanimous verdict of science in the 1980s. The universe we talked about was created by God, to be sure, but when the issue was the age of the earth, we took our cue from the best science available.
Mohler doesn’t actually deny the unanimous verdict of science. The earth appears to be millions of years old, and biological life appears to have undergone considerable evolution. But Mohler believes that God created the earth with “apparent age”. The heavens and the earth had to be created 6,000 years ago because that’s what the biblical narrative suggests.
God wrote the Bible and God don’t lie. End of discussion.
This makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Will people now assume that I am a young-earther because I have two degrees from SBTS? That’s a distressing thought.
But it goes much deeper than that. How can an intelligent, well-educated man like R. Albert suddenly decide that, contrary to all appearances, one and one makes three?
It could be argued that his firm biblical faith makes these conclusions inevitable. How, then, do we explain the legions of conservative theologians and devout biologists who have no quarrel with science?
My gut tells me that Dr. Al’s young earth convictions have nothing to do with either science or theology; it’s a matter of institutional survival.
Yesterday, I toured the Epcot Center with my family. This Disney vehicle is relentlessly upbeat. Epcot tells us what we want to believe: it’s a small world after all; science and technology will fix the environmental crisis, the future will be so much better than the past.
But the Epcot narrative is also aggressively secular. The ride dedicated to human progress takes us from cave-dwellers to the glories of the Greeks and Romans, then plunges into the dark ages when this ancient flame was barely kept alive by the Jews and Arabs (no mention of Christians at all), and finally rescued by the heroes of the Renaissance. Since then, we have marched from glory to glory.
The “energy” exhibit features Ellen Degeneres, Alex Trebec, and Bill Nye the Science Guy assuring us that petroleum was produced millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth–just like they taught us in school.
This is the mainstream Americana. The service staff at Epcot is extremely diverse, but the customers are not. White people are over-represented, and most of them have all the identifying features of good, card carrying Republicans.
So why is Al Mohler intentionally parting company with the standard American worldview?
Institutional survival demands it.
The boys Al Mohler rolls with (and they are almost all boys) believe their world is under siege. These are the people who build the young earth museums where dinosaurs cohabit the earth with humans and the “apparent age” of the earth is explained away. These folks are going with the Bible come hell, high water, or the scientific worldview.
But why not interpret the Bible as a book written by inspired but fallible humans who did the best they could with the limited scientific knowledge at their disposal?
Because the Bible must be a perfect book, dictated, word-for-word, by a perfect God. Otherwise, things like male dominance, homophobia, and the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism would be open to question. It takes faith to embrace economic dogma, and the same folks who believe the earth is 6000 years old also believe, virtually to a man (and they are almost all men) will tell you that unrestrained capitalism is God-ordained.
Dr. Al and friends have cobbled together a tight, mutually-reinforcing soup can display held together by their belief in an inerrant Bible. If Al Mohler wanted to be president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, (and he did, very badly) he had no choice but to buy in without reservation. If he wanted to become the voice of conservative evangelicalism, (and he did, very badly) he had to tell people precisely what they wanted to hear. He had no choice.
This explains the disproportionate influence of the religious right: they are fighting with their backs to the wall. A concerned cat is very dangerous. The dog might chase the cat all over the yard, but when the cat is cornered, back to the wall, and turns to fight, the dog had better watch out. It’s life-and-death time for conservative evangelicalism and heroic means are called for. No deviation from the accepted worldview can be tolerated. You are with us or you are against us. God wrote the Bible, or it’s just a book of meaningless fables.
This makes people like Al Mohler the perfect character foils for new atheists like Richard Dawkins; these folks need each other. Dawkins would love to believe that all religious people think like Al Mohler; it makes his work so easy.
But there is no point trying to have an intelligent discussion with Dr. Al and his kin. They will say what their culture demands that they say. Their professional survival is tied to the survival of the institutions they represent. If the Titanic he captains goes down, Al goes down too. The captain stays with the ship.
Which is why you won’t find mainstream evangelicals (I am thinking particularly of Christianity Today) criticizing people like Al Mohler for his self-serving obscurantism. It’s a family dynamic. Mohler may be a crazy uncle, but he’s our crazy uncle.
The family has to stick together. For the same reason, the National Religious Broadcasters refuse to drop League of the South neo-confederate speaker Michael Peroutka from its conference program. He may be a flaming racist, but he’s our flaming racist.
The family has to stick together.