By Alan Bean
Speaking to a friendly audience at Brigham Young University, Dr. Albert Mohler tossed out a lede line guaranteed to raise eyebrows:
“I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together.”
It is hard to know which side of the comma in that sentence is the most disconcerting.
Why would the mouthpiece of conservative evangelical orthodoxy risk offending an almost exclusively Mormon audience by, in essence, consigning them to conscience eternal torment in the world to come?
Two things. First, this remark wasn’t intended for the men and women in the auditorium; Al was playing to his base. “I am not here because I believe we are going to heaven together,” Mohler said. “I do not believe that. I believe that salvation comes only to those who believe and trust only in Christ and in his substitutionary atonement for salvation. I believe in justification by faith alone, in Christ alone.”
Mohler couldn’t speak to a Mormon audience without raising concerns about his stand on the important question in the conservative evangelical canon: when the roll is called up yonder, who’ll be there (and who won’t).
Secondly, Mohler knew he wouldn’t offend his audience. They are just as convinced that, his conservative credentials notwithstanding, the Southern Baptist leader will eventually be cast into the outer darkness where men shall weep and gnash their teeth.
I excommunicate you and you excommunicate me; so we’re even.
But, their unfortunate eternal destiny notwithstanding, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky was thrilled to be among the Mormons because, on this side of the Great Assize, conservatives have got to stick together. In the very near future some as yet invisible power will clamp down on family-affirming conservatives of every stripe. A “moral revolution” is taking place on the family and sexuality front which is “now clearly becoming a religious liberty issue,” Mohler assured his audience.
The rights of parents to raise their children according to their most basic and fundamental theological and moral convictions are now at stake. Courts have ruled in some jurisdictions that parents cannot even ‘opt out’ their children from sex education driven by moral revisionism. Legislatures in California and New Jersey have made it illegal for mental health professionals to tell minors that there is anything wrong with homosexual sexuality, orientation or relationships.
Hence it follows, as night must follow day, that those who object to sex education and homosexuality will soon be arrested, tried, convicted and jailed, all for righteousness sake.
Does Al Mohler really believe the stuff on either side of the comma: that Mormons are going to hell, or that pro-family conservatives will soon be locked up for remaining true to their convictions?
Unlike God, Dr. Mohler is cool with Mormons. He thinks they’re terrific people espousing strong family values. He’d love to have them as neighbors. The hell thing isn’t Mohler’s idea. Unfortunately Al’s God, for whatever reason, doesn’t want Mormons in his celestial neighborhood.
It’s hard to say why. It could be that God simply decided that children born to Baptist parents are acceptable (because they are indoctrinated into the right beliefs) while kids foolish enough to be born in Utah won’t make the cut (because their parents, however estimable, lie to them about God.
It is possible, of course, that Al’s God is just as magnanimous as Al, but is bound by some “deep magic from the dawn of time” that even the Creator can’t question. Maybe God would love to have Mormon’s as neighbors but is bound by the laws of the universe that mandate a belief in Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Of course, if that be true, God isn’t really “Almighty” because there is a force stronger than God to which God must bend. A god above God, if you will.
Certainly that can’t be it.
In the world of “conservative reformed theology” to which Al Mohler belongs, the “why doesn’t God want Mormon neighbors” question can’t even come up. The ways of the Almighty are beyond our pay grade. Divine decrees may sound harsh or even unreasonable; but they are what they are. The clay doesn’t question the Potter’ (See Jeremiah 18).
Which forces us to the conclusion that God is considerably less gracious than orthodox Southern Baptists like Al Mohler. Al is merciful but God, regrettably, is not.
Let me return to the brothers-in-chains meme. If God is pro-family, and if Mormons are just as willing to lay their lives on the line for the sake of the family as the faith heroes in the Southern Baptist Convention, shouldn’t God be willing to make an exception? Just this once? If the great defining issue of our day is family values, shouldn’t the family thing trump the substitutionary atonement thing?
Or is all this battle-for-the-family talk an elaborate smoke screen? Is the real fight between pro-family folks and anti-family folks; or are we witnessing a struggle between those in quest of the common good (for Baptists, Mormons and everybody else) and those fighting to protect the special status of affluent white people?
If family values is the big issue, why does Dr. Mohler number moderate Baptists among the children of darkness and Mormons among the children of light? And why do we find a large but steadily dwindling number of white folks lining up behind Dr. Al’s politics. In the last general election, 92% of the votes cast for Republicans came from white people. Is it sheer coincidence that the folks on the other side of the ideological line reflect the full diversity of America.
And where is the hard evidence that Baptists and Mormons are any more pro-family than the population as a whole. Sure, both groups espouse a pro-family agenda, but then, so do the moderate Baptists, African Americans and Latinos who frequently vote for the anti-family party.
If divorce statistics are anything to go by (and I can’t think of a better empirical measure of family values) why do Mormon marriages crumble at the same rate as non-Mormon marriages? And why are Baptist marriages (whether conservative or moderate doesn’t seem to make any difference) considerably more likely to fail than the average American marriage? Atheists and agnostics, the folks who ought to represent the most anti-family demographic of all, are less likely to divorce than virtually every religious group in America.
Sure, Baptists and Mormons talk a good marriage game; but where’s the beef?
The public school system bars teachers from demeaning homosexuals for the same reason teachers are censured for disparaging African Americans, Latinos, Asians or Republicans. It’s a civil rights issue.
The people who go to prison for their beliefs are always on the side of civil rights: suffragettes, war protesters, civil rights leaders and the like. Trust me, Al Mohler is free to bash gay men and lesbians all he wants; the police will not be knocking at his door. If they don’t come for the good people at Westboro Baptist Church (who would love to be jailed for the sake of their pitiless god) they aren’t coming for Al or for the folks at Brigham Young University. Moreover, Dr. Al knows it and so did his Mormon audience. Those who deny the civil rights of American citizens like to believe that they are surrounded by a brave cloud of witnesses, but unless status quo defenders like George Wallace, Theodore Bilbo and W.A Criswell qualify as “witnesses”, those who deny civil rights can’t claim a noble lineage.
Finally, after wading knee-deep in the muck of human hypocrisy, let me return to God.
I believe that God wants to be neighbors with Al Mohler and the holy host of Southern Baptists conservatives he represents.
And God wants to be neighbors with the good Mormon folk who attend Brigham Young University.
And God wants to be neighbors with Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And whatever Al Mohler might say to the contrary, God wants to be neighbors with gay men and lesbians.
God wants to be neighbors with married people and those who have suffered the tragedy of divorce.
God wants to be neighbors with married couples and the brave women and men who raise children without help from a partner.
God wants to be neighbors with Democrat and Republicans; poor folks and rich folks; white folks and folks-of-color; conservatives and liberals; Americans and Africans and Europeans and Asians and even Australians.
One thing is sure, God is infinitely more gracious and hospitable than Al Mohler, Billy Graham and every other Baptist I know. God is more gracious than you, or me, or the Pope in Rome.
We are all welcome at the table, even the prodigals. Especially the prodigals.
And we need a new theology that says so without apology or equivocation. A genuine movement dedicated to the common good must be grounded in a theology that does God justice.
God is not capricious, mean, or radically inhospitable. God is love. God delights in us all and makes room for us all.
The cross of Jesus Christ isn’t about deciding who’s in and who’s out; the cross of Jesus Christ proves how far God will go to make us neighbors.