Perhaps more than other Christians, who seem more open to floating freely among various denominations for worship and identity, Catholics tend to view some other churches as monolithic institutions with clear doctrine and discipline, guiding all members along a straight and narrow path. But the cover story of this week’s Christianity Today suggests that in at least one denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this is far from accurate.
Molly Worthen profiles R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the controversial head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship school, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Mohler is a favorite of the media for his ability to remain calm and collected while making outrageous statements, including his endorsement of gene therapy for fetuses that may grow to be homosexual; his unflagging belief of seven-day creationism; the idea that Islam and other non-Christian faiths are vehicles for Satanism; and the claim that yoga is not in line with Christian belief. And he espoused in 2000 that Catholicism is a “false church” preaching a “false gospel.”
So what is there to learn from this man, whose views tend to deviate starkly not only from mainline Christianity, but basic decency?
There’s much in this article about internal Baptist politics that I don’t understand (most of my Baptist “education” comes from a close friend who defected from that church and now occasionally attends Catholic Mass), but the themes are especially interesting. It’s the story of how one man, in only a couple decades, was able to reshape a denomination that prides itself on independence from central hierarchy. It’s the story of a concerted effort by a group of right-leaning members who sought to sully moderates and progressives within their denomination in order to stage an internal coup. It’s the story of an institution that presents an image to the world that is pure and free of internal discourse, when the reality is quite different. There are many facets to this story that Catholics may consider when looking at our church, remembering that the results for Southern Baptists aren’t terribly encouraging: baptism and church attendance is way down, especially among the young. Mohler was able to transform the Southern Baptist Convention into a bulwark of conservative fundamentalist faith, but at what cost? Are there similar efforts in our own church? Do we embrace theological, spiritual, and philosophical diversity, or do we strive for complete conformity and orthodoxy?