LOUISVILLE, Ky. – While “cultural Christianity is dead” in an increasingly secular America, evangelicals have the “theological resources” to keep the faith, R. Albert Mohler Jr. said during a “Faith and Freedom in the Public Square” discussion at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, was joined by nationally syndicated radio show host and conservative pundit Dennis Prager and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for a wide-ranging and often entertaining two-hour discussion Jan. 28 of secularism, faith, politics and shifting morality in America.
Douthat, a Roman Catholic whose 2013 book about religion in the United States, “Bad Religion,” appeared on The New York Times bestseller list, opened the session with a “view from Washington.” He offered a “distillation” of the socio-religious environment and the cultural conversation in the nation’s capital.
“The view from my city is that we are in this kind of post-culture war era in American politics,” Douthat said, describing an era when most consider “religious conservatism” as “mostly gone into retreat.”
Photo by Emil Handke/SBTS
R. Albert Mohler Jr. (right), president of Southern Seminary, discusses religion in public life with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (left) and radio talk show host Dennis Prager Jan. 28 at the Louisville, Ky., campus.
Douthat, who moved to D.C. in the 1990s, recalled the debates surrounding the “religious right,” the Moral Majority and more recent controversies concerning the role of faith in major political debates.
“It’s remarkable to me as someone who was there for those debates, and participated in them, to see how quickly – this was just six or seven years ago – the conversation has shifted, and how strong the assumption is among American journalists, people in the American media and people who work in politics that the sort of post-1970s religious right versus secular left cultural battles are of yesterday,” Douthat said.
The consensus, Douthat suggested, is that “religious conservatism is weakening, that America in general is suddenly secularizing in ways that people didn’t expect 10 or 15 years ago – that what’s happening in the debate about gay marriage is kind of a microcosm of these trends as a whole and that, frankly, if there is a sort of future in the debates about religion and politics, it’s more likely to be defined by some resurgent religious liberalism, which a lot of people are very eager to identify with the new pope.”
Reacting to Douthat’s summary of the nation’s cultural ethos, Mohler pushed back against the idea that everything has changed since the culture wars of recent decades, saying that “the culture wars are over, except for where they’re not.” He noted specifically that the issue of abortion is today “more divisive than at any point since Roe v. Wade in 1973.”
But, Mohler said, the major difference in today’s socio-religious world compared to that of the previous generation is a move away from a wide, almost requisite, acceptance of religion in all facets of public life.
“There was in the center of the country – and I don’t mean that geographically, but culturally – a cultural religiosity that was, in the main, a cultural Christianity that trended in one direction for the better part of 60 to 70 years, and it had a kind of moral authority that is disappearing before our eyes,” said Mohler, an evangelical theologian who is the author of several books about cultural trends as well as the host of a daily podcast in which he analyzes the news from a Christian viewpoint.
Prager, a practicing Jew who, in addition to hosting a radio show, is a syndicated columnist and author, responded by suggesting several ways in which “this country is changing,” each of which he tied to the loss of belief in a transcendent God or moral standard. Prager specifically noted a “loss of meaning” and a loss of objective morality.
“We live in the age of feelings,” Prager said, citing abortion rights as the greatest example of individual feelings guiding contemporary morality. The unborn child’s worth is “entirely dictated by the feelings of the mother. It is an unbelievable statement of narcissism, which is what happens when there is no transcendent morality,” he said.
Extending his theological argument, Prager pointed to assumptions about the nature of humanity as the fundamental dividing line between liberals and conservatives today.
“Everything in leftism [both religious and political liberalism] follows from the belief that people are basically good,” Prager said. “And everything in conservatism follows from the belief that people are not basically good. Judaism and Christianity were united in teaching that people were not basically good. With the death of traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity, you have the unbelievably dangerous belief that people are basically good, and everything flows from there to big government to believing that your opinion is what makes things moral. And that’s where we now stand.”
After the trio set forth their assessments of America’s contemporary religious landscape, Douthat posed a question about the declining number of “religious persons” in the United States.
Concerning evangelicals, Mohler admitted that “right now there are fewer evangelicals by theological definition than the sociologists tell us there are.” But the issue, he said, is not evangelicals departing from their genuine beliefs. Rather, many of those who, in a previous generation, self-identified as “evangelical” no longer do so. He alluded to a mid-20th-century America, particularly in the South, where affiliation with a church or religious group brought a certain amount of social and cultural credibility.
“Cultural Christianity,” Mohler said, “is dead.” Yet he was not entirely pessimistic.
“I’m pretty convinced, if I can give you good news that there are going to be evangelicals who keep the faith. Evangelicals in the main, though tempted by any number of things, have theological resources, if they will lean into them, that will prevent some of the things that have happened elsewhere,” Mohler said, referencing the near disappearance of liberal Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA).
While conceding Mohler’s point, Douthat questioned whether theologically defined conservative religion could restore conservative values to cultural prominence.
“The resilience of conservative religion may not have been as resilient as a lot of conservative believers hoped it was,” Douthat said, adding that though theological grounding may be “enough for survival,” it may not be “enough to restore its flourishing.”
Mohler, returning to an earlier point about transcendent authority, said the primary difference in religious groups that fade away and those that continue to thrive is “oughtness.”
“If there’s no binding authority – if there’s no ‘ought’ – then no one is going to pay to repair the [church] roof. And no one is going to feel guilty for not going” to church, Mohler said.
He continued, “If you look at conservative Catholics and the conservative Jewish community, the conservative evangelicals, what you find is persons who actually believe there is a huge ‘ought,’ there is a transcendent reality, which is to say, [there is a] God to whom we are answerable and there is something at stake.”
After about two hours of conversation that covered topics from civil rights to party platforms, the three men fielded questions from the audience. Questions and answers ranged from the “loss of God” in public discourse and conservative involvement in pop culture to the so-called cultural “war on men” and same-sex marriage.
The event’s emcee, Warren Cole Smith, associate publisher and vice president of WORLD magazine, introduced the panelists and moderated the question-and-answer portion of the evening. WORLD, the largest Christian news magazine in the United States, cosponsored the event with Hashtag Productions.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Cline Hanbury is manager of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.)