Why Al Mohler offered to “Host” Kentucky’s U.S. Senate Race Debates

In an August 4 press release, Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, issued a call for evangelical Christians to become more assertive in Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. Senate race.

He also proffered a detailed and non-negotiable bid that would effectively coopt the up-coming debate(s) between Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Mohler insists that the two candidates attend three “issues forums” that would focus primarily on “evangelical concerns,” and he has arranged for the participation of a retired Christian pastor in order to prove that these forums are not purely intended to forward his narrow personal agenda. Mohler says that he will only be a timekeeper in these forums. However, the person Mohler has tapped to take the point position in this project is one of his devoted protégés, Paul Chitwood, Executive Director of the Louisville based Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Mohler says the “purpose of these forums will be to consider the urgent issues now presented to evangelical Christians in American society and in the engagement with our culture.” Topics for discussion include “family, marriage, the sanctity of life and religious liberty.” This is Mohler-speak for his well-documented opposition to gay rights, gender equity, women’s autonomy in reproductive health choices, and the right to be free from religious discrimination in the public sphere.

The fact that McConnell readily agreed to participate in Mohler’s “issues forums,” even while he and Grimes were negotiating the terms of their debates, certainly raises the specter of political collusion. McConnell is on record saying that he wants Lincoln-Douglas style debates—no questions from the media or the public and no in-studio audience. Mohler and McConnell are probably just trying to box Grimes in. If she refuses to accede to Mohler’s constrictive “invitation” she will likely be accused of ignoring and insulting Kentucky’s “evangelical Christians.” If she should consent to Mohler’s terms she could fairly expect to be maligned as an enemy of “evangelical values.” Damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

It is unlikely that Mohler or McConnell ever entertained the illusion that an extremely savvy Grimes would fall for this gambit.  As a brilliant politician himself, McConnell would certainly not look this Baptist gift horse in the mouth.

So what is Mohler up to? What does he have to gain from this political ruse? Here are some possibilities.

Mohler’s goal may be to rally sluggish evangelicals to vote Republican in November. Both McConnell and Mohler are on edge these days. McConnell’s continued status as a state senator is obviously questionable. Mohler has also taken some hits to his supremacist agenda recently and his status among Southern Baptists may be coming into question.

  • Recently a second Kentucky Baptist College acted to free itself from Kentucky Baptists’ (i.e. Mohler’s) larger fundamentalist agenda by announcing its independence from state convention control.
  • Southern Baptists recently rebuffed Mohler’s demand that a Southern Baptist church be expelled for being soft on the issue of gay inclusion.
  • Southern Baptists are now openly debating the dangers of Mohler’s hyper-Calvinism.
  • In a 2014 Federal Court settlement the Commonwealth of Kentucky agreed to intensively monitor Kentucky Baptists’ Sunrise Children’s Services for coercion and the religious indoctrination of state wards placed in their care. Mohler no doubt played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Sunrise fiasco that began with the firing of a lesbian staff member.
  • Despite his best efforts, Mohler is bracing for the wave of societal change that will accompany the inevitable judicial approval of gay marriages in Kentucky.   Attitudes of the Commonwealth’s population regarding sexual orientation are changing rapidly and Mohler knows his days of controlling the religious narrative about homosexuality are numbered.

Mohler’s motives may primarily be self-serving. He perhaps is hoping that this project will establish his position as the preeminent standard-bearer for “evangelical morality” in Kentucky and, by political extrapolation, in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This latest political exhibition could also just be that of a Baptist peacock displaying his feathers to impress a powerful Republican who may be a needed ally in the days to come. If this is so, an old saying should offer some pertinent advice. “Today a peacock, tomorrow a feather duster.”

 

 

Mike Greer is a retired ex-Southern Baptist minister who has lived in Kentucky for more than 25 years. He received a BA from Georgetown College, and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He lived and ministered in the West Bank for 5 years.