There was a time when Albert Mohler thought he would be a politician. As a young man, he says, “I wanted to change the world. And I thought at one point that law and politics would be the way to do it.”
Although Mohler went into ministry instead of politics, he never lost his passion to see society transformed. Indeed, during his 25 years as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has become a leading voice for Christian engagement in the political sphere.
“I truly believe that we’re called to be involved in every arena of life, but never simply on the terms set by any given human endeavor,” he says. “So Christians will, of necessity, if faithful, be politically engaged. But that doesn’t always mean that we operate with a political strategy or that we are understood politically to have any hope of being on the winning side. We have a greater requirement for faithfulness.”
Mohler’s plans for a political career took a turn in his late teen years, when he experienced what he calls “an apologetic crisis.”
“I was introduced to some very healthy sources, including writers like R.C. Sproul and Francis Schaeffer, who were discussing the need for a Christian worldview,” he recalls. Although he had come to faith as a young boy, it was during this time that “the deeper truths of the Christian life and of the Scriptures were being made clear.”
Along with that new awareness came a call to ministry. “I was driving home from school one day and it suddenly struck me that if I love learning about God’s word, theology, and doctrine, and if I love everything that I get to do at church and only want to do more—maybe, just maybe, that’s a call to ministry. And that was affirmed by many others.”
Mohler assumed his ministry would be devoted to the local church, and he served at several Southern Baptist churches in various ministry and pastoral positions while working on his doctorate. At the same time, he began working as an assistant to the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1993, after a four-year stint as editor of The Christian Index, Mohler was elected president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“There was a great need for leadership in institutions of Christian higher education—in particular, for seminaries,” Mohler says about his early career. “I knew that, whatever I did, I wanted it to matter in terms of the direction of theological education because of what that means for the church.”
For Mohler, Christian faith and theological training go hand in hand with political engagement.
It’s an illusion to believe that somehow we can be apolitical,” he says. “Politics is simply the process whereby we decide how we’re going to live as a society. And so there’s no way to be apolitical if you have any stake in how it is that we as a society are going to live—what our rules are going to be, what kind of rights and human dignity we’re going to respect, what we’re going to stand for, and our place in the world.”
In America’s polarized culture, it’s common to find Christians who are sitting on the sidelines of politics. That approach is shortsighted, Mohler says. “Recently, I was talking to a young Christian who said, ‘I really don’t want anything to do with politics. I’m going to commit my life to doing everything I can to end the sex trade.’ Well, the only way to affect the kind of moral change that that young person was rightly concerned about involves political action. Now, that doesn’t mean only government action is required. But it means laws and enforcement, a certain assertion of human dignity, and a reaction on the part of the community will all be required. That’s political.”
To help inform Christians and encourage them to become more engaged, Mohler hosts two podcasts—“The Briefing,” a daily podcast where he engages political and cultural issues from a Christian worldview, and “Thinking in Public,” which features conversations with leading thinkers (visit AlbertMohler.com). The goal behind both projects, he explains, is to “address contemporary issues from a consistent and explicit Christian worldview.”
Even while he encourages Christians to be engaged, Mohler cautions against placing too much hope in political endeavors. “Christians tend to be overly optimistic or overly pessimistic about politics, and both of those are great dangers for us,” he says. “We can believe at one moment that politics is worth almost nothing, and the next moment it’s worth everything. Neither approach is true or faithful. We have to be really clear that we’re a gospel people and that we don’t have any ultimate faith or hope in politics, regardless of its moment.”
The challenge for Christians is to promote the values of God’s kingdom in a society that is becoming more resistant to religious influences.
“Secularization isn’t just a threat; it’s a reality,” Mohler says. “And that means the church, as a community of Christ, is going to find itself increasingly marginalized in society. We’re going to have to be much more persuasive because we’re not going to be able to flex cultural muscles. We’ve got to show up with better arguments, long-term faithfulness, and a very clear commitment to the gospel and to human flourishing. And we’ve got to show up as God’s hopeful people whether the political battle before us is won or lost.”
To be properly equipped for political engagement, Mohler says, Christians need more than scriptural knowledge; they need an abiding commitment to the Bible. “In a secularized age … we’re going to be the only people who understand ourselves to be bound by Scripture. For us, the Bible is not merely a book of advice or spiritual thoughts; it is God’s binding word. We’re not going to get biblical wisdom from any source other than Scripture.”
The Bible is relevant to modern political issues because it speaks to human nature. And, Mohler says, “human nature has not changed. Our need for the gospel has not changed.” That need is evident in the problems we face as a society, yet it’s also the starting point for Christians who seek to address those problems.
“As God’s people we are a Scripture people, and so it is our responsibility to learn how rightly to apply Scripture to our lives and our own times. We need to apply Scripture to ourselves first and then to every aspect of life in this world,” Mohler says. “And this affects how we conceive of the church. The church had better be a Bible-teaching, Bible-preaching ministry before it’s anything else.”
When it comes to equipping pastors, Mohler believes it’s important for seminaries to work in cooperation with local churches.
“There is no way that any theological seminary can replace the local church, nor should it ever seek to do so. Instead, we should be seeking to help churches train pastors,” he says. “I think there is a major role for the seminary as an institution to play, simply as a matter of stewardship. We can pull together scholars in a context for learning and educational resources to serve the local church in a way that no local church could do on its own.”
Mohler feels hopeful when he sees students’ readiness to take on the challenges of ministry. “The Lord is raising up in this generation an incredible movement of young gospel ministers,” he says. “By the time they arrive here (at seminary) they’ve already had to swim upstream. They don’t have to be told they’re going to face an increasingly secular society. They know that at full volume. And so there’s a sobriety and a maturity on the part of many of these young Christians that I think exceeds what was true in generations past. There’s a keen awareness of what we’re up against.”
Mohler believes the challenges of secularism demand that Christian seminaries deliver more rigorous training for pastors and ministry leaders. “Seminary students today are going to need more theology, doctrine, and church history. But the other side of that is, they’re not really interested in wasting time. And that’s part of the fun of being a seminary president at this time,” he says. “Students are here to get as much as they can get, as quickly as they can, in order to be deployed.”
Mohler sees a parallel in one of his favorite writings by C.S. Lewis, an essay titled “Learning in Wartime.” “Lewis was writing about what it was like to teach English literature as a world war was going on,” Mohler explains. “Well, I feel an affinity with that. It’s like theological education in wartime. What we do is even more important than it was before and there’s no time to waste.”