LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A Roman Catholic, a Jew and a Southern Baptist walk in the door…
That sounds like the opening line of a lame joke, but it’s actually the description of a public dialogue between Ross Douthat, Dennis Prager, and Albert Mohler which took place last week.
Bitter cold weather in Louisville and $20 tickets did not prevent a full house inside the spacious chapel of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Jan. 28 event, produced by Hashtag Productions and sponsored by World magazine and the seminary, brought the speakers together to engage in a lively conversation about American religion, politics, and culture.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (Roman Catholic) facilitated the discussion between nationally syndicated radio show host Dennis Prager (Jewish) and seminary president Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist).
“The view from Washington,” Douthat said in opening the discussion, “is that we have entered a post-culture war period in American politics. Religious conservatism/religious right has mostly lost and gone into retreat.”
Both Prager and Mohler agreed with the essential point of this analysis, noting some caveats.
“Some things have changed, but not everything,” Mohler stated. He pointed to the example of abortion as an issue which is more divisive now than at any point in history since Roe v. Wade. “The culture war is over except where it isn’t. And it still isn’t over where it is most important.”
Mohler argued that the fundamental change to note is that in previous generations the cultural center of the United States consisted of cultural Christianity – a religiosity which had a binding moral authority. But this is fast disappearing before our eyes.
What will U.S. culture resemble on the other side of a dominant cultural Christianity? Only time will tell. Mohler noted that it has always been difficult to count Evangelicals with any sense of accuracy, but the loss of cultural Christianity may begin to change that fact as more lines of division between the church and the world begin to emerge.
The U.S. is an aberration
Dennis Prager reasoned that the cultural effects of Christianity have made the United States a blessed – and historically unique – place for all religious people to practice their faith. Both tolerance and genuine respect for other religions have been a part of the American experiment.
“This country is an aberration,” Prager said. “Good is aberrant. Evil is normative.”
Prager minced no words about the pernicious nature of secularism, because within such a worldview, “There is no intrinsic meaning, and there is no objective reality.”
“Secularism may be great for government, but it’s terrible for people,” Prager said. “There is no intrinsic meaning for life if there is no God.”
Prager also had much to say about liberals in culture, media and politics. He noted that they have their own Bible (the New York Times) and their own ethical-moral causes.
“Liberals believe their values are transcendent,” he said. “They believe in preventing global warming as much as I believe that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Sinai.”
What about liberal religion?
Moving the discussion into the topic of liberal religion, Douthat asked, “Does the decline of institutional religion necessarily lead to something we can reasonably describe as ‘unbelief’?”
In other words, perhaps there is a middle ground, a Christian religious expression that is not so institutional and definitely not so doctrinal or ethical (in a normative sense)?
Mohler answered without equivocation that liberal Christian religion has no long-term holding power whatsoever.
He said, “Liberal religion is not going to see a renaissance. It’s going to see some isolated areas of interest because there are token things to use – there’s still some cultural credibility to be found in stained glass and pipe organs and cathedral buildings and all the rest – but it won’t last because if it doesn’t have any binding authority, no one stays.”
To give an example of the failure of liberal Christianity to hold together, Mohler did not even need to look outside Louisville.
He said, “Right here in this town is headquartered the Presbyterian Church USA – a liberal Presbyterian denomination. Years ago they hired sociologists to ask, ‘What’s our problem? Why are we losing people?’ … And the sociologists came back with a theological answer: ‘You’re losing people because there is no binding authority or urgency to keep them here. You no longer believe that Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. You don’t believe there is anything from which one must be saved. No one comes to church. No one wants to go. No one feels any binding authority. The whole thing is collapsed. … Theological liberalism sowed the wind and now is reaping the whirlwind.”
The end result
After two hours of talk, including questions from the crowd, the event had succeeded in its goal of delivering intellectually honest conversation about the intersection of religion, culture and politics in the United States. The fact that such dialogue came from a Jew, a Baptist and a Roman Catholic made the impact even greater. There are some “first things” that we share in common even across some theological divides; indeed, we may not even share these foundational worldviews with people who wear our own denominational label.
One thing to note about the night was the complete lack of minorities in attendance. This is not a critique on the event itself, but it is a warning to those of us who share the concerns of the panelists. If these are real concerns worth coming out on a cold winter night to discuss, then they are also worth our efforts to influence a broader swath of the citizenry than middle-aged Caucasians already inclined to vote Republican.