Mohler debates secularist in ‘On Faith’ online chat

Communications Staff — February 21, 2007

Though the Christian church has evidenced shortcomings in every era of its history, Christians have done much more good than harm in Western society, R. Albert Mohler Jr. said Feb. 20 in the first ever online panelist chat on a faith-oriented website sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine.

“The modern concerns for human rights, the rights of women, and the protection of the vulnerable have been driven by Christian concerns and the belief that every individual, male or female, is created in God’s image,” said Mohler, who serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “This is a far more substantial basis for human rights than secular theory.”

Participating in the chat with Mohler was author and atheist Susan Jacoby, whose latest book is “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” The chat occurred in conjunction with “On Faith,” a website where more than 60 panelists—including Mohler and Jacoby—post responses to religious questions posed at least once a week. “On Faith” is hosted by Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham and Washington Post writer Sally Quinn.

On the question of organized religion’s impact on Western society, Jacoby argued that Christianity helped support evil practices such as slavery and the oppression of women.

“The Christians in the north who were part of the abolitionist movement were … virtually run out of town by the orthodox religious denominations,” Jacoby said.

Mohler countered that although many Christians argued for the continuation of slavery, Christian arguments were the force that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery.

“No doubt that southern Christians were not only complicit in the slave trade, but often ardent defenders as well,” he said. “Beyond this, theories of racial superiority were rampant in the culture (look at Lincoln’s letters) and too many Christians shared in that as well. Nevertheless, the abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly Christian and the Christian arguments are what won the day.”

On the question of the fair treatment of women, Jacoby argued that Christianity was opposed to the movement for women’s rights in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Religion, all of it, has been dragged kicking and screaming by women of faith who wouldn’t take no for an answer into the 21st century,” she said. “The women’s rights movement was always, essentially, a secularist movement. It could not be otherwise because all religions have historically justified the subordination of women.”

But Mohler said Christianity has always taught that all people are of equal worth. He added that the Christian worldview grounded the protection of women in Western culture.

“There was no secularist movement when the notion of individual rights and protections emerged in Continental law and British common law,” Mohler said. “These foundations were explicitly Christian. Christianity pervaded the worldview and nothing else was imaginable.”

In response to a question posed by moderator Caryle Murphy about the contemporary emphasis on spirituality rather than religion, Mohler argued that Christianity is losing its influence in the West.

“The shift toward individual ‘spiritualities’ and a spiritual ‘quest’ is a sign that Christianity has lost influence in the larger culture—no question about that,” he said. “Of course, this is a great concern to me.

“As for the proliferation of other religions, I can only observe that the postmodern supermarket of faiths so evident in America doesn’t even come close to the diversity found in the Roman Empire at the birth of Christianity. We have been here before—and the issue is Christian faithfulness in the midst of such diversity.”

Jacoby argued that the new emphasis on spirituality is a sign of the intellectual decline of popular culture.

“[I]n America, organized religion has lost ground to a flabby ‘spirituality’ that makes no real demands on people,” Jacoby said. “As a secularist, I see this amorphous spirituality as another sign of the dumbing down of popular culture. No demands, no history, nothing except what you personally feel at a given moment.”

Mohler concluded that people who have been redeemed by Jesus have made a valuable impact upon the world.

“In terms of the impact of Christianity, my first and foremost concern is the impact upon the individual lives of those who have come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” he said. “But the fact is that these transformed lives have made an incalculable impact upon the world.

“The Christian church is not a perfect representation of the Gospel—we are still sinners though saved by grace. Secularists and others do us a favor when they point out our inconsistencies. This chat is a good start on a profitable conversation.”

On Faith is available online at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

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