What Shall We Demand?

Although typically Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host to his self-named radio program, focuses on specific issues floating around in the media on a given day, once in a while he pops up with some heavy-hitting, large-scale discussion. Friday was one of those days.

On the show, Mohler seeks to get discussion going from a theological perspective. As a Baptist, he brings one particular bias to the table, which is the belief that the Bible is utterly infallible. Take it or leave it (I take it), Mohler is able to get some heavy discussions going on which often turn out with unexpected conclusions. He rarely offends, always promotes thinking and discussion, and never, in my experience, spouts traditional conservative political rhetoric. Rather, he tends to ascribe to the more traditional conservative viewpoint that government should be reasonably limited, and that those “conservatives” who would seek to control every facet of life are dangerous.

In the case of Friday, however, he did an episode which brought up another similar issue: Just what we expect from a president. Drawing on a statement by Barack Obama in his speech following his victory in Minnesota, Mohler speculates on the balance of power and influence in the hands of a US (or any other) President.

Have a listen for yourself. The real discussion begins around 11 minutes in, if you want to skip over the general discussion he begins the show with. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Now, one obvious fact comes forth, and that is: This is an outstanding public speaker. His ability to use his voice and to use the English language to effect has not been matched, I would argue, by a presidential candidate probably since 1980, the rise of Governor Ronald Reagan running for the office of the President of the United States.

But I was also struck by one line in particular out of this, where I had never heard, in all my days of listening to politicians, I had never heard anyone say what Barack Obama said on Tuesday night, when he said “this was the moment when the rise of the ocean began to slow, and our planet began to heal.”

Now, with all due respect, I just can’t imagine that anyone is going to look back to June the 3rd of 2008 and say yes, that was the moment when the planet began to heal.

Just what do we expect from a president?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think a president can make the oceans rise or fall, or heal the planet. I think this is not only soaring political rhetoric, I think it leaves us with a question whether we have any kind of rational conception of what the office of the President of the United States is all about.

There’s lots to talk about here. I won’t go too much further into the arguments that he makes, although I would like to draw out one important point. He comments later on that one of the key roles of a leader is to be a teacher. He draws upon the example of President Bush (the second) as a failed teacher, arguing that he agrees with his views on marriage, but is appalled by how Bush failed to attempt to teach the nation about his reasoning. I think the image of a teacher-president is an intriguing foil to the image of the booming, powerful, warmongering President that has come to be expected from the United States — an foil that’s all the more interesting to me when I consider the ultimate teacher, Jesus Christ, and how those booming presidents claim to be his followers.

Listen to the rest if you wish. Either way, I think it’s worth opening up some kind of discussion. What do we expect of world leaders? What should we expect? Can we side with Obama when he says that the world has begun to heal? As with the radio program, I would prefer to forego most of the semantical issues. I’m not asking whether we think the President should ban or permit gay marriage, so much as whether he should be the one pushing forth that agenda whatsoever.

What say you?


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen
    Jun 11, 2008 @ 18:30:38

    President of a Southern Baptist institution? Christianity doesn’t get any more socially conservative than that. I wonder how Mohler would have responded if Clinton had won the nomination?

    (Southern Baptists are the leading spokesmen for “complementarianism”: i.e., the view that women have different (read: subordinate) roles than men.)

    Anyway, Obama comes in for a lot of this sort of criticism: that he and his followers think he’s some kind of Messiah. That’s what happens when you write speeches that are designed to move people emotionally, instead of just laying out policy prescriptions in the wonkish manner of, say, Hillary Clinton.

    Obama’s speeches have emotional impact precisely because he employs this kind of soaring rhetoric: “this was the moment when the rise of the ocean began to slow, and our planet began to heal.”

    A prudent voter is going to say, OK fine, but what are his actual policies? And if you look at his history as a legislator, and consider his specific policy proposals — yes, they’re out there, if people care to look — voters will discover that Obama is actually rather pragmatic.

    On the question of global warming: we’ve witnessed the Bush Administration denying the evidence and maxing out the profits of Cheney’s and Bush’s oil buddies for the past seven years. The scientific consensus is now in place. Some President is going to be the first to act. And if that President’s policies make a significant difference, it may indeed be the occasion on which the planet begins to heal.

    So — soaring rhetoric, pragmatic policies, and a claim that is within the bounds of reason.

    Obviously the President alone, or even the USA alone, can’t end global warming. But the USA can do its part, and exercise responsible leadership. Mohler is just being partisan when he claims that it’s asking too much of the President. But I’ll tell you this: a lot of younger, American evangelicals (maybe even among the Southern Baptists) are now thoroughly onside, ready to tackle global warming as an urgent policy issue.

    On gay marriage — the majority of the population under about age 40 is prepared to accept it. I think the President can let demographics carry that issue for him: which is to say, punt it down the road another decade or two. (Probably by taking exactly the line Obama is taking: keep the federal government out of it / let each state set its own policy.)


  2. nebcanuck
    Jun 11, 2008 @ 19:35:50

    Sorry, but I guess I should have explained more his position in this instance.

    Mohler actually supports the idea of global warming. His stance is that he, being no scientist, doesn’t have much ability to say that those people doing research are incorrect. He’s not at all supporting the notion that we should ignore any of these claims or anything of that sort.

    Rather, Mohler’s stance is one of moderation, really. He goes on to talk about the pro-life issue, which serves as the best example for how he thinks of the global warming issue as well. One caller say that he hopes any president would make pro-life an important stance of his campaign. Mohler then responds that yes, absolutely that should be one of his ideals that he pushes forth — but he would never expect the candidate to come out and say that “this was the day that women began wanting to keep the baby instead of killing it.”

    His argument is simply one of scale. He wouldn’t have fought it if Obama were to say “this a day where the fight to slow global warming was acknowledged”, or something to that effect. He would have seen it as even more positive if Obama had stepped up and said “thanks to you, I have a chance to help teach this nation about the evils of global warming.” It’s the fact that he promised to somehow excerpt control over the oceans that Mohler is picking qualms with.

    Ultimately, the argument he makes is that the president’s role is one of influence, not power. That he doesn’t have the ability to magically click a button and get the entire world on board with his ideas, nor does he have the ability to change things that are part of nature; rather, he can use his position to influence people to begin shifting their thoughts about things, in order to put forth some sort of united effort.

    I was just looking to get some discussion going about what we should expect of a president. I agree: I don’t expect them to revolutionize nature. Rather, I expect him to be honest about the effect global warming will have on the people, and for him to suggest ideas for change (both of which were suggested indirectly in the radio show).

    Take it as you will. Assume that he’s some religious, conservative nut if you wish. I’ll tell you now most of the arguments you were combating (such as female leadership or gay marriage) weren’t even present in the episode. He certainly doesn’t come across as nutty if you listen to the whole show.


  3. nebcanuck
    Jun 11, 2008 @ 22:03:28

    I should specify (since I don’t think it’s clear in my previous response) that I am fully aware of Mohler’s stance on any of those issues you mentioned above, and that you are absolutely correct in your assessment of them, with the exception of the issue of global warming. I also figure you should know that my own stance on most of those issues falls far closer to his view than you probably would choose to accept. My point is simply that those things were not the point of my post, and were not mentioned in the radio podcast whatsoever.

    The question is one of roles, not details and policies. Not “should they be concerned about global warming”, but “what should they/could they do about an issue such as global warming.” I don’t think Mohler’s wrong in his statement that the president’s role is not one of cause and effect so much as influence, as far as that goes.


  4. Stephen
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:58:00

    I guess I shouldn’t have dragged the issue of women’s roles into the debate. Evidently I was mistaken to think that Mohler would be closed to the idea of global warming, just as he is closed to the idea of women in positions of authority. That’s the only reason I brought it up — because I assumed it was an indication of where Mohler was coming from.

    Of course, your post brought up that other hot-button social issue, same sex marriage. You should know that even when I was staunchly evangelical I was deeply troubled by the conservative position on women and homosexuals. I tend to freely associate one issue with the other, because they are both issues of fundamental equality; and they both concern full acceptance of people for who they are. I am relieved to see that a new generation of evangelicals is less hard-line on both topics.

    But back to the real issue. I can understand why a preacher or a theologian might want to call attention to apparently messianic claims from politicians. “You shall have no gods before me” is the most fundamental of the commandments. I’m sympathetic to Mohler’s concern.

    But I still think my defence of Obama (which you didn’t respond to) is adequate. Obama’s speeches employ soaring rhetoric in order to move people emotionally. But his policies are pragmatic. He isn’t actually claiming a messianic power to command the wind and the waves to be still, or to cause the oceans to cool by some kind of quasi-divine fiat.

    So I can understand why a theology professor might censor Obama for overblown rhetoric: but it’s not an adequate reason to dismiss him as a candidate. If Mohler is convinced that global warming is real, he ought to consider Obama’s policy on the issue over against McCain’s policy on the issue. In that case, Obama is widely regarded as taking the issue more seriously.

    Obama proposes doing things that are legitimately within a President’s power — so where’s the beef?


  5. nebcanuck
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 12:22:53

    Sorry, again there seems to be confusion. I should have been more clear on the post.

    Mohler wasn’t actually trying to bash Obama as a candidate, I don’t think, except for the fact that he is surrounded in the media by a mantra that suggests he is something revolutionary — something that changes the fundamental nature of the politics themselves. And I don’t think that’s really up for dispute. He’s not really running based on his policies, he’s running on his rhetoric, and his followers seem to genuinely be moved by his claims that he will bring about these effects.

    Again, I would reassert: The show itself did not focus on bashing Obama. Nor really on bashing any candidate. It was on questioning the view we have of a President. I think it’s fair to say that we view the President as someone of great power. Mohler’s suggesting that he isn’t. That ultimately, he can’t make anything fall into place singlehandedly. And his question was one for us, based on Obama’s rhetoric, but at the same time focusing on the general thought in the public that he, or any candidate, is vying for a position in which they can make things happen. The commentary on the global warming was to demonstrate a very extreme example. He really doesn’t focus on that much, and doesn’t go out of his way to propose that Obama is seen as having messianic powers. Rather, he’s suggesting that the office itself is seen as more powerful than it is.

    My quote from the show obviously conveyed a more attack-like sense than was actually integrated in the show. One of the reasons I respect Mohler is that he doesn’t go into an “attack mode”, but rather facilitates discussion. This was no exception. He wasn’t bashing Obama, he was trying to generate discussion on the role of the person who just so happens to be filling the role of President at any point in time. He asks what the reasonable expectations of a President are.

    I’ll try again at providing some concrete example. Should we be expecting him to solve the issue of poverty? Clearly not — that’s something that’s intrinsic in the system we have. But we should be able to expect him to speak out against the exploitation of the poor, and to be enough of a policymaker that he helps to put in place programs that protect the poor from that exploitation. Obama, as you said, is very pragmatic in his policies. So it’s very possible he himself acknowledges that a president has very little concrete “power.” But the general public seems to believe that he should be solving poverty, not using his influence to dampen it.

    (And, for the record, I will point out that I think you’re giving me “credit” for a more “reasonable” stance than I probably hold re. Same Sex Marriage and Male/Female Roles, at least within the Church. But that’s not really a debate for now, which is why I’m not making a big deal out of them. Suffice to say that Mark Driscoll, mentioned in the article you linked to, is one of the pastors who commands a great deal of respect from me.)


  6. Stephen
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 13:25:11

    Hmmmmm. Evidently I totally misunderstood your post. In which case, Obama would probably agree with Mohler’s reservations about a President’s powers.

    There’s an interesting passage in “Dreams From My Father” where Obama talks about a local black politician (the first black mayor, I think). He was a great symbol of blacks rising to political office, and every black business owner in the community had a poster of him on the wall. A lot of people had posters on the walls of their homes, too.

    But Obama noted that, in practical terms, the socio-economic standing of blacks didn’t improve much while he was mayor. The problems were systemic. Merely electing a politician of a different colour didn’t, in and of itself, fix anything.

    Nonetheless, the mayor was an important symbol that America’s famous upward mobility was for blacks, too.

    Obama’s going to find himself in exactly those circumstances, if he is elected President. And he knows there are limits on what he can actually achieve, even as President. I hope the voters ultimately understand that, too.


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