Culture Friday: The reality of slavery in America

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday the 21st of December, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. A special Culture Friday today with a special guest: Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Quick disclosure here: Al is a board member here at WORLD, but you are more likely to recognize him from his popular daily podcast, The Briefing.

Good morning to you!

ALBERT MOHLER, GUEST: Good morning, Nick! Glad to talk with you, as always.

EICHER: Well, it’s great to talk with you, too.

One year ago, you commissioned a group of scholars to dig honestly into some very hard questions—about which you said there had been a sinful absence of historical curiosity: namely the “legacy of the school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”

Last week, you released the report that was the result of that inquiry. When you read it, I wonder, how prepared were you for the weight of the findings? You said you knew the generalities but not the specifics. Was there anything that came as a surprise to you at all?

MOHLER: Well, Nick, at one level, yes, there was new data that I really had not known, but there was also an emotional aspect to this. For example, in the report, there’s the documentation not only of the fact that the founders of the seminary owned slaves, but there’s documentation about how deeply involved they were in slavery and in the defense of slavery. And right down to the facsimile from the 1860 U.S. Census showing the names of our founders with all these slaves they owned by number. And that’s kind of overwhelming when you see it. And we’re talking about people here who basically are my ancestors. So that’s a lament. That’s a hard thing to see.

The surprise was the avowal of virulent forms of racism well into the 20th century. Of course this marked the culture at large, no question about that. It marked the White House at the time. But I was surprised, horrified to see the extent to which there were explicit avowals.

And, you know, there were big theological issues here, too. That has to be explored.

EICHER: In your letter accompanying the report, you indicated one instance of following the example of another institution and another area where you do not intend to follow.

Specifically, you cited favorably Princeton University’s “Princeton and Slavery” project.

But at the same time, you made it clear you do not intend to follow the example of others that, quoting here: “hasten to remove names, announce plans, and declare moral superiority.”

Could you talk about the different course that you’re attempting to steer here?

MOHLER: Yes, Nick. As Christians, we’re trying to tell the truth and to live with the truth. And then we’re seeking to do what Christ would have us to do. So, I think the liberal, secular institutions that are putting out these reports and then saying we’re going to take this name off and that name off, they’re trying to rewrite history. Or, as I said in my letter, they’re trying to unwrite history. I don’t think that’s what you find in scripture. What’s really interesting to me is a passage like Hebrews 11 where you have genuine heroes and heroines of the faith, but, you know, in the text of scripture, all their sins are made clear. In order that, number one, we’ll understand we really do have ancestors who really did begin the story that we’re apart of, but there’s only one hero to the Biblical story, and that’s Christ. And the same thing is true for church history. This is a good reminder of that.

EICHER: I am curious about campus reaction to all this, because as you say “the cultural conversation … is far from over.” You have said that secular worldviews do not have the ability to “bear the weight” of this historical reckoning, but the Biblical worldview, in fact, can. Can you expand on what you mean by that? Bearing the weight … ?

MOHLER: Sure. Let me take it out of Southern Seminary’s context if I might and take it to the White House. In the early decades of the 20th century, a white supremacist president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, became one of the founding figures of modern political liberalism in the United States. When I say white supremacy, I mean exactly what that says. He showed the movie Birth of a Nation in the White House and was a proponent of the most virulent forms of actual, ideological white supremacy.

Princeton University has a college named for Woodrow Wilson, who was the president of Princeton, by the way, so do they take the name of Woodrow Wilson off? They didn’t. Now, why? Well, they can’t answer that question. And, you know, the secular worldview doesn’t have a notion of sin, as we find in scripture. Doesn’t have a comprehensive knowledge of sin, and so when sin and wrongdoing, evil, something like this is found in a historical figure, then the secular worldview goes Oh, my goodness, look how different he is than we are. We would never do this.

There’s this myth of contemporary innocence that leads people to say, look, what we need to do is just take those names off and we’ll ignore history or rewrite history. That’s not what the Bible does. The Bible instead tells the story straight and I think we’ve got incredible, Biblical authority and example of how to tell the story right. Deal with sin as sin. In a biblical worldview, Christians, we’re not surprised when we find sin. We’re not surprised when we find sin deeply entrenched. We’re not surprised when we find sin self-binding. We’re not surprised about any of this because the Bible’s taught us about sin from Genesis 3 onward.

EICHER: I do want to step back from Woodrow Wilson and ask, because it does seem fair to me to say that theological liberals, in general, have tended historically to have acquitted themselves better when it comes to racial questions, than those who are otherwise orthodox in their theological commitments. And take issue with that if you think I’m wrong there.


EICHER: Well, okay, but there are some cases where that is true and I wonder why that is.

MOHLER: Yeah, and that’s what doesn’t surprise us. It disappoints us. We lament. It’s heartbreaking. We want to learn from that. We want to be consistent not inconsistent. But there are people who look at this and say, look at that report from Southern Seminary. Look at those old, orthodox Calvinists who also held to white racial supremacy. And the reality is they did. But what you also see in that same report is that the liberal theologians of the early 20th century, in the same institution, and they were theological liberals. They embraced an idea of evolution applied to the races that produced the most horrifying forms of racial supremacy that is also documented in the report.

And, again, to go to the larger culture, just consider someone like Oliver Wendell Holmes, you know? And so political and theological liberals were hardly innocent on the race issue and, by the way, this goes all the way back to the founding fathers of the enlightenment who made many of the same arguments in their contexts.

Your point, though, has validity in one particular context, and that is the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. And at that time, there were many theological liberals who were more right than many theological conservatives were on the race issue during the Civil Rights movement. There are many reasons for that, but at least a part of that was that so many of the people involved in the Civil Rights movement were not theological orthodox and I think many orthodox, conservative Christians misread that situation and ended up on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement. Because it wasn’t that they were wrong, that so many of the people on the side were theological liberals, they were just wrong in this case that that was the issue when it came to making the judgement about the rightness or wrongness about the Civil Rights movement.

EICHER: Now, before I let you go, I want to ask a question that’s going to require a tremendous amount of speculation, but it is in the spirit of learning from history. But try to put yourself in the position 100 years from now, looking back on us today, what might we be doing today that might just be horrifying to read about 100 years from now?

MOHLER: Well, I think we have to be candid that a lot of the issues we’ve just been discussing still have traction in this society. That’s an ongoing issue. There are people in the secular world and theological liberals who have been looking at this report and then immediately say, well, that’s very interesting because a couple generations from now it’s going to be your grandchildren who are going to apologize for your position, meaning mine, on issues of gender and sexuality.

I don’t believe that to be true. And, let me put it this way, I don’t believe there is any Biblical justification for race-based chattel slavery as is documented. There is no Biblical justification for racial supremacy. There’s every Biblical argument against it. But there is a very clear Biblical teaching from creation all the way through scripture when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, and I’m quite willing to be found guilty of standing with the scripture regardless of what some future generation may think or judge.

EICHER: Albert Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A special Culture Friday today. Al, thank you so much.

MOHLER: Nick, God bless you and your listeners as well.

(Photo/Facebook, Albert Mohler) Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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