“The Dangerous Illusion of a Secular State”: Al Mohler at National Conservatism Conference

Josiah Reedy on September 21, 2022

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of “The Briefing,” gave the final keynote address at the recent National Conservatism conference, a project of the Edmund Burke Foundation aimed at promoting an expressly nationalist brand of conservatism. Mohler’s address was entitled “Your God Will Have Been Supplanted by an Idol: The Dangerous Illusion of a Secular State.”

Mohler began by pointing to a need for the conservative movement to be grounded in theological ideas. He stated, “In so far as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims and confessions, or there will be nothing left to conserve.”

For Mohler, this need for a theologically sound conservatism arises from the popularity of secularism. He said, “One of the most dangerous ideas of our age is the dangerous illusion of a secular state.”

Mohler expressed his concern that the concept of a secular state is really a mere fiction. In his view, “Secular space is not empty space. It is space hostile to human dignity. It is space dangerous for human good.” He continued, “Once transcendence is denied, once God is denied, a host of alien doctrines comes in and establishes a new public orthodoxy.” 

Mohler listed a range of such doctrines that have now established themselves, including “Marxism, communist ideology, critical theory, poststructuralism, identity politics, and woke activism, all driven by a religious passion and with ideas that invariably take on a religious shape.”

Mohler strove to be clear that some kind of religion and worship is inevitable, saying, “Every single human being made in the image of God is a religious being, and can never be anything other than a religious being.” Applying that idea to the relationship between religion and the state, he said, “Something’s going to take on the role of the sacred. If you deny God, the state is the most likely suspect to show up and make the demand of ultimacy.”

Mohler warned that this development of purportedly secular ideas into a religion is already taking place. As he described, “The new woke religion has its own liturgy. It has its own doctrines. It has its own catechesis. It has its own cathedrals. It has its own doctrine of sin. It has its own promise of salvation. It has its own notion of sanctification. It has its own canon of written scriptures and slogans. It has its own crusading flags and choirs. It has its own inquisition and holy office. It has its cherished dogma and it enjoys the right of excommunication, known more popularly as ‘cancel culture.’”

Mohler identified the perpetuation of secular ideology as a call for the conservative movement to remember its theological roots. He declared, “A conservative movement that does not conserve what it means for God to make human beings male and female in his image, that does not conserve marriage as the lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman, that does not define the natural family as the essential heart of human society, that does not protect life in the womb and life in the family, that does not acknowledge the theological roots of our political life as a nation, is by no means conservative and can never be.”

Mohler’s primary message was to stand against the idolization of the state. He noted, “If you cannot see that there is an institution before the state, then honestly, you idolize the state,” and also “If all we have to offer is the argument of secular sterility, then our god has become an idol. If conservatism can be somehow severed from creation and severed from Creator, then ultimately there is nothing left to conserve.”

Mohler concluded by denying that his appraisal of secularism was pessimistic. On the contrary, he said, “Christians know that we are neither optimists nor pessimists. Because of Christ we live in joy. We live in hope. Hope is not optimism. Hope is not pessimism. But joy is security and joy is motivation, which reminds us that we have work to do.”

As compelling as Mohler was and as concerning as the threats he described are, his arguments address an age in which secularism has a clear cultural upper-hand. Perhaps the notion of a secular state sounds more dangerous in a moment when the dangers of a religious state seem more distant. Others have called on Christians to embrace their role as a prophetic minority, but perhaps such calls look too defeatist when nationalist conservatives stand ready to welcome Christians with open arms. Nonetheless, the heart of Mohler’s appeal – a conservative movement that remembers what it must conserve and why – remains powerful.

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