Defending Freedom in a Darkening Age
Dr. Albert Mohler Jr.
This issue of Clarion was adapted from a speech Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. gave at Alliance Defending Freedom’s Summit on Religious Liberty on July 16, 2021.
I once read that when Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was offered the choice of beef or duck at a state dinner in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he characteristically scowled and said with a bit of royal condescension, “Tell me about the duck.” The waiter paused and looked at him and then said, “Your Royal Highness, it’s like a chicken, but it swims.” That is the best definition of a duck I have ever heard. Sometimes it’s good to be told the right answer to the question “Tell me about the duck.”
Tell me about religious liberty. Tell me about defending freedom. These truths — these rights — matter because they are fundamental and because they are endangered. The title of my address is “Defending Freedom in a Darkening Age.” I think there’s the temptation in any age to believe that darkness is right around the corner. And by the way, if you hold to a Christian, an Augustinian, worldview, that’s never wrong, except for the fact that the final turn will be the victory of Christ.
But we are living in an age in which so many of our most precious realities are so devastatingly threatened. We are reminded of the fragility of civilization itself. I am drawn in my own thinking to so many crucial points in Western history. One of them is the dawn of the First World War — called, by those who participated in it, the Great War. I’m reminded of the words of British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Gray, who said simply on August 3, 1914, the night before the full outbreak of hostilities had begun, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In a sense he was right and in a sense he was wrong. But the most important sense in which he was right was understanding that the very principles and most fundamental convictions of Western civilization were at stake; they were endangered and were worth fighting for.
Now, we know the course of history only in retrospect, and only partially, but we must know the historical character of our own time. In our generation, we are called to defend truth and virtue — even to defend the very existence of truth and virtue. We’re called to defend freedom. For freedom and human dignity are always in need of defense in a fallen world. Of all the liberties, religious liberty is among the most precarious, precisely because it is the most fundamental and primary. Religious freedom, where it is achieved in terms of the political order, is precarious in any age. It’s a remarkable civilizational achievement. It requires pre-political conditions. It requires an understanding of human dignity and human rights before you get to the specific articulation of religious liberty.
It is the inheritance of Western civilization that is now being subverted before our eyes. The civilization being undermined germinated from classical roots in Greece and in Rome, but it has flourished due to a millennium of crucial formation of the Western mind — due to structures of thought and the understanding of what it means to be human that came concretely and inseparably from the development of Christianity in the shaping of Western culture.
But those very classical roots, as well as the Christian foundations, are now openly subverted when, for example, a professor of philosophy at Yale makes the argument that natural law is a demonstration of white racial superiority or supremacy. That argument is a repudiation of the entire superstructure, of what Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age calls “the social imaginary,” the entire imagined structure of society that is being transformed before our eyes by those who would subvert — intentionally and in a premeditated fashion — the very civilization that has made our liberties politically possible and historically actualized. What Peter Berger referred to as “plausibility structures” — the very pillars that hold up the superstructure that makes our politics possible, that makes the American constitutional order and our experiment in ordered liberty possible — are being subverted intentionally by those who want a very different civilization to be put in its place.
Robert Wilkin reminds us that religious freedom, as we know it, is first of all God’s gift, but it historically has come by the influence of the Christian church — through figures such as even the early church father Tertullian, who recognized what is absolutely essential to our understanding of any right political order. And that is that there are limits to the coercion that any government can rightly apply and enforce.
There are still limitations. Queen Elizabeth I said, in the famous Elizabethan Settlement, that she would not put windows into men’s souls. Now, she said that as a statement of royal policy, but the reality is it’s just an ontological fact. You cannot put windows into men’s souls — human beings made in the image of God, bearers of dignity precisely because of the imago Dei, made in God’s image in such a way that we know Him and cannot not know Him. No one can actually put a window into our souls. You can coerce externally; you cannot coerce internally, but you can influence. And that’s the great battle of our time: against those who are seeking to persuade the entire civilization around us, beginning in the political order, and those who are primarily in control of higher education, where that battle has largely already been lost and we need to reengage. But the fact is the engines of cultural production have genuinely been turned into engines of subversion of our society.
We talk about a secular age. And as a theologian, I want to define that term. I will contend for the fact that the only secular definition that matters is the loss of the binding authority of theism. We’re not living in a secular age when we have people following every nutty religious idea imaginable. It’s not secular in that sense. It is secular in the sense that it is, in terms of so many of its thought leaders, intentionally now set against any notion of revealed religion, of objective reality, and of theism, because theism is our central understanding of the transcendentals (the good, the beautiful, and the true) and of the Trinitarian God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). It is that theism that is particularly foundational to Western society. It’s also that theism that is a particular obstacle to those who would reshape the culture in a modern post-Christian image.
One of the realities we now see is the collision of rights and liberties. The Left saw it coming and we saw it coming. I was involved in seemingly endless meetings on the other side of, say, Obergefell, in 2015. In the think tanks, in conservative intellectual circles, in academic debates, and in policy considerations, there was the understanding that what was coming was an inevitable collision of claims of rights. And it was a collision that already was being declared by those who are the subverters of the entire moral order — those who are seeking to redefine human existence and now even human identity at the level of what it means to be male and female. Remember Chai Feldblum making the statement that she would like to think of one example of a case in which religious liberty rights ought to be considered perhaps more important than the sexual liberty rights. But she said, in honest condescension, she actually couldn’t imagine a case in which that would be possible.
They saw it coming, we saw it coming. Mary Ann Glendon saw it coming in her book Rights Talk back in 1991, when she warned of what would happen in a society in which the entire conversation, the debate, the political dynamic comes down to arguments over contested rights. What’s lost in all of that is any kind of metaphysic. What’s lost in that is any kind of transcendent vision. What’s lost in all of that is any kind of objective truth. All that remains is politics. And Nietzsche grins.
Some years ago, Jonathan Rauch wrote a book arguing for the legalization of same-sex marriage and the victory of the LGBTQ movement (then called the gay rights movement). He was an advocate for that moral revolution personally and professionally. He said at one point — recognizing that conservative Christians would find themselves in an awkward predicament — that he would like to think that his co-belligerence would be understanding of that conservative Christian predicament — not accommodating, necessarily, but understanding. But he went on to say he didn’t think it would be.
We’re in a moment of such confusion that to use the word “rights” means that people think we are merely making a bald political claim. The idea, the origin, of rights is now lost. The understanding integral to a Christian culture, integral to a biblical worldview, integral to Western civilization, that rights are given by God and are to be respected by government — that’s been eclipsed by this new understanding of rights. We saw this, by the way, just in the last several months.
A few years ago, I watched with fascination as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created a commission on unalienable rights. Some marvelous people served on that commission, which included Robert George and was chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, quite appropriately. And the report it brought was pretty much what those who have been a part of this conversation for some time expected. They came back and said, “Look, when you consider the founding era in the United States, and when you look at the Declaration of Independence and you look at the Constitution of the United States, when you look at the unalienable rights that are given by nature and nature’s God, endowed by the Creator with these unalienable rights, they are specific rights — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights that have become enumerated also within the Bill of Rights and within the logic of the United States Constitution. They are specific rights. They are rights grounded in reality.”
A very different vision now drives the State Department of the United States. Current United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, gave a press conference in which he made very elaborate comments. One of the points of his presentation was the rejection of the Pompeo commission on unalienable rights and the rejection of the very idea of rights that might be unalienable, as distinguished from other claims of contemporary construction. He went on to say that the State Department now, in contrast to what he would present as the State Department under Pompeo, is going to hold that it is the position of the United States government that all rights are equal. (By the way, that is not the argument they make in the Supreme Court when they speak of fundamental rights, but I’ll let you, who are the lawyers, argue that.) He said explicitly, “There are no hierarchies of rights.” And so he put the right of what he called “reproductive freedom” and the rights of the LGBTQ revolution right up there. And of course, there’s no end to that, the catalog of rights, or these newly constructed artificial rights. There is no end to them.
So many on the Left right now are living in the absolute fear that what they said five years ago will mean the end of their lives. That’s how fast this revolution, this ideological revolution, is going on. I think the people right now who are the most scared are probably not conservative Christians. After all, we trust in the Lord. The people who are probably most afraid right now are liberals just a few years from retirement on your local college campus. Because they’re about to be consumed by their own young, who will produce others who will consume them as well. But the idea that rights are just a matter of political debate, a matter of political interposition, a matter of contested argument? Let’s just say that the American experiment in ordered liberty cannot survive that. Nor, I would argue, can human dignity survive that.
What is the foundation for the claim of religious freedom or any freedom, any liberty? What is the foundation if it is not transcendent, not ontological, not grounded in reality? Ultimately, that reality has to be the reality of God. Without that, then eventually there is nothing left but rights talk, the rewriting of history, the subversion of any understanding of order, including constitutional order. We’re now at the moment when we see two vastly different projects concerning human rights. But underlying that are two vastly different projects concerning reality, two divergent conceptions of human dignity, two different moralities, two different assumptions of metaphysical reality, authority, order, liberty, history, law, government, and human happiness.
The American project of ordered liberty is now transformed into a game of political and moral coercion that devolves into identity politics, which is the most futile and poisonous of all politics, and venomous theorizing — unleashing intellectual solvents that cannot be contained. That’s the biggest problem with critical theory. And by the way, you can put any word between “critical” and “theory,” including “racial,” or even “legal.” And the fact is that it’s all part of a common project. It’s all derivative of a common intellectual source.
I can remember years ago that one of the four horsemen of the new atheism, Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, described the imaginary world of a 13-year-old boy, which he had once been. And I once was. And even though I disagree with Daniel Dennett on just about everything, I agree that to the 13-year-old boy, the idea of a universal solvent is fascinating. Dennett said that at some point, around the time he was in the eighth grade, he thought about acids and came up with the understanding that it could be at least intellectually possible to invent an acid that would destroy everything.
Now, you do not want to get too far into the mind of a 13-year-old boy. But if you did, you would understand why there would be such an intellectual interest in a solvent that would eventually dissolve everything and consume all. It would dissolve the test tube and eventually the entire laboratory, and then the school, then the neighborhood and the city, and then Planet Earth, and then the galaxy and the cosmos. It’s at least intellectually possible that such a solvent could be devised. And intellectually there is such a solvent, and it’s called critical theory. That is the solvent that cannot be contained. If you make your claim based upon critical theory, someone will get there behind you to trump your claim.
George Packer, in a book you won’t agree with but you will find fascinating, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, rightly says this about critical theory: “Critical theory upends the universal values of the Enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality, and the freedom of the individual. These liberal values,” he says as a liberal, “are an ideology by which dominant groups subjugate other groups. All relations are power relations. Everything is political, and claims of reason and truth are social constructs that maintain those in power.”
He goes on:
Unlike orthodox Marxism, critical theory is concerned with language and identity more than with material conditions. In place of objective reality, critical theorists place subjectivity at the center of analysis to show how supposedly universal terms exclude oppressed groups and help the powerful rule over them. Critical theorists argue that the Enlightenment, including the American founding, carried the seeds of modern racism and imperialism.
I think that’s a remarkably perceptive and even courageously written paragraph for the times we are in.
Just think of the shift in American politics. Where are the defenders of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — even among those who quickly signed on as cosponsors of the legislation a generation ago? What about the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? What about Sen. Charles Schumer? What about those who wanted to be known as the defenders of religious liberty until they figured out what it meant? This is the interesting predicament of our time. Now religious liberty is used in the mainstream media in scare quotes. Recently I saw a major news report in which the phrase was this: “so-called religious liberty.” So-called religious liberty! Can you imagine walking into a meeting of the founders and saying, “What is this so-called religious liberty?” But we’re living in an age in which the scare quotes are just a graphic indication of the subversion of the reality.
Recently I saw a major news report in which the phrase was this: “so called religious liberty.” So-called religious liberty! Can you imagine walking into a meeting of the founders and saying, “What is this so called religious liberty?”
E.J. Dionne wrote not too long ago that he was worried about the future vitality of the religious liberty “brand.” He claims it’s being tarnished by convictional Christians and ordinary American citizens who don’t understand that we are harming the brand by indicating that we believe what the founders believed about religious liberty. Just consider how close we are to the Equality Act passing. It’s absolutely astounding. How many Americans understand what that would mean just in terms of the legislation, just in terms of the government coercion that would come behind it, just in terms of the fact that written into the legislation is a prohibition against turning to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an appeal? This is being championed by at least some who were ardent supporters of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it didn’t cost them anything. But now their own constituents, the political energies of their own party, demand that the new moral revolution take precedence over everything else.
Sometimes it feels like we’re losing even when we thought we were winning, at least in some sense, or at least we were holding back the flood. Then comes the Bostock decision of the United States Supreme Court, and there’s a sense in which we look at this and say, “What were we working for all of these years? What were we striving for, for decades, if it can all come down to this?” Bostock puts yet another statement in a majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court, that of course there will eventually have to be a settlement of what this will mean for a Christian college or a university that has the audacity to be Christian in hiring, in admissions, in housing, and in student life. As then Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said in the oral arguments for the Obergefell case, “It will be an issue.” It will, I say, as president of such an institution. It is. We’re about to find out where the Christian institutions really are. We’re about to find out how many Christian colleges, Christian universities, Christian theological seminaries we actually have. We’re going to find out just how much and just how many are willing to pay the price for bearing the full onslaught of the warfare that is coming. And make no mistake, the full force of coercion is coming fast. The aim of those who would bring this coercion is that you will be made to call a man a woman. You will be made to call a boy a girl. You’ll be made to ask everyone for pronouns. You’ll be forced to deny reality, to deny physical matter, biology. And of course, we as Christians understand that behind all of that is the demand to deny God. Now, we know this will not end well, even for the revolutionaries; more precisely, we know it will not end well, especially for the revolutionaries.
But that brings us to the question of the evening: What is the great cause unique to this generation of Christians? It is to bear testimony to the one true God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; to advance the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ; and to speak the truth when all the world goes insane. It is to hold together and stand without apology upon the transcendentals of the good, the true, and the beautiful, because we know they are grounded in the reality of God Himself, revealed consummately — not in creation, where they are indeed revealed, but in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the good, the beautiful, and the true, incarnate in human flesh.
The great challenge of our generation is to defend human dignity against the great machine, and to defend human rights as inalienable gifts to be understood as given by the Creator and respected by government courts, politicians, and neighbors. The great challenge of our generation of this moment is to contend for the rule of law and for the integrity of laws; to understand that religious liberty is indeed the first and most fundamental liberty without which no other liberty will survive, can survive. The responsibility of so many people in this room — and I want you to hear my admiration and support and encouragement tonight — the responsibility of so many in this room, and of Alliance Defending Freedom, is to go into the courtrooms and to make those arguments, to defend liberty, to defend an entire superstructure of understanding on behalf of what is good and beautiful and true, on behalf of the One who is alone good and beautiful and true.
This means you, and the supporters of Alliance Defending Freedom and those who are gathered in this common cause, are ready to stand for what is right, not because we are right but because God is right. To defend liberty in an age of insanity. To go into the courtrooms to defend cake bakers. It sounds like a medieval play, doesn’t it? It sounds like Chaucer: going into the courtrooms to defend cake bakers and florists and Christian colleges and universities, to go into the public square to defend children and parents and families and churches. Ultimately, to bear witness to the unity, the good, the beautiful, and the true — grounded in the real, true, and infinitely glorious God. Our answer to a darkening age must be a deepening theology and a more determined fight for the right.
So, we are not the company of the depressed and the discouraged. We are the army of the determined. And by the way, we are an eschatological people. We understand that we are called, in any moment of human history, to be found faithful until God in Christ shows his infinite faithfulness. Our answer to this darkening age must be a theology that’s ever deeper in a fight that’s ever more determined. I close by citing someone who understood that fight: J.R.R. Tolkien. You may recall this passage from The Fellowship of the Ring. The passage starts with Frodo speaking:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see suchtimes. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
That’s all. What do we do with the time that is given us? Hopefully this week has been a good exercise in becoming ever more faithful in our thinking, ever more determined in our action. We don’t get to choose the time, only whether we are faithful in our time. And so, brothers and sisters, we get ready to leave, to the fight, for the Lord, for the glory of God.
About Dr. Albert Mohler Jr.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – one of the largest seminaries in the world.
He also serves as the editor of WORLD Opinions, writing regular commentary on moral, cultural, and theological issues. Called “an articulate voice for conservative Christianity at large” by The Chicago Tribune, Dr. Mohler’s mission is to address contemporary issues from a Christian worldview.
A native of Lakeland, Florida, Dr. Mohler was a Faculty Scholar at Florida Atlantic University before receiving his bachelor of arts degree from Samford University. He holds a master of divinity degree and the doctor of philosophy from Southern Seminary and has done research at University of Oxford.