Dr. Mohler on Cecil Sherman and Thoughts of Engagement Across Religious Divides

April 24, 2010

“No one who had a meaningful encounter with him will ever forget him. Cecil Sherman may have led the moderate movement in the SBC, but this much is clear — Cecil Sherman was no moderate.”

In eulogizing Dr. Cecil Sherman, this is the major point Dr. Albert Mohler seems to stress the most. A few months ago he did the same with renowned feminist Mary Daly: “The story of Mary Daly is, by any Christian measure, a tragedy. And, we must add, a tragedy with lessons we dare not miss,” is how he ended his blog post detailing her career when she died in January.

I debated whether to do this article myself; I know many who feel that when you disagree in the faith camp, you should just be silent and focus on what you have in common with the other; ironically, this is my main problem with how Dr. Mohler handled these two eulogies.

There are a few factors I’m juggling; I’m going to throw them all out and see if I can tie this cohesively together to express what I’m thinking about this as politely and non-confrontational as possible.

I grew up Baptist. I have known and still do know lots of great Southern Baptist folks. I can think of some that have never given Dr. Mohler a thought—those that may not even know who he is; I have also met many students and graduates of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is President and where he has been the key figure in shaping curriculum and thought. Of these students, some share concerns and views I do as well. It’s proof that try and mold a consensus opinion as much as you want and you still won’t get everyone on the same page. Then there is the obvious fact that even if we disagree on many things, there is always something we can agree on and address together, which was the focus of a very important lecture I recently heard, which I’ll get back to later. But why should I care what Dr. Mohler thinks or writes given that I’m no longer a Baptist? Because, the SBC is one of the largest denominations in the country; they’re such a large group that they have a lot to do with the public perception of Christianity in this country. With such a large group of Christians under one umbrella, the work they could do is tremendous: so it’s of interest to all Christians that their work be directed in as righteous and productive an area as possible.

The lecture I mentioned earlier was by Eboo Patel, author of the award-winning book “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.” Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, and the work he does which unites youth from multiple faith backgrounds together to perform community service is a vision he has for the entire world. Patel spoke of the hope that one day all cities and locations will have inter-faith panels of folks gathered together with shared goals; of inspiring a thirst for peace, justice, civic pride, and active engagement that surpasses the violence, fear, intolerance, and bigotry terrorist organizations instill in youth. To get past bigotry, we have to have basic knowledge of the good in each others faiths, awareness of the basic religious tenets of our neighbors. To best implement these type of actions, we must allow each other to be ourselves; focus on commonalities; and work together often. When Patel was through lecturing, a student in the audience asked him how we best go about engaging with others across religious divides when many find it hard to communicate with others in the same religion—denominations and “conservative” vs “liberal” Christians not being able to relate to each other, etc. Patel responded that if we “keep hitting a brick wall,” then we “should stop running into that brick wall”; for example, as a Muslim, Patel would likely not agree with a Christian about Jesus; so if he is working with an evangelical Christian, he and they shouldn’t bring up Jesus. But they could still build a house together and agree on fighting poverty. Inter-Faith Engagement, understanding, and cooperation is a huge interest of mine and I feel Patel vocalizes it so well it’s hard not to be inspired.

The question the student asked was a good one, and Patel’s answer was inspiring and logical. Yet here I am writing about Dr. Mohler; many folks I know are doing their best these days to ignore the areas they disagree with and “focus on the positive,” when it comes to other religious folks. And my main point with Mohler here, is that he didn’t do this, he made no effort to do this. In writing about someone from his own denomination, Dr. Cecil Sherman, he had to make the main point of his article be why Sherman wasn’t a “moderate,” even though he claimed to be. Mohler did write a few nice things about Sherman, but that wasn’t the focus of the article. Why couldn’t it have been? Why spend the days after the death of someone you had plenty in common with writing an article about why they weren’t what they claimed to be and why you disagreed with what they spent their life thinking and teaching? And am I hypocritical for dredging this up when I could just let his blog go unmentioned by me (and thus leave the few folks stumbling across this article unaware of my opinion on the matter)?

Because it’s hard to seek out commonalities when the other side tries their hardest to burn bridges and close themselves off into like-minded cloisters. It’s hard to get the participation of folks when their sense of importance is drastically different than yours. Sure, Mohler and I might both agree AIDS, poverty, homelessness, war, division, etc. are bad. But judging from his blog, he’s more concerned with the “threats” of feminism, liberalism, evolution education, gay rights, sex education, etc. The question the student asked was a very Christ-like one, a very earnest and honest one, one that needs a good answer. But sitting where I am, I find it much more likely that I can find cooperation, support, and like-minded priorities with Progressive Muslims, Buddhists, and Secular Humanists than I can with Fundamentalist Christians (or Fundamentalist/Extremist Muslims, etc). It’s been a point for a long while now that the progressive factions (or “liberal”)in every denomination—Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. –have much more in common with each other than they do with the conservative side of their own denomination. Those in the middle, those true “moderates”—like Dr. Sherman—aren’t even believed to be what they claim from those on the far right of their respective groups. Sherman was a moderate; the things that made him leave the SBC, like the demand to sign the “Glorieta Statement,” were not in line with what Baptists had traditionally been. Yet the SBC has so delightfully ret-conned their entire history that the newcomer or un-read in the area would have no clue of that. A great read concerning the actions of those that took over the SBC is “Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War,” an article from the “Journal of Church and State.” You can download it here:

http://www.amazon.com/Going-Jugular-Documentary-History-Journal/dp/B00097SKUG/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272147551&sr=1-3

I’ve always found what happened to the Convention to be fascinating. Growing up, my home church never mentioned much about it, but it was always in publications that came to the church. I had an older brother who was a student at SBTS when it occurred, who left as a result of it, so I heard some of it from him and read about it later on my own. These things are important because the absolute wrongness of them is so clear—do those like Dr. Mohler have the right to believe and teach what they do? Of course. I won’t attend a church that denies women the right to a leadership positions, that believes gays can and should be “made straight,” that views Jews, Catholics and other faiths as heathens in need of conversion and thus only interacts with them with that as the end-goal, or that believes the Bible we have in its present form is without a single scientific, geographic, or historical error, but Mohler and his followers have the right to think such things. I would still work with them to serve soup and clothes to the homeless if they wished and we simply wouldn’t mention any of these things. But what is wrong is forcing everyone who disagrees with you outside of the group, removing the diversity and respect for independence that had long been a huge part of Baptist heritage. If it can happen to the largest group, it can happen to anyone; and of course, their cohesion may be a huge reason for their large size, but is forced agreement good?

So do Progressives “write off” one of the largest groups of Christians in America when it comes to every justice issue? I certainly hope not. But can we work with them consistently? Can we see eye to eye enough to focus on a specific area with them? I think we can on an individual basis. I can think of several southern Baptist folks who work hard consistently to tackle poverty, drug addiction, and spousal abuse. I can work with them on an individual basis, if ever given the chance. We can see each other as justice-seeking, God-loving people who just happen to disagree on a whole lot of things.

Dr. Mohler on Cecil Sherman: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/04/23/this-man-was-no-moderate-the-legacy-of-cecil-sherman/

Dr. Mohler on Mary Daly: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/08/newsnote-the-death-of-a-feminist/

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3 Responses to “Dr. Mohler on Cecil Sherman and Thoughts of Engagement Across Religious Divides”

  1. derik said

    Thanks for your words!! Dr. Sherman was my professor and hero. What Dr. Mohler said was offensive, rude, and cruel. Cecil would take it all in stride and ignore it. I find it interesting that al brags on his sbc childhood etc even while claiming it was so bad they had to rescue it from the ‘liberals!’

  2. david said

    I think a big difference between conservative evangelical groups and more moderate, or progressive groups, could be that one group wants to help because they are motivated to by compassion, and the other group wants to help so they have the opportunity to share Jesus. I’m not saying that there aren’t envangelical conservatives who sincerely care about people bc of the love of God (I know lots and attend church with many, but you may not know all they do for people bc they do it on an individual basis more than organized groups), but what I am saying is that many of these Christians won’t work with other denominations bc their faith message would not be the same, or bc they wouldn’t have a focus on a faith message. You can’t blame them for being evangelical. If your belief is one focused on the afterlife, your priority would be evangelical. But the bottom line is that Christ did not say ‘help the poor and widow so you can tell them about me.’ Christ said love your neighbor as yourself.

  3. Beau said

    Great post, Dustin! I would be sad if my legacy was marked by theological or political alignment rather than my service to humankind.

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