“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
So cries Richard III just before he dies, bringing down the Plantagenet line in the late fifteenth century. Shakespeare captured the tragic figure of the deformed and unloved, but power-hungry and ambitious pretender in the five-act tragedy named after its protagonist, King Richard III. Ralph FIennes and Ian McKellan are among the privileged actors who got to deliver the famous speech, known as “the winter of our discontent”.
Richard III is a bitter figure, knowing that he enjoys none of the natural gifts that would otherwise make the public fall in love with him. He is “rudely stamped” as he says in his speech. Though he feels entitled to the crown of England, he has neither the charisma nor the prowess to gain and keep it through heroic means. Nor does he find himself in a lucky position without rivals or threats to his power.
As Richard says in the famous speech, he still wants the throne despite the lack of winsome, warm, or glorious avenues to power. He will “add colours to the chameleon” and engage in deceit, trickery, and insidious plotting, killing his own relatives and betraying male and female, noble and commoner, old and young alike. Whatever it takes to win, he will do it. Yet by Act Five he discovers what this power-driven life is worth. Surrounded by people who have survived his snares and begrudge him for them, he throws himself into battle only to discover that he is no knight on shining armor. He wanted one thing, power. He chased it for so long that he only realized too late that power is the one thing that shows a person no loyalty.
Since I had recently read RIchard III and King John to brush up on my Shakespeare, the sad but engrossing plot twists were fresh in my mind when I watched yet another drama unfurl in the Southern Baptist Convention. Now we have a truly Shakespearean public figure to add some theatrical excitement to what would otherwise be an embarrassing mud fight between paunchy Baptist pastors hate-quoting Matthew 18 at each other.
Al Mohler is the ideal parallel persona to the pathetic Richard III. Emerging from his own War of the Roses, and desperate to become a Plantagenet King of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, he could deliver the “Winter of our Discontent” speech better than Ian McKellan or even Laurence Olivier.
Remember that the year 2020 began with Mohler’s hopes of becoming president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Until now he has never attained that office. He has been president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993, an amazing run of nearly three decades. During that time he has enlarged his influence and become the most powerful person in the SBC. But he has had to be a crafty kingmaker in that fifteenth-century style, never getting to have his own coronation and listen to the cries of “God save the king!” from hordes of adoring fans.
Like Richard III, Albert Mohler has had to content himself with the gifts he has: shrewdness, ambition, and willingness to do anything to increase his power. He doesn’t have J.D. Greear’s frat boy looks, Paige Patterson’s endearing warmth, Beth Moore’s sex appeal, or Billy Graham’s commanding eloquence. He has certainly run with wealthy crowds but has no Rockefeller family fortune to fall back on. His daily briefing and laundry list of books show the level of prose that would earn him an A in sophomore composition but he is notoriously unoriginal and lukewarm in his convictions. His personal testimony amounts to going to a Baptist undergraduate program and then worming his way up the ladder at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, his own alma mater, by attaching himself to powerful people, dumping them when they fell out of favor, and carefully switching sides each time the liberals and conservatives went back and forth.
Mohler didn’t have a life story that would exactly stir warm and fuzzy feelings in audiences. And he was stuck with a Baptist constituency that never rose to his champagne standards. He probably watched his friend Robert George with envy as George politicked and hob-knobbed among the rich Catholic elite, educated in such swell bastions as Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Fordham. He probably watched his libertarian counterparts at Cato and Reason, swimming in money from the Kochs, Soroses, and Singers of the world, and grumbled under his breath, “why oh why am I stuck in a denomination that won’t let me go easy on homosexuality?” He didn’t grow up on the Upper East Side and had no Ivy League degree, but he wasn’t a true-blue Southerner like the Pattersons, complete with a regional accent to make clear where they come from. With his many disadvantages, he had to use the crutches available to him: scheming, power games, and showmanship.
Jonathan Merritt laid out the sad road map of Mohler’s rise from run-of-the-mill seminarian to SBC Svengali in this scathing piece for Religion News Service. Here are two choice paragraphs:
Mohler’s aspirations stretched beyond the borders of the seminary’s 100-acre campus. In the decade that followed, Mohler launched a conservative talk radio show, published right-leaning opinion columns in secular news outlets and became a regular defender of traditional values on “Larry King Live” and other TV talk shows. The profits he reaped from his industry are a matter of conjecture, since he funneled them through a corporation, registered at the seminary, called Fidelitas, Inc., which doesn’t disclose its revenues. Barry Hankins, chair of Baylor University’s history department, who interviewed Mohler extensively for his book, “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture,” said, “I’ve always believed (Mohler) wanted to be president of Southern Seminary and the SBC’s most influential theologian. The problem is he’s spent way more time on culture wars over the past 20 years than on theology.”
Because he found himself in the Southern Baptist world, Mohler had to persevere toward greatness in an impossible double-bind. To be invited to such prestigious platforms as the Washington Post and CNN, he had to signal simultaneously that he spoke for Southern Baptists and he was cosmopolitan enough not to anger gay television executives with an altar call in the middle of an interview. This meant he couldn’t alienate the mass of Southern Baptists, because if he didn’t speak for them, CNN wouldn’t care about his opinion. At the same time, he couldn’t come across as one of the Southern Baptists, because if so, the elites in Washington and New York wouldn’t want to be seen with him.
When you try to play both sides of a divide, you run the risk of angering everybody. That is now the dilemma in which he finds himself. For whatever reason (probably, to placate conservatives in the Convention), he announced he was going to vote for Trump in 2020, thereby backing away from his Never Trump position of 2016. This provoked angry responses from liberals in the SBC who thought he was on their side all along. Then, to keep his liberal allies happy, he just fired Russell Fuller, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who was well known as a staunch conservative. While Mohler’s gang is accustomed to using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) with non-disparagement clauses to buy the silence of people like Fuller, Fuller surprised him by refusing to sign the NDA. Now Fuller has gone public in at least two interviews, telling the whole world that Mohler’s seminary (under his direction) has been involved in a stealth mission to bring more liberal faculty into the fold. People who dissented from this direction have been crushed.
When I came forward in December 2019 and told the public about the inner workings of Baptist seminaries, I felt as though I was breaking new ground. People in the Baptist world generally bow to the authorities within the denomination and don’t rock boats, even after they’ve been fired. But my coming forward didn’t strike at Mohler’s role in the SBC downgrade as much as Fuller’s does. As someone who worked under Mohler for 22 years, Fuller had a clear sense of how Mohler operated. Fuller also had documentation to support his charges against Mohler.
The videos of Fuller’s testimony exploded on Baptist social media as many churchgoers who didn’t think anything was wrong began to feel as though Mohler had duped them. Mohler’s defenders quickly piled on and tried to smear Fuller’s testimony as false. They also dragged up old quotes from Jon Harris’s past because Jon Harris was the one who interviewed Fuller. Harris has a controversial history of writing about the confederacy in positive terms. I can see that Mohler’s old game for maintaining power works less and less by now. As many have asked, whom should we believe — people who are working under Mohler and afraid of losing their jobs, or someone like Russell Fuller who bravely risked financial ruin so he could come forward and speak out without an NDA?
I have avoided, as much as I can, the finer details of liberal versus conservative theology. In my mind the big story is that Fuller has laid bare the truth about how Mohler runs things. Not only does Mohler chase after worldly approval on a scale many Baptists would not live. Also, Mohler must crush and erase any dissenters lest they pose serious questions about what is happening in the SBC. Mohler may be a conservative but we can see the way he’s running things and that’s the problem. He has not dealt honestly with the people for whom he speaks. He hides many details and spins others disingenuously. Worst of all, to cover up for the impossible contradictions into which he has fallen, he has to blacklist, destroy, banish, and publicly humiliate anyone who wants to speak out against what he is doing.
Like Richard III surrounded by embittered enemies, Mohler now finds the mobs pressing against him on all sides. He angered many people by going after Patterson based on extenuated accusations that he mismanaged sex abuse accusations. Then Mohler showed his massive influence in the Convention by angling to get his protégés, Adam Greenway and Randy Stinson, transported from Southern to Southwestern to take over Patterson’s old stomping grounds. Last year, many in the sex abuse survivor community revealed they did not see Mohler as a hero for having attacked Patterson, because Mohler had a role in the C.J. Mahaney sex abuse coverup scandal. The hardline tactics of sending minions to troll opponents in public discourse, blacklisting, firing, and intimidating people, are gradually backfiring on Mohler as people have come to realize that Mohler has many enemies and can’t keep all of them in quiet fear forever.
“My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
If Shakespeare’s Richard III can come to life in our day, then we will gladly see Mohler blocked from becoming president of the SBC. The fact that he has wanted it so badly all these years makes the strongest case against giving him the position. Sheer ambition is not a good in itself. And the purely ambitious often end the way Richard III and Mohler look now: frustrated and increasingly alone.