Christianity and Politics in an Age of Upheaval: A Conversation with Jonathan Leeman

Albert Mohler:              This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks in Washington DC. Thus, he is responsible for the publication of dozens of books and innumerable other publications. He co-hosts a podcast with Mark Dever entitled “Pastors Talk.” He’s also the author of 10 books on his own, including Political Church, The Local Assembly, His Embassy of Christ Rule, and How the Nation’s Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age.

Albert Mohler:              Jonathan received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Rochester, his Master of Science from the London School of Economics. He received the Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and his PhD in Political Theology from the University of Wales in Great Britain. He has served as Adjunct Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary. He’s an elder at Chevrolet Baptist Church, which was planted out of Capitol Hill Baptist Church last year. Jonathan and his wife, Shannon, have four daughters. This Thinking in Public conversation was recorded live before an audience at the Gospel Coalition in Indianapolis in April of 2019. Jonathan Leeman, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Albert Mohler:              Thank you for the contribution you made through your book, How the Nation’s Rage. With you, I can have a little bit of a different conversation than I can have with others. I just want to ask you, why do you write a book? You’ve written more than one. I write books. Why? What is behind writing a book?

Jonathan Leeman:         Book generally or that book in particular?

Albert Mohler:              Well, first of all, why do you write books?

Jonathan Leeman:         I recall, I think it was Doug Wilson, said something about, “I write to stop the conversations inside of my head,” right? It’s just your heads burning with something you got to say; you get it out. There’s something about being a writer. That’s why you do it, obviously, at one level. At another level, there are things that you need to say, especially as a Christian minister.

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Jonathan Leeman:         There are Kingdom things that you want to say, and do, and accomplish, and you want to be a good steward of the opportunities the Lord has given and the skills he’s given. Yeah, it’s a calling in that regard.

Albert Mohler:              Sure, and I think one of the things that comes to my mind is that there’s a distinctively Christian reason for writing a book. That is because Christianity is, in essence, a literary culture. It’s a lot more than that, but it’s never been less than that. Nor was Israel. We talk about a self-existent, self-revealing God who gives us Scripture. It’s writing. There’s something objective about a text that is not equally objective if it’s just auditory speech. In Scripture, we’re able to read what Moses heard from God, from the bush that burned and was not consumed. Wherever you have found Christians, you have found texts. You have found authors. You have found books—sometimes polemical, apologetic, sometimes homiletical and theological, sometimes literary, fictive—but you find books. I don’t think it is an accident.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, I like the way Mark Dever talks about the fact that we live in the age of the ear. When we were in the garden, we could see God. We walked. Adam and Eve walked with Him, but then upon eviction from the garden, knowledge of God always became mediated through words, with the exception of the coming of Jesus Christ. We long to see God, but until he comes again, we live in the age of the ear, and how remarkable it is that we have the Old Testament Scriptures, the New Testament Scriptures, and it’s amazing to me how many countless books have been written about that book. Right?

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Jonathan Leeman:         I’ve always wondered if publishers could survey, how many books does the average Christian read versus the average non-Christian? I mean, I know how Christians are stereotyped. I think of that old Washington Post. What was the phrase? Illiterate, easily misled or?

Albert Mohler:              Yes, basically ignorant and easily led.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, that’s right.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         I wonder, most of the Christians I know, I think, are bigger readers than the non-Christians I know. That’s anecdotal. I wonder if there are surveys. We like to read.

Albert Mohler:              Well, I can tell you, you can certainly look at it anecdotally when you consider the fact that if you come to a conference, like the one we’re attending right now, you’ve got table after table after table of books, and you’ve got the-

Jonathan Leeman:         And people buying them.

Albert Mohler:              …young people picking up books and planning to read them, and talking to one another about books. I will tell you I know of people who are not evangelical Christians who are quite surprised by that and haven’t ever been to a conference like that.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. I’m grateful for my teachers who taught me that, and I’m grateful for my friends who love to talk about books. Thank you for this conversation. I don’t have much to contribute on Slavic literature.

Albert Mohler:              There’s a reason why you don’t teach it.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, I guess so.

Albert Mohler:              By the way, that’s true for both of us. Neither one of us is a candidate for an endowed Chair in Slavic Studies in literature. The first problem, for me, would be a language problem, but, on the other hand, as a teenager, I started reading Slavic literature and it captured my heart, in English translation.

Jonathan Leeman:         Sure.

Albert Mohler:              I think the first work by Tolstoy I read, I was in high school, and it was one of his short works, and I was taken into a world of meaning that I could not have known otherwise. I can’t think of anything far more distant from a teenager in Florida than the experience of an old man in 19th century Russia, but there it was, and by reading Tolstoy, there I was.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. Same thing. I wasn’t in high school. It was a little later in college, reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yeah, and you’re immersed in the different world, different way of seeing things, immensely valuable.

Albert Mohler:              Now, we’re going to turn to talk about your book in just a moment, but one of the interesting things is how I had to think differently about reading someone like Tolstoy because the teenage evangelical I was was incredibly suspicious of reading anything that wasn’t written by an evangelical. Tolstoy was not an evangelical, which he would be the first to insist upon.

Jonathan Leeman:         No.

Albert Mohler:              I had this suspicion as a teenager that I had better be careful that I read only what was written by people who shared my worldview, but I found that was impossible. First of all, because there weren’t that many books written by the people who shared my worldview that I had access to, but then this great world of literature and thought, politics and economics, and history was beckoning unto me. I had to learn that a Christian reading critically is actually able to help the church in a way that a Christian who doesn’t read dangerous literature can never be.

Jonathan Leeman:         I’m sure, yeah, certainly that’s true. My own experience growing up was very different in that regard. I considered myself a Christian. I called myself a Christian. I don’t think I was, and I loved literature that pushed me in new directions in college. The closest thing I had to a Bible was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Albert Mohler:              That’s not close.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. No, it’s not. In fact, here’s an example: one of my favorite lines from that, that I still enjoy quoting from time to time, is, “Do I contradict myself very well? I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.” That’s Walt Whitman.

Albert Mohler:              It also makes sense-

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s a worldview.

Albert Mohler:              …to any adolescent. “I contain multitudes.”

Jonathan Leeman:         I was an adolescent.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right. See, that’s the thing I enjoyed. When I came into the Christian faith, I think that study, that kind of literature gave me a better understanding of the silliness of so much non-Christian worldview, but also the intelligence of so many non-Christians, and knowing how to engage with them.

Albert Mohler:              We have a good explanation for that with common grace.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, that’s right.

Albert Mohler:              That Imago Dei, as a matter of fact, but that will have to be a different conversation. The conversation, specifically, we want to get to is about your recent book, How the Nation’s Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age. After asking you why you write books, I want to ask you the obvious question: why did you write this book?

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, there’s Jonathan Leeman, the political theorist. I did graduate studies in political theory, and there’s Jonathan Leeman, the pastor. Jonathan Leeman, the political…

Albert Mohler:              You contain multitudes.

Jonathan Leeman:         You said it. Jonathan Leeman, the political theorist wrote it because he believes Scripture teaches that the public square is nothing, more or less, than a battleground of gods. We go there on behalf of our gods. The way that the common assumption and culture is, “Hey, we can divide our politics and religion, and you Christians, you need to leave your religion at the door, but we, the idolaters,”—they don’t call themselves that—the idolaters come in, and they don’t leave their idolatry at the door, and they’re happy to impose their idolatry on us. The political theorist in Jonathan wanted to say, “Hey, let’s reconsider the faith, politics landscape.” I’m a big advocate of separation of church and state. I’ve written many books on the church. I’m all about separation of church and state, but faith and politics, that’s something slightly different.

Jonathan Leeman:         Okay, so that’s the political theorist. The pastor in Jonathan Leeman, I’ve been privileged to serve as an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church for a number of years. We recently left to plant another church, Chevrolet Baptist Church and teaching some of this material as a Sunday school class. The pastor in Jonathan Leeman wanted to help Christians understand that true righteousness, true justice begins in our life together in the congregation. We are the city on the hill. The nation isn’t the city on hill. We and the church are the city on the hill. In a sense, the first place Christians need to learn politics is inside the local church. Those are the two main animating ideas for me as I wrote this book.

Albert Mohler:              As a teenager, the same teenager enthralled with literature, I was intellectually captivated by political theory.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              I had a high school class I was privileged to be in, very rare, you wouldn’t think of this in most high schools, on political theory. There weren’t that many of us in there, and you can picture the class. We were in that class. We started reading the Greeks and the Romans on political theory, then all the way through. It was a two-volume paperback set of political theory. I think that’s what made me, in many ways, a theologian; and people will not understand that unless they come to understand that those books are asking the most basic questions about life and meaning, and order.

Jonathan Leeman:         Justice.

Albert Mohler:              Absolutely, righteousness, even love; even love in many ways. I found myself having to think, how would a Christian think about this? It did lead to an apologetic crisis in my life. I think it also, in so many ways, made me a theologian. One of the things you do in introducing this book is to point out, and I’m putting words in your mouth here, that many Christians have an artificially restrictive understanding of polis and of politics. They tend to conflate politics and government. That’s not helpful.

Jonathan Leeman:         Right. Well, politics is about ordering our lives in a broad generic sense. How do we order our lives in the society and the polis? What are the rules of justice that then govern how we rule our lives together? What are the sources of justice? In the Western American liberal tradition, we tend to think of that as a two-party conversation, at least of late. You have the rulers and the ruled. Scripture would say, remove the sky and realize that God is God over. He’s King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s a three-party conversation, and that affects all of our lives. That’s exactly right. Now that raises lots of difficult questions. Are you a theonomist? Is that what you’re saying? Do you impose the Bible on non-Christians? There’s a lot of tough questions that we immediately need to get into, but recognizing that the Israel-like claim, “Yahweh is King,” and the Christian claim, “Jesus is Lord,” is an astoundingly political statement that pertains to all of life, including government.

Albert Mohler:              Outside of Scripture, the most important influence in my thinking is Augustine. Augustine convinced me early on, that the church is, first of all, a polis, a distinctive people who belong to God, but who are ordered, according to the rule of Christ in Scripture, in such a way that in his book on The City of God and, of course, he speaks also The City of Man, and these two cities animated by two different loves. He makes very clear that the ordering of God’s people in the church is actually the church’s first priority, before the ordering of the society beyond.

Jonathan Leeman:         Right. I think if you come to Washington DC, and you walk up to the Lincoln Monument, and you look to your right, and you see the second inaugural address described in marble there on the lawn, you see that beautiful last one of the sentences in it about fervently praying and hoping that we would ‘achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.’ What a beautiful phrase: ‘achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations’. Well friends, where do we first achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations? Where is it, that is to say, we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? Well, the local church. That’s where it should begin anyhow. Yeah, I love Augustine in that regard, and in many ways, that’s what I think. If we’re to get wonky for a second, we need to bring a little bit more Augustinianism into our understanding of the American experiment.

Albert Mohler:              Yes. Which, by the way, Lincoln did.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yes.

Albert Mohler:              Alan Gilzow, I was reading just recently, describes him as a secularized Calvinist.

Jonathan Leeman:         Lincoln is that?

Albert Mohler:              Lincoln as a secularized Calvinist, and I think that’s true.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, you see it in a lot of speeches.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, right. I think he’s a secularized Augustinian before that. It’s not that Gilzow’s wrong. I just think that the deep understanding of the brokenness of the world that Augustine helps us to see, Lincoln knew that the ironies, as Niebuhr would call, the ironies of history, Augustine helps us, I think, to understand that. Lincoln saw that, but he was secularized in that sense.

Jonathan Leeman:         Do you feel like Lincoln became more and more that way, the older he got and the further into the war he got it? I feel like those themes came out more prominently. Would you find a similar observation?

Albert Mohler:              Elton Trueblood, who—by the way you cited in the book—I knew Elton Trueblood and wrote my honors thesis, as an undergraduate, on Elton Trueblood. I got to meet him and to spend some time with him. He wrote a biography of Lincoln entitled, Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. A part of his reading of Lincoln is that Lincoln became more anguished the older he got. His second inaugural address is so deeply theological, but it’s uttered by a man with no discernible theology.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. I love the way of your own faculty member John Wilsey, who talks about it in his book, Civil Religion: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, and gives a tremendous look at Lincoln and his form of exceptionalism, a very open-handed exceptionalism. I think he does a good job. Mark Knoll does a great job thinking about the theology, all of that, and both sides of the Civil War. A lot of great resources.

Albert Mohler:              Now, in your book, you cite Winston Churchill and the adage in which he said— we’re paraphrasing him here—that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. There’s a sense in which I want to borrow from Churchill—which I do quite often—in order to say that if you’re looking at the history of Christian political engagement, it’s really, in many ways, a long list of wrong ways to engage politics because we tend to learn by the failure of previous attempts. You wrote this book at a particular time in American history and society, and It was at a time when I think many Christians were beginning to realize whatever we have thought about our relationship to the political order in the past that it doesn’t exactly fit now.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, that’s exactly right. Think about, let’s go back again to the American founding. Think about Washington and Adams, who both had a very acute sense that this form of government is only going to work in a virtuous society—I think they even would even used religious society. It’s not going to work in an unvirtuous society. I would say, in many ways, history is proving those two correct. Let’s talk about those three values of the American experiment: rights, equality, freedom. Those are good things, biblical things. It seems like. Can we agree just to have a nation built together on those three ideas: rights, equality, freedom, even though we disagree on our religion? That’s going to work one way: when the society is divided between Congregationalists and Anglicans, and Presbyterians, and Baptists, and maybe some deists and Catholics, and Jews. Rights, equality, and freedom are basically going to mean the same thing.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, fast forward 200 years. Now society is divided between secularists, progressivists, and nones, and spiritual-not-religious, and born-agains, and Muslims, and Hindus, and hockey players and stockbrokers. Well, what equality, rights, and freedom mean now are very different things. Right to an abortion, marriage equality, freedom to choose my own gender. Who gets to define rights? Behind each of those words is a conception of justice. What are Christians interested in? They’re interested in a just equality, a just rights, a just understanding of freedom. Well, who determines what justice is? Well, your big G or little g god.

Albert Mohler:              Mary Ann Glendon at the Harvard Law School, years ago wrote about the transformation in American civil, and even legal, discourse from a shared understanding of right and wrong, with rights emerging out of that framework to now when right and wrong are gone, and rights hung in the air. Her book is entitled, Rights Talk. There’s no shared meaning. Everybody uses the word rights, but no one even agrees on what rights mean, who secures them, how are they being applied. In your book, you begin by helping Christians to think about political theory and political order, and in an explicitly theological frame, which I greatly appreciate.

Albert Mohler:              As the book unfolds, it turns out this is a lot more complicated than most Christians want to think it is, because I think what most Christians want to know is what’s the safe position to hold. How can I be faithful, and vote, engage? And again, they so often conflate politics with government that we’re really just thinking about elections. You’re really challenging Christians to read a couple hundred pages about what they really want to be reduced to a few paragraphs.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, I wanted to simplify it as much as I could, but it is the inadequacy of my own brain to put some things more simply than I would like to have done, but no, it is a complicated topic. Politics, in many respects, is the domain of wisdom. Proverbs 8, wisdom calls out, calls aloud. What does she say in verses 14 and 15 of Proverbs? She says, “By me kings reign and rulers govern.” Wisdom is tough to come by. It’s complicated. There’s a time and a season for everything, a time to build, a time to tear down. What time is it now? I need wisdom to know that. The two prostitutes come before Solomon, “My baby.” “No, my baby.” Well, what’s the answer? Well, the Bible doesn’t say. He needs wisdom. “I know. Bring me a sword.” Real mama says, “It’s hers. She can have it.” The narrator, verse 28, then summarizes that as, “And the people of God were, the people of Israel, were amazed that God had given wisdom to Solomon to do justice.” I often say, if you want the political philosophy of the Bible in a single verse, don’t give me Aristotle. Don’t give me Plato. Don’t give me Hobbes or Locke. Give me that verse. We need God’s wisdom to do justice, but wisdom is hard. It’s complicated. That’s my long way of answering your point. Yeah, it’s complicated.

Albert Mohler:              I guess one observation that might be helpful is that as much as many Christians enjoy talking about politics, they often do not give much thought to thinking politically. Those are really two different things. It’s easy to talk about politics. Just talk about whatever is the most instant controversy from the headlines or social media, or, for that matter, just listen to the conversation of the age. If you’re going to think politically, this is where Christians have to think, simultaneously, theologically. We have to think biblically. We have to think politically, never isolating politics from the totality of our worldview, nor from our prior theological commitments. This kind of conversation is at least a down payment on what it means for Christians to think and, furthermore, to converse politically.

Albert Mohler:              Much of your theory of government is drawn from the second Psalm, as is the title of the book. You read it a bit differently than maybe a conventional reading of Psalm.

Jonathan Leeman:         You’re the first person to tell me that.

Albert Mohler:              Okay.

Jonathan Leeman:         I don’t disbelieve you.

Albert Mohler:              No, I’m just saying that most people do not read that as explicitly political, but rather actually pointing to the transcendence of God over politics, but you throw us right back into politics.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, the kings and the nations are raging against who? The Lord and against his anointed. Why? Well, because the Lord and his anointed require things of the kings of the nations that they don’t like. Yeah, I understand that to be immediately impactful. Then you go down to the latter verses, and it warns the kings of the nations again and says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.” Well, who are the kings of the United States? It’s us, the voters. He’s not just talking to Israel here. He’s talking to the nations. He’s talking to us. Yeah, I do see an immediate relevance for the kings of the earth, the voters of the earth in Psalm 2, and what we’re called to do and bowing before King Jesus.

Albert Mohler:              I didn’t say I thought you were wrong.

Jonathan Leeman:         I appreciate that.

Albert Mohler:              It’s just that we tend to spiritualize every text and, perhaps especially the Psalms, in such a way that it would be shocking to many evangelicals to be told, “This is a political psalm.” This psalm is going to require of you a different understanding of the powers that be.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, you know what helped me realize that is a conversation I had with a member in my church, who I think you actually spoke with as well. He had just been elected into office.

Albert Mohler:              Yes.

Jonathan Leeman:         This was before Obergefell. He was confronted in his legislative body with a bill to approve same-sex marriage. He was a young Christian, and he had reasoned himself that you have biblical marriage and then you have civil marriage. In a state, it’s a set of benefits, and it doesn’t matter. This was his reasoning, “I shouldn’t impose my Christian views and the Bible on a secular, unbelieving public. That would be wrong to do.” I remember sitting on a park bench with him one day, and we were talking about this. I just opened up Revelation 6 to him. I read to him, I said, “The kings of the earth and the great ones, and the generals, and the rich, and the powerful, and everyone, slave or free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’. For the great day of the wrath is come and who can stand?” Well, why will the kings and generals, why will every political class, slave and free, fear the coming of Christ’s wrath? Well, because they did not use their political opportunities—whether high or low—to live according to God’s Word. In other words, the accountability of the nations, the political accountability of the nations, depends on the fact that God is judge.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         If he’s not a judge, well, then they’re not accountable, but if his judgment is coming—and as Christians, we believe his judgment is coming—they’re accountable for everything they do in the jury box, in the voting booth, on the Senate floor and so forth. That’s what I tried to convey to this brother. No, you do not want to put your hand to something that will one day incur the wrath of the Lamb.

Albert Mohler:              Yes. I do remember that very situation and a lot of conversation with that brother, and receiving the very same argument. I was very glad to be able to say to him, “I have really good news for you, and that is, we are not the first Christians to try to figure some of this out.”

Jonathan Leeman:         I know.

Albert Mohler:              I actually took him back to Augustine. One of the early principles that Christians came to because Christians didn’t have to worry about a lot of politics as government in the beginning because Christians were being persecuted and martyred.

Jonathan Leeman:         Heavily disenfranchised.

Albert Mohler:              No political responsibility, but after the Constantinian Revolution, there’s a lot of political responsibility, a lot of questions come. Then how do we act rightly? One of the truths I was glad to share with him, one of the principles is that we believe in common grace, and we believe that the purpose of government is to uphold righteousness and to execute justice. The Christian legislator, the Christian statesman, the way it would have been described, cannot always achieve what he believes to be right but can never affirm what he knows to be wrong.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s exactly right.

Albert Mohler:              That’s a very helpful thing, I think, for all of us, not just politicians.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, and recognizing one of the first questions you need to ask as a Christian, looking to read the Bible politically, is, what applies broadly? What doesn’t? What has God authorized the government to do? Also, recognize the difference between prescribing something and proscribing something, between subsidizing something and criminalizing something. There’s a difference between say, criminalizing sexual immorality. I mean, should we criminalize fornication? There’s a difference between that and subsidizing immoral activity. My argument would be that marriage law subsidizes, incentivizes particular forms of activity because it’s in the state’s interest. Therefore, God has not authorized the state to subsidize, sanction support something that is immoral. I would say the same thing with gambling. Should you criminalize gambling? We can have a conversation about that. I’m fairly confident that the government shouldn’t sanction gambling.

Albert Mohler:              Much less profit by it.

Jonathan Leeman:         No, that’s right, which it would do through state lotteries and so forth.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. The other argument to be made from the Christian political history about this question would be that we are accountable for actions that lead to human flourishing. Thus, I just asked this brother again straightforwardly, will legalizing same-sex marriage lead to human flourishing or will it hamper human flourishing? He said, “I think it will hamper it.” I said, “Well, then you can’t vote for it.” It’s really good to know that Christians have been struggling with this for a very long time. In one sense, you could say, Western civilization since the fourth century, at the very least, is a long struggle of people—who have at least predominantly operated out of a Christian worldview until very recently—trying to struggle with these huge questions.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, when you study the history of Christian political thought, sure enough you’ll get Augustine’s two cities. You mentioned that, and then Galatians says two swords. Fast forward, you get Luther’s two kingdoms. They sound similar. Well, they’re not quite similar. They’re not quite the same thing, and I’m trying to figure out how they work together. Then you get into more of a Kuyperian one kingdom concept with different sphere sovereignty. Then all Oliver O’Donovan, more recently, somebody, who’s been influential on me in different ways, kind of it’s two ages. It’s just a bewildering array of options.

Albert Mohler:              You skipped over Grotius and Aquinas.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right.

Albert Mohler:              There’s a whole medieval period there, which was not just the Dark Ages. There was a lot of really important thinking taking place there.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. Back to this conversation with this one individual, it was complicated for me just to think about the question, “Okay, well, how do I, as a pastor of this church, lean in on him?” With another illustration, a pastor of the same church—and I think you know this story as well— a pastor of the same church, Capitol Hill Baptist back in the ’50s, Cayo N. White, in 1960, stood in front of John, presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy and said, “Are you going to take orders from the Pope?” Candidate Kennedy was there with a lot of other Protestant ministers in Houston, and Candidate Kennedy said, “No, I believe in the separation of church and state, and no, the pope cannot dictate things to a president, should he be Catholic, nor should a Protestant minister be telling his members how to vote.”

Jonathan Leeman:         Now, my guess is Cayo N. White would have been happy to tell this brother how to act, in our present scenario, whereas back in 1960’s he didn’t want to hear that from John F. Kennedy. Well, so how do we put these things together? Again, they’re tough. When do you speak? When don’t you speak?

Albert Mohler:              That illustration always irritates me.

Jonathan Leeman:         Why is that?

Albert Mohler:              Not that you used it because it’s an obvious point for you to use with the irony of Cayo N. White having been pastor. He was later pastor of First Baptist, Houston, Texas.

Jonathan Leeman:         I think he was when he confronted.

Albert Mohler:              He was. He was hosting the Houston Baptist Ministers Association. The thing that irritates me, not from you, but for most people citing that is that those pastors were obviously wrong to ask Kennedy that question. When that is not obvious because people forget. They think post-Vatican II. Actually, pre-Vatican II and the changes the came with John Courtney Murray and others with the changes in the Vatican position. If you go back to the late 19th century, the Catholic Church is saying that it has the absolute right to tell Catholic politicians exactly how they should vote. It wasn’t Baptist suspicion that the Catholic Church was teaching that. The Catholic Church was saying that as loudly as it could. Kennedy was actually a good politician and a horrible Catholic in making that statement, but look, he presaged the shape of many Catholic politicians to follow.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, sure, and then we think about where it’s gone since.

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Jonathan Leeman:         Ed Kennedy, and we know the trouble he had on abortion and so forth, and even more recently, Cuomo and so forth. Yeah, there’s a tradition there that Kennedy seemed to have inaugurated.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, and one point we need to make here is that Catholics have had no choice but to have this conversation because the church has forced the conversation. It’s been forced upon Catholics, at least in the United States, because of the confrontation between historic Catholic dogma and American democracy. But evangelical Protestants—Protestants in general, and evangelical Protestants in particular—are late to this discussion because we felt really at home here. The society was, until recently, pretty much ordered the way we thought it should be. The conversations and debates were intramural. Now we’re in a different situation entirely. I think that’s a part of the occasion for the disequilibrium.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, in many ways, these are the reasons I wrote the book because I didn’t feel like Christians these days had an adequate grasp on how to think about these things here and now. I use the analogy in the book, it’s as if we have this big pot of stew with so many political lines from Scripture and sacred lines from American history simmering and cooking together. So ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ cooking in there together with ‘Of the people, by the people, for the people’, and ‘In God we trust’, and so forth.

Albert Mohler:              Nature, and nature is God.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right. Well, what does that mean? How do I put it together? Help me reach in with my ladle and grab out a phrase that’s going to work for right now. We don’t have a systematic—and I would say, Baptist—way of appropriately thinking about the role of government and our responsibility as Christian citizens and the role of pastors and churches on that same land landscape. That’s a burden of mine, to give much more clarity to that conversation, again, as a theorist and as a pastor.

Albert Mohler:              An argument can be made that cognitive minorities have to think about things much more seriously than cognitive majorities.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. Being pushed into the minority right now, in many respects, it’s forcing us to rethink.

Albert Mohler:              Absolutely. I found tremendous agreement when I read your book, this isn’t our first conversation about these things. We’re a part of a larger conversation we share about these things. You are in a unique position, having a pastoral responsibility for many years on Capitol Hill, and even now in the Washington DC area, which is an intellectual force field that distorts reality.

Jonathan Leeman:         I understand that pastorally in ways you can just guess at.

Albert Mohler:              Well, even through…

Jonathan Leeman:         Through distortions of reality.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. Well, as you know, we’ve got a lot of investment in that personally.

Jonathan Leeman:         Amen.

Albert Mohler:              Part of this comes down to the fact that for most Americans, a lot of these questions are things they think about when they’re in an argument. They think about it when they read the newspaper or that’s anachronistic, when they are engaged in social media. They think about it with elections, but Washington thinks about it all the time. For those who live in Washington, it’s now 24/7 political combat.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s exactly right. Honestly, with these upcoming elections, part of me just wants to turn it off and not pay attention because we get it so much. No, this shapes the lives of members of our church in dramatic ways. Let me use an election anecdote that I think captures something of what we feel congregationally throughout year. The Sunday after the election, I’d been teaching through the Sunday school class that eventually became this book, and that week I was supposed to teach on government and family. 2016, you know what a crazy election night that was.

Albert Mohler:              I do remember.

Jonathan Leeman:         Gosh, that Sunday morning didn’t seem the time to get up and talk about government and family. I started with 20 minutes of just pastoral remarks, trying to encourage the folks who came to the Sunday school class, a couple hundred people were there, and talk about that if your candidate won, please understand and empathize with people with whose candidate lost. Frankly, they’re feeling afraid right now, and if you’re a Christian, I don’t care if you’re rejoicing, you need to understand that you’re part of the body of Christ. I was explaining empathy. If your candidate lost, let me pastor you a little bit. Our hope is finally in heaven and so on. Here I am trying to pastor the congregation. Well, an older African American lady raised her hand at that point and said, “Nobody’s empathizing with me. I feel un-empathized with. How come the pastors haven’t been calling me?” Actually, I knew a pastor had called her, but nonetheless, I understand how she felt. “Sister, I’m sorry. I know that’s tough.” Then a few minutes later, another middle-aged woman, a white woman stood up and said, “I can’t believe that I’m hearing some of this. The Democrats are evil. This was a great day.” Now, I’m genuinely not trying to make light of either. I’m trying to say that’s the reality on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. We’re living it.

Albert Mohler:              In an extremely well-identified gospel Church.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, that’s right.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. Complimentarian, Reformed in theology, exercising church discipline.

Jonathan Leeman:         60 minute sermons on a good day. Okay, so how do you pastor both of those women? How do you maintain the unity of Spirit and the bond of peace, and draw both to the Lord’s table? That’s a pastoral challenge.

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Jonathan Leeman:         Goodness, that’s what I want to see pastors across America and Christians across America learn how to do a little bit better. Part of that is learning how to think about government and our responsibility.

Albert Mohler:              I want to press you on a couple issues that come from my reading the book. By the way, you all need to read the book and will benefit tremendously by reading it. You will discover that in a conversation like this, we’ve hardly skimmed the surface of either the analysis or the biblical engagement that Jonathan brings. I want to press you on two things. One is what I didn’t find in the book as much as I expected to. That’s common grace.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. Second issue?

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, no. Well, look, I just wrote a book. You can’t do everything you want to do in a book.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right.

Albert Mohler:              I’m just wondering about that.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, where, if I had inserted it, would it have shown up? In the chapter on how we engage the public square, on how we make arguments in the public square, I talk about how you have common ground arguments and you have sectarian arguments. Common ground, I gave three talks talking about appealing to conscience, appealing to natural law, appealing to social sciences and statistics. What are you doing there? You’re stepping into the public square, and you’re trying to make arguments and have conversations with people who don’t share your worldview. You got to find common ground. That’s one place where common grace, I think, is going to play a crucial role. I think another place is recognizing that and many of what I call jagged line issues where the Bible isn’t speaking clearly to this or that particular application. “What do we do on carbon dioxide emissions? What do we do on tax rates? What do we do on health care policy?” Recognizing that by virtue of common grace our non-Christian friends and neighbors are going to have competencies and skills that exceed our own and, absolutely, we should be listening to them. Those would be two different places where more could have been said, absolutely.

Albert Mohler:              Well, that’s helpful. I could read between the lines, and I knew where you were headed, especially in the argument section.

Jonathan Leeman:         Where would you expand common grace?

Albert Mohler:              I start real early with common grace in political theory. As even why we can have a shared vocabulary and why we assume that even people who aren’t Christians are genuinely concerned with public order, with public welfare, and, even in their own way, with human flourishing. We have an explanation by the Imago Dei and common grace, why they have concepts of justice and righteousness, and why they love their children.

Jonathan Leeman:         Would you say government is a common grace institution?

Albert Mohler:              I would, but it’s a post-Fall institution.

Jonathan Leeman:         Right.

Albert Mohler:              Whereas you have marriage, family-

Jonathan Leeman:         Coercive government is post-Fall institution.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, well, I would say you have marriage, family, society, and industry before the Fall. Government’s just the society rightly ordered under the sovereignty of God. There’s no necessity of what we would call as the organs of government the way there is now. There’d be no poverty; there would be no need for restrictive law. You can say coercive, or didactic.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, they would have had to figure out, do we drive on the right side or left side of the road?

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Jonathan Leeman:         And all agreed on that, but there would have been no need for punitive measures.

Albert Mohler:              The cars wouldn’t have had any pollution.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah, that’s true.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. I mean, one of the things we learn from Scripture is we don’t get to speculate as much as we’d like to about Edenic society because Genesis three comes so quickly and then you point to Genesis 9, rightly, in the coercive power government. I would have brought it in earlier.

Jonathan Leeman:         Got it.

Albert Mohler:              When it comes to Christians making appeals, I think it’s an important part that has to be at least a background affirmation. We can actually talk to people using language—using words like justice—and there is more of a shared understanding than most Christians sometimes understand. That doesn’t mean we have shared convictions or even a shared understanding of why, or what that would look like, but we know it’s not by accident that an atheist invokes justice.

Jonathan Leeman:         A friend named Sam Emadi told me that you once said, “Ontology always wins over ethics.”

Albert Mohler:              No.

Jonathan Leeman:         What was the phrase?

Albert Mohler:              Ontology trumps autonomy.

Jonathan Leeman:         Okay.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         Thank you. In a sense, that’s what you’re saying right now.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         By virtue of creation, and by virtue of that atheist being formed in the image of God, he/she has certain wired-in—according to the wisdom of God—ways of seeing things that will yield a kind of justice, a sense of justice.

Albert Mohler:              Absolutely. The other thing I want to press you on a little bit, and this is just an honest conversation because we do have issues looming before. Politics is also a moving argument, by definition. Not only through time over a long millennia, but frankly, over long minutes in today’s world. You really work hard at describing how a church, in this context, is a post-2016 manifesto for the gospel church in the United States. First of all, before it’s obvious applications to societies everywhere throughout time, as you think about this, you used the illustration just a moment ago about a Republican and Democrat, and with the jagged issue, there’s a straight line.

Jonathan Leeman:         Straight line versus jagged-line issue, sure.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. Robert Binay and making that distinction, it’s very helpful. You also do something else, and this is where I’m wondering how your paragraphs are going to collide at some point. You reference, without saying the confessing church, I think, but you’re talking about the confessing church in Germany. You clearly condemn the German Christians for siding with idolatry and paganism, Nihilism and murder. You say at some point, German Christians had to come to an understanding that that was what was at stake; then eventually Barman, eventually the full understanding. I just want to ask you, on the issue of the sanctity of human life, which is an issue in motion, do you feel the danger that we’re coming to a political moment in which you’re not going to be able to talk about a two-party system without invoking a similar logic?

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah. You really pushed your finger on that one. I will say, I think the ground is shifting beneath our feet. I feel less able to say that certain areas of Christian freedom—that I would have said existed even a decade ago—exist today in terms of party identification. Let me use an analogy. Christians in China are unable to take positions in government because doing so means signing up for the Communist Party, which means affirming that there is no God and Christians, by definition, cannot do that. By definition, Christians in China are disenfranchised. Is it possible that we’re moving to a time in the west where Christians will feel unable to identify with this party, with that party, with this candidate, with that candidate and feel an increasing sense of disenfranchisement? I think that’s possible. Here I am walking around, evading. I have a hard time at this point, knowing how a Christian can vote for the party that is becoming so demonically and arguably, no exceptions allowed, pro-infanticide, pro-abortion. Are there pro-life Democrats? Yes. Are there pro-life Democrat officeholders? Can you be an officeholder in the Democratic Party and be pro-life?

Albert Mohler:              Apparently not.

Jonathan Leeman:         It doesn’t seem so.

Albert Mohler:              Apparently not. This has been something that’s been developing over time.

Jonathan Leeman:         I want you to answer that question.

Albert Mohler:              I would go back to the conversation I had with a legislator. I think, in one sense, American Christians are going to have think in more European terms.

Jonathan Leeman:         Looking for alternative parties?

Albert Mohler:              Well, that is the second point.

Jonathan Leeman:         Third parties.

Albert Mohler:              The first point I would make is that in most European systems, you’re actually voting for a party. You’re not voting for chief executive. The Prime Minister, the head of government, is elected by the party, and that can shift. I mean, just like the Great Britain may shift during our conversation here. It’s more clear, I think, to most thoughtful Christians in Europe that you’re voting for a set of ideas, and you really don’t have a whole lot of choice about how those ideas may be translated into a candidate A, maybe head of government B, or C. Thinking that way, yes, I have to say I’m finding it impossible to believe how a Christian—because I think it is Barman, and this is what’s happened on the Democratic side in lightning speed, with no formal necessity. That’s what’s shocking to me. There’s no formal necessity for this.

Jonathan Leeman:         Seems electorally they could move towards the center and it would be better for them.

Albert Mohler:              You would think it would be to their political advantage.

Jonathan Leeman:         No, that’s right.

Albert Mohler:              I just have to assume they really believe this. Now I can explain that philosophically. I can explain how moving from A to B, to C, to D is an inexorable logic eventually, but yeah, I raise the question because I think the terms of 2020 are likely to be different than 2016.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right.

Albert Mohler:              Simply because of what you’re going to see as the official positions of the party. You saw that in ’16 in the platforms, but not with the obvious implications.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right. Let me give the listener a little bit of background here on what Dr. Mohler is referring to. In the book I talk about how there are parties and times where a Christian can’t certainly do it. Can you vote for a Nazi party? No. Can you be a member of my church and be a member of the Ku Klux Klan? No. We will excommunicate you if you are a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Okay, well, what about Republicans? What about Democrats? Could a point in American history come where you would say, “No, you cannot be a Christian and a member of said party.” If so, what are the criteria for when that point comes? Well, that is a tough pastoral question. Being on Capitol Hill, something we historically have tried really hard to do is to maintain nonpartisan posture because we want Republicans and Democrats to be saved. That has been the pastoral objective, to be nonpartisan in that regard, and not to bind the conscience in a matter of party identification, recognizing that somebody might be voting for a Democrat or Republican, and still be pro-life. We’ve attempted to stay there. The background to his question was, when does the point come when that no longer becomes viable? One more thing. What’s tough is, you don’t want to come across as a Christian, saying, “Hey, Jesus is basically an appendage, and Christians are an appendage of this party, or that party.” You don’t want people to think, “Okay, if I’m going to denounce that party, that’s means I’m saying all of you should be members of this party.” When we do that, that’s when we sound like we’re subverting the gospel to a party agenda. That is all awful. You do not want to do that.

Albert Mohler:              It’s never gone well for Christians when they have to, yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         That’s right. That’s why I’m uncomfortable with the question.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, the way I would put it is that it can become, first of all, dispositive in that there are things we are clear about what we can’t do than what we can do politically. It’s dispositive. We know that we can’t do that. Now, what to do between the other alternatives is difficult. We’re going to have to work this out with fear and trembling, I think. I think the other thing to notice is, and I do this with students, I will give them the 1960 platforms of the Republican and Democratic Parties. You can’t tell them apart.

Jonathan Leeman:         Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              Tax policy, they’re virtually the same. Foreign policy, the Democrats are, if anything, more conservative than the Republicans. Capital gains taxes are called for by the Democrats, not so much by the Republicans. You look at it, you go, “Okay.” But still there’s a shared universe of meaning. I had someone say to me, who was in conversation with folks at your church and was noting that some of them have said it’s much more difficult to live in Washington these days. Of course, it is because Republicans and Democrats used to be able to go to the same parties and had dinner with one another, and all the rest. People romanticize that, the Bob Dole days and Tip O’Neill, and Ronald Reagan. What people don’t recognize is that the two parties are arguments in motion, and they’ve gone in two very different directions. This is a far more difficult terrain for Christians.

Jonathan Leeman:         Well, that’s the title of the book, How the Nations Rage. We feel that rage increasingly. It’s not just in Washington DC. I trust every person in this room is on social media feels it.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         You feel the volume turning up. You see, you feel you, you hear people getting into arguments and angry, and all sorts of stuff on Twitter, on Facebook and at the workplace.

Albert Mohler:              That’s where politics has moved, too.

Jonathan Leeman:         No, that’s right, and sports.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman:         Right. Anger is a property of injustice. Anger is the God-given emotion in the face of an injustice. It is right to be angry at injustice. When you have different tribes or two different parts of America animated by two different gods, they are going to have two different concepts of justice. Therefore, there are multiple different things we’re going to get angry about. The further our gods go apart from one another, the more angry we’re going to be because your injustice is a threat to me. I’m going to come after you with a religious zeal. I think that’s what we experience increasingly in the public square and all of its forms.

Albert Mohler:              Jonathan Leeman, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Jonathan Leeman:         Thank you, brother.

Albert Mohler:              Well, that was a wide-ranging conversation, and the conversation speaks for itself. We covered a host of issues in this conversation before a live audience, issues that are themselves quite live, quite urgent. It is really incumbent upon Christians in this generation to have this kind of conversation, to step back and ask, “What is required of us politically as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? How should we even conceive of politics? How do we understand theology, church, and the gospel to relate to these big questions?” Speaking of church, that’s a huge question. How do we understand and discern the role of the church within a political conversation? Even more urgently, how do we begin a true authentically Christian political conversation with the church because, as Christians, we can’t start anywhere else? Every conversation is an opportunity. Every conversation is a risk. Having a conversation before a big live audience is always interesting because there are people right then and there overhearing the conversation. That’s really why we do this program, so that worthy conversations can be overheard. There’s another reason we do this, and that is so that conversations will be continued, picked up by others who overhear the conversation, and begin worthy conversations of their own. Many thanks to Jonathan Leeman for thinking with me today. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on our undergraduate college, Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.