In the eleventh chapter of his famous De Principatibus (known in English as “the Prince”), Niccolò Machiavelli offers witty commentary about a specific kind of prince. He speaks of “ecclesiastical principalities” and says:
… they are sustained by the ancient ordinances of religion, which are so all-powerful, and of such a character that the principalities may be held no matter how their princes behave and live. These princes alone have states and do not defend them; and they have subjects and do not rule them; and the states, although unguarded, are not taken from them, and the subjects, although not ruled, do not care, and they have neither the desire nor the ability to alienate themselves. Such principalities only are secure and happy.
Like fellow sixteenth-century writer Thomas More, Machiavelli must always be read with an eye to undercurrents of sarcasm. At the same time that he presents “ecclesiastical princes” as the luckiest of all political rulers, he knew very well that the popes of his time, be they Borgias or Medicis, had drastic reversals of fortune. His Prince was composed in the same decade as Martin Luther’s theses in Wittenberg. The century would see bloodshed on a frightening scale.
How ironic to read Machiavelli’s work in the year 2020 in the United States, where the largest Protestant denomination is none other the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC. That denomination claims as its heritage the Reformation of Luther’s time. History has defined the Reformation in such well-known ways against the decadence of Machiavelli’s Florence and the ecclesiastical powers that came from such cliques.
And yet the ecclesiastical prince profiled in Chapter 11 of The Prince sounds eerily like the troubling position of Baptist “princes” like Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville; Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; J.D. Greear, president of the entire Convention; Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee; Adam Greenway and Danny Akin, presidents of Southwestern and Southeastern Baptist Seminaries in Fort Worth and Wake Forest; Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board; and of course Ed Stetzer, recently announced head of the SBC’s Resolutions Committee.
These names might seem scattered and random, but they aren’t. Linked to all them is indeed a high “prince,” Mohler himself. Observe this picture designed for Capstone Report detailing who all the heads of the SBC’s powerful entities are:
If the titles and institutional affiliations seem unwieldy and, for lack of a better term, Medicean or Borgian, that’s because the SBC now confronts an identity crisis. Having looked so often to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century dissenters for inspiration, the religious structure has become an echo of the Catholic bureaucracies that filled Martin Luther with rage.
For years SBC leaders have fielded complaints from Baptists about the drift away from a conservative inerrancy for which the denomination has been best known. Now the leaders of the Convention have had to acknowledge that they are disconnected from the flock they claim to have been called by God to shepherd. Despite vehement protestations by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and its vocal supporters on Twitter, the Executive Committee of the SBC announced at its recent board meeting that it would open an investigation into the ERLC, to see if the ERLC’s movement toward the political left has negatively affected giving to the Cooperative Program.
I am skeptical that this empaneled investigation will actually do anything against the ERLC. Nevertheless the usual suspects on Twitter have reacted with hysteria and outrage as if a mob with pitchforks is coming after them. I recall that in 2017 Russell Moore came under criticism. Similar investigations became a pro forma smokescreen that allowed his enablers in the SBC elites to protect his job while claiming to have taken complaints seriously. This time around, though, whatever this investigation produces, the masses of angry Baptists are much larger and organized. Al Mohler has stated he wishes to run for president of the SBC at the Orlando meeting this upcoming June. If Mohler wins the presidency, it is certain many churches will split and the SBC will inevitably dissolve into fragments over the next decade. If Mohler loses the presidency and a grassroots conservative defeats him, the establishment elites that Mohler has ensconced will go into full revolt mode. While the establishment elites do not have the masses of Baptists behind them, they have a lot of money and media presence. Either outcome will spell headaches and trauma for Baptists across the country.
Like Luther’s battle over indulgences, this struggle hinges largely on money. The SBC’s entities depicted in the graphic above all draw from a fund called the Cooperative Program, which receives a portion of tithes from the roughly 46,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. We are talking about fifteen million people and a lot of money, since this is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States by far. With that size comes enormous political influence. Washington power-brokers often turn to the SBC’s leaders in search of allegiances and subtle (or in some cases overt) endorsements.
Most studies show that white evangelicals sided heavily with Donald Trump in the 2016 election, with rates of support topping 80%. Yet the elites tied to Al Mohler who run the denomination’s entities have trended heavily toward being “Never Trump,” to the extent of showing harsher treatment to Trump than they show to Democratic politicians who support abortion and LGBTQ programs. Because of this many Southern Baptists feel frustrated and have complained for years. The two individuals who draw the most ire are Russell Moore, the head of the ERLC, and Al Mohler, the ecclesiastical prince who matches what Machiavelli described.
The SBC has its modern-day meetings with the Charlemagnes, Ferdinands, Napoleon Bonapartes, and Catherine de Medicis of the twenty-first century. Russell Moore met conspicuously with the Human Rights Campaign, a major backer of Barack Obama’s campaigns, at a conference in October 2014 about homosexuality hosted by the ERLC. In that month both Mohler and Moore came out harshly against “reparative therapy.” They seemed to signal agreement with the idea that many homosexuals cannot change even with prayer and deliberate assistance from fellow Christians. They reframed the sexuality discussion as an extended rebuke of Southern Baptists for having been too harsh in the past.
Since 2014 signs have multiplied that the LGBTQ issue, like many others, will offer Southern Baptist churchgoers mostly disappointment. Southern Seminary produced Nate Collins as a graduate; he is a homosexual who went on to found the Revoice movement condemned by leaders in the SBC. Last fall Southeastern Seminary hired Karen Swallow Prior, a former ERLC research fellow who endorsed Revoice and supported efforts like It Gets Better. Her previous student Brandon Ambrosino works with pro-gay Catholic priest James Martin.
Within sixteen months of driving out Paige Patterson, engineered in large part by Karen Prior when she was an ERLC fellow reporting to Russell Moore, the new Mohler-trained administration at Southwestern Seminary fired me for speaking strongly against LGBTQ ideology and advocating for same-sex abuse survivors.
Jonathan Merritt, son of a former SBC president, went on the Laura Ingraham show to advocate for Drag Queen Story Hour for little children. Meritt has public and friendly ties to ERLC conference favorite Beth Moore, who seems to have weaponized the sex abuse scandal in the SBC to promote gender egalitarianism and anti-patriarchal liberalism. Beth Moore allies with pro-gay figures like Merritt. As a whole this cosseted satrap class in the SBC sidelines or blocks people in the groups (such as Mass Resistance) tied to me, dedicated to fighting against abuse caused by mainstream LGBTQ ideology.
Across the denomination Mohler-trained leaders appear increasingly focused on “social justice” issues like immigration, critical race theory, women’s rights, and defeating Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the causes that matter to so many grassroots Baptists, such as ending abortion or protecting young people from predatory gender ideologies, have been set aside. Many Baptists fight for the latter with the Biblical conviction and prophetic energy to which they feel called by God. But such Baptists are alienated, dismissed, and in cases like mine, driven out of their jobs by Mohler-trained leaders who look more intent on ingratiating themselves with the shifting winds of popular culture.
I have been a Baptist since 2008. In twelve years I have seen the rise of Mohler’s cadre with alarm and distress. I cannot call this cadre “liberal” or “progressive” because I know people on the left view them with great disdain. (I grew up in a very leftist world.) Leftists can smell opportunism and hypocrisy just as conservatives can. They know that the social-justice advocates in the SBC’s upper echelons are probably no real friends to gay people, women, poor immigrants, or people of color. Like Medici popes, such “ecclesiastical princes” of the SBC use groups as pawns. I can see that and so can anyone watching closely. The fascinating thing about Mohler’s SBC elite is that it has lasted so long without being challenged.
From what I can tell, Mohler’s coterie has paper-thin support within the larger Baptist population. They speak for their own self-interests and offer each other mutual endorsements but they do not have an authentic constituency anywhere. Everything they do is based on their having access to institutional power, prestige, and money. They are also not very good at what they do, which is largely why the denomination’s dwindling numbers and growing discontent has caused the first major challenge to their hegemony. While this group may get a lot of likes on Twitter, the numbers of “supporters” are largely an illusion.
In a denomination of fifteen million Baptists, the vast majority do not jump into social-media fracases, especially with vicious commentators who have learned Mohler’s tactics of pressuring people’s employers, churches, or colleagues to intimidate them into silence. The quiet majority remains conservative on social issues and feels no strong attraction to the boutique causes pushed by entities like the ERLC.
Machiavelli’s words are instructive here. … they are sustained by the ancient ordinances of religion, which are so all-powerful, and of such a character that the principalities may be held no matter how their princes behave and live. These princes alone have states and do not defend them; and they have subjects and do not rule them; and the states, although unguarded, are not taken from them, and the subjects, although not ruled, do not care, and they have neither the desire nor the ability to alienate themselves.
Machiavelli understood that ecclesiastical princes are still political entities like kingdoms and republics, but they have unique dynamics that explain how they perpetuate their power. Because of the ancient reverence for religious figures, the constituents of “ecclesiastical princes” like Mohler will usually not push back for a long time. As Machiavelli notes, ecclesiastical princes can rely on ancient obedience to religion to keep themselves in power. They need only not to stir those whom they rule out of complacency, and they can stay enthroned for long times even in grave states of corruption. Not only can they persist as leaders. They can also live lavish lifestyles as we saw in the decades leading up to Luther’s reformation.
The problem the SBC faces now, however, is that it has grown into the Medici and Borgia papacy of Machiavelli’s time. Their corruption has disgusted too many people. The tactics that worked in the past — for the most part, doubling down, changing nothing, quoting the Bible again and again, denouncing others, and presenting an air of holiness–do not work when people stop feeling complacent. When people no longer feel convinced that ecclesiastical princes speak for God, people will push back. And ecclesiastical princes, who have stayed in power without an army, without having to be effective or efficient, and with an inflated sense of their own invincibility, can fall quickly and hard.