At age 15, R. Albert Mohler Jr. had a crisis of faith. Two years earlier, his family had moved from the conservative idyll of Lakeland, Florida, to the other end of the world: Pompano Beach, 200 miles south, where Christian faith was by no means universal and the fleshpots of Miami beckoned. In Lakeland, life had revolved around Southside Baptist Church, a traditional congregation that treasured its "tall steeple, pipe organ, and things done decently and in order," says Mohler.
He entered the church rolls while still in the womb, as "Baby Mohler," and later joined every age-appropriate church activity, from the Royal Ambassadors to summer camp at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center. "It was an intact culture, so the messages I was receiving at home and church were the same messages I was receiving in public school," he says, "and I just considered that's the way the world was and always would be." In Pompano Beach, torn from everything he knew, Mohler found himself in class sitting next to the children of rabbis and Roman Catholics, the high-school honors curriculum stirring in his mind the biggest questions of existence.
The curious teen's youth pastor offered the diversions of his megachurch's bowling alley and gymnasium, but had no answers to his questions. He took the boy to meet the minister of a fast-growing congregation down the highway in Fort Lauderdale: Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. D. James Kennedy listened to Mohler and knew just the antidote to his anxieties. Francis Schaeffer's He is Not Silent "had an absolutely determinative impact on my life as a young teenager," Mohler says. "Not that I understood everything that Schaeffer was saying, but it came with incredible assurance that there were legitimate Christian answers to these questions." Schaeffer became a hero; Kennedy, a lifelong mentor. At 15, Mohler was already a friend of culture warriors and a citizen of the wider evangelical world—yet still a born-and-bred member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), where the culture wars seemed remote and evangelical was a "Yankee word."
Thirty-six years later, Mohler is the president of the SBC's flagship school—the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—and the most prominent public intellectual in the convention. In recent years, his influence has spread beyond Southern Baptist circles. He blogs for The Washington Post's On Faith religion column (not to mention his own blog) and has appeared multiple times on Larry King Live. Until this July, he reached listeners across the country five days a week on a syndicated radio program (he gave up the show to free up time for writing books and longer-form podcasts). Time magazine has turned to Mohler for the conservative evangelical perspective on issues ranging from evolution to Christian missions in Iraq, calling him the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S."
After nearly 20 years at the helm of Southern Seminary, Mohler has put the finishing touches on what supporters call the "conservative resurgence" and critics bemoan as the "fundamentalist takeover": the radical shift of SBC leadership from the moderate, even mainline-inclined theology of the 1970s to today's firm grounding in biblical inerrancy, a complementarian view of gender roles, and, more often than not, conservative politics. Before Mohler's appointment, Southern faculty celebrated higher biblical criticism and embraced evolutionary theory. Now the school is a bulwark of conservative Reformed theology and creationism. The campus of lush trees and neocolonial architecture is the staging ground for a struggle against a mainstream culture that Mohler believes is sliding into moral chaos—and against "postmodern Christians," the enemy within.