The conservative Catholic writer George Neumayr calls Russell Moore, the 42 year old pastor and theologian who is the Southern Baptists’ new voice on Capitol Hill, a squish for taking a more conciliatory and nuanced line in the culture war than his predecessor. Excerpt:
This is not to say that Moore is a clone of Ralph Reed, but the non-confrontational tone he wants the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt lends itself to some comparison. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Moore has pushed to patch up rifts within the Baptist movement between the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and a growing number of more liberal breakaway groups.” The paper quotes a gay pastor conferring his approval upon Moore as a tolerant sort as if we’re supposed to be impressed. Who cares?
Complacent prattle about changed tactics and a “new” tone will do far more damage to the Christian cultural and political presence than Jerry Falwell’s blunt talk ever did. Reed took a shot at Falwell’s approach once, saying “We have allowed ourselves to be ghettoized by a narrow band of issues like abortion, homosexual rights and prayer in school.”
The irony lost on Reed (and presumably Moore too) is that the culture-war emphasis of the Moral Majority packed much more of a political punch than the poll-tested Christian Coalition message. Falwell helped elect Ronald Reagan; Robertson found himself invited to listless primary parties for Rudy Giuliani.
On the surface, it appears that Moore is counseling a more “spiritual” Christian approach. Don’t kid yourself. It is a far more worldly one. Falwell was a true “prophetic minority voice” who understood, to use Moore’s words, that “we belong to another kingdom.” While Moore no doubt has his strong points, he seems like just another neoconservative (he voted for Clinton but “loved” George W. Bush) who considers pats on the head from pro-gay marriage publications like the Wall Street Journal to be evidence of evangelical effectiveness. They’re not. They are simply evidence of a Christian movement gone spineless.
Cards on the table: I’ve never met Russell Moore in person, but we’ve had correspondence, and I consider him a friend. That’s not why I’m about to defend him here.
I’m going to defend him because this attack by Neumayr, whose work I often agree with, exemplifies a serious problem afflicting conservatism across both political and religious lines. Once again, we see conservatives denouncing other conservatives as sellouts because they don’t share the same devotion to confrontational politics, including cultural politics.
Moore is a conservative Baptist, but he is also in his early 40s, and therefore of a younger generation than the Baptist leadership formed by the intra-Baptist struggles of the 1980s and 1990s. Read the Wall Street Journal article that set off Neumayr’s anger. Excerpt:
Mr. Moore and other prominent Christian conservatives are blunt in conceding that their long quest to roll back the sexual revolution has failed. The fight, they say, sowed divisions within the movement and alienated young believers.
“I would characterize the movement as having experienced a very tough defeat that now requires a shift of tactics,” says Ralph Reed, who ran the once-powerful Christian Coalition through the 1990s. Religious conservatives once promised imminent victories, he says, “but we are now looking at 50- and 75-year horizons.”
Some evangelical leaders compare the moment today to the retreat that followed the 1925 Scopes “Monkey trial” over Tennessee’s effort to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools. The trial led to a public backlash against evangelicals.
“Evangelicals felt a sting from the culture after the Scopes trial that they weren’t used to feeling,” says Mark Dever, an ally of Mr. Moore and pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church. “What is happening now with evangelicals is a disabusing of any idea of a simple victory of the right in a fallen world. They realize that is not going to happen.”
The change in approach, which not all evangelical groups or churches share, isn’t without risk. Albert Mohler, a top voice in the church as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a Moore mentor, says the transition to a less confrontational approach, which he supports, could alienate church members from its leaders.
“When Richard Land spoke to most issues, he was certain that Southern Baptists were behind him and he was their mouthpiece,” Mr. Mohler says. “Russ will need a deft touch to make sure that Southern Baptists stay behind him.”
Mr. Moore is in no way a liberal. He equates abortion with the evils of slavery, considers homosexuality a sin, and insists the Southern Baptist Convention will never support gay marriage. At the same time, he emphasizes reconciliation and draws a traditional doctrinal distinction between the sinner and the sin.
What you learn from the article too is that Moore and other Southern Baptist leaders are dealing with a stark falloff in membership. People are leaving Southern Baptist churches in dramatic numbers, especially the young. To be clear, they are leaving all Christian churches, as much social-science research shows, but the key point here is that the belief long held by us religious conservatives — that the liberal churches are the ones losing membership because they don’t stand for anything — just isn’t true. Yes, the liberal churches are in free fall in terms of membership, and yes, their theological squishiness surely has a lot to do with it. But our holding fast isn’t sparing our conservative churches from the same phenomenon. Moore is trying to figure out how to deal with this, given that the strategies of the preceding generation of Baptist leaders did not work.
Similarly, on the front of cultural politics, Moore and Mohler, neither of whom are remotely liberal in their theological convictions, understand better than many conservatives how badly conservative Christians lost the culture wars. It’s telling that Neumayr reaches back to the halcyon days of Jerry Falwell for inspiration in how to stand up for Christian values in the public square. It’s the same thing as political conservatives thinking that if we could only re-establish the purity of Ronald Reagan, everything would be fine again. This attitude doesn’t notice that the world has changed, and changed dramatically, since the 1980s. When Reagan first came onto the scene, he didn’t succeed by harkening back to the 1950s as the Republican golden age. How many people could have related to him had he done so? Neumayr misses the clarity of the 1980s culture wars, and there’s a nostalgic part of me that agrees with him. But we have to live in the world as it is, and doing so means not fighting the last culture war, but figuring out rather how to deal strategically with a world where conditions have changed substantially. In 1999, the late Paul Weyrich, a Catholic conservative who was a co-founder of the Moral Majority (the phrase, in fact, was his), famously announced that social conservatives had lost the culture war, and should withdraw behind defensible perimeters and prepare themselves and their children to endure a new Dark Age. Conservatives, he said, have become very good at politics, which is to say, at winning elections. But they have lost the culture. Excerpt from his letter:
I am very concerned, as I go around the country and speak and talk to young people, when I find how much of the decadent culture they have absorbed without even understanding that they are a part of it. And while I’m not suggesting that we all become Amish or move to Idaho, I do think that we have to look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile culture. What steps can we take to make sure that we and our children are not infected? We need some sort of quarantine.
It is not only political conservatives who are troubled by the disintegration of the culture. I gave a speech not long ago in which I was very critical of what was on television. Several people who described themselves as liberals came up to me and said “Well, I know I don,t agree with your politics, but you are absolutely correct on this and we don’t allow our children to watch television any more.”
Don’t be mislead by politicians who say that everything is great, that we are on the verge of this wonderful, new era thanks to technology or the stock market or whatever. These are lies. We are not in the dawn of a new civilization, but the twilight of an old one. We will be lucky if we escape with any remnants of the great Judeo-Christian civilization that we have known down through the ages.
The radicals of the 1960s had three slogans: turn on, tune in, drop out. I suggest that we adopt a modified version. First, turn off. Turn off the television and video games and some of the garbage that,s on the computers. Turn off the means by which you and your family are being infected with cultural decadence.
Tune out. Create a little stillness. I was very struck by the fact that when I traveled in the former Soviet Union, I couldn’t go to a restaurant or any place else without hearing this incessant Western rock music pounding away. There was no escape from it. No wonder some Russians are anti-American. When they think of the United States, they think of the culture that we exported to them.
Finally, we need to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.
Again, I don’t have all the answers or even all the questions. But I know that what we have been doing for thirty years hasn’t worked, that while we have been fighting and winning in politics, our culture has decayed into something approaching barbarism. We need to take another tack, find a different strategy. If you agree, and are willing to help wrestle with what that strategy should be, let me know.
Understand, this was a man who was a contemporary of Jerry Falwell’s, and a close ally, saying that the culture wars will continue, but the overall war has been lost, and it’s time to rethink strategy, because what the Right had been doing has failed. Weyrich may not have been developing the right strategy, of course, but who can possibly deny that he was correct in his diagnosis of the futility of old strategy?
This, it seems to me, is what people like Russell Moore are trying to do: come up with a new and more effective way of advocating for conservative/traditionalist Christian values in a post-Christian culture that grows ever more alien, and even hostile, to the beliefs that used to be held by a, well, moral majority. Laying into Russell Moore and his kind as “spineless” is emotionally satisfying — kind of like denouncing non-Tea Party conservatives as RINOs — but it doesn’t do a thing to advance the cause on a battlefront more complex than anything Falwell & Co. faced 30 years ago. As Weyrich said in 1999:
What many of us have been trying to do for many years has been based upon a couple of premises. First of all, we have assumed that a majority of Americans basically agrees with our point of view. That has been the premise upon which we have tried to build any number of institutions, and indeed our whole strategy. It is I who suggested to Jerry Falwell that he call his organization the “Moral Majority.” The second premise has been that if we could just elect enough conservatives, we could get our people in as Congressional leaders and they would fight to implement our agenda.
In looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected.
But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.
I think this is right. While my moral convictions are probably exactly those of George Neumayr (and so, I would wager, are Russell Moore’s, right down to Moore’s sharing Neumayr’s alarm at Pope Francis’s recent statements), I prefer Moore’s strategic engagement with the world as it is today to Neumayr’s angry nostalgia for a time when our side seemed to be winning battles, or at least putting up an effective fight. As Weyrich said, all it did was win elections for Republican candidates; it did not change the culture.