Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.
More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.
Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and has been relatively quiet since the election, declined to comment for this article. Page declined to discuss the plan for Monday’s meeting, but he indicated that he would not rule out the possibility that he could ask Moore to resign. He said he hopes Moore and his opposition will agree to pursue efforts toward reconciliation.
This is both not surprising and stunning. It’s not surprising, because the old-guard conservatives in the SBC have had it out for Moore over his criticism of Donald Trump and Evangelical support for him. After the Trump victory, Moore’s job status has been up in the air. Judging from the Post story, it could all be coming to a head today in the meeting with Frank Page.
What’s stunning about this is the blow Moore’s firing, if it comes to that, will be to Southern Baptist credibility and witness. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Russell Moore, whom I also consider a personal friend (I have not talked to him since reading the Post story). He’s a theological and social conservative in a new mold, and whether or not I agree with him on specific policy positions, I believe he is a model for Christian conservative public engagement. If the Southern Baptist Convention removes him from the presidency of the ERLC, it will signal a dramatic win for the old-guard Religious Right within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. It will also spark the biggest war within the Southern Baptist Convention since the 1990s fight between conservatives and liberals.
I hope and pray that it doesn’t come to that. This is a good time to read Moore’s 2016 Erasmus Lecture, titled, “Can The Religious Right Be Saved?”. Here’s how it begins:
I am an heir of Bible Belt America, but also a survivor of Bible Belt America. I was reared in an ecosystem of Evangelical Christianity, informed by a large Catholic segment of my family and a Catholic majority in my community. I memorized Bible verses through “sword drill” competitions, a kind of Evangelical spelling bee in which children compete to see who can find, say, Habakkuk 3:3 the fastest. The songs that floated through my mind as I went to sleep at night were hymns and praise choruses and Bible verses set to music. Nonetheless, from the ages of fifteen through nineteen, I experienced a deep spiritual crisis that was grounded, at least partially, in, of all things, politics.
The cultural Christianity around me seemed increasingly artificial and cynical and even violent. I saw some Christians who preached against profanity use jarring racial epithets. I saw a cultural Christianity that preached hellfire and brimstone about sexual immorality and cultural decadence. And yet, in the church where the major tither was having an affair everyone in the community knew about, there he was, in our neighbor congregation’s “special music” time, singing “If It Wasn’t for That Lighthouse, Where Would This Ship Be?” I saw a cultural Christianity with preachers who often gained audiences, locally in church meetings or globally on television, by saying crazy and buffoonish things, simply to stir up the base and to gain attention from the world, whether that was claiming to know why God sent hurricanes and terrorist attacks or claiming that American founders, one of whom possibly impregnated his own human slaves and literally cut the New Testament apart, were orthodox, Evangelical Christians who, like us, stood up for traditional family values.
I saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy—supermarket scanners as the mark of the Beast, Gog and Magog as the Soviet Union or, later, Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda or the Islamic State as direct fulfillments of Bible prophecy. When these prophecies were not fulfilled, these teachers never retreated in shame. They waited to claim a new word from God and sold more products, whether books or emergency preparation kits for the Y2K global shutdown and the resulting dark age the Bible clearly told us would happen.
And then there were the voter guides. A religious right activist group from Washington placed them in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?
I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end. My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape—and I did. But I didn’t flee the way so many have, through the back door of the Church into secularism. I found a wardrobe in a spare room that delivered me from the Bible Belt back to where I started, to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
I had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels as a child, and found something solid there. As the other Inklings knew, the Narnia series wasn’t great literature or a carefully constructed myth such as Middle Earth was. My experience was similar to that of science fiction writer Neil Gaiman: “The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true,” as if they “were reports from a real place.” So when, in the middle of my spiritual crisis, I saw the name C. S. Lewis on the spine of a book called Mere Christianity, I was willing to give him a chance—and he saved my life. Mere Christianity is not the City of God or the Summa Theologica or the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It didn’t need to be. All I needed was for this drinking, smoking, probably dancing and card-playing man on another continent to tell me the truth, to point me to a broad, bustling Church that took serious questions seriously and could be traced all the way back to an empty hole in the ground in the Middle East.
Most faiths that persist are tested and questioned and tempted along the way. But for me, the question was whether I was a beloved son or a cosmic orphan. It seems to me that my spiritual crisis is similar to a larger one that threatens to engulf religious conservatism in America. The religious right—whether we trace it to the school prayer skirmishes of the 1960s or the segregation academy controversies of the 1970s or the response to Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution—was always a multifaceted coalition. After all, Jerry Falwell adopted Paul Weyrich’s language of a “moral majority” because the movement encompassed not just born-again Protestants but also many traditional Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Jews. But while the movement was in many ways informed by sources such as John Paul II’s theology of the body and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square, the entrepreneurial energy almost always came from Evangelical Protestantism. For that and other reasons, American Evangelicalism is enmeshed with the religious right psychologically, institutionally, and in terms of reputation in ways the Catholic bishops, the Mormon apostles, and Orthodox rabbis just aren’t.
The fate of religious conservatism is important, though, and not merely for its own sake. Ross Douthat is quite right that America—left and right—needs a strong religious conservative movement. The religious right, at its best, modeled the kind of civic engagement and civil society that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wanted for this country. At its best, the religious right reminded all of us that there are realities more important than political or economic success; that we are a nation under God, one that can be weighed in the balance and found wanting. At its best, the religious right kept the focus on a vulnerable minority that easily becomes invisible to those with power: unborn children. Douthat is correct that without some form of religious right, the space left behind can all too easily be filled by European-style ethno-nationalism or Nietzschean social Darwinism. The religious right must, in some form, be saved. But how and in what form? That question, of course, brings us to the 2016 presidential election.
We know how that turned out. And we now see that that result could have serious consequences for Russell Moore. Read the entire lecture, and you will be able to understand the battle lines within the Southern Baptist Convention — if Moore is fired, that is. There are a lot of younger Southern Baptists who are not willing to return to the Republican Party at Prayer mode of public engagement. I hope the SBC leadership pulls back. This conflict, and its resolution, will have a serious impact beyond the SBC. It will determine the future of Christian conservatism in America.