Why Russell Moore Matters
You may have seen by now the Wall Street Journal story talking about how in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, a number of pastors and others in the Southern Baptist Convention are coming out hard against Russell Moore, the leader of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the public policy arm of the 16 million-member church. They’re angry that he took such a strong public stance against Trump during the campaign. Here’s a short passage from the piece that stands out:
Yet some pastors fear Mr. Moore’s criticisms of President-elect Trump mean he can’t be an effective advocate within the Trump White House, thereby costing Baptists a chance to capitalize on a victory for the religious right.
“He’s going to have no access, basically, to President Trump,” said Mr. Graham, the Texas pastor.
That comment inadvertently highlights for me the real value of Russell Moore to Christian witness in public life. I say that even though I don’t agree with all the positions he takes. Let me explain.
I’m a religious conservative who concluded some years back that our tribe had become way too involved with politics. I don’t worry at all about the church corrupting the state. I worry about the pursuit of state power corrupting the church. We got way too cozy with the Republican Party. In 2006, David Kuo, an Evangelical who had worked in the Bush White House on faith-based initiatives, blew the whistle on how emissaries from the Religious Right were seen within the White House. Excerpts from what he told 60 Minutes about his then-new book:
In his book, Kuo wrote that White House staffers would roll their eyes at evangelicals, calling them “nuts” and “goofy.”
Asked if that was really the attitude, Kuo tells Stahl, “Oh, absolutely. You name the important Christian leader and I have heard them mocked by serious people in serious places.”
Specifically, Kuo says people in the White House political affairs office referred to Pat Robertson as “insane,” Jerry Falwell as “ridiculous,” and that James Dobson “had to be controlled.” And President Bush, he writes, talked about his compassion agenda, but never really fought for it.
“The President of the United States promised he would be the leading lobbying on behalf of the poor. What better lobbyist could anybody get?” Kuo wonders.
“The lobbyist didn’t follow through,” he claims.
“What about 9/11?” Stahl asks. “All the priorities got turned about.”
“I was there before 9/11. I know what happened before 9/11 … The trend before 9/11 was…president makes a big announcement and nothing happens,” Kuo replies.
Kuo speaks as an insider. Even before he became the number two guy in the White House faith-based office, he had a long resume in the world of Christian conservatives.
Kuo says he took candidate Bush at his word during the 2000 campaign.
At the time, Bush proposed for the first time that he would spend $8 billion dollars on programs for the poor.
“I think it’s one of the most important political speeches given in the last generation. I really do,” says Kuo. “It laid out a whole new philosophy for Republicans.”
After the election, to much fanfare, President Bush created the office of faith-based initiatives to increase funds to religious charities.
But Kuo says there were problems right off the bat. For one, he says the office dropped very quickly down the list of priorities.
Asked how much money finally went to them, Kuo says laughing, “Oh, in the first two years, first two years I think $60 million.”
“When you hold it up to a promise of $8 billion, I don’t know how good I am at math, but I know that’s less than one percent of a promise,” says Kuo.
Part of the problem, he says, was indifference from “the base,” the religious right. He took 60 Minutes to a convention of evangelical groups – his old stomping ground – and walked around the display booths, looking for any reference to the poor.
“You’ve got homosexuality in your kid’s school, and you’ve got human cloning, and partial birth abortion and divorce and stem cell,” Kuo remarked. “Not a mention of the poor.”
“This message that has been sent out to Christians for a long time now: that Jesus came primarily for a political agenda, and recently primarily a right-wing political agenda – as if this culture war is a war for God. And it’s not a war for God, it’s a war for politics. And that’s a huge difference,” says Kuo.
David Kuo died from cancer a few years back, but I’ve thought about him time to time this year, wondering of what he would have made of leading Evangelical pastors and other figures rushing to embrace Trump. On David’s telling, even in a White House led by a believing Evangelical, George W. Bush, conservative Evangelicals weren’t taken seriously. The progressive Evangelical academic David Gushee writes this week that Christian leaders who think having access to the White House means they will be taken seriously in policy decisions are fooling themselves. He should know: he was one of the religious leaders brought in to the circles around President Obama, but says now that the value of this exercise was not to their causes, but to the cause of keeping the Religious Left fired up for Obama. Gushee now contends that religious leaders who fall for the allure of access to political power are “useful idiots” for politicians.
Russell Moore is many things, but he is not a useful idiot for the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party. I don’t agree with him on everything (e.g., I think I’m more of an immigration restrictionist than he is, but I completely support his advocacy for humane treatment of immigrants, illegal and otherwise), but he has undoubtedly become the most prominent and credible spokesman for small-o orthodox Christianity in the public square than any other church leader, including Catholics and other non-Protestants. Why? Because he’s nobody’s man but Christ’s — and what a rare thing that is among senior Christian leaders who engage in politics and public policy.
I’ve talked with a few secular liberals over the past couple of years — some who have met Moore, others who haven’t — who have told me that Russell Moore is the first conservative Christian pastor they’ve felt like would listen to them. In the past, they wrote off all of us as stooges for the GOP. The thing is, Moore does not water down his witness; on the hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, he unapologetically preaches and teaches the traditional Gospel. But when he speaks, even if you disagree with him, you know that you’re talking to a real person, not an ordained advocate for a political agenda.
This became clear during the 2016 election, when he began speaking out against Donald Trump. Here’s something Moore told fellow Baptists back in June. He was talking like this all year, back when Trump was a seeming long shot, till the very day of his election:
Yes, I will be writing in a candidate this year and the reason for that is simple. The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.
And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.
He was right about Trump’s character and behavior. I can understand orthodox Christians voting for Trump as the lesser of two serious evils, but in that case, for believers, it ought to have been a sackcloth-and-ashes moment. I saw somewhere a link to this 1998 Resolution on the Moral Character of Public Officials, passed by the Southern Baptist Convention in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the Lewinsky affair. It says, in part:
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge all citizens, including those who serve in public office, to submit themselves respectfully to governing authorities and to the rule of law; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge Southern Baptists and other Christians to fulfill their spiritual duty to pray regularly for the leaders of our nation (1 Timothy 2:1-4); and
Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.
Seems to me that Russell Moore, in speaking out against Trump on the basis of Trump’s public character, was being faithful to Southern Baptist policy — which, one must hope, applies equally to Republican candidates for office as it does to Democratic ones.
Earlier this fall, in his Erasmus Lecture at First Things, Moore focused on the future of the Religious Right. 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.
He’s talking about reading C.S. Lewis, and coming to understand that there was a lot more to Christianity than the Southern white middle class at prayer. Later in the lecture, Moore said:
The question of moral credibility is real, but a loss of moral credibility is not the most traumatic wound of 2016. Some Christian leaders and publications pronounce a self-described unrepentant man a “baby Christian” or as representing “Christian values and family values.” With this, we have left far behind quibbles about which candidate is the lesser of two evils or about the future of the Supreme Court or even whether we should support candidates we never could have imagined supporting before. This is instead a first-order question of theology—overheard by the world of our mission field—a question of the very definition of the Gospel itself, and what it means to be saved or lost.
In the twentieth century, a fundamentalist leader defined a “compromising Evangelical” as “a fundamentalist who says to a liberal, ‘I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.’” It seems now that we have some Evangelicals who are willing to say to politicians, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll just call me.” Garry Wills, a harsh and sometimes caricaturing critic of those of us who are religious conservatives, once said that the failure of Evangelical political activism is that it is not Evangelical enough. “The problem with evangelical religion,” Wills said, “is not (so much) that it encroaches on politics, but that it has so carelessly neglected its own sources of wisdom.” He warned, “It cannot contribute what it no longer possesses.” That may or may not have been true when Wills wrote those words, but who can ignore the fact that his words now ring true?
Further in the lecture, he said:
I understand why some, including some devout religious conservatives, argue that they recognize the moral and temperamental unfitness of a man such as Trump for the nation’s highest office, but feel they must cast their ballots for him in an effort to forestall the very real perils of a Supreme Court increasingly hostile to the most basic of religious freedoms and constitutional restraints. While I disagree with my religious conservative friends who think this way, that is a respectable and defensible view. They are not provoking the crisis we face today.
the crisis comes from the fact that the old-guard religious right political establishment normalized an awful candidate—some offering outright support in theological terms, others hedging their bets and whispering advice behind closed doors. The situation is more dire still because, following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, it was religious conservatives who were about the only group in America willing to defend serious moral problems, in high-flying moral terms no less.
To be clear, the 2016 campaign did not provoke this crisis. This was a pre-existing condition. The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.
Moore points out that the Religious Right as a political force is quickly surpassing its sell-by date. Among Evangelicals, he says, the young seminarians who are going to be tomorrow’s pastors are theologically orthodox, but don’t share the old guard’s interest in partisan politics. Said Moore, “this is not because they are liberal but because they give priority to the Gospel and mission.”
The last part of Moore’s lecture (
read the whole thing ) says that Evangelicals (and, I would add, the rest of us Christians) need to re-focus on our primary identity as believers in and servants of Jesus Christ. “Those who stand with Christ must articulate, including to themselves, why and how Christianity matters,” he said. Moore meant that we are now living in a time when nobody can take the American public’s religious knowledge or commitment for granted. (I have called this condition “post-Christian America.”) The cultural Christianity in which Moore was raised is rapidly disintegrating, though those living deepest in the bubble are going to be the last ones to know.
In his excellent 2015 book Onward, Moore says the end of cultural Christianity is a good thing, because it forces us believers to confront what we truly believe, and what that requires of us. The thing is, Moore does not believe Christians can disengage from politics or any other forms of activism in the public square. What he’s calling for is a fundamental re-ordering of American Christian life, such that all things — our politics and everything else — are subordinated to our theological commitments. That has gotten seriously disordered, says Moore, with many believers placing worldly success, including keeping access to power, over sacrificial service to Christ.
In this context, that means that the church can never be seen as in the pocket of one political party and its president. Access to power in Washington is quite a prize, but it is not worth selling out the integrity of one’s witness to the Gospel. I’m no Southern Baptist, but it seems to me that any church would want its chief public policy spokesman to be someone who understands this clearly, and who is not afraid to suffer slings and arrows for it — even when those arrows are shot at him from behind.
Disclosure: I know Russell Moore somewhat, and consider him a friend, though I can’t say we’ve spent a lot of time together. I admire his thought, his preaching, and above all his moral courage. I don’t know how this is going to shake out for him at the ERLC, and I hope for the best — not only for him and the church he serves, but for all of us orthodox Christians who look to him as the best and most effective advocate we have in the public square. Whatever happens, he will have come through this trial with his integrity intact — and, therefore, his moral authority as a Christian leader. That’s always a thing of great value, given its scarcity in all times, but especially so as a voice for Christian values in the public square of post-Christian America.