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The Religious Right: A Eulogy

Russell Moore's generation-defining Erasmus Lecture inaugurates a new era for American religious conservatism

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore delivered one hell heck of a speech Monday night in New York. When First Things magazine tapped Moore to deliver its prestigious annual Erasmus Lecture, I wonder if the editors imagined how consequential the speech was going to be. It amounts to a eulogy for the Religious Right, delivered by a conservative Southern Baptist who has had enough. I believe it will be seen as a generation-defining speech, a line in the sand between the Old Guard and the Next Generation, as well as a line in the sand marking the end of an era and the opening of a new one.

When I said so on Twitter, Ryan T. Anderson expressed skepticism, wondering why Ross Douthat’s or Archbishop Charles Chaput’s previous Erasmus Lectures didn’t count. Both of those were excellent and important speeches on the same general topic as Moore’s. What makes Moore’s speech more important is its timing, and the fact that it was delivered by a conservative Evangelical.

What I mean is this: Moore’s speech comes near the climax of a brutal and in many ways unprecedented US presidential election campaign, one in which the GOP nominee has just about destroyed the Republican Party, and bitterly fragmented the Religious Right, once a powerful force in American politics. Had Russell Moore given this same speech a year ago, it would have still been interesting and important, but not nearly as consequential. Had a non-Evangelical delivered this speech tonight, same thing. The reason has something to do with Moore’s claim that “American evangelicalism is enmeshed with the Religious Right
psychologically and institutionally and in terms of reputation in ways the Catholic
bishops, the Mormon apostles, or Orthodox rabbis just aren’t.”

He’s right about that. I’ve been a religious, political, and cultural conservative since the early 1990s, a Catholic for 13 years, and an Orthodox Christian for 10. Yet I have never felt comfortable describing myself as a member of the “Religious Right,” even though I have done so before. That’s because “Religious Right” as a concept is an Evangelical thing in a way that it isn’t for Evangelicalism’s political and cultural allies, of which I certainly am. Therefore, when an Evangelical talks about the Religious Right, it carries more weight than when any of the rest of us do. That’s just a political fact.

Here are excerpts from what that conservative white Evangelical pastor from the Deep South said tonight. His topic: “Can The Religious Right Be Saved?”

Moore began by talking about his Southern Baptist childhood in south Mississippi, and how exhausting it was to live within an Evangelicalism that was so obsessed with Bible prophecy, and that lionized loudmouthed hucksters. And this:

And then there were the voter guides. A Religious Right activist group from Washington placed guides in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues chosen just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. On 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 and a balanced budget amendment and the line item veto? Why was there no word for people in the historical shadow of Jim Crow on racial justice and unity? I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling— actually an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world — that Christianity was just a means to an end—a way to shore up southern honor culture, to mobilize voters for political allies, and a way to market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape — and I did.

He left not for secularism, but for a different kind of Christianity. His Virgil was C.S. Lewis, who showed young Moore a different kind of Christian faith than the one he had been raised with. It was the same in many ways, but it had a dimension to it that was missing from the highly politicized faith of his youth.

Moving forward to the political situation today, Moore said that economic and foreign policy conservatism will come out of the 2016 election beaten up, but they will adjust and recover. It’s different with religious conservatism, because “the reason for the
existence of religious conservatism is, after all, about moral formation and family values.”

And here’s where Russell Moore started throwing punches. Hard ones:

The crisis before us now is that of a national Religious Right political

Russell Moore (from erlc.org>
Russell Moore (from erlc.org)

establishment that has waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality — from calls for torture and war crimes to the embrace of an “alt-Right” movement of white identity ethno-nationalists and anti-Semites to the kind of sexual degradation of women we could previously avoid by not choosing to listen to Howard Stern on the radio or the subscribe to Hustler magazine. Some of these—mostly evangelical—political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as “locker room talk” or “macho” behavior. Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be “a choirboy”—thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women and respect for the vulnerable and respect for sexual morality is infantile and unrealistic. One said that his support for this candidate was never about shared values anyway. Others suggested that we need a strongman, and implied a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions, in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture. Some Christian political activist leaders said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates this year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes worthy of an Obama Administration solicitor general.

Moore went all-out condemning religious conservative figures who, in his view, traded their moral principles for first-class seats on the Trump Train. The same movement that condemned Bill Clinton for his immorality and denounced feminists for their hypocrisy in sticking by Clinton for the sake of holding on to power has produced leaders who have done exactly the same thing. For Moore, they are morally bankrupt, and the world knows it, even if they don’t. And it’s their own fault:

Mr. Trump did not give us this. This is a preexisting condition. The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.

Significantly, Moore drew a distinction between religious conservatism per se (which he said is doing pretty well), and politicized religious conservatism, which has committed suicide this year.

There are no 22 year-old John Hagees. This is not because of liberalization. The next generation of these evangelicals pack orthodox confessional universities and seminaries, are planting orthodox confessional churches with astounding velocity. The evangelicals who are at the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Again, this is not because they are liberal but because they keep a priority on the gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose. The leaders they read and listen to are also often fairly indifferent to politics. … Those who do care about politics, and who lead populist movements, tend to be theologically vacuous, tied to populist “God and Country” appeals that seem simultaneously idolatry and angry to younger Christians, and often form a kind of “protection racket” seeking to silence Christian voices as “liberal” who wish to speak about such matters as racial justice.

At this point, Moore got to the heart of his lecture. He said that if the Religious Right is to be saved, it will have to put aside the emotionally cheap theatrics and the politics, and walk through the wardrobe towards a more theologically serious, C.S. Lewis-style Christianity. I loved this passage:

Even if one concedes that demagogic populism is morally acceptable (and I don’t), others can quite simply do demagogic populism more effectively in a postChristianizing America. What we have to offer is more akin to the abbot in the dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz who in seeking to persuade a woman not to euthanize her child, ultimately realizes that the most important thing he could say is “I, a priest of God, adjure thee.” When, as he puts it, God’s priest was overruled by Caesar’s traffic cop, the narrator tells us, “Never to him had Christ’s kingship seemed more distant.” In an age suspicious of all authority outside of the self, the appeal to a word that carries transcendent authority can be just distinctive enough to be heard, even when not immediately embraced. This is the difference Kierkegaard makes between a genius and an apostle, one sent with a word that is not his own.

See what Moore’s getting at here? He’s saying that the best way to influence the culture for Christ is to stop trying to “influence the culture for Christ”, but rather to be deeply and thoughtfully Christian, and to allow your countercultural life to be your testimony. More:

The evangelical commitment to the Bible means the possibility of the shaping of the consciences of the people, not just by the doctrines and propositions of the Scripture but also by experiencing the world through a sense of place in the biblical story. Jesus recognized the temptations of the devil not merely by opposing propositions with propositions but by seeing that he stood where Israel had stood before, in the wilderness before the tribunal of God. The recovery of the kind of catechesis that fits the whole Bible together around the centrality of Christ crucified is necessary for Christians to see that they are indeed “strangers and aliens” to every culture, but that their allegiances transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural. We need public arguments. We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing. But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word of “Thus saith the Lord.”


Those who stand with Christianity must articulate, including to themselves, why and how Christianity matters. This theological, confessional resurgence is often called “gospel-centered” evangelicalism. Can this and has this, at times, become faddish? Of course it has, at times, just as the renaissance of “born again” language in the 1970s Jesus Movement could sometimes do so. But, in both cases, behind the recovery is a reaching back to firmer foundations,. A Religious Right that is not able to tie public action and cultural concern to a theology of gospel and mission will die, and will deserve to die.

This is one of the things I keep banging on about regarding the Benedict Option: a return to the basics of the faith, and deep grounding in them. Casual Christianity won’t make it, nor will casual Christians. This part of Moore’s speech is not quite the same thing as, but still akin to, the Rule of St. Benedict‘s teaching that all things in a Christian’s life must be ordered to Christ. It’s not just a pious saying; it means that every single thing we do in life must be ordered — that is, logically and systematically proceeding from, and subordinate to — a total and uncompromising commitment to following Jesus Christ. Moore continues:

One of the assumptions of some in the old Religious Right is that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically.

That is one of the most important things he said all night, and one of the great lessons of our time. American Christians are theologically ignorant, and it’s killing us. We really are, and it really is. Christian Smith’s research has proven this over and over again. The falcon can no longer hear the Falconer, and is flying blind. The recovery of theological knowledge and commitment, embodied in practices, is the most important task in front of the American church — not the Supreme Court. Get this:

The fundraising structure of political activism, left and right, means that often the most extreme and buffoonish characters are put forward. For the Religious Right, the strangeness to the world is not where the New Testament places it—in the scandal of the gospel—but in the willingness to say outrageous things on television. Some would suggest that even broaching this topic is “intellectual snobbery.” And yet, imagine a 1960s civil rights movement led not by Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but by Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright. [Emphasis mine — RD] King did not simply speak to the passions of his followers but to the consciences of his detractors and to the consciences of those on the sidelines, overhearing it all. Behind that was a coherent set of ideas, grounded in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.

BOOM! Moore defined “theological liberalism” as using the Gospel to advance worldly goals. Then, he denounced

the sort of apocalyptic language that presents every presidential election as an Armageddon from whence one cannot recover is the sort of theological liberalism that makes no sense in a religion in which Augustine wrote the City of God in the context of a collapsing Rome.

Notice what he’s doing here. Moore is comparing the in-your-face, sky-is-falling political rhetoric from certain Religious Right Evangelicals to the Jack Van Impe/Hal Lindsey End-Times mumbo-jumbo that used to electrify Evangelical audiences in his youth. He’s saying that it risks making Christians cynical about things that are truly important, because they’ve heard it all before, and it’s never true.

Moore was especially powerful in criticizing the way white Evangelicalism is blind to the changing ethnic composition of the church, and the small-c catholic (that is, universal) nature of Christianity. The fact is, the white church has a lot to answer for:

[T]he driving force of Christian orthodoxy and spiritual energy is not white , in any sector of Christianity. If left to some Western Europeans and North Americans, the Roman Catholic Church would be the United Church of Christ, with better real estate. But there are the Africans and the Asians. The United Methodist Church is pulling, erratically, back toward orthodoxy, largely due to African Methodists who hold closer to the supernatural vision of the Bible than their American or European counterparts. And where is the evangelistic energy within evangelicalism: with immigrant churches, whether Dominican or Cambodian or Nigerian or Iranian.

Later in the address, Moore said that the loss of the local churches as “intentional, cohesive, conscience-shaping communities of identity and social solidarity” has been devastating for Christianity in this country. We have to rebuild that.

In sum, if the Religious Right is to be saved, it needs not just a tune-up, but a heart transplant. “Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved,” he said. If we lack a radical commitment to the Gospel, said Moore, all we have to offer is moralism. “We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries,” he said “that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.”

Finally, in a masterful rhetorical stroke, Moore said that we cannot forget the world is watching us, that there are young men and women out there just like he was as a teenager, bored and unsatisfied with what he had been given, and craving more. What will we show them? Christians are not called to save a nation or a culture, but to be instruments through which the grace of God reaches out and saves those lost souls.

I wish I could say “read the whole thing,” but the text is not yet on the First Things site. The address was livecast on Facebook earlier tonight. If you missed it, boy, you really missed something great.

Do I think Russell Moore’s address is going to convert a lot of our fellow religious conservatives away from captivity to an exhausted and empty hyper-politicized Christianity? No, I do not, though it might move some conflicted and heavy hearts. What’s most important about this speech is not what it’s attempting to do, but for what it proclaims: the death of the old political order among American religious conservatives, and the birth of something new. Let the dead bury their own dead.  There are more than a few younger Christians (and maybe a few older ones like me) who are ready for something new that is also something old and faithful. Nothing is fresher in the modern world than real orthodoxy. If you heard Russell Moore’s speech tonight, you experienced that for yourself.

UPDATE: Compare what you’ve just read to this well-known passage from Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1969:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.



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