Just before Thanksgiving, an ecumenical group of religious leaders gathered at a “Humanum” conference at the Vatican to discuss men, women, and family and a renewed understanding of the complementarity between men and women and how understanding that can benefit civilization. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was among the speakers there (video of his remarks can be viewed here). In an interview with National Review Online, Moore reflects on what happened at the Vatican, Pope Francis, marriage, faith, Christmas, immigration, and St. Joseph, among other things.
Q: What was a Baptist like you doing at the Vatican?
A: Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith invited religious leaders from every continent and virtually every world religion to the Vatican to talk about marriage and family. I was intrigued, and cheered, that the colloquium wasn’t merely about marriage but about the complementarity of man and woman as essential to marriage and to human flourishing. The Vatican asked me to speak from an Evangelical Protestant perspective on why this issue matters and why we ought to work together on it. This matter of complementarity is precisely the right question because I find it’s not just the “culture” that’s getting marriage wrong, but far too often the church is getting it wrong, too.
Q: Is the Paul VI synod hall at the Vatican a most appropriate place to be discussing these issues? He, of course, famously and prophetically warned what would happen when we started liberating sex from marriage with the advent of the pill and the sexual revolution.
A: Yes. While I don’t agree with Humanae Vitae on every point, the larger framework was certainly right. The sexual revolution saw sexuality as something that could be “freed” from the responsibilities of covenant and community. The wreckage is all around us, and the ones who have been hurt the most are women and children. The sexual revolution empowered men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male, rooted in the values of power, prestige, and personal pleasure. We see this in the divorce culture, in the fatherlessness epidemic, and in the objectification of women in pornography, sex trafficking, and rape.
Q: What do man and woman have to do with the mystery of Christ?
A: Every Evangelical who has spent more than three Sundays in a pew knows that Ephesians 5 teaches that a man is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and that the husband and wife are to be one body, one flesh. What we sometimes miss is that Ephesians 5 does not stand alone, as though it were a special “marriage and family Sunday” sermon. The letter to the Ephesians is a coherent argument, about the revealing of the mystery of Christ (Eph. 1:10). That mystery is seen in the universe around us (Eph. 1), in the makeup and mission of the church (Eph. 2–4), and in marriage and the family. The husband-wife union points beyond itself to something more ancient — the gospel of the Christ-church union. When we tinker with marriage, then, we are tinkering with more than just a human relationship but with an icon of the most important mystery of the universe. And when marriage is eclipsed, we lose sight of one of the images God has embedded in the universe to point us to Christ.
Q: What does that have to do with non-Christians? Are you trying to legislate your morality when you argue against same-sex marriage?
A: Biblical revelation tells me why, as a Christian, I ought to see marriage as of cosmic, and not just social, significance. But we can all see that marriage matters. Indeed, we all recognize, even the most radical sexual revolutionary, that marriage has some limits to its definition. Marriage as a creational structure, grounded in common grace and testified universally in the human conscience, is seen in this gathering, in which representatives of every world religion talked about why male/female complementarity matters in their respective perspectives. I think this is because of God’s design, and I think that design leads us, ultimately, to ask why God created a universe in which we don’t subdivide like amoebas but are drawn to this life-giving, one-flesh union. I think the answer to that is the gospel.
Q: Was the Humanum gathering just another meeting or is this something more?
A: This is something more. I have said for some time that when it comes to the American scene, I am a short-term marriage pessimist and a long-term marriage optimist. Marriage is resilient, by God’s gospel design, and I think the sexual revolution can only go so far before it leaves the cultural ground burned over. Out of such scenarios, a shoot typically grows up, and is cultivated. I am even more convinced than ever that this is happening. This gathering was about more than just a group of people with like-minded policy goals. There was a real sense of hope, of camaraderie, of the beginnings of a new movement to keep lit the old paths.
Q: What was the ecumenical dynamic like?
A: Well, this wasn’t one of those “let’s pretend we all agree on everything” ecumenical gatherings, and that’s one of the reasons it was so productive. Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, spoke from a Jewish perspective (and he was magnificent, as always). Mormons and Taoists and Buddhists spoke from their perspective, without pretending to be part of some generic “faith-based community.” The pope was Catholic. This was one of the few such gatherings I’ve attended where theology was taken seriously, both in our agreements and in our differences. Probably more important than the actual sessions, though, were the coffee breaks and the meals, where we had deep conversations about things that mattered. By the end of the week, I think many of us learned to love one another more. That always seems to happen when we don’t pretend that we are all united in some generic civil religion but instead show up as who we are.
Q: Why is it important for the Catholic Church to lead on these things? You’ve been working with the Catholic bishops on religious freedom, for instance.
A: For most of our history, English and American Baptist Christians thought the greatest threat to religious liberty would come from the Roman Catholic Church. Now we find that some of our greatest allies on religious freedom are Roman Catholics. The threat to our religious liberties comes from a different papacy than we thought — that of a secularizing statism that seeks to pave over consciences with government power. I can think of no greater freedom fighters for religious liberty in the world right now than the Catholics Robert P. George of Princeton and Archbishop Charles Chaput. My Baptist forebears would never have expected that.
Q: Now that you’ve been with Pope Francis, what do you make of him?
A: The warmth of his personality comes across in person, just as it does on television. It is no surprise that he inspires the sort of reaction he does all over the world. I was especially cheered by his comments on marriage, especially given the media confusion just weeks earlier over the synod deliberations on the family. Pope Francis made it clear that he believes male/female complementarity is essential to marriage and that this cannot be undone or erased by modern ideologies. He also made clear that he believes that every child has the right to both a mother and a father. And he pointed out that marriage is not just a “relationship,” but an ecology. This image is exactly right. Marriage is part of human ecology, needing conservation and cultivation.
Q: What does the family need most?
A: The family needs most a bigger picture. Too many adults assume family is about their individual projects of self-fulfillment. That’s why marriages are so easily ripped apart, children so easily conceived without covenant commitment of their parents and children so easily abandoned. When we don’t see ourselves as sacrificing ourselves for a larger community, in continuity with our ancestors and our descendants, that becomes all too easy. That’s especially true when contemporary culture sees sexuality as the firing of nerve endings rather than as a spiritual joining of selves. As an Evangelical Christian, I think the biggest picture, of course, is the gospel. We should see our lives not only in terms of our wedding vows, but in terms of the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. That ought to motivate us to stand by our words.
Q: When you spoke at the Vatican, you said that: “We did not spring into existence out of nothing, but each of us can trace his or her origins back to a man and a woman, a mother and a father.” But can we even make that assumption any more? When “dad” might be a sperm donor, for instance? Will any of this get rolled back?
A: That’s precisely the point. The sexual revolution pretends that it can replace mothering and fathering with technology and progress, but it can’t. Those conceived by sperm donors still come into existence through both a mother and a father, though the father is absent. That’s what makes the project so awful: It’s built on the assumption that all we need is “parent A” and “parent B” when we need to be reared in touch with both genders, with both a mother and a father. Our culture shows us that even those who say fathers are expendable really don’t believe it. Look at the way lament at absent fathers shows up in virtually every genre of popular music — sometimes in wistful sadness, and sometimes in explosive rage. As for rolling it back, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better — as technology gives us the illusion that we can exist without limits.
But we are creatures, after all. Our Babels eventually come tumbling down. We must have an alternative ready for those who want it — an alternative of love.
Q: What do we say to people with same-sex attraction if we insist same-sex marriage is not right?
A: We emphasize that marriage is a public good, and thus everybody’s concern, but that marriage is not necessary for a person to live a good and godly life. If marriage were essential to being a complete person, then Jesus of Nazareth would have been incomplete. He was single throughout his earthly mission, and he is the alpha and omega point of what it means to be human. Following Christ is a matter of cross-bearing, he tells us, for all of us, though at different points. Fidelity to Christ is difficult for everyone, whatever a person’s particular temptations. This will take, though, a church willing to be the church for those who suffer with same-sex attractions. Many of them assume that being faithful to the Bible’s teachings means that they will die alone, lonely. God forbid. No Christian should die alone or lonely. We have come into a household, with brothers and sisters. We should be family to one another.
Q: How best should we communicate what we believe to be true with love?
A: We are to talk the way Jesus talks. In my Vatican address, I pointed to Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well because I think this is precisely the cultural moment to which we have come. Jesus said to her, “Go get your husband and come here” (Jn. 4:16). Both parts of that sentence are necessary. Some would say that Jesus shouldn’t address the question of her marital status, of her sexual immorality. But without addressing the issue of her sin, Jesus could not address the invitation to mercy. To jettison or to minimize a Christian sexual ethic is to abandon the message Jesus handed to us, and to abandon our love for our neighbors. We cannot offer the world the half-gospel of a surgical-strike targeted universalism, which exempts from God’s judgment those sins we fear are too fashionable to address. At the same time, Jesus said “come here.” He was not disgusted by her, and he did not see her as too far gone for God’s grace. We must patiently articulate and embody a Christian vision of marriage, knowing that the sexual revolution cannot keep its promises. Many of those who most oppose us right now may well thirst for something else later on. We must be ready to point to living water.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: Contrary to the myth, I find that the younger one goes in my community, the more committed the Christians are to a Christian vision of marriage and sexuality. This is because these young Christians cannot simply assume marriage and family as “traditional family values.” They must instead defend these things, and see how they fit with the gospel. That’s the same dynamic at work in the first-century church. Moreover, these young Christians have lived through the wreckage of the sexual revolution, many of them with divorced parents or grandparents. They are ready for a gospel counter-revolution.
Q: When you returned, immigration became an immediate issue. You oppose the president’s executive actions. But what about the immigration mess and what about our brothers and sisters? Could it be better that something rather than nothing is being done?
A: That’s why I’m grieved by the president’s unilateral action. The ones hurt will be immigrant families and communities. Even if one assumed the president had authority to do this, the action doesn’t fix what virtually everyone agrees is a broken system. If Lyndon Johnson had decided to score political points against Republican Everett Dirksen rather than work with him, we never would have had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It looks like, in order to get this system fixed, we are going to need some morally courageous Republicans to lead on it, and not to take the bait of turning immigrant families into one more partisan wedge issue.
Q: How are you preparing for Christmas? Our first signs tend to be Santa and Black Friday, but this ought to be a spiritually rigorous time too?
A: My more high-church friends complain that I celebrate Christmas too soon, circumventing Advent (we put up our tree a week before Thanksgiving; don’t judge me). In my own defense, this isn’t just a seasonal thing. One of my staff members in my Capitol Hill office complains that I am playing Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole sometimes as early as August. That said, the Christmas season ought to drive us to the biblical text, which is not all tinsel and garlands. Instead, the Christmas narrative is set in the context of spiritual warfare, of a light that is shining out of darkness.
For several years, I’ve been convinced that the model we most need in this day is that of Joseph of Nazareth. In a day when fathers are seen as expendable, we should look at Joseph, who sacrificed his own future for his wife and child. In a world filled with orphans in need of families, we should look at the example of this adopting father who poured out himself to become a father to one who was of no biological relation to him. In a culture where children are deemed disposable, we should look to this one who took on the Planned Parenthood of his day, those who sought the destruction of innocent human life, by sheltering the vulnerable in his own home. And in a day when anti-immigrant rhetoric shows up all around the world, we should remember this one who took his wife and our Lord into a strange land with a strange language as a refugee from a persecuting regime.