‘How do you use the bully pulpit to teach people about the importance of religious liberty?”
Russell Moore’s words echoed across Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where 14,000 Evangelicals were gathered for the SEND North America Conference, organized by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), on August 4. Seated next to Moore, awash in red and white fluorescent lighting, was presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, prepared to field his questions on religion, abortion, and ISIS. “Shouldn’t we say,” Moore pressed, his voice clear above the applause, “not one more red cent for Planned Parenthood?”
“Yes,” Bush answered. “We should.”
Before that August afternoon, few voters likely knew Moore’s name. The event’s high-profile lineup, which also included Marco Rubio in a pre-taped interview, led the Washington Post to fashion its own headline: “Who is Russell Moore?”
The question has buzzed over the past several weeks as Moore, the 43-year-old president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the SBC’s social-policy arm, emerged on the national stage championing a new vision of Evangelicalism, one looking to unite “all religious peoples” to protect what he says is “the fundamental concern of our time”: religious liberty.
In Moore’s hands, this crusade is becoming a bridge between Republican politicians and a religious Right that many believe is increasingly fractured and politically defunct. Whereas the 1970s and ’80s were dominated by what Moore deems the “perpetual outrage wing” of the old religious Right, pioneered by quasi-political groups like Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and the Moral Majority, no group can claim such influence today. Moore believes this is a good thing: It’s time, he says, to repackage religion for a new generation of Evangelicals who recoil from the “apocalyptic tone” of their elders.
Peb Jackson, a founding board member of Focus on the Family, echoes this assessment. “The landscape is ripe,” he says, “and there is demand for a new tone and new voices to represent orthodox belief in our current times.”
Many think Moore is that voice. With experience in both politics (he has worked as an aide to Representative Gene Taylor in his home state of Mississippi) and religion (he has a PhD in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Moore hopes to engage the new religious Right and the public at large in the future of religious liberty, which he says is “more imperiled today than at our country’s founding.”
Moore hopes to engage the new religious Right and the public at large in the future of religious liberty, which he says is ‘more imperiled today than at our country’s founding.’
The linchpin of his project is a collaboration among “Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, [and] Muslims” to form a wide-reaching coalition that understands “the need for a dialogue with political leaders that models civil conversation, not a political rally.” The SEND conference was an embodiment of this effort: With nearly all major national news outlets covering it, and Hillary Clinton responding to Bush’s comments on Twitter, the event shined an impressive spotlight on religious liberty, the fight against abortion, and other causes that faith-driven conservatives hold close.
Moore’s momentum is building. At the ERLC’s Gospel and Politics national conference earlier this month, Moore warned that the Equality Act, a proposed measure that would eliminate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense in cases of alleged discrimination, stood to strip small-business owners of their freedom of conscience. And in the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges, he led 30 religious leaders and educators in crafting an open letter to Congress that urges the passage of the First Amendment Defense Act. “Some are already calling for governmental discrimination against those who hold to their religiously informed belief that marriage is only the union of one man and one woman,” the letter reads. “This must not be allowed to happen.”
For Kelly Shackelford, the president of the Liberty Institute, the heightened rhetoric reflects the urgency of the moment. “There’s a huge coalition of people that can’t be limited to one political persuasion concerned about religious liberty,” he says. “The attacks going on right now are not only greater than I’ve ever seen, but they’re also growing at an exponential rate.”
Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, says that Moore’s “sophisticated breadth of learning” — rooted in a religiously mixed background and a fluency in Christian thought from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas — and his commitment to uniting the religious Right across denominational lines make him a crucial guidepost for this precarious historical moment.
“Russell has never lived in an insular Evangelical world,” George says. “He understands that Christians cannot isolate themselves and assume that the basic principles of our polity — religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage — will be transmitted to their children. We need a leader to try and recall this nation to fidelity to those things. That’s where Russell is a leader.”
Other conservatives are wary of ceding that mantle to Moore. He was a conspicuous voice in the successful effort to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds, and his alignment with the communitarian strand of Christian ethics, which rejects cultural separation as a means of safeguarding Christian teachings, has proven troubling to some. In an article for Randy White Ministries, Nathan Britton, pastor at First Baptist Church in Taos, N.M., denounced the instinctual inclusiveness of Moore’s message. “I’m embarrassed because, instead of being a powerful voice for truth in our country, through Russell Moore the SBC is becoming the voice of the ‘common good.’”
‘Moore definitely has a gentler way of putting things — a more culturally attuned packaging of the Evangelical message — but the message itself is not different.’
Like many prominent Evangelicals before him, Moore has a tendency to take controversial political stands, though they often don’t align with the far Right. He raised eyebrows when he stated on his website that “Jesus was an illegal immigrant,” in an attempt to outline the need for a Gospel-driven rhetoric in the immigration debate. Last week, he tweeted that the “Abortion lobby & nativism both see people as problems, not as persons. A politician who’ll sell out to the one will sell out to the other.” Such comments have led some conservative Christians to accuse Moore of political correctness and of advocating amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Moore says those comments reflect not support for amnesty but a need for Christians to “humanize” the American immigration discussion.)
“I fear that Moore will do more harm than good to Evangelicals,” says a board member of one top religious-freedom advocacy group. “It is not time to act passive. If Baptists don’t speak with a strong voice, it’s defying a long history. It’s a loss of opportunity.”
For Mark Oppenheimer, a New York Times religion columnist, these concerns are ill founded. “I’m not persuaded he believes anything different from Richard Land,” he says. Land was Moore’s predecessor as president of the ERLC, from 1988 to 2013. He stepped down from the post in the wake of controversy over his comment that President Obama was using the death of Trayvon Martin to “gin up the black vote.”
“Moore definitely has a gentler way of putting things — a more culturally attuned packaging of the Evangelical message — but the message itself is not different,” Oppenheimer says. The more important question, he says, is this: Is it possible for someone institutionally tethered to a denomination, as Moore is to the Southern Baptist Convention, to transcend its lines and become a figurehead for all of the religious Right?
Historically, the answer has been no. The major Evangelical voices of the past half-century — men including Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham — have almost all exerted an influence more personal than institutional, fueled by celebrity. Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Life, the world’s second-most translated book, after the Bible. Graham was the spiritual adviser to presidents including Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. And Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network and what is now ABC Family.
Moore’s outreach, by contrast, falls under the umbrella of the ERLC. But a confluence of urgency — a quiet desperation among religious conservatives for a leader — and what Jackson calls Moore’s unique grasp of “what it means to listen and engage” suggests that he has the potential to break the mold.
Moore seems to recognize as much. As the 2016 election draws nearer, he plans to continue meeting with presidential candidates and trying to articulate what “a vision of religious freedom, rooted in the sovereignty of God, truly means.” What it means for bureaucracy, what it means for human conscience, what it means for human dignity. On the Republican side, he says, he’s met with “almost all of the candidates.”
Whether he will have the chance to engage with the Democratic side, he says, is less certain. He extended an invitation to Hillary Clinton to participate in the SEND conference alongside Bush, but she declined. “We plan to keep reaching out to her,” Moore laments. “But I don’t think that she will respond.”
“And yet,” he adds, “it is wrong to retreat.”
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.