Culture

The Baptist Battle over Russell Moore Really Matters—Here’s Why

Russell Moore lectures in 2015. (Screengrab: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary/YouTube)
Moore thinks the church should be more than just another interest group; do his detractors?

Yesterday, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, appeared to dodge a bullet. After comprehensive reporting from the Washington Post indicating that Frank Page, head of the SBC’s executive committee, was meeting with Moore and was prepared to ask for Moore’s resignation “if the meeting doesn’t go well,” the two men put out a statement saying they “fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists for years to come.”

Yet the question of Moore’s status may not be permanently resolved. The SBC’s executive committee has “launched a study” of decisions the church makes about escrow funds that would ordinarily flow to the ERLC. A number of churches and pastors had publicly declared they were withholding the funds in protest of Moore’s actions during the 2016 election and his policy decisions as head of the ERLC. The committee’s report is due later this year.

While it’s almost certainly true that absent the rise of Donald Trump Moore wouldn’t be facing the sheer amount of incoming fire from fellow Baptists that he is, the dispute between Moore and his critics goes beyond the election to echo the political, generational, race divides that are straining the Evangelical church well beyond the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Not to over-simplify the dispute, but in many ways Moore represented a break from the partisanship of traditional Christian conservatism at the very time when many of his constituents were proving most unwilling to separate themselves either rhetorically or spiritually from the GOP.

Moore was an early critic of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The core of his critique was simple: that American Christians shouldn’t excuse or rationalize sin for the sake of political victory in any single election. Moreover, the same moral standards one applies to political opponents should also apply to one’s political friends. If sexual misconduct, for example, rendered Bill Clinton unfit for office in the 1990s, how should Christians think about a thrice-married serial adulterer in 2016 — especially one who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals?

The core of his critique was simple: that American Christians shouldn’t excuse or rationalize sin for the sake of political victory in any single election.

On a broader level, Moore was mapping out a vision for Christians that declared the church to be more than just another interest group. Rather than narrowly seeking its own perceived political interests, it should offer a God-honoring moral voice that is concerned with ends and means. In other words, those who lie to secure power are still liars, even if they prove to be marginally better politicians than the candidates they defeat. The church does not glorify God when it aligns itself with corruption in either party.

At the same time, the ERLC was working diligently to try to bridge persistent racial divisions in the SBC and the Evangelical church more broadly and to persuade the public that religious liberty wasn’t just a Christian concern, but a deeply American value. Towards that end, it controversially (to some) signed on to an amicus brief defending the religious liberty of Muslims seeking to build a mosque in New Jersey. (To criticize this decision is particularly odd given the ERLC’s explicit mission to preserve religious liberty. The same legal standards that apply to mosques will also apply to churches.)

In other words, Moore was echoing the values and priorities of a large number of younger Evangelicals, men and women who were dispirited by partisanship, weary of persistent racial divisions in the church, and deeply concerned that longtime religious-right leaders had failed to make a compelling case for religious freedom. 

But it was politics that truly ticked off Moore’s critics. It was the straw — no, the two-by-four — that broke the camel’s back. Yet in making his critiques and stating his case against Clinton and Trump, Moore was doing little more than quoting the Southern Baptist Convention back to itself. In 1998, as Bill Clinton faced impeachment for his sexual misconduct, the Convention penned a short but powerful Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. The resolution laid out a series of key biblical truths, including truths that should prick the conscience of politically involved Christians of both parties.

For example, the convention noted that “many Americans are willing to excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails.” That is most certainly true, and so is this: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

In other words, God is sovereign over our political culture, and He has outlined certain spiritual laws that govern the fate of nations. Among them (as amply illustrated biblically), unrighteousness can bring ruin. This means that selecting leaders involves more than merely comparing tax proposals or presumed judicial nominations. It must include an analysis of character and conduct.

As a practical matter, that meant that Moore felt he couldn’t vote for Clinton or for Trump. But he recognized the challenge of 2016 and understood that Christians could (and did) in good faith disagree and could (and did) hold their nose and vote for Trump in spite of his flaws. Moore condemned the “handful of Christian political operatives” that he believed were “excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel.” At the same time, he recognized the “massive difference between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience.”

Moore (like many of us who opposed both Trump and Clinton) was quite pointed in some of his tweets and other commentary. He pulled no punches in attacking those he saw as compromising biblical truth for the sake of political advantage. And there is no question that he deeply offended a number of prominent Baptist Trump supporters, a number of whom responded to him not so much with a biblical argument but rather with words that echoed the sensitivity and populism of the time. Rather than squarely address the core of his argument, many of his critics describe Moore as either “offensive” or not truly a man of the people. In other words, he was perceived by some as a condescending, beltway (inside Nashville’s beltway) elitist.

Mike Huckabee told a Townhall columnist that he was “utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult him.” He then proceeded to imply that Moore wasn’t committed to the “protection of the unborn, Biblical marriage, or helping people out of poverty,” when the most casual amount of research would show that Moore’s ERLC has been a leader in each of these issues. The ERLC is in fact one of America’s most-respected and eloquent voices for the unborn, for religious freedom, and against the radical and destructive expansion of the sexual revolution.

Prominent Southern Baptist pastor William Harrell wrote a widely-shared post that made the case that the ERLC should do little more than “represent the values and opinions of those who are responsible for its existence, the people of the SBC” and accused Moore of being “completely out of touch with how the people felt.”

But this is a cramped, dangerous, and unbiblical view of religious leadership. The role of a Christian leader isn’t to put his finger in the air, take the pulse of his constituency, and respond accordingly. It’s to know and do the will of God, and to call the church to do the same — even when the church is making poor choices.

The Harrell/Huckabee model of engagement leaves little room for a Jeremiah or Isaiah. For that matter it leaves little room for the apostles, men who were known to sternly call out the people of the young church for indulging in and excusing sin. Moore wasn’t “out of touch” with Baptists. He was very much “in touch,” and that’s precisely why he wrote with such passion.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the Christian role in the 2016 election was the sad absence of faith. It was as if millions of Americans believe that the government is the prime defender of the faith, not Christ, and thus compromising long-held moral positions wasn’t just a painful possibility but an urgent necessity. Yet in far more dire circumstances, believers have looked to God, not government, and God has always been faithful.

For the church, every part of its operation is measured against the standard of Christ, not realpolitik or populism.

In 1998, the SBC ended its Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials with this clarion call for integrity and courage: “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.”

Did Trump’s zealous supporters “embrace and act” on this conviction in 2016? It’s clear that Moore most certainly did. If the Baptists do fire Moore (or force his resignation), I hope they also have the integrity to revoke and rewrite their 1998 resolution. Insisting on “consistent honesty, moral purity, and the highest character” will be left to the primaries, at best. After that, it’s all partisanship, and the “lesser of two evils” will be the only moral guide that matters.

Baptists should consider carefully the consequences of their decisions. Some might say that it’s “just about politics,” and one shouldn’t judge the nation’s largest Protestant denomination on the basis of how it handles what some dismissively call its “lobbying arm.” But for the church, every part of its operation is measured against the standard of Christ, not realpolitik or populism.

Moore may have offended with his rhetoric (some of it was harsh, but some Christians are snowflakes). Was he wrong, though, to argue that the church fundamentally should have a more prophetic than partisan role in our culture? How much is God calling Christians to compromise other values for the sake of perceived progress on life and religious liberty? Should the church defend the liberties of others that it would like to exercise itself? Was Moore wrong to cling to the principles outlined in the church’s own resolutions?

These are the questions at issue not just for Southern Baptists but for all Christians. Moore’s fate matters because these questions matter. The church is not a partisan interest group. Moore understands this reality. Do his critics?

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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