Religion

The Southern Baptist Controversy Is Not about Trump

A lone congregant waits in person for the web-streamed Sunday services to begin in Seattle, Wash., March 22, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
What Russell Moore’s departure from Southern Baptist leadership means.

On May 18, Russell Moore announced his resignation as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The ERLC is the SBC’s public-policy arm in Washington. Moore has been the subject of controversy among some in SBC leadership. Many Southern Baptists are Donald Trump supporters. Moore is not. The media, generally uninterested in religious Americans, have been satisfied to throw those bits of information together and report that support for Trump is causing tension in the SBC.

But a letter that Moore wrote in February 2020 has now been published online by Religion News Service, and Moore argues that Trump has nothing to do with his conflicts with SBC leadership.

Let’s fill in some background first by looking at each word in the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Southern. The SBC is predominately southern and its membership is predominately white. Consequently, its membership predominately votes Republican. It’s important to note the levers of causation there. They don’t vote Republican because they are Baptist. There are many other Baptist denominations whose memberships look very different from Southern Baptists, and they vote very differently. Any organization formed from a broad sample of mostly white Southerners is going to have a lot of Republicans in it; such is life.

Baptist. Baptists use congregational polity, which means that there is no formal hierarchy beyond the local church. Baptists only recognize two church offices: pastor and deacon. There are no bishops or cardinals that give directives telling churches how to operate. Churches in the SBC don’t really have to abide by anything the SBC says if they don’t want to. The authority of the local church is the first priority.

Convention. The SBC is best understood as a membership organization, not a clerical body. The SBC has an annual meeting in the summer where elections are held and decisions are made within the denomination. Think of it as being similar to a shareholders’ meeting (it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s good enough to get the point). Churches choose to join and pay the equivalent of membership dues to the Cooperative Program, which is then disbursed to various SBC organizations. Each member church gets a minimum of two delegates, called “messengers,” with voting rights at the annual meeting. Churches get more messengers if they contribute more money to the SBC’s work, up to a maximum of twelve messengers. In exchange for those financial contributions, the SBC provides many services. It runs seminaries, organizes missions work, and even has its own press. Among those services is the ERLC, which according to its website, “exists to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.”

Now, some background on this particular issue.

Moore’s February 2020 letter was addressed to the ERLC board of trustees. The setup of the ERLC is similar to a company where the CEO answers to a corporate board, and the ERLC has independence within the larger SBC organization to make its own decisions. The controversies Moore has faced are not from within the ERLC, and they aren’t even between the ERLC and the SBC as a whole. Moore has always been well received at SBC annual meetings. He is well known for a thunderous answer he gave to a question about defending the religious freedom of non-Christians at the 2016 meeting. A motion to defund the ERLC at the 2018 annual meeting was resoundingly defeated. Rather, the controversies are between Moore’s ERLC and some members of the SBC’s Executive Committee.

The Executive Committee is composed of 86 representatives who are elected by the Convention. Many of the representatives are not pastors (there’s a pharmacist, a retired insurance agent, and an elementary-school principal, among many other professions on the committee). The primary purpose of the committee is to oversee the SBC’s operations between annual meetings. The SBC website stresses that “the Executive Committee is not a board, but a committee. That is, while it can make recommendations to or about entities or issue reports on entities; no entity is directly accountable to it. Each entity is directly responsible to the Convention of church messengers in annual session.”

As you can imagine, an 86-person committee of people from different walks of life all over the country is not of one mind. A minority of the Executive Committee has been unhappy with Moore, and it created a task force to investigate the ERLC in February 2020. The premise of that investigation was that some churches were withholding money out of displeasure with the ERLC’s work.

It took almost a year for the task force’s report to come out. The report addresses the financial questions by basically admitting that it’s not about the money after all: “The decline in nationwide Cooperative Program giving began many years prior to the current leadership of the ERLC. The task force knew from its inception that the long-term downward trend in Cooperative Program giving could not be solely attributed to concerns over the current direction of the ERLC.” The task force expresses support for an organization-wide strategic plan to increase giving to the Cooperative Program.

The information in the Cooperative Program section of the report wound up as somewhat of a nothingburger. The task force sent a questionnaire to the leaders of all 41 state/regional conventions. Only 15 responded. Of the 15 that responded, “several . . . reported little to no negative effect from the ministry of the ERLC.” One state convention “verified that $1,147,000 has been withheld due to the ERLC.” That’s the biggest direct finding they got. The rest talk about the ERLC’s actions “potentially impacting” donations, or “issues including but not limited to the ERLC,” and things of that nature. For perspective, the report notes that state conventions gave $188 million to the SBC Executive Committee in 2020.

The task-force report doesn’t say which state/regional conventions responded or even which ones reported that giving to the Cooperative Program had been reduced because of the ERLC. That’s significant, because some states have chapters of the Conservative Baptist Network, an organization of Southern Baptists who believe the SBC is getting too liberal. That faction is generally anti-Moore. Mike Stone, chair of the task force, serves on the Conservative Baptist Network’s steering council. So it’s plausible that Stone got responses from people he knew in advance would give him anti-ERLC responses. But we can’t know because the report doesn’t say which states responded to the questionnaire.

The report goes on for a few pages about an erroneous amicus brief that the ERLC filed in a court case. All communications from that incident are dated in December. Recall that the task force was launched in February 2020, didn’t submit its final report until January 2021, and that the premise was the ERLC’s impact on giving. It seems the task force got lackluster results on the giving issue and turned the report into a fishing expedition.

All of which is to say that none of this is really about Donald Trump. Moore had been president of the ERLC since 2013. The first indication that his resignation has nothing to do with Trump is that he was president of the ERLC before Trump was in office and remained president after Trump left office. Moore’s February 2020 letter addresses Trump head-on and is unequivocal in denying that Trump is the primary reason for the conflicts between him and members of the SBC Executive Committee:

The lazy journalistic assessment would be that this is about the President of the United States. This has nothing to do with that. Y’all know my concerns about the perennial temptation toward political captivity of the gospel, and that will always and perhaps increasingly be a concern in this era. But this is not the issue here. Most Trump voters and supporters have been nothing but kind and encouraging to me — from Southern Baptist laypeople and pastors to Administration officials all the way up and down the ranks. Just as we did with President Obama, we express disagreement where warranted, but we do so respecting the office and doing so requesting a different viewpoint, not engaging in polemics or attack. And when we agree with what the Administration is doing, we say so and work to achieve good public policy as informed by a biblically-grounded ethic, again just as we did when we could under President Obama, and as I did, before I was in this role, with President Bush. The [Trump] Administration has asked us to take leadership on too many issues to list here — from working on opioid and mental health concerns in faith-based communities to ensuring religious liberty for adoption providers to working on the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in China and elsewhere.

This controversy in the SBC is not about Donald Trump. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Moore wrote in his letter that his discomfort with the SBC arose from incidents of sexual abuse and racism.

Moore:

As you know, our last ERLC National Conference [2019] was built around the issues of sexual abuse. We said from the beginning that we wanted a place for honest dialogue around these issues, and we would not police anyone from speaking what he or she had experienced or thought. At least one speaker harshly criticized us for not doing enough, or not handling things the way he thought we should. I welcomed that criticism. I learned from it, and was glad that the speaker felt the freedom to do so. At that conference, though, Rachael Denhollender [sic] participated with me in a conversation where, again, I refused to censor or stop anything that she had to say. In that conversation, she spoke about her thoughts about the disparagement and poor treatment of a sexual abuse survivor by Executive Committee staff. The story Rachael told is accurate, and Maria [Moore’s wife] and I know that because we were, even during that very meeting, ministering alongside others to that mistreated young woman.

This enraged some Executive Committee trustee leadership, who communicated that they were incensed that we would allow such a story to be told. . . . I came away from these conversations with the distinct feeling that I was being told (not from [SBC Executive Committee President and CEO] Ronnie Floyd, but from sectors of his trustees, mostly the very sector from which this latest action [the task force] has come), “You’ve got a nice little Commission there; would be a shame if something happened to it.” I told Maria that at the time. It was, and is, chilling — especially seeing what they had in mind to do under cover of darkness.

I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then “broken down.”

The bold italics are original. It’s clear that from Moore’s side of things, this controversy isn’t about electoral politics. He sees organizational patterns in the SBC that prevent sexual abusers from being held accountable.

He also recounts specific episodes of racism from SBC leaders. He doesn’t name which leaders in the letter. He likely presumed his audience, the ERLC board of trustees, would know to whom he was referring. That doesn’t do much to help us, though.

Reading Moore’s letter feels like reading accounts of the machinations within the Politburo of some failing Eastern Bloc state. He wrote that an SBC leader told him, “We know we can’t take you down. . . . This is psychological warfare, to make you think twice before you do or say something.” Moore wrote of “psychological and institutional terrorism that my wife and children and team and I have endured.” He wrote that his children asked him if he “had a moral failing.” Addressing the board of trustees, he wrote:

I wanted you to know, from me, what’s behind all of this, really. You deserve to know. And I wanted you to know that we will not keep living under these circumstances. I will not comply with another secret task force meant to silence me about issues I believe are issues of obedience to Christ. I will not sign another “unity” statement meant to “call off the dogs” of scrutiny so that the beatings may begin again in private.

The entire letter is a harrowing read, and it seems like Moore has been through a lot. His departure makes sense, if for no other reason than that he needs rest from a toxic work environment. Moore is not liberal theologically. He believes in biblical inerrancy. He is pro-life. He believes marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Accusations of “liberalism” from Moore’s critics really don’t stick. It was always clear that something else was going on, and Moore’s letter shines a light on what that something else could be.

It would be easy to say that Moore’s critics are just concerned about money, and that that is un-Christian. But if it were true that Moore’s work was costing the SBC donations, that would be important to consider. Jesus doesn’t teach us to shirk our financial obligations, and the SBC has a lot of obligations. The SBC Executive Committee had $389 million in expenses in 2019. Much of that money funds missions and charity work that spreads the Gospel.

The problem is that, according to Moore, the SBC Executive Committee was using financial concerns as a front to punish him for speaking out on sexual abuse and racism within the SBC. Sexual abuse and racism are sins. It’s entirely proper for a Christian leader to speak out against those things. As Moore wrote, “I believe that unrepentant sin, not brought to the light of Christ and cleansed by the blood of Christ, through the gospel, leads to hell. I really believe in hell. That’s why I’ve been clear for twenty-five years on abortion, on sexual chastity and morality, and on racism.” That’s what the Bible teaches and what Southern Baptists claim to believe. If the SBC Executive Committee was seeking to prevent Moore from teaching that as he saw fit, that’s a question of biblical interpretation and ministerial leadership.

The SBC’s organizational structure is a mixed blessing in this situation. On the one hand, it presents many more opportunities for conflict to arise than a more hierarchical structure, and resolving disputes is very difficult. There are a number of splinter groups from the SBC already, and perhaps this incident will lead to more. But on the other hand, rot at the top doesn’t do much to affect the experience of the average Southern Baptist churchgoer. Most Southern Baptists are oblivious to the details of this episode, and will remain so, because it doesn’t really affect them. The pastors and deacons in their local churches are serving the Lord, and that’s what matters.

At a national level, though, American Christians should want a healthier Southern Baptist Convention. It’s the largest Protestant denomination in America, and many Americans first hear the Gospel in its pews or from its members.

The problems it faces will not be solved, however, if we don’t all realize one thing: It’s not about Donald Trump.

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