The Castration of Russell Moore
In my final few years within the evangelical community, there were a few seemingly rebellious voices within that tradition to which I clung. They offered me some reassurance that I wasn't "taking crazy pills" in my growing realization that something was terribly wrong with this significant demographic of professing followers of Jesus. One such courageous voice that I rallied to was that of Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. For those of you who are not familiar with the ERLC, it serves as the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest Christian denomination in the United States behind the Catholic Church.
The Baptist Empire
At 15 million members strong, the SBC is a denominational empire in America's religious scene. Though I only once briefly attended a Southern Baptist Church during my former life as an evangelical Christian, the influence this behemoth has had on the overall theology and culture of American evangelicalism, particularly the majority conservative and white wing, is arguably unparalleled. For example, even when I was a professional pastor in children's and youth ministry, there was this consensus among fellow colleagues that when it came to indoctrinating...I'm sorry, I meant to say discipling 'our kids', the Southern Baptist publishers could always be counted on to give us 'the good stuff'. More relevant to the discussion here, the SBC was, among all the evangelical denominations, the most fertile soil for the paranoid narrative and authoritarian ideology of the 'religious right' and its charismatic founding fathers like Southern Baptist Pastor, Jerry Fallwel. This movement's marriage of religious intolerance and political power would become the dominant social engagement strategy of American evangelicalism for the last forty plus years as it strove to 'advance the Kingdom of God' against the evil ambitions of the 'liberal' hordes.
Now, that which I once assumed to be true has become one of my major grievances with the evangelical tradition, ultimately leading to my departure. But before I made this decision, any glimmer of hope that flickered before me was usually sustained in part because of a few brave souls who seemed determined to take the church back to Jesus more than the radical fundamentalists were committed to 'taking America back for God'.
Moore v Trump
So I just about jumped up and did a Hallelujah dance when Russell Moore, in an September of 2015 New York Times Op Ed, asked in its title, "Have Evangelicals who Support Trump Lost Their Values?" If you read the article, you know that it's a rhetorical question. In Moore's own words, "Most illogical is his support from evangelicals and other social conservatives. To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe." Moore would again raise his voice in opposition to evangelical support for the now presumptive nominee of the Republican Party in a May 6th, 2016 Op Ed. In it he would directly imply that Trump's campaign was leveraging, "the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country." Well the Mad Titan himself wasn't going to sit back and let this rogue evangelical erode his support among the voting block that eventually would nearly single handily give him the keys to the Oval Office! So of course Trump took to his favorite tool by which he publicly shames all those who dare oppose him: Twitter. A few days later on May 9th, at 3:05 in the morning, he grabbed his cell and furiously wrote, "Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!"
Over the next few days a few national evangelical voices would come to Moore's defense, but it was certainly not an overwhelming response that would have caused Trump to wonder if his condemnation of a nationally recognized conservative Southern Baptist leader might sabotage his courting of particularly white evangelicals in the South and Rust Belt States. Turns out the the shady-dealing, marriage-shedding, pussy-grabbing billionaire knew more about the parishioners in the pews than the preachers who claim to lead them.
policing their own
Well you know how the rest of the story goes. But this left the Southern Baptist Convention in a very difficult situation. A number of very influential leaders and certainly a large number of their members had been key to Trump's election, and a very clear assumption behind this deal was that their support would be rewarded by the new Administration granting greater access to and a prioritizing of the religious right's agenda. I'm sure that in the minds of some of SBC leaders, Russel Moore retaining his current position would be an unnecessary obstacle to the achievement of these goals. They knew that their new king, contrary to what 1st or should I call it One Corinthians teaches (13:5), was very adept at keeping a record of past wrongs. The sins of Russel Moore would likewise not be forgotten.
Now for those who know the Southern Baptist Convention, you know that they prefer to do most of their church politics behind closed doors. But this was too big to keep in the shadows. Retired Southern Baptist pastor and former Convention leader, Bill Harrell, suggested in a blog article that the SBC "call it a day" on it's formal relationship with the ERLC. Much less subtle than Harrell, over a hundred SBC churches threatened withholding financial support from the convention until the ERLC's problem child was dealt with. Formal complaints and inquiries ensued. Private meetings took place.
Then, a month after the election and in the 'spirit of Christmas', Moore published an article on his blog, apologizing for unfairly categorizing many fellow Southern Baptist and evangelical pastors and parishioners who had made the difficult choice to vote for Trump. Still, pressure continued to mount, leading to another statement in March of 2017, this time by Moore and the Executive Committee of the ERLC. Titled, "Seeking Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention", it strongly hinted that his Board of Directors "encouraged" an apology tour with likely the most conservative and generous donors. The only reality that likely preserved his job was that Moore finds his popularity amongst SBC's youth and racial and ethnic minorities. And when you are a denomination that has lost a million members in the past ten years, you tend to want to limit your PR damage among the demographic that will be the future of the church, even though the candidate you just elected seems hell bent on delaying if not reversing that societal shift away from a white dominated America. This time, after a second public apology, it appeared enough had been done to satisfy the angry mob of those Southern Baptist leaders who had been invited, thanks to their unwavering loyalty, into Trump's inner court. Former SBC President turned mega-church pastor and Trump adviser, Jack Graham, called Moore's second apology "gracious and unifying". Because apparently being "divisive" in the Southern Baptist Convention is a greater sin than calling out nativism, bigotry, and the naked idolatry of power.
the silence is DEAFENING
So what has happened with Russel Moore since then? Well, one thing is for sure and that is you haven't seen him hovering over Trump for one of his vintage prayer photo ops! Overall, things have been very quite for Mr. Moore, with two notable exceptions. He had to whip up support at the Convention's annual 2017 gathering to make sure that they didn't make a disastrous mistake in rejecting a proposed resolution from a black pastor condemning the alt-right. Also, he spoke out against Roy Moore in the Judge's attempt to become the next Senator representing Alabama, in spite of the significant support he held among white evangelicals in that state. I suppose you can add to that a very gentle suggestion that President Trump reconsider his refugee ban. But have there been any direct and strongly worded challenges towards the Southern Baptist Church for it's collective embrace or passive approval of the nativism, bigotry and idolatry of power so inherent in Trumpism? None that I am aware of.
I remember telling others several times that I thought that Russel Moore's voice was "prophetic" in the run up to the 2016 election. My opinion hasn't changed on that. What has become obvious to me is that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a friendly place for prophets. The term is noticeably absent in the previously mentioned March 2017 letter from the ERLC's Board of Directors. To recognize that someone has a prophetic voice is to demand that the words they speak be given real attention and result in real reform. So I suspect that Moore has been given very clear directions on the limits he must honor when expressing his personal convictions, unless he is not interested in having a significant professional future in the nation's largest Protestant Evangelical denomination.
Last month (April 2018), a private meeting of fifty influential evangelical leaders gathered at Wheaton College to talk about the future of evangelicalism in America. The group was largely made up of those who shared a deep concern for the trajectory of this Christian tradition in light of the election of Trump. Conspicuously absent was Moore, arguably the best known voice on the matters they were there to discuss. However, the nature of the concerns expressed in the e-mail invite were that the, "support of ‘eighty-one per cent of self-identifying white evangelicals’ for Donald Trump is a call to self-reflection on the current condition of Evangelicalism." So I'm pretty sure that Moore's Board and other senior SBC leaders strongly encouraged him to be 'busy' during this time. Or perhaps there was another reason why Southern Baptists told Moore not to participate. After all, as the Bible clearly teaches in Deuteronomy 23:1, "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord."