“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.”
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.”
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