The Southern Baptist Convention Takes on Trump

Donald Trump holds a Bible while speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 19. (Brian Frank/Reuters)
Donald Trump holds a Bible while speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 19. (Brian Frank/Reuters)

In his book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Southern Baptist Convention public-policy leader Russell Moore warned about the dangers of letting politics drive the Christian agenda. If the church is motivated primarily by electoral wins, he wrote, “we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts”—ahem, Glenn Beck—“and serially-monogamous casino magnates … are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do to the gospel.” Moore was writing in 2013, but by time the book was published in August, a certain serially monogamous casino magnate was the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination for president.

With more than 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is by far the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Through its policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, it has been a powerful bastion of the Christian right since the 1980s, with a predictable slate of priorities: combating abortion and pornography, promoting prayer in public schools, and recently cheering the law in Mississippi that allows businesses and government employees to deny services to LGBTQ people. But under Moore, who assumed the ERLC presidency in 2013, the denomination has taken on a new assignment. Believe it or not, Southern Baptists have become the loudest chorus of anti-Trump voices within conservative evangelicalism. And as has happened in other precincts of the right, the real estate mogul’s candidacy has forced evangelical leaders to confront the contradictions between their values and their political allegiances. “My concern is not so much about the presidential election,” Moore told me. “I’m more concerned about the witness of evangelical Christianity, which I see compromised in the apologies from some Christian leaders for Trump and his behavior.”

Moore effectively announced his new mission in September, when he published a searing op-ed in the New York Times in which he compared Trump to a “Bronze Age warlord” and concluded that evangelicals embracing him were promoting the idea that “image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.” In February, he wrote in the Washington Post that he had temporarily stopped calling himself an evangelical because the ugly election had turned the word meaningless:

I have watched as some of these who gave stem-winding speeches about “character” in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.

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Ruth Graham

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