After Apology for Criticisms of Trump, Russell Moore Faces a Challenging Road Ahead

Russell Moore speaks at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. (Screenshot from Vimeo)
Russell Moore speaks at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. (Screenshot from Vimeo)

For Russell Moore, whose sharp criticisms of Donald Trump voters nearly cost him his job as the public voice for America’s largest Protestant denomination, the path to regaining a prophetic platform is just beginning.

Moore started down that trail this week. After apologizing for being “unnecessarily harsh” during the campaign, he received a vote of confidence from the executive committee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Moore, the ERLC’s president, also apologized individually to at least seven prominent Baptists who felt he had mismanaged his public platform, according to Southern Baptist and Trump campaign adviser Johnnie Moore (no relation).

“The gesture of unity was absolutely real,” Moore said in an email. “The warning shot that Moore was sent was also real, it was intentional, it was effective, and I don’t believe it will be forgotten.”

But observers say winning over the denomination’s brass is only the first step. More challenging will be to diffuse a groundswell of grass-roots discontent among a sizable segment of the nation’s 15.3 million Southern Baptists, represented by a host of congregations that are refusing to send money to SBC headquarters until they get the changes they want.

“Moore does not represent the ethical and political commitments of Southern Baptists who are tied not only to the Republican Party but to Trump’s presidency,” said Bill Leonard, a former Southern Baptist and professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. “That seems to be what these churches are saying that want Moore’s dismissal and are withholding money.”

Leonard also doubts Moore can be an effective advocate on issues from refugees to the Confederate flag if he must tread gingerly to avoid offending Southern Baptists. His days as the SBC’s firebrand might already be behind him.

“His wings are clipped, and they might get amputated,” Leonard said. “If he stays, he is certainly neutered on many of these issues. He’s got to be silent. He can only primarily speak out on issues that the Republicans and Trump administration would promote.”

But Moore, 45, is no pariah in the SBC. He enjoys strong backing with various constituencies, especially people under 50 and racial minorities, according to Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University and author of “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.”

Moore is also well-supported among theologically conservative power brokers, who appreciate his stance on salvation (only for God’s elect) and unwavering opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

In him, some see a champion for a renewed religious right with more room for advocacy on social justice issues such as poverty and race relations that are important to younger Baptists who hold the keys to the denomination’s future, according to Hankins.

“These new evangelicals, the younger generation led by Russell Moore, see a danger in getting too close to the Republican Party because they will lose their prophetic voice,” Hankins said. “They’re saying, ‘We want to reclaim what it means to be evangelical. It’s not a political position. It’s a theological position.’”

Moore declined to comment through a spokesperson, as did ERLC Chairman Ken Barbic.

During the 2016 campaign, Moore caused many a stir by turning his critiques on his fellow evangelicals who stood by Trump to the end. He summed up concerns in a January essay in First Things.

“The crisis before us now is not that many among the national religious right’s political establishment have endorsed a candidate,” Moore wrote, “but that they also ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character and, for instance, issues of torture and war crimes, an embrace of an ‘alt-right’ movement of white identity ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with serious matters of sexual degradation towards women.”

Not since 2000 has the SBC faced such a trend of congregations withholding funds in protest, according to Roger “Sing” Oldham, spokesman for the SBC’s Executive Committee. In February, an ad hoc committee was launched to research how many congregations are holding back money, to find out why and to seek “redemptive solutions” that will get cash flowing to national offices again.

Moore’s fate rests in the hands of ERLC trustees. Their organizational structure provides for some independence from other branches of the denomination. But congregations want more accountability from the ERLC.

One of the SBC’s largest churches, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, vowed in February to temporarily escrow its $1 million yearly offering in protest of “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.” In a tweet, Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham called Moore’s recent public apology “gracious and unifying.” But in response to an RNS query, he declined to say whether giving to the national church will resume.

Moore’s individual track record might not be the only reason for congregations holding back funds, Oldham said. Other developments have also sparked ire on the right, including an amicus brief joined by the SBC’s International Mission Board and the ERLC in support of a New Jersey mosque that claimed to have suffered religious discrimination. IMB President David Platt apologized for what he called a “distracting and divisive” episode.

In the bruising election year of 2016 when Moore was a lightning rod, 49 congregations left the SBC, up from about six in typical years. Baptists are eager to stem that tide after a decade in which the denomination lost more than a million members. However, congregations and ordinary Baptists say they’re still not being heard.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Deseret News