Why the Baptist Battle Over Russell Moore Matters
Moore thinks the church should be more than just another interest group; do his detractors?
Yesterday, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, appeared to dodge a bullet. After comprehensive reporting from the Washington Post indicating that Frank Page, head of the SBC’s executive committee, was meeting with Moore and was prepared to ask for Moore’s resignation “if the meeting doesn’t go well,” the two men put out a statement saying they “fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists for years to come.”
Yet the question of Moore’s status may not be permanently resolved. The SBC’s executive committee has “launched a study” of decisions the church makes about escrow funds that would ordinarily flow to the ERLC. A number of churches and pastors had publicly declared they were withholding the funds in protest of Moore’s actions during the 2016 election and his policy decisions as head of the ERLC. The committee’s report is due later this year.
While it’s almost certainly true that absent the rise of Donald Trump Moore wouldn’t be facing the sheer amount of incoming fire from fellow Baptists that he is, the dispute between Moore and his critics goes beyond the election to echo the political, generational, race divides that are straining the Evangelical church well beyond the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Not to over-simplify the dispute, but in many ways Moore represented a break from the partisanship of traditional Christian conservatism at the very time when many of his constituents were proving most unwilling to separate themselves either rhetorically or spiritually from the GOP.
Moore was an early critic of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The core of his critique was simple: that American Christians shouldn’t excuse or rationalize sin for the sake of political victory in any single election. Moreover, the same moral standards one applies to political opponents should also apply to one’s political friends. If sexual misconduct, for example, rendered Bill Clinton unfit for office in the 1990s, how should Christians think about a thrice-married serial adulterer in 2016 — especially one who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals?
On a broader level, Moore was mapping out a vision for Christians that declared the church to be more than just another interest group. Rather than narrowly seeking its own perceived political interests, it should offer a God-honoring moral voice that is concerned with ends and means. In other words, those who lie to secure power are still liars, even if they prove to be marginally better politicians than the candidates they defeat. The church does not glorify God when it aligns itself with corruption in either party.
At the same time, the ERLC was working diligently to try to bridge persistent racial divisions in the SBC and the Evangelical church more broadly and to persuade the public that religious liberty wasn’t just a Christian concern, but a deeply American value. Towards that end, it controversially (to some) signed on to an amicus brief defending the religious liberty of Muslims seeking to build a mosque in New Jersey. (To criticize this decision is particularly odd given the ERLC’s explicit mission to preserve religious liberty. The same legal standards that apply to mosques will also apply to churches.)
In other words, Moore was echoing the values and priorities of a large number of younger Evangelicals, men and women who were dispirited by partisanship, weary of persistent racial divisions in the church, and deeply concerned that longtime religious-right leaders had failed to make a compelling case for religious freedom.
But it was politics that truly ticked off Moore’s critics. It was the straw — no, the two-by-four — that broke the camel’s back. Yet in making his critiques and stating his case against Clinton and Trump, Moore was doing little more than quoting the Southern Baptist Convention back to itself. In 1998, as Bill Clinton faced impeachment for his sexual misconduct, the Convention penned a short but powerful Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. The resolution laid out a series of key biblical truths, including truths that should prick the conscience of politically involved Christians of both parties.
For example, the convention noted that “many Americans are willing to excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails.” That is most certainly true, and so is this: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
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