Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gives the entity’s report during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 15, 2016, in St. Louis. (Adam Covington/Baptist Press via RNS)
Russell Moore was the most prominent anti-Trump voice in his denomination. It almost cost him his job.
The temperature neared triple digits when thousands of Southern Baptists arrived in Phoenix recently for their annual convention, a fitting desert backdrop for the first denomination-wide gathering of the Trump era.
This summer tradition is purposefully unpredictable. The Southern Baptist Convention is made up of thousands of independent churches from around the country that send leaders known as “messengers” to debate, handle business matters, commission missionaries and worship together. There is an agenda, but attendees are free to address the entire body and propose anything they want. And with the reverberations from the brutal presidential election still playing out, passions this year were high.
“It’s like watching a hockey game,” said the Rev. Gevan Spinney, a Louisiana pastor. “You never know when the fight’s going to break out.”
This is the fluid climate that Russell Moore faced when he arrived in Phoenix after months of intense speculation about his future. Moore is the 45-year-old president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the most public-facing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was also a fervent opponent of Donald Trump in 2016, an anomaly in a denomination that overwhelmingly supported the Republican nominee.
Moore didn’t back Hillary Clinton either, but his critique of Trump was especially pointed. He called him “an arrogant huckster” and directed his Twitter followers to an essay warning that Trump was “what the Founding Fathers warned us about.” Even before Trump’s campaign was rocked by the Access Hollywood tape depicting him bragging in stunningly vulgar terms about sexually assaulting women, Moore compared the GOP nominee’s views of women to that of a “Bronze Age warlord.” His criticism caught Trump’s eye, prompting him to condemn Moore by name on Twitter in May 2016.
“Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for,” Trump wrote. “A nasty guy with no heart!”
Moore kept up his criticism, blasting evangelical leaders who stood by Trump after the Access Hollywood video surfaced, calling their support a “scandal and a disgrace.”
But in the end, Trump won. And he did so with the help of white evangelicals who voted. Moore suddenly found himself alone — and surrounded.
Like much of the country, many of Moore’s fellow Southern Baptists struggled to move past the bruising, personal rhetoric of the campaign. Some leaders pressed for Moore’s resignation, saying the election proved he was out of step with the majority of Southern Baptists. They were especially angry about his characterization of Christians who stuck with Trump even through the worst periods of the campaign.
More than 100 churches threatened to withhold donations to the fund that supports mission programs, Baptist seminaries and the ERLC, the denomination’s executive committee told The Washington Post. Others left the denomination entirely, according to pastors I interviewed.
“He really offended a lot of the guys across the convention who were supporting President Trump,” said the Rev. Fred Luter, a pastor and former convention president who supports Moore. “I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he would do some things differently. I don’t think he would change his message, but his method.”
I went to Phoenix to see how this drama combining the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with the most rollicking presidential campaign in recent history would play out. I also went because Moore’s trials, in a small way, reminded me of someone close to me. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist pastor named Jess Moody, found himself similarly isolated about 50 years earlier as the denomination debated the Vietnam War and struggled with questions about race relations. With the nation in turmoil, his principled opposition to the war and unvarnished chastisement of churches that had failed to integrate won him few friends at the time.
In studying both instances, I learned that even the deepest splits of our time can ultimately be overcome.
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