Russell Moore, a white evangelical leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, was recording an audio segment this week when he heard about the Eric Garner grand jury decision. The news rendered him “literally speechless,” he said. Moore was stunned and didn’t know what to say. But his speechlessness didn’t last for long.
Just hours after Staten Island jurors declined to indict a white New York police officer for the July death of Garner, an African American, Moore released a statement that has become widely quoted, especially as both liberals and conservatives (including other white evangelicals) have reacted critically to the grand jury’s decision.
“A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice,” Moore said. “We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.”
Moore, who is white, is also preparing the Southern Baptists to take a closer look at those issues. “We were planning to have a national event on racial reconciliation issues in 2016,” Moore told The Post in an interview. After a “sleepless night” following the Garner verdict, Moore said that he and the other leaders of the organization are trying to make that conference happen much sooner. “We’re talking March. But we don’t know yet if we can pull that together.”
Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant affiliation in the nation. And he’s increasingly making the SBC — a socially conservative faith group founded in 1845 by pro-slavery Southern whites — an effective but unlikely voice on issues of racial reconciliation, even as the denomination remains very traditional on other social issues.
That transformation owes a lot to two major leadership changes.
First, there’s Moore’s appointment last year to his new role, in which he has served as an energetic and effective spokesperson for the church. The convention also elected Fred J. Luter Jr. as its first black president in 2012. Luter served the maximum of two one-year terms as president before Ronnie Floyd succeeded him as president this year.
The change in tone represents a growing shift in the denomination’s members, even as its ranks — and those of other organized denominations — decline overall. Although the SBC is still overwhelmingly white, Moore said in an interview that “the African American community is is one of the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Here is some of what Moore told The Post this week. The interview has been condensed.
On his conversations with the African American Southern Baptist community following the Garner verdict:
“It’s a sense of great distress and alarm and sadness. There’s a great deal of lament that has come out over the last year, from the Trayvon Martin situation, all the way through now, that has brought up many conversations within churches and within our denomination, about experiences that black Christians face that white Christians just don’t.
“I had an African American pastor talk to me about working though his son’s applications to college. And that he was praying over some of those applications, that his son would not be accepted into those schools, because of where they were located and he was afraid that it would not be safe for his son. That was one of the most impressive conversations I’ve ever had, because I realized that I will never be in a situation where I’m praying that about my children.”
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