When Southern Baptists named Russell Moore to a top leadership post, conservative evangelicals winced.
Moore supports immigration reform, advocates improved race relations and counseled tolerance after the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
To some, he is the Pope Francis of the evangelical South, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.
To others, he is a long overdue voice nudging conservative Christians away from the us-versus-them rhetoric of the past, and reshaping evangelicals’ long-standing alliance with the Republican Party.
Much like the GOP itself, the evangelical movement is going through an identity crisis.
It’s a fissure that has been widened by the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly as the race moves to South Carolina, a gateway to the Bible Belt and the next battleground primary state.
As older, predominantly white churchgoers age and a younger generation thinks differently about faith, evangelicals are fracturing as a voting bloc and the power of pastors to all but endorse candidates from the pulpit is fading.
Many churchgoers are frustrated with what they see as a long list of broken promises from GOP leaders, and by their own religious hierarchy, which helped deliver those politicians to office.
Much in the way the GOP is torn between forces seeking a more inclusive party and those pushing politics further to the right, church leaders are struggling with how best to keep evangelicals united.
“That’s the debate the Republican Party’s having and, in many ways, that’s the debate American evangelicalism is having,” Moore said, who encourages evangelicals to be more inclusive and less insular as part of their faith.
“Preaching to the choir has become an industry in American life, and that’s not how one brings change,” he said. “We want to be speaking to persuade, not just to vent our outrage.”
Division among evangelicals was starkly revealed in the Iowa caucus. Turnout was robust — 64% of GOP voters identified as evangelical – but they splintered: Ted Cruz won 37% of the evangelical vote, Donald Trump drew 22% and Marco Rubio got 21%.
Prominent evangelical leaders are similarly divided. Despite a private meeting in the summer of 2014, called specifically to unify around one presidential candidate, evangelical leaders are going their separate ways.
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