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Russell Moore faces a challenging road ahead

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

(RNS) 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.”

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

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.

Left, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, W.Va., on May 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Chris Tilley. Right, Russell Moore leads a June 9, 2014, panel discussion. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“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.

Cadwell Baptist Church in Cadwell, Ga., normally tithes $17,500 to the national church, but stopped sending funds three months ago. The 240-member church is protesting how it’s received no response from the ERLC or other SBC entities after asking in writing for more financial transparency and accountability, according to Pastor J.T. Taylor.

“A (public) apology is fine, but we need a response on the issues we specifically raised,” Taylor said.

At Cadwell Baptist, Moore’s critiques of evangelicals who supported Trump reinforced a sense that he and the ERLC are aloof and condescending. Parishioners resented Moore for “questioning our Christianity based on who we were going to vote for,” Taylor said.

“When you start making judgments based on a person’s (voting) decisions, that’s where my people started questioning his decision-making process and what kind of voice he should be,” Taylor said.

Some who’ve called for Moore’s ouster now hope the relationship can be redeemed.

Southern Baptist blogger Alan Atchison of Chelsea, Ala., remains concerned that ERLC trustees still aren’t holding Moore accountable “when the bulk of the statements they issue are unqualified support in glowing terms,” he said. But he is encouraged by Moore’s latest apology and no longer wants him fired.

“Certainly the change in tone that this new statement shows is hopeful,” said Atchison, editor of the Capstone Report, which covers Southern Baptist religion, politics and University of Alabama football. “We can maybe begin to heal some of those wounds and divisions.”

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

16 Comments

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  • Moore’s position is untenable over the long run. You cannot be a voice for the powerless in a denomination devoted to racism, classism, and xenophobia even if you’re perfectly willing to throw women and LGBTs under the bus. The SBC is fracturing as well. The local churches don’t like paying to be insulted, which to them means being called the racists and classists that they are.

  • Moore is also well-supported among theologically conservative power brokers, who appreciate his stance on salvation (only for God’s elect)

    Is Moore a Calvinist?

  • Goshes. It sounds like the SBC purged Moore for criticizing the political powers that be. Not a really smart thing to do to your dear leaders. Did he go to a camp to be re-educated, and was he successfully rehabilitated and returned to the fold, though slightly under watch lest there be further heresies?

    It’s possible. In a world where Trumpdontcare can’t pass a congress controlled by the Republicans, but then blame their failure on the Democrsts, anything is possible.

    And not surprisingly, there stuff about money as well; we just call it tithes. Money has such a gritty, worldly send to it,

  • Criticizing political leaders wasn’t the problem. Being a boorish jerk to supporters and SBC constituents is what killed him.

  • Russell Moore has already landed on his feet, and so has the SBC.

    Moore understands that the SBC’s Main-Hookup to President Trump, can’t be a Trump-hater. So he has to dial down.

    And the SBC understands that its big liaison to Trump needs automatic “Name-Recognition” and conservative stardom, because that gets Trump’s attention. So the SBC must keep Moore.

    Total unity is NOT needed here. They just need to work on Trump together, do a full exorcism on the Devil’s Obergefell, and then relax and go fishing for 4 years. A happy ending for all of us !!

  • Russian puppets don’t get to rest. They dance on their strings until Putin is done with them and then they get used for kindling. Waste not, want not, especially if it’s Russian mob money funding you.

  • What all the hallelujah hypocrites do to one another is of little interest to real Americans. They sold their collective souls to the devil when they decided that Putin’s puppet President was their kind of guy, ignoring all the lying, cheating and womanizing (or more likely embracing it as “obvious” heterosexual behavior). For all we know, Putin is putting laundered mob money in their offering plates as well.

  • Oh there’s been plenty of public discourse on Moore’s brand Calvinism. Read some SBC related blogs going back 4 or 5 years

  • It seems the SBC is heading back to its white supremacy roots which sprang from the idolatry of money by a few plantation owners, some of the wealthiest people in the world, who needed to get poor whites to fight and die to preserve their vast wealth and the slavery that made it possible.

    So now once again we see the idolaters of money call the shots in the SBC.

    The opposite of true biblical worship is idolatry. The question is not are people worshippers, but rather who are they worshipping, how are they worshipping, why are they worshipping.

    Jesus Christ spoke directly to this regarding the greatest commandment, in Matthew 22 34-38.

    34 And when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they themselves gathered together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested Him with a question: 36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”

    37 Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”

    There is obviously a major problem in that many in the SBC have been carrying water for idolators like Trump. Trump spreads fear, the fear of the other and the fear of death.

    Trump is the exact opposite of Jesus Christ. He inspires the members of the SBC to put their faith in him and not Jesus Christ. He also personifies and preaches the idolatry of money. Unfortunately, the SBC has failed to learn from its sinful past, but rather is doubling down with the idolators of the Republican Party while sucking up the fear and hate generated by them and Trump.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/trump-rnc-speech-alone-fix-it/492557/

    LUKE 12

    4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

    8 “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9 But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

    11 “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

    DO NOT WORRY

    22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

    27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

    32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    LUKE 16

    13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

    14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

    THE NARROW DOOR

    22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

    He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

    “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

    26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

    27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

    28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.

    30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

    Are there no REAL followers of Jesus Christ in the SBC? If there are, let them stand before their congregations and open their eyes before it is too late.

  • For the life of me, I cannot understand why Russell Moore needs to apologize. His criticisms of Trump were and still are right on target. Folks like Jack Graham are the same people who criticized Bill Clinton for his moral character. Yet they are willing to give a pass to Trump. No wonder younger people are deserting the SBC and the old Religious right. I’m an older white evangelical and I too bemoan the blatant hypocrisy the Religious Right has demonstrated since the late 1970s. Christianity in the United States would be far better off if the Religious Right would simply go away.

  • No, at least, by Calvinist standards. I have heard he is sympathetic to some of the Calvinist doctrines but not all. That would make him less than a Calvinist, which is where many, if not most, Southern Baptists are.

  • Russell Moore is about the ONLY one who has spoken the TRUTH about Trump. Evangelical Christians have sold their souls to the devil and the GOP – they embraced someone who isn’t even a believer (“i have never done anything to need to ask forgiveness for” – Donald Trump) and one who’s morality challenges even the most misbehaving “liberal” – this whole election has taught me one thing, mainstream Evangelicals and their big church leaders worship not Jesus Christ but the GOP. They have forever damaged their ability to witness in the world because they have enthusiastically embraced the indefensible in the name of political party loyalty. Christians would do well to remember that it was the marriage of religion and politics in the New Testament that killed Jesus – the “church leaders” made a deal with the government to get rid of him….remember?

  • He spoke the truth that his constituents did not want to hear….sometimes leaders need to do that…Jesus often did.

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