President Trump may have called Russell Moore a “nasty guy with no heart,” but that’s mild compared to the pressure the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has experienced recently.
Moore was vocal in his opposition to Trump during the 2016 election, and he’s continued to criticize some of Trump’s statements and policies. Moore’s comments during the election caused a significant backlash from some Southern Baptist pastors and leaders, and the pressure hasn’t subsided now that Trump is President. Over the past few weeks, a few Southern Baptist churches have announced they’ll be withholding funds from the SBC’s Cooperative Programs fund because of disagreements with the ERLC, and the SBC announced that they’ll be studying the issue.
Irrespective of the internal governing and decision-making of the SBC, these developments are troubling because of the deep need that U.S. evangelicals have for leaders like Russell Moore.Russell Moore and the ERLC represent some of the best of what evangelicals can do to represent the life-giving truth of the Gospel.
Young evangelicals are growing increasingly disillusioned with the political engagement legacy they’ve inherited. The Moral Majority, with its “culture war” mentality and exclusive focus on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, represents an approach many young believers are rejecting. Moore’s method of political engagement avoids much of the outright hostility toward the broader dominant culture that has characterized the Religious Right over the past few decades, while still maintaining its fundamental convictions.
He’s just as willing to criticize expanded access to abortion as he is to promote adoption and foster care. He fights for many of the same religious liberty issues that the Moral Majority championed, but he’s also fought for the rights of Muslims. The addition of these issues and the nuance with which he defends them has provided much-needed consistency to faith-based political activism. His thoughtful and fair approach, and his willingness to advocate for refugees and the rights of Muslims, has resonated with many evangelicals who may have otherwise drifted from conservative theology or their faith entirely.
This isn’t an exaggeration. For young believers who support racial justice, care for refugees, or religious freedom for non-Christians, aversion to the Religious Right’s legacy is a strong deterrent against remaining in conservative churches or institutions. For many young evangelicals, the 2016 election revealed what appeared to be two distinct and warring camps in their faith: the 80% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in spite of evidence that he represents a sexual ethic and morality their faith should lead them to reject, and progressive Christians who strongly opposed Trump but who’ve also advocated for a rejection of traditional biblical views on sexuality and abortion.
For some, the temptation to abandon conservative theology, especially considering the controversies surrounding an orthodox sexual ethic, is strong.
I spent the 2016 election in an institution that was birthed in the golden age of the Moral Majority: Liberty University. Jerry Falwell created the large evangelical university with the expressed purpose of preparing leaders to “engage” the culture, and Liberty has maintained this legacy. It remains a politically conservative — and politically active — university, frequently hosting Republican politicians and commentators. As Trump grew closer to clinching the Republican nomination and the election consequently grew increasingly divisive among evangelicals, I had a front-row seat to the response of the next generation Liberty was producing.
Jerry Falwell’s son and successor at the university, Jerry Falwell Jr., gained political prominence by enthusiastically supporting Trump, and the university entered a period of intense political focus. Some students were unengaged, some passively complied with the voices of their leaders on stage, and some passionately defended Falwell. Plenty, however, became fiercely critical of the direction that mainstream evangelicalism was going.
I graduated and left Liberty with a lot of baggage surrounding evangelical political engagement. It was frustrating for me and so many of my fellow students to watch our leaders and mentors abandon the convictions they had professed in previous elections in order to vote for Donald Trump. It was the first election that many of us were actively involved in, and Russell Moore became one of the strongest and most consistent voices we heard throughout the election. Especially for students at a place as politically involved as Liberty, we found reassurance in knowing that someone with influence and respect from conservatives was speaking against the Trump campaign.
After graduating, I enrolled at a conservative evangelical seminary — a place I would have had much greater reservations about if it were not for the conviction of Russell Moore. I’m passionate about public theology and the intersections of faith and politics, and without the role that Dr. Moore and the ERLC played in the election, I fear my exhaustion and frustration with mainstream evangelical politics would have overwhelmed my desire to attend a theologically conservative seminary. A few weeks into my first semester, Moore spoke in chapel about cultural and political engagement, and I thanked him personally for the role he played in restoring my faith in the ability of conservative Christians to be principled, not just partisan.
The next generation of evangelicals will be greatly shaped by the 2016 election. We came of age during an election that pitted the Religious Right against itself and exposed deeply rooted and long-brewing divides among evangelicals. We found ourselves criticizing everything our leaders and mentors had taught us to criticize in public officials — sexual immorality, crude language and vulgar behavior, flip-flopping on issues like abortion and gay marriage — even as we were being told to get in line, hold our nose, and vote for Trump. We watched as some of the most prominent voices around us grew harsh and foreign; those who’d once proclaimed God’s sovereignty and praised His mercy were now proclaiming the American Dream and praising violence against Muslims.
For those of us wanting to distance ourselves from the legacy of the Moral Majority and the traditional political engagement of conservative evangelicals, Russell Moore and the ERLC offered more than just an alternative: they offered hope that a change in method without a change in fundamental convictions was possible.
Russell Moore has come under fire for doing exactly what his position requires: criticizing a man inconsistent with conservative politics, let alone conservative theology. Conservative institutions will continue to lose political and religious legitimacy with the next generation of evangelicals if they disregard their prophetic purpose of speaking truth to power, no matter which party the powerful come from.
This isn’t just about the ERLC or the SBC. If conservative evangelicals want to stem the tide of disillusioned young people leaving over political disagreements that were never central to begin with, their churches and institutions need people like Dr. Moore. We need to elevate those who are willing to speak difficult truths to powerful people and those who are unafraid of navigating the choppy waters of disagreement and debate, especially within their own tradition.
In early February, a long list of evangelical leaders signed a joint letter criticizing President Trump’s executive order that temporarily banned travelers from seven nations, indefinitely ended the acceptance of Syrian refugees, and reduced the total number of refugees to be admitted in our country. The leaders included hugely influential figures like Tim Keller and Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer. Not long after the letter was published, Pew Research released data showing that 76% of white evangelicals supported Trump’s executive order. (Since that report, another has been published that shows support has dropped among all religious groups except white evangelicals.) There’s clearly a disconnect between the political beliefs of evangelical leaders and those they are leading.
This may be less of an issue of fundamental disagreement and more about communication. In the wake of the still-smoldering culture wars, we have become simultaneously over-political and under-political. We’ve sidestepped all the complication and difficulty of channeling our religious convictions into political advocacy and adopted a simple formula: Christian = Republican. Instead of fostering healthy conversation about what political expressions conservative theology can motivate, we have squashed all the complexity into something that is somehow both deafening and utterly silent. Instead of raising up leaders who guide people’s spiritual formation in all areas, including political expression, we have largely outsourced this kind of leadership to the right-wing media.
In a time of division and doubt, many religious leaders have abdicated this part of their responsibility to nurture the whole Christian person. The disparity between the views of evangelical leaders and the Pew data highlights this: many evangelicals are more likely to heed political guidance from Fox News than their religious leaders. Instead of regurgitating the words of pundits, we need courageous leaders willing to reclaim their role of guiding their communities towards better political expression.
Russell Moore is an example of just that. He’s managed to courageously model a faith-based approach to public policy that respects other perspectives without compromising his own convictions. No one is going to agree with any person or institution all the time, but the approach Moore has taken should be respected by even those who disagree with him, because it has been compassionate, fair, and full of conviction. He has prioritized the advancement of the Gospel ahead of partisan bickering, but he has demonstrated that better political engagement is an integral part of this goal.
The picture that the 2016 election painted is one of U.S. Christians choosing political power at the price of once-deeply held convictions, and it’s a narrative that nonbelievers are listening to. Russell Moore and the ERLC represent some of the best of what evangelicals can do (i.e., speaking biblical truth on controversial issues with grace and love) to represent the life-giving truth of the Gospel.
The ERLC has been unflinching in its criticism of pro-choice policies and its advocacy for an orthodox view on human sexuality, but it has avoided the trap many culture warriors fell into: it is not known merely for what it is against. It advocates for a vibrant vision of human flourishing, which includes a broad pro-life ethic and protection for the marginalized and vulnerable. Institutions like the SBC need leaders like Dr. Moore and public policy organizations like the ERLC if they want to encourage and guide the next generation of evangelicals in God-glorifying forms of political engagement.
After an election that left most evangelicals politically exhausted and religiously exasperated, Russell Moore is modeling an approach that will inspire courageous political engagement from those who otherwise see few examples worth emulating.