Russell Moore is not the pope of the Southern Baptist Convention, but like the pope he’s a prime target for misrepresentation by the media. We expect the world to misrepresent our faith from time to time, but when egregious misrepresentation comes from fellow believers, it is a serious matter.
On Friday, the ChristianExaminer published an article with the following headline:
“Southern Baptist ethicist says Alabama judges must uphold gay marriage law or resign.”
The Christian ethicist referred to here is Dr. Russell Moore. Despite this deliciously clickbait headline, this implies a position that Dr. Moore does not hold.
By amendment, Alabama’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriage, but recently a US District Court judge invalidated this amendment. In response to this, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore gave instructions to state judges not to “issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent” with their constitution. Judge Moore is a Southern Baptist, and according to the ChristianExaminer, 44 out of 67 probate judges in Alabama have “refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.” Judge Moore believes he has the legal right to defy the federal government’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but not everyone agrees.
On Thursday the 12th, Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made a statement to the Baptist Press arguing that government officials have an obligation to discharge the laws of the land, and when their conscience prevents them from discharging the law, their recourse is to resign in protest and protest as citizens. Here is the contested paragraph from Dr. Moore’s statement–a paragraph which the Baptist Press did not reprint in its entirety:
In a Christian ethic, there is a time for civil disobedience in cases of unjust laws. That’s why, for instance, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail. In the case of judges and state Supreme Court justices, though, civil disobedience, even when necessary, cannot happen in their roles as agents of the state. Religious freedom and conscience objections must be balanced with a state’s obligation to discharge the law. We shouldn’t have officials breaking the law, but civil servants don’t surrender their conscience simply by serving in government. While these details are being worked out, in the absence of any conscience protections, a government employee faced with a decision of violating his conscience or upholding the law, would need to resign and protest against it as a citizen if he could not discharge the duties of his office required by law in good conscience.
Dr. Moore believes that government officials should not be required to violate their conscience in order to do their job: “civil servants don’t surrender their conscience simply by serving in government.” Alabama does in fact have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which could provide conscience protections for these Alabama judges, but it’s not clear that the act would apply in this case. As Moore says, “details are being worked out.” Until then, Moore argues that Christian judges don’t have the option to defy their obligations to the state. This doesn’t mean that the judges should ignore their consciences and sign same-sex marriage laws, however. If the state will not support religious exemptions, Dr. Moore appears to argue, then Christians should leave positions which would force them to violate their beliefs and work vigorously to change the laws as citizens.
Moore, who has a long track record of defending and promoting the traditional definition of marriage, was not in anyway retreating from this conflict in Alabama, or suggesting that believers surrender to the government. Rather, as an ethicist, he was seeking to determine biblically what the proper response for Christians working in government when they are asked to discharge a law in conflict with their faith and they don’t have legal protections for their conscience. And his conclusion is that the judges in Alabama should resign and protest as citizens rather than fail their jobs to fulfill the law.
But when the ChristianExaminer wrote their story, they implied that Russell Moore would rather these judges obey the district court’s decision and issue same-sex marriage licenses: “Southern Baptist ethicist says Alabama judges must uphold gay marriage law or resign.” This implication is unwarranted. At no point does Moore call for the judges to uphold the law. The debate is not whether or not the law should be resisted. It should be resisted, according to Moore. It’s just a matter of how to most appropriately resist.
It is possible that Dr. Moore is wrong about Judge Moore’s responsibility to discharge the law. Perhaps Judge Moore does have the legal right to defy the US District Court. Or perhaps Dr. Moore is wrong about the appropriateness of government officials defying their sworn duties as government officials. That is certainly a debate worth having. However, this article by the ChristianExaminer, which was shared by the Christian Post and pundits like Todd Starnes and Bryan Fischer, does not contribute to such a debate. Instead it misrepresents Russell Moore’s position and characterizes him as they weak leader, kowtowing to government coercion. There is no question for Dr. Moore that traditional marriage must be defended, and vigorously, and that government officials should not be required to violate their beliefs. But that does not mean that every kind of defense is appropriate.
An early version called the headline “slanderous.” It has been changed to “unwarranted” and further clarification has been added. This draft also implied that secular publications were more honest than ChristianExaminer, which was an unsupported claim.