Few figures among the religious right attract the kind of scorn directed toward Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Center (ERLC). Nevertheless, there is a great deal religious conservatives should learn from Moore, even if it is uncomfortable to listen to him.
Indeed, following Moore’s latest salvo on the 2016 election, printed in First Things, many Baptist leaders responded in anger. “I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them,” declared former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a previous minister at two Southern Baptist churches.
Huckabee blasted Moore for his criticism of President-elect Donald Trump, acting as though Moore disagreed with Trump’s policy positions. “If issues like the protection of the unborn, Biblical marriage, or helping people out of poverty rather than enslaving them to government programs that keep them impoverished for life aren’t important to Mr. Moore, then he should show some integrity and stop taking a paycheck funded by the very people he holds in such contempt.”
Fellow Southern Baptist and Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert agreed. “I can say that Russell Moore has made more of an effort to make the Southern Baptist Convention irrelevant in America than anyone else in my lifetime,” Gohmert declared. “May God forgive him, he has no clue of the damage in his wake.”
David Lane, founder and president of the American Renewal Project and an activist for getting pastors involved in politics, blasted Moore as a “divider” and not a “uniter,” and argued that his approach to politics “likely empowers Democrat control of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government — ad infinitum.”
Despite all this vitriol against him, Moore actually made good points about the political temptations of the religious right. His criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt — Moore’s points do often seem anti-Republican — but there is a good deal to learn about how politics can corrupt the gospel, which should be at the center of evangelical Christianity.
1. Avoid hypocrisy.
Moore inspired so much backlash partly because he was not afraid to say the most politically incorrect thing on the right these days — that the very same “moral majority” which denounced the sins of Bill Clinton minimized or explained away those same sins in Donald Trump.
The crisis of the religious right is not that evangelical leaders — and voters — overwhelmingly backed Trump, but that the religious right’s political establishment “ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character.” Moore lamented that “some—mostly Evangelical—political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as ‘locker room talk’ or ‘macho’ behavior.”
“Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be ‘a choirboy’—thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women, protection of the vulnerable, and a defense of sexual morality are recast as naive and unrealistic,” the ERLC president added, while “others suggested that we need a strongman (implying a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions) in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture.”
These declarations came from the same group which loudly condemned President Clinton’s character following his affair with Monica Lewinsky. At that time, leaders in the religious right argued that Americans should put moral standards above practical considerations, and vote for good character first.
Yet this past year, some Christian activists even put “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes, something Moore noted as “a rhetorical gesture worthy of an Obama administration solicitor general.”
The ERLC president was not quibbling with Christians who chose Trump as a less bad alternative to Clinton, but with those who attacked conscientious objectors as “holier than thou.” The difficulty came when they held up Trump as a moral champion or dismissed the candidate’s flaws as unimportant.
“The people who warned us to avoid moral relativism now tell us that we should compare our choices not to an objective standard but to the alternative, as if an election transcends moral principle,” Moore added, damningly. “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”
2. Don’t redefine your religion for politics.
This hypocrisy may have severely weakened the religious right’s moral credibility, but this wasn’t “the most traumatic wound of 2016,” as Moore saw it. The biggest problem came when “some Christian leaders and publications pronounce[d] a self-described unrepentant man a ‘baby Christian’ or as representing ‘Christian values and family values.'”
Trump has committed sins — everyone has — but the biggest problem with calling him a “baby Christian” is that he has not repented. In fact, he has publicly declared that he has not repented of his sins. Trump actually said, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture.”
This is no small thing. The Christian gospel only involves four main points: that God made people, that humans broke their relationship with God by sinning against Him, that God Himself came down in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead to redeem humanity. Christianity is about repenting from our sins, accepting Jesus’ gift of eternal life, and spreading that good news.
Repentance of sins — to God, against whom every sin is committed — is the central prerequisite of being a Christian. In calling Trump, who publicly said he doesn’t remember asking God for forgiveness, a “baby Christian,” evangelical leaders have blurred the definition of Christianity in dangerous ways.
As Moore warns, “with this, we have left far behind quibbles about which candidate is the lesser of two evils or about the future of the Supreme Court or even whether we should support candidates we never could have imagined supporting before.”
“This is instead a first-order question of theology—overheard by the world of our mission field—a question of the very definition of the Gospel itself, and what it means to be saved or lost,” the ERLC president declared. Ouch.
3. Avoid apocalyptic language.
Southern Baptists stand for the classic conservative issues — free markets, strong families, limited government. Moore’s essay itself included a moving passage about the right to life and the horrors of abortion. These are critical issues, and the ERLC president did not dismiss them in any way.
However, he did warn against “an apocalyptic language that presents every presidential election as Armageddon.” This is a trend on both the right and the left, as America becomes more culturally divided. Moore addressed the religious right, but this is a key lesson the left needs to learn as well.
Every four years, political activists warn that if X candidate wins, “America is over,” or “say goodbye to your freedom,” or “the Earth will stop rotating and we’ll all be thrown off to die a horrible death in outer space.” One candidate wins and takes office, and guess what? The world keeps on spinning.
Yes, liberals do horrible damage. Yes, President Obama’s healthcare law has done disastrous things. Yes, religious freedom is indeed under assault, and a Clinton presidency would have been in Trump’s words “a disaster.” But hyperbole often undercuts those important messages.
“Augustine wrote the City of God in the context of Rome’s collapse, and he did not repurpose the Gospel to prop up a failing regime,” Moore noted. “These dire prophecies of American doom prove not to be true. Our society is fallen and depraved, but also made resilient by the sustaining power of common grace and the grain of creation itself.”
When the Democrats win, as they likely will in the future, it will not be the end of the world. This is not to say that it will not be bad, or that religious conservatives should not strive to prevent it. But by warning about the end of the world every four years, activists often undercut their credibility.
4. Don’t let faith become an excuse for cultural backlash.
One of Moore’s strongest critiques of the religious right wasn’t specific, but broad and cultural. Growing up, he “saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy.” When the prophecies were not fulfilled (and proven to be misinterpretations), the prophets turned to peddle something else, unashamed.
“I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end,” Moore wrote. “My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience.”
Indeed, the ERLC president quoted Walker Percy, who wrote that the religion of the South is not Christian, it is Stoic — “infused with concepts of honor and tradition, virtue and kinship.” These are not bad things, but Christianity is about the gospel, not the valuable traditional culture of the West.
That tradition and culture draw their roots from scripture and Christianity, but they are not the same thing as the gospel. The evangelical side of the religious right should take inspiration from Jesus and from scripture more than from tradition, no matter how valuable that tradition really is.
5. Let the salt keep its saltiness.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus declares, “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its savor, how can it be salted again? It is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men.” This is a metaphor for the ideas and character which set followers of Jesus apart from everyone else, and make them a vital part of the world around them.
The most important thing leaders of the religious right can do is to preserve their saltiness. Moore wrote that “the religious right can be saved, but not by tinkering around the edges. Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved.”
The ERLC president quoted Garry Mills, who said, “The problem with evangelical religion is not (so much) that it encroaches on politics, but that is has so carelessly neglected its own sources of wisdom.” He warned that “it cannot contribute what it no longer possesses.”
In order for the religious right to have the best impact it can on the world around us, it will need “a religious conservatism that sees the Church as more important than the state, the conscience as more important than the culture, and one that knows the difference between the temporal and the eternal.”
Perhaps ironically, religious conservatives can “be Americans best when we are not Americans first.” By providing the salt of a strong faith well rooted in the gospel, Christians especially can make a large impact in culture and politics.
2016 is over. Donald Trump won the presidency, thanks in large part to religious conservatives. It is now up to the religious right to stand fast by our convictions and hold him accountable to his promises.
Conservative Christians can defend Trump’s policies while lamenting his character. We can urge him to repent even while supporting him politically, but we must put the gospel ahead of the presidency.
Moore’s critiques of the religious right may be overstated, they may even be offensive, but they carry nuggets of truth which should not be forgotten. Here’s hoping conservative leaders pay attention.