Up front, I would like to observe that I am not intimately familiar with the following situation, and so any reflections based on what information I have should be understood as based on publicly-available information. That being said, regardless of what may be true behind-the-scenes, I still feel the points made herein are valid regardless of the so-called God’s-honest-truth regarding the situation.
I am a very bad evangelical. I drink, cuss, smoke, and chew, and even associate with those who do. If you heard I was being fired from a leadership position within the evangelical movement, that might make sense.
Russell Moore is a very good evangelical. For the one year in which I masqueraded as a Southern Baptist (before I realized I was an inveterate Northeastern Liberal at heart and returned to Massachusetts [of all places!] to pursue my theological degree), I attended Boyce College, a part of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Dr. Moore was in leadership at the time. Even then he was an outspoken leader, and it was clear that he would be among the torchbearers that carried the vision of evangelicalism forward for a new and upcoming generation of Christians. If you heard he was being fired from a leadership position within the evangelical movement, that would not make sense.
But in 2017 – to invoke Nobel laureate Bob Dylan – “things have changed.” There was significant chatter earlier this month that Dr. Moore might be fired. Perhaps he lost the faith? Or tried out some whacky experiment simulating losing the faith? Or had his faith “evolve” into something resembling daytime talk show spirituality? Maybe he had an affair? Or perhaps it came out that he was gay?
No, none of these things. But, in 2017, what Dr. Moore did is apparently as scandalous within evangelical circles – He spoke out against Donald Trump! As the Washington Post reported:
Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. . . . Moore’s anti-Trump activism during the presidential campaign and criticism of his followers continued to upset many established white Southern Baptist leaders, who question whether Moore can now lobby effectively for their concerns with the Trump administration. Further highlighting divisions, influential Texas megachurch pastor Jack Graham said in February after a meeting with Moore that his Prestonwood Baptist Church would begin withholding $1 million in donations to the SBC umbrella fund.
And what were the criticisms he lobbed at Trump? Well, there was this op-ed from last spring, where Moore stated:
[T]he nation faces a crazier election season than many of us ever imagined, with Donald J. Trump as the all-but-certain nominee of the Republican Party. Regardless of the outcome in November, his campaign is forcing American Christians to grapple with some scary realities that will have implications for years to come. This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country. . . . Many of those who have criticized Mr. Trump’s vision for America have faced threats and intimidation from the “alt-right” of white supremacists and nativists who hide behind avatars on social media.
He also observed how it was shocking that “a major presidential candidate would tweet racially charged comments”; that evangelical Christianity is not just “old white and American”; that evangelicalism’s vitality lay in “churches that are multiethnic and increasingly dominated by immigrant communities”; that the church cannot survive “solely with white, suburban institutional evangelicalism”; and that “American Christianity faces a test of whether we will identify as Christians first.” That last point sounds familiar . . . but never mind that. His whole point was that Christians can’t in good conscience overlook mindless bigotry right before their eyes, and that Christians owed their allegiance to Christ before any politician or party. As he concluded:
A vast majority of Christians, on earth and in heaven, are not white and have never spoken English. A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock. The man on the throne in heaven is a darkskinned, Aramaic-speaking “foreigner” who is probably not all that impressed by chants of “Make America great again.”
By my lights, Dr. Moore nailed it. After all, Jesus is the guy who said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” – which, to be clear, meant that people owe a much higher allegiance to God than to earthly rulers. And, at the end of this age, when all the saints are gathered together, there will be “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Moore also had the temerity to ask if Trump-supporting evangelicals have “lost their values.” In light of Trump’s positions, Moore observed that “[t]o back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe.” I could see why a Trump supporter might not like to hear that, but it’s not an unfair question given that evangelicals generally – and the SBC specifically – found “immoral acts” (something President Trump is intimately familiar with) disqualifying for public office just a few years ago.
Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well with Trump – you know, the guy who “drink[s his] little wine” and “eat[s his] little cracker” as a show of his true devotion (Presbyterians, amirite?!). Trump responded with the featured tweet, and it just got uglier between them from there. Additionally, Moore’s comments did not go over well with some of his co-religionists, who – in a disturbingly familiar refrain – took issue with the “tone” of Moore’s comments. “I have no problem with a minister articulating concern over an issue. But at the same time, there’s a way to do it,” said a former SBC president who apparently has taken issue with Moore. Former pastor and governor Mike Huckabee commented that he was “stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them.” Others couldn’t understand how Moore – who heads an arm of the SBC that files briefs in cases implicating freedom of religion – could defend the religious liberties of Muslims. All this tension built up to rumors beginning to swirl that Moore was about to be canned.
Thankfully, as the Post also reported, the situation appears to have blown over:
On Monday evening, Moore and Page issued a joint statement of support for each other. “We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come,” the statement read. “We will collaborate on developing future steps to deepen connections with all Southern Baptists as we work together to advance the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Of course, the pound of flesh still needed to be exacted, so Moore apologized for his rhetoric that was – ostensibly – at times “overly broad or unnecessarily harsh.” And National Review suggests that the situation may only be temporarily patched rather than permanently resolved. Time will tell, I suppose.
All this to ask one simple question: what the hell has happened to American Evangelicalism when a conservative firebrand like Russell Moore may no longer be welcome as a leader in the largest evangelical denomination in America? I know that Trump Derangement Syndrome is a bipartisan phenomenon inasmuch as the GOP is swiftly becoming the Party of Trump – but this, seriously?
Again, I’m a bad evangelical. But I still have a brain to process information, eyes to perceive things, and a mouth to call it like I see it. And the prospect of Dr. Moore being forced out of the SBC because he spoke out against an amoral, unprincipled, incoherent demagogue is, well, bullshit. Those in the SBC agitating for this need to do some serious soul-searching. Discomfort with hard truths is not exactly a symptom of a vibrant spiritual life or a healthy church.
Dr. Moore has apparently learned the hard way that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Hopefully, the SBC sticks to its apparent commitment to retaining him, as he is not only a smart, thoughtful leader but also a prophetic voice within that Christian community. As David French over at National Review observed, “Moore’s fate matters because these questions matter. The church is not a partisan interest group. Moore understands this reality. Do his critics?”
Let’s all hope that Moore fares better among his own than Moore’s Master did among His. The integrity of American Evangelicalism’s witness to the world may very well depend on it.