Russell Moore was the most prominent anti-Trump voice in his denomination. It almost cost him his job.
The temperature neared triple digits when thousands of Southern Baptists arrived in Phoenix recently for their annual convention, a fitting desert backdrop for the first denomination-wide gathering of the Trump era.
This summer tradition is purposefully unpredictable. The Southern Baptist Convention is made up of thousands of independent churches from around the country that send leaders known as “messengers” to debate, handle business matters, commission missionaries and worship together. There is an agenda, but attendees are free to address the entire body and propose anything they want. And with the reverberations from the brutal presidential election still playing out, passions this year were high.
“It’s like watching a hockey game,” said the Rev. Gevan Spinney, a Louisiana pastor. “You never know when the fight’s going to break out.”
This is the fluid climate that Russell Moore faced when he arrived in Phoenix after months of intense speculation about his future. Moore is the 45-year-old president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the most public-facing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was also a fervent opponent of Donald Trump in 2016, an anomaly in a denomination that overwhelmingly supported the Republican nominee.
Moore didn’t back Hillary Clinton either, but his critique of Trump was especially pointed. He called him “an arrogant huckster” and directed his Twitter followers to an essay warning that Trump was “what the Founding Fathers warned us about.” Even before Trump’s campaign was rocked by the Access Hollywood tape depicting him bragging in stunningly vulgar terms about sexually assaulting women, Moore compared the GOP nominee’s views of women to that of a “Bronze Age warlord.” His criticism caught Trump’s eye, prompting him to condemn Moore by name on Twitter in May 2016.
.@drmoore Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2016
“Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for,” Trump wrote. “A nasty guy with no heart!”
Moore kept up his criticism, blasting evangelical leaders who stood by Trump after the Access Hollywood video surfaced, calling their support a “scandal and a disgrace.”
But in the end, Trump won. And he did so with the help of white evangelicals who voted. Moore suddenly found himself alone — and surrounded.
Like much of the country, many of Moore’s fellow Southern Baptists struggled to move past the bruising, personal rhetoric of the campaign. Some leaders pressed for Moore’s resignation, saying the election proved he was out of step with the majority of Southern Baptists. They were especially angry about his characterization of Christians who stuck with Trump even through the worst periods of the campaign.
More than 100 churches threatened to withhold donations to the fund that supports mission programs, Baptist seminaries and the ERLC, the denomination’s executive committee told The Washington Post. Others left the denomination entirely, according to pastors I interviewed.
“He really offended a lot of the guys across the convention who were supporting President Trump,” said the Rev. Fred Luter, a pastor and former convention president who supports Moore. “I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he would do some things differently. I don’t think he would change his message, but his method.”
I went to Phoenix to see how this drama combining the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with the most rollicking presidential campaign in recent history would play out. I also went because Moore’s trials, in a small way, reminded me of someone close to me. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist pastor named Jess Moody, found himself similarly isolated about 50 years earlier as the denomination debated the Vietnam War and struggled with questions about race relations. With the nation in turmoil, his principled opposition to the war and unvarnished chastisement of churches that had failed to integrate won him few friends at the time.
In studying both instances, I learned that even the deepest splits of our time can ultimately be overcome.
With US offices in Nashville, Tennessee, and Washington, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission serves multiple functions at once. The institution serves as the denomination’s think tank, an advocacy arm, a public voice on hot-button issues and as an inward-facing resource for conservative Christians struggling to apply a Biblical worldview to a complex, rapidly changing world.
It is the ERLC president’s job to answer the most difficult questions in both the public square and within the faith. As the leader of the group, Moore must be as comfortable speaking about controversial issues to a secular audience on national television as he is preaching to his own people from the pulpit. Topics of expertise range from reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, religious liberty, Christian persecution, racial reconciliation, and, more recently, whether a traditional Christian can support a thrice-married, celebrity real estate mogul who bragged about having sex with married women, once supported abortion rights and insists he doesn’t need to ask for God’s forgiveness.
Moore made his opposition to Trump clear from the very beginning. He’d actually been warning about someone like him for years. Writing prophetically in his 2014 book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Moore warned that Christians “ought to be the last people to fall for hucksters and demagogues.” He argued against the coziness that old-guard evangelical Christians had nurtured within the Republican Party in the last few decades and chastised believers who celebrated politicians in exchange for access and power.
“Some sectors of religious activism are willing to receive, as Christians, heretics and demagogues, so long as they are with us politically,” Moore wrote. “When that happens, we are demonstrating what we believe to be truly important, and we are embracing then a different gospel from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He also rejected the notion that the United States was a nation in covenant with God.
“Our end goal is not a Christian America,” he wrote. “That illusion is over, and happily so.”
This is not to say that Moore rejects or even bends traditional Christian doctrines. He is adamant in his belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. He is uncompromising on core theological principles and does not preach that Christians should change their beliefs on sexual and moral issues, even if it is out of step with the culture as a whole.
But his call to move away from the marriage of convenience between the Church and the Republican Party set him apart. It also made him a target.
“I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them,” Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate who was also a Southern Baptist pastor, fumed to the conservative Townhall Web site in December.
Just before Christmas, Moore issued an apology on his blog.
“I witnessed a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel. I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been. But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump,” he wrote. “I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.”
In the following months, Moore went on something of a listening tour. A delegation from the Louisiana Baptist Convention, for instance, traveled to Nashville for a private meeting with Moore in January. They brought a portfolio of Moore’s writings during the election — including screenshots of his tweets — and talked through them one by one, according to the pastors who met with him. In private, the men spent four hours discussing Moore’s dismissal of Christian leaders who supported Trump, his defense of religious liberty for Muslim Americans and whether he would still be able to represent Southern Baptists in Washington with Trump in power.
The latter concern intensified when Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony in May announcing an executive order focused on religious liberty and invited a range of religious leaders to take part. Moore was noticeably absent.
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SOURCE: CNN Politics – Chris Moody