Dispute Over Russell Moore Spurs Pushback Among Some Southern Baptists

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), gives a report during the final session of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 13, 2018 in Dallas. Photo by Kathleen Murray via Baptist Press

Jack Graham believes in the Southern Baptist Convention.

He’s a former president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and once traveled the country drumming up support for the Cooperative Program, the church giving program that funds much of the convention’s missions.

Yet, after three years, Graham’s congregation, Prestonwood Baptist Church, which claims 45,000 members, started to withhold money from the SBC. At issue: Graham’s disagreement with Russell Moore, Southern Baptist ethicist and Never Trumper, who once referred to Donald Trump as “an arrogant huckster.”

Graham, one of the president’s evangelical advisers, felt that Moore’s criticisms of Trump and his evangelical supporters was out of bounds. He didn’t want his church’s dollars to support Moore’s work at the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Prestonwood eventually starting sending money to the SBC again. But it has opted out of funding the ERLC, which Graham thinks has outlived its usefulness.

“The focus of the ERLC is not the focus of the mainstream of the SBC in terms of its approach to politics, to conservative thought and theology,” Graham told RNS in a phone interview this week.

Graham is not alone. About 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches said they would withhold funds from the Cooperative Program because of the ERLC back in 2017, according to published reports. Since that time, more churches have threatened to do the same, according to leaders of the SBC’s Executive Committee.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, before signing an executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches. With Trump are Cardinal Donald Wuerl, from left, Pastor Jack Graham, Paula White, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Mike Stone, chair of the Executive Committee, said this week that committee members have heard anecdotal evidence that churches are displeased with the ERLC and withholding money. So the committee voted to launch a new task force to review the ERLC to see if it is fulfilling its “ministry assignment” or if its actions have threatened donations to the cooperative program.

Graham said that the Executive Committee made the right move. He has long believed that Southern Baptists should “address the direction of the ERLC and the disposition of its leader, Russell Moore.”

“The reason the Executive Committee is taking this action is because of the chaos and the concerns that many feel as a result of the ERLC and its leadership,” he told RNS.

The board of the ERLC strongly opposed that assessment, and on Thursday (Feb. 20), issued a letter to the Executive Committee, saying it won’t cooperate with the newly formed task force unless the denomination votes for such an investigation at its annual meeting:

“At a time where a unified voice is needed for our cooperative gospel work, the Executive Committee is sowing needless division, treating trustees with disrespect, and spreading suspicion with this unnecessary task force,” the ERLC statement said. “Even if the appointment of this task force does not violate the letter of the law, the existence of the task force and the process by which it was created unquestionably violates the spirit of friendly cooperation.”

Moore, 48, who has been president of the ERLC since 2013, is admired by younger Southern Baptists who are uneasy with the close ties between the SBC and the Republican Party, especially in the age of Trump.

“Moore showed a way to apply your Christian faith to politics,” said Russell Meek, a 36-year-old Southern Baptist writer, editor and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute. “It’s not like you have to be a Republican. He shows a more nuanced way of navigating difficult issues. He was able to reach across the generational divide and give us this hope for the future.”

So far there’s little evidence that giving to the Cooperative Program for national Southern Baptist programs is down or that there is widespread disapproval with the ERLC. A recent report from Baptist Press shows giving is on an “upward trend,” with donations up about 3% from last year, according to February figures. The ERLC receives less than 2% of Cooperative Giving dollars.

A spokesman for the SBC Executive Committee said there are still concerns about the future of the Cooperative Program, because overall giving to state conventions, which share funds with national ministries, is down.

Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, which has more than 3,000 member churches, said a recent survey of Southern Baptist congregations in Tennessee garnered “a great deal of responses” about giving to the ERLC.

Some churches, he said, asked whether or not the ERLC received funding from the Open Society Foundation, founded by billionaire George Soros —  a rumor recently debunked by Baptist Press. Others have more general questions about the direction of the ethics commission.

“We try to listen to their concerns and answer their questions,” said Davis. “We also encourage them to contact the ERLC directly.”

In 2018, a local church delegate, known as a messenger, brought a motion to the floor of the SBC’s annual meeting calling for a complete defunding of the ERLC due to displeasure with Moore’s leadership. The motion was soundly defeated.

The Rev. Mike Stone, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, leads the committee’s meeting Feb. 18, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (Holly Meyer/The Tennessean/USA Today)

Stone said a previous review did not find a widespread drop in funding from churches because of the ERLC. He said the defeat of the 2018 motion does not inhibit the Executive Committee from doing another review.

“While many churches are concerned, there are also many churches who are engaged with the SBC primarily because of their enthusiasm about the work of the ERLC,” he said. “The assessment of this matter is clearly within the ongoing responsibility of the Executive Committee and was not in view in the 2018 motion.”

At least one member of the Executive Committee has argued in the past that the ERLC should be shut down and its budget redistributed to fund missions. In 2017, committee member and conservative businessman Rod D. Martin, a former staffer for Mike Huckabee, called the ERLC’s involvement in politics “ineffective, inefficient, distracting from the Gospel and divisive of men of goodwill” in a column for the Florida Baptist Witness.

Martin has been a frequent critic of Moore. Appearing on the Todd Starnes radio show to discuss the Executive Committee’s moves, Martin said he and other evangelical voters supported Trump to prevent the “nightmare” of electing Hillary Clinton.

“The idea that we are using tithe dollars to shame Southern Baptists who thought that might have been a bad idea and maybe they ought to stand up for their pastor and keep him safe — I just can’t fathom it,” he said.

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Source: Religion News Service