Why SBC’s Russell Moore Wants Conservative Evangelicals to Be Nicer

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In the 1970s, conservative evangelicals declared themselves defenders of the American way and protectors of the moral majority.  Thus began a long and bitter culture war for the soul of America. Among the stoutest of the Christian soldiers was the Southern Baptist Convention’s lobbying and education arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Until recently the commission’s statement of vision had as its goal: an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority. But that vision is being abandoned by the Southern Baptists and by a lot of other evangelicals. Among them is the 44-year-old president of the ERLC, Russell Moore. In a recent interview, we talked about why that is.

For starters, the religious right has lost the cultural war on every front. Abortion is the only standout and even there success has been at the margins. Their goal of making all abortion illegal isn’t close to being achieved.

America has gone the other way in so many instances that it’s hard to count them all. Science, technology, courts, legislatures and public opinion have all worked against them (see graphic below). The array of forces has been so overwhelming that believers with less surety might have begun wondering if God really was on their side. Instead a new generation of leaders is arising with some different ideas and tactics. While not conceding utter defeat—and certainly a long way from surrender—they all admit it is not looking too good right now.

The first order of business? Face the facts.

“The Bible Belt is collapsing. The world of nominal cultural Christianity that took the American dream and added Jesus to it in order to say you can have everything you’ve ever wanted and heaven too is soon to be gone and good riddance,” Moore said when he took over the ERLC in 2013: “We’ll be stronger without nominal believers who have been following a civil religion as though it was the gospel.”

What Moore knows and some pollsters may not is that it’s a lot easier to find people who say they are evangelicals than it is to find people who truly believe evangelical principles—it’s a lot easier to find their names on a church roll than it is to find them in church. In conservative communities across America, Christianity is often melded into a kind of American triumphalism that has little to do with the Bible.

As I have noted elsewhere, it is very possible that only about seven percent of Americans are actually the kind of conservative evangelicals portrayed in the media. When evangelical pollster George Barna gave respondents a straightforward test of standard evangelical beliefs, he found the same percentage.

Although Moore probably wouldn’t agree to those numbers—the Southern Baptist Convention still counts itself as having 15 million members—he is telling his people to stop thinking that America is going their way. It’s clearly not. Don’t try to fit in, he tells his flock. “We’re not to be conformed to the pattern of the world. We’re always to be strangers and exiles in any cultural context,” he preaches.

America isn’t a Christian nation and never was, he says: “Stop trying to go back to Mayberry. The road to Mayberry and the road to Gomorrah are the same road.” Focus forward to eternity, where Christians will be the winners, says Moore.

Next, Moore tells his flock to clean up their own houses. Stop fighting over minor matters like whether people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” for instance—people who aren’t Christians don’t have conservative evangelical values, and there’s no reason that they should.

And stop threatening America with destruction if it doesn’t act like a Christian nation. “That’s nothing but a national prosperity gospel,” he believes.

Those who are listening to Moore tend to be younger evangelicals who also generally want more separation from the Republican Party. “There’s a whole generation of guys coming up saying we’re tired of being the lapdogs of the GOP and worse than that, being tossed away like a Kleenex after the election is over,” Ryan Abernathy, teaching pastor at West Metro Community Church in Yukon, OK, told me.

They want to address a broader range of issues: immigration reform, poverty, and racial reconciliation.

Moore demonstrated the new approach by meeting with President Obama to urge immigration reform. He promised to pray for the president and said he loved him, although they disagree on many issues. In the Wall Street Journal, he spoke out against Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant slurs. And he called for the Confederate flag to be taken down from the South Carolina capitol.

Such positions sometimes cause older members to grumble that times were better with Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, who publically supported Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, did not meet with Obama and wasn’t always gentle with those who disagreed.

One observer and frequent blogger, Bart Barber pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, told me that the change isn’t as stark as it seems: “From what I’ve been able to see, Richard Land and Russell Moore are in exactly the same place on issues.”

Perhaps. But some things do look different. When Farmersville was recently embroiled in a bitter controversy over whether a Muslim cemetery could open in the little North Texas town, the town’s two Baptist pastors were on opposite sides. Barber, who generally subscribes to Moore’s new thinking, supported the Muslims, seeing it as a freedom of religion matter, while the pastor across town vehemently opposed the cemetery.

St. Augustine at Gay Pride?

Moore is asking evangelicals to be nicer to people they disagree with, keeping in mind that anybody can accept Christ and be transformed.

In a recent radio interview he said:

The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk right now. And the next Mother Theresa might be running a Planned Parenthood clinic right now and the next Augustine might be at the front of a gay pride parade right now And if we see people in those terms, we’re going to be speaking in ways that seek to persuade and not just in ways that seek to score points and to vaporize our opponents.

But he’s a long way from declaring universal brotherhood. When I referred in passing to his stated wish for evangelicals to remember that their opponents were brothers and sisters in Christ Moore corrected me firmly: “…potential brothers and sisters in Christ.”

He frequently talks about justice, but he isn’t usually using the term in the way progressives do. By justice, Moore means “religious liberty,” specifically exemptions from certain laws.  Conservative evangelicals have supported lawsuits to allow Muslims and others to dress and wear beards according to their religious understanding. But abortion rights and gay rights laws are still a focus of their legal appeals. Moore predicts that the next flash points will be school accreditation and tax exemption.

“Religious liberty isn’t a question of exemption from laws. It’s a question of the government demonstrating a compelling reason as to why it ought to override religious convictions,” Moore told me.

In the matter of basic theology, Moore says holding to strict interpretations of the Bible is as important as it has ever been. Tolerance for sin is unacceptable. He’s counting on what he calls “convictional kindness” to bring Americans back to church.

“I don’t think the sexual revolution can keep its promise,” he told me,

so what I’ve been saying to our churches is that we need to be ready to receive refugees from the sexual revolution. Two kinds of Christians won’t be able to speak to those refugees: a church that has abandoned the Scriptures and a church that screams at or demonizes people on the outside.

By hewing to their principles and refusing to be moved, conservative evangelicals have been able to keep conversation contentious on issues where they believe the country has gone wrong. “The pro-life movement is still alive and vibrant in ways that no one would have assumed in 1973,” Moore said.

Evangelical strategy on gay rights is much the same: keep protesting in every way possible until the culture swings their way again.

Divorce is another area where Moore claims some success. Rates are still high, “but divorce is not spoken of as it was in 1960s and 1970s when many minimized the damage that could be done to children and families by no fault divorce. There is a recognition that divorce is not the instrument of self actualization that many people thought it was,” he told me.

Moore’s ideas are intriguing, especially because he’s speaking in an arena where new ideas have often seemed anathema.

Screaming and demonizing, as Moore put it, are time-honored methods for bringing sinners to Jesus. So for Moore to pull back from those tactics is no small move. But when he talks about churches that have abandoned scripture having nothing for the unsaved, what he’s really saying is that for the Gospel to have any power it must be confined to a very particular (and immutable) interpretation of scripture—one with plenty of judgment and wrath.

That kind of scriptural adherence may bring droves of Americans back to the conservative Christian fold, as it has in previous centuries. But I keep thinking about a book called unChristian written by some George Barna researchers in 2007. In their surveys of non-Christians they found that evangelicals’ emphasis on telling sinners the Good News wasn’t convincing anyone.

“We’ve heard the Good News,” the non-saved said, “and we’ve also met Christians. We don’t want to be like them.”

Will Americans want to be like evangelicals if they’re just as judgmental just…nicer?

We’ll see.

__________

Here’s a visual take on the state of the culture wars:

"Culture Wars, Then and Now." Text by Christine Wicker; graphic created in piktochart.

“Culture Wars, Then and Now.” Text by Christine Wicker; graphic created in piktochart.

 

29 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    What about the Iran deal? Does he support Obama and his deal with Iran, or does he support all the Republican congressmen and the government of Israel?

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    The problem with many evangelicals is their misuse of the words “religious freedom.” I think many of the younger generation know that.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like abortion and no-one forces you to have an abortion.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like assisted suicide and no-one forces you to have an assisted suicide.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like homosexuality and no-one forces you to have a homosexual relationship.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like to work on Sunday and no-one forces to you to work on Sunday.
    As I see the problem, many evangelicals equate religious freedom with forcing everyone to conform to their ideas of morality. Unfortunately, it’s tough to convince reasonable people that that constitutes freedom.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Nailed it.

  • boko999@hotmail.com' Boko999 says:

    Knuckle-Dragging ignorance and bigotry with a smile.
    I see the rest are going to muscle in on Mike Huckabee’s schtick.

  • jennifer.prestash@mail.com' Jennifer P says:

    Follow Christ. Follow Christ. Follow Christ. Whether you are Evangelical, Catholic or Orthodox, the way to change America is to change yourself by following Christ. When the light of Christ shines within you, and you follow Christ as He taught us in the Gospel, the world will be converted.

  • jennifer.prestash@mail.com' Jennifer P says:

    That way of thinking is wrong. It also leads to additional societal evil:

    You have religious freedom if you do not like murder and no one forces you to do murder.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like stealing and no one forces you to do steal.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like adult-child sexual relationships and no one forces you to engage in adult-child sex.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like adultery and no one forces you to commit adultery.

    The first problem here is that when we abandon the Judaeo-Christian values the American founding fathers took for granted as our standard, questions of right and wrong become decided by consensus. Without God as the rule-giver right and wrong become questions like choosing purple over blue.

    The second problem is that when morality is reduced to personal choice society falls apart. Thomas Jefferson said that our Constitution would only work and we would only remain a free people as long as we remained a religious people. That wasn’t a promotion of religion but an acknowledgment that religious people are self-motivated to be moral and follow the laws that are based upon Judaeo-Christian morality. Without a religiously self-discipline people the government takes over and must run every detail of your life. Ultimately, there is no freedom at all.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I doubt that could work. The more deeply people believe that, the more screwed up things become on a wide range of topics. There are many things in Christianity that can’t work for us today. The more rational part of Christianity is becoming a religion of doubt. Instead of just acting crazy, they are no longer sure, and that is a big improvement. It is a process that will take some time, but we are making progress. It is just kind of bumpy at the start.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We have laws that have to be set up by consensus. We have a law against murder, but half of the 10 commandments would not be enforcable, and it would be wrong to try to enforce them. We can’t go by religion because some of it might make sense, but much of it doesn’t.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    You will have to supply me with the source of that quote from Jefferson. It doesn’t sound like the same man who said “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” (A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Chapter 82 (1779).)
    The founders of the United States came to the shores of North America to escape from religious coercion. To me, anyway, it appears that the religious right wants to institute a regime of religious coercion. There are many areas where there are legitimate disagreements on moral issues. Forcing one view on everyone does not make for freedom.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Progressive Christianity that no longer is locked into the old beliefs is a religion that is moving in the direction of being based on the golden rule. The golden rule could never be enforced because enforcing the golden rule would be breaking it.

  • Lilmo2nd@aol.com' NavyBlues05 says:

    Christ followers have been screwing up America since they landed on this shore bringing their twisted homicidal tendencies with them. The country and this world need protection from Christ followers and their drive for theocratic tyranny…Torquemada 21st Century.

  • johninbellevue@yahoo.com' not_guilty says:

    Whiskyjack writes:

    You have religious freedom if you do not like abortion and no-one forces you to have an abortion.

    You have religious freedom if you do not like assisted suicide and no-one forces you to have an assisted suicide.

    You have religious freedom if you do not like homosexuality and no-one forces you to have a homosexual relationship.

    You have religious freedom if you do not like to work on Sunday and no-one forces to you to work on Sunday.

    Jennifer P writes:

    You have religious freedom if you do not like murder and no one forces you to do murder.You have religious freedom if you do not like stealing and no one forces you to do steal.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like adult-child sexual relationships and no one forces you to engage in adult-child sex.
    You have religious freedom if you do not like adultery and no one forces you to commit adultery.

    How are these two propositions inconsistent with one another? Inquiring minds want to know.

    What version of religious freedom denies its adherents the freedom to decline to have an abortion, assist in suicide, have a homosexual relationship, work on Sunday, murder, steal, diddle a child or commit adultery?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It’s more about the way they are treated. They want the world to treat them like Christianity is morally better than other lifestyles, but now they are no longer getting that respect. It is true nobody is bothering them, but they wouldn’t mind being bothered a little, or even persecuted, as long as there was a general understanding that they were being persecuted because they are better in God’s eyes than the rest of us.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    False equivalence. The examples in WJs post are things that are grey areas, open to argument. The examples you give are not. No rational person approves of murder, theft, pedophilia. The only grey area you mention is adultery.

    The FFs were not very devout Christians for the most part. And our laws are NOT based on OT laws, they are based on English law. The founders did endorse Christianity as a means of mob control – just as most governments have. They were pretty elitist, and didn’t think the common people were able to make good decisions without external control.

    But, then, you seem to be a student of David Barton’s revised history of the US, and I doubt that any facts contrary to your beliefs will be considered.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    She got it from David Barton, of course.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The founders did endorse Christianity as a means of mob control

    That is an interesting point to think about. The weekly church meetings and listening to the sermon might have been the only common point of control, and the only contact point with most of the community. Today is different. We have all the mass media and jobs and schools and sporting events, and so everyone is in contact all the time. At this point if the churches shut down almost nobody would notice and nothing in our lives would be any different.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    I suspected as much. I just like to challenge these spurious quotes.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    The kind of religious freedom that denies people the right to an abortion, assisted suicide, or a homosexual relationship. That is exactly the type of “religious freedom” that many evangelicals promote. Scare quotes intentional.

  • johninbellevue@yahoo.com' not_guilty says:

    Perhaps I should have worded my question, “What version of religious freedom denies its adherents the freedom: to decline to have an abortion, to decline to assist in suicide, to decline to have a homosexual relationship, to decline to work on Sunday, to decline to murder, to decline to steal, to decline to diddle a child or to decline to commit adultery?”

    Sorry for the ambiguity.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    They want to be persecuted, and if they are not, then they will stir up trouble until they feel they have attained a level of persecution worthy of complaining about.

  • chris@east20thst.net' cmbennett01 says:

    I think your characterization of the founders religious convictions is a little too cynical. Though the most prominent of the founders were distrustful of religion in general and would certainly not be considered Christian, many of them were in fact sincere Christians. Even so their public endorsements of religion did not imply that it should be the foundation of government and they along with their less religious cohorts, explicitly stated the United States is not a Christian nation. Religion was a personal matter and moral autonomy was more important than orthodox belief. That is well documented in both their public and private correspondence.
    While most of them would have been familiar with the writings of Seneca, there is little evidence they regarded religion as tool to control the masses. Those among them fearful of the mob were advocates of republicanism to mediate the dangers of democracy, not religion. Religion was specifically excluded.

  • chris@east20thst.net' cmbennett01 says:

    The early history of North America isn’t always so simple. The early colonists did come to these shores in order to escape religious persecution, and when they arrived the commenced to institute a regime of religious coercion. The scale of religious persecution was no where near what was experienced in Europe, but was often no less brutal. There were pockets of religious toleration but most colonies were religious enclaves under theocratic rule. It is the early religious history of the colonies that informed the opinions of the founders during the revolutionary period when they sought to guarantee religious freedom.

  • junesxing@yahoo.com' Jeffrey Samuels says:

    “Will Americans want to be like evangelicals if they’re just as judgmental just…nicer?”

    I think the answer is a resounding NO! As long as Evangelicals insist on telling people how intrinsically evil and wrong they are unless they adopt strict evangelical values, rather than extolling the good things about their beliefs, it won’t make a difference in how they phrase it.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    They want a Christian Nation they will have to take the Republic away from us to do it Handmaid’s Tale style. In the end that is their only option if they can’t live in a mixed culture that flaunts that they aren’t followers in their mold.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    They want the kind of freedom the Saudis have and Pakistanis and even the so called “I.S.” have. We don’t want that here anymore than the majority want it in Saudi Arabia or the I.S. territories.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    They want to give us “freedom from” things. Which is no freedom we would want and they would secure on penalty of death from us.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    Good, challenge them, hopefully she will respond.

  • bornunderpunches86@gmail.com' Alex Henry says:

    Seems like the comments section on RD is nothing but a forum for Fundamentalist and New Atheists to scream at each other. A bit sad considering how nuanced and thoughtful the articles usual are.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We’ve changed. We don’t scream any more. It turns out you can make your point much better by just sticking to the facts. Of course that only works if your side has a point to make. If not, then screaming might be the best you can do.

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