If the Southern Baptist Church Can’t be Bigger, Russell Moore Wants it to be Better

In 2009, Russell Moore was a young theologian who occasionally served as the host of a Christian radio show. He liked to let callers have their say, drawing them out with friendly questioning before gently acknowledging, when necessary, that he firmly disagreed. One day in July, he found himself leading a discussion of Sarah Palin, who had recently called a surprise back-yard press conference to announce that she was resigning the governorship of Alaska. (She blamed silly ethics charges and serious lawyers’ fees.) Moore’s guest was Richard Land, who had been praising Palin before most of the country knew her name. Land was the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public-engagement arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, which made him the loudest voice of the biggest group of Protestants in the country—the evangelical Pope, some people called him. He had urged John McCain to choose Palin as his running mate, and had pronounced himself “ecstatic” when McCain followed his advice. Addressing the audience via telephone, Land called the resignation “a very shrewd move,” suggested that Palin remained “an existential threat” to liberal feminism, and compared her favorably to Justice Clarence Thomas. “Clarence Thomas dared to get off the liberal plantation,” he said. “Sarah Palin refused to buy into liberal leftist feminism.”

Moore was respectful, but he seemed puzzled by Land’s eagerness to defend Palin. “Dr. Land thinks that Governor Palin’s resignation was a shrewd move,” he said. “I don’t. I don’t understand it at all.” Later in the show, after Land had hung up, Moore offered a broader critique. “We, as evangelical Christians, are really, really prone, it seems to me, to become so enthused with political figures that we just automatically impute to them almost superheroic status,” he said. “Put not your trust in princes,” he added—Psalm 146:3. “Or in princesses, either.”

During the previous two decades, Land had proved an effective wrangler of the historically unwrangleable Southern Baptists, mobilizing the denomination’s tens of millions of believers on behalf of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. For a long time, Southern Baptists had not only a faith but a cause. They saw God’s greatness reflected in the inherent goodness of the American South—and, more recently, in America itself. Jerry Falwell, a Baptist and a Southerner (although not, until late in his life, a member of the S.B.C.), created the Moral Majority to propound the idea that most Americans believed as he did. Evangelicals became a potent political force: in 2004, they helped reëlect George W. Bush. “He’s going to dance with the one who brung him,” Land told one newspaper.

In fact, that election may have marked the beginning of evangelicals’ political decline. Land had predicted that the President would act on issues important to the church, such as a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. But, after Land’s followers helped return Bush to office, he never pushed for one. And in the Obama era Land’s status as an old-fashioned culture warrior came to seem, to some members of the church, like a liability. In 2012, after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old African-American, Land said on his own radio show that activists were seizing on the case “to gin up the black vote for an African-American President.” When he was criticized, he suggested that Zimmerman had behaved rationally; a black man, he said, was “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” Land eventually apologized, but, in the months that followed, his radio show was cancelled, and, under pressure, he resigned from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which he had led since 1988. In the S.B.C., denominational presidents come and go—each is elected to a one-year term, with a maximum one-year renewal. But the leader of the E.R.L.C. is expected to stick around, and to define for the world what the church stands for. For the first time since the Reagan era, the Southern Baptists were looking for a new public face.

The face they eventually chose belonged to Russell Moore, who was forty-one when he assumed the presidency, in 2013. Where Land was a stern figure, fearsomely jowled and sideburned, Moore declines to play the heavy: he once described himself as a “little guy who looks like a cricket,” which suggests something about not just his appearance but also his sensibility. Land often trained his fire on “homosexual activists” and other political enemies, but Moore tends toward introspection, admonishing Southern Baptists to think first—and often—about their own sins. The denomination was formed, in 1845, by white Southerners who split off from a national Baptist movement that was growing increasingly intolerant of slavery. Moore sees in his theological ancestors a cowardly and catastrophic willingness to ignore the uncomfortable. “If you call people to repentance for drunkenness, or for adultery, or for any number of personal sins, but you don’t say anything about slaveholding or about lynching,” he says, “you’re just baptizing the status quo.” In May, he published an Op-Ed in the Times called “A White Church No More,” in which he suggested that “white, suburban, institutional evangelicalism” was cloistered, too separate from the forms of Christianity thriving in nonwhite America.

Moore agrees with Land on most theological matters: both believe, as all Southern Baptists are supposed to, that the Bible contains “truth, without any mixture of error.” And both view abortion as the defining atrocity of our age. Although Moore strains to avoid partisan appeals, his political views are generally conservative, which is to say, generally in harmony with those of the mainly white and thoroughly evangelical worshippers whom he serves—and who, through donations to their local churches, pay his salary. But this year Moore has found himself at odds with his flock over the candidacy of Donald Trump. Moore has been relentless in his criticism: in June, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he said that Trump, no less than Hillary Clinton, represented “the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying, for a long time, is the problem.”

Trump responded, inevitably, on Twitter, calling Moore a “nasty guy with no heart!” On CNN, hours later, Anderson Cooper asked Moore to continue the dialogue, and Moore flashed a crickety smile. “It’s one of the few things that I can agree with Donald Trump on,” he said. “I am a nasty guy with no heart—we sing worse things about ourselves in our hymns, on Sunday mornings.” He added, “That’s the reason why I need forgiveness from God, through Jesus Christ.” He had found a way to mock an insult with a prayer.

There were signs, during the primary season, that Trump’s crude manner, admittedly chaotic personal life, and shrugging indifference to questions of religious faith—all unprecedented traits among modern major Presidential candidates—were repelling many of the Christians who typically vote Republican. But more recent polls suggest that white evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump, and that they have grown more tolerant of politicians who behave badly. One measure of the so-called “Trump effect”: in October, seventy-two per cent of white evangelicals agreed that an elected official who “commits an immoral act” in private could nevertheless behave ethically in public; five years earlier, only thirty per cent agreed with the statement. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church, in Dallas, a flagship S.B.C. congregation, was probably speaking for many if not most Southern Baptists when he suggested that Trump was justified in responding to Moore’s “vitriolic attacks.” In Jeffress’s view, Trump is precisely the kind of protector whom Christians should support; he has said that, when it comes to defending America from Islamic terrorism and other threats, “I want the meanest, toughest son-of-a-you-know-what I can find.”

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Source: The New Yorker | Kelefa Sanneh