Moore of the same, but still a worthy effort

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I had a sense of deja vu this week as I clicked on a 2,000-word Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore:

For years, as the principal public voice for the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s biggest evangelical group, Richard Land warned of a “radical homosexual agenda” and pushed for a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

His successor, Russell Moore, sounded a different note when the Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. “Love your gay and lesbian neighbors,” Mr. Moore wrote in a flier, “How Should Your Church Respond,” sent to the convention’s estimated 45,000 churches. “They aren’t part of an evil conspiracy.” Marriage, he added, was a bond between a man and a woman, but shouldn’t be seen as a “‘culture war’ political issue.”

Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members. The country’s largest Protestant denomination pushed to end abortion, open up prayer in public schools and boycott Walt Disney Co. over films deemed antifamily. Its ranks included many of the biggest names on the Christian right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines. Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

I kept thinking: Haven’t I already read this?

In fact, I had, to an extent. The dearly departed Bob Smietana of The Tennessean scooped the WSJ on this story by three months and got his just reward.

The mention of Disney, Robertson, Falwell, et al also felt a little stale — as if we’d plowed this same ground a time or two before.

But you know what? I kept reading, and the WSJ — as it so consistently does — enlightened me with insightful, well-sourced details and context.

Yes, the WSJ makes broad statements like this:

Along with much of the religious right, Southern Baptists are undergoing a generational shift as Mr. Moore and his allies recalibrate their methods and aims. The moment is significant not only for America’s religious life but for its politics, given the three-decade engagement by evangelical leaders that kept social issues on the front burner and helped Republicans win national elections.

But then the story proceeds to back up that wide swath with actual data:

Southern Baptists still make up more than a third of all the country’s Protestant evangelicals, by far the largest single denomination under that umbrella, which itself comprises more than a quarter of the U.S. population. But their primacy is on the wane.

Baptists are departing from the religious traditions of their childhood faster than any other Protestant group, according to statistics gathered by Pew Research, an independent polling organization. Adult baptisms within Southern Baptist churches, meanwhile, have slid 20% over the past decade, according to LifeWay Research, a polling firm tied to the Southern Baptist Convention. The firm projects the church’s membership will fall by half to 8.5 million by 2050, returning to the level of the mid 1950s.

Recent polls have found younger evangelicals drifting away from some of the conservative views of their parents and grandparents. A March survey of nearly 1,000 white evangelicals by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling organization, found half of those under 35 favored same-sex marriage, compared with just 15% of those over 65. The younger evangelicals were more likely to be independents over Republicans, while the opposite was true of their elders.

All in all, it’s a worthy effort, even if the WSJ might want to consider sending Smietana a finder’s fee.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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