In recent years, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has distinguished itself as the premier conservative evangelical political advocacy group. As the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the ERLC is governed by a board of trustees elected by delegates (called “Messengers”) to that convention. Under the staff leadership of the Reverend Dr. Russell Moore and a talented cadre of (mostly young) staffers, the ERLC has quietly emerged as a model religious interest group.
Since I am writing about religious interest groups for my doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my observations about what makes some organizations successful/faithful, and others less so.
In the 1960s, the SBC’s Christian Life Commission was actually a rather liberal-leaning entity. But as the balance of political power in the convention began to shift back to conservatives in the 1980s, the CLC struggled under uncertain leadership and direction, as other political organizations sought to connect evangelical Protestants to electoral politics. Beginning in the late 1980s, after the denomination’s Conservative Resurgence was complete, the SBC began restructuring its boards and agencies. Replacing the old CLC, the ERLC was headed by a Princeton-educated Baptist college administrator named Richard Land.
Under Land’s tenure, the ERLC generally prospered. In retrospect, it is easy to condemn Land for being too much of a political supporter, insider, and wannabe kingmaker in the Republican Party. But even in spite of notable lapses such as giving theological justification in 2002 for the upcoming preemptive invasion of Iraq, Land generally avoided the excesses of more shamelessly partisan religious-right figures such as Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed. To his credit, Land largely kept the ERLC’s focus on religious-freedom issues. He also worked in ecumenical coalitions on issues his counterparts at other organizations would not touch, such as immigration reform.
We can have a debate — and Southern Baptists have — about whether or not it was time for Land to leave his post in 2013 after 25 years. I tend to think it was the right time for a change, though Moore wisely retained a number of key staffers, including the Reverend Dr. Barrett Duke and Matthew Hawkins in the ERLC’s Capitol Hill office.
But Moore brought his own people on board, a band of happy warriors from various parts of Southern Baptist life and the conservative movement. Under the mantra of “convictional kindness,” Moore has been a more winsome public face of the SBC. (Convention presidents are busy megachurch pastors who serve consecutive one-year terms. Some are more visible than others, but they all have much lower national profiles than the ERLC president.)
How has the ERLC flourished in recent years?
Most religious interest groups in Washington line up alongside one of the two major parties. Mainline and black Protestant groups tend to support Democratic policies. Majority-white evangelical organizations line up with the Republicans. The only major groups with legitimate claims to non-partisanship are moderate evangelicals and Catholics.
That being said, Russell Moore is clearly less committed to the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party than his predecessor, and certainly than leaders of other interest groups associated with the Christian Right political movement. This occasionally puts him at odds with a subset of the party/movement that is not very reflective and is declining in relevance. But it gets him a ton of credibility and speaks to his integrity (see below).
Now, don’t get me wrong. Not one person who works for the ERLC and presumably not one Trustee voted for the candidate running against Donald Trump. And by implying that Trump and Clinton were approximately equally unqualified from a moral standpoint, I think Moore made a real mistake.
But electoral politics aside, it is good that the ERLC cannot seriously be mistaken for a nominally religious auxiliary of the GOP.
Focus on a few key issues
One of the biggest mistakes religious interest groups make is that they focus on way too many issues. These groups do not have the staff, expertise, credibility, or relevance to advocate on 73 issues – even if their sponsoring denomination adopts resolutions on 73 issues at its general decision/policy-making meeting.
By emphasizing religious liberty over ethics, the ERLC solves two problems at once. First, it is clear about what its priorities are. And second, it generally avoids issues that are have deep ethical implications but little consensus among Christians, or even among Southern Baptists. For instance, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a profoundly ethical issue. There is a near-unanimous ecumenical Christian consensus. But it divides the SBC’s white, hawkish, conservative constituency. So it would be costly, in a sense, for the ERLC to work on an issue like that.
Sure, Moore and the ERLC believe abortion and marriage are the two most important issues of public Christian concern. But they are upfront about it. And they have the backing of the denomination that elects their trustees and funds their operating budget. Strategically and organizationally, they are well positioned to have an impact while avoiding public and private conflicts that impair the work of so many similar religious interest groups.
Some religious interest groups lag behind culturally and technologically. Others are staffed by amateurs, abject partisan political operatives, legacy/family connections, or people lacking in political and theological sophistication.
The ERLC is a highly professional organization with competent management, attractive publications and digital properties, well-planned events, effective branding/marketing, and digital/social media savvy. These are vital in today’s world, and the ERLC “gets it” more than just about any other faith group involved in politics.
People who work in this area affirm that the ERLC is an effective organization. Moore, a theologian by training, has an intuitive grasp of media and public relations that you cannot learn in a seminary classroom. He has a good relationship with the media, who view him more favorably than his predecessor and his counterparts at other organizations. It does him no favors within the movement to be “liberals'” favorite conservative evangelical, but it does win him positive coverage from reporters and opinion journalists (like me, among many others).
Moore can endure flare-ups and tensions among elements of constituency because he has the full support of influential and well-respected leaders within and beyond Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical circles. Sometimes the ERLC leads and sometimes it follows, but it never has P.R. disasters and embarrassing gaffes (well, almost never). It does not have to issue corrections or apologize for its actions (unless this counts).
I deal with religious interest groups across the spectrum as a scholar, a journalist, and an adviser. I could not name one person in this world who has a lower opinion of the ERLC today than five years ago. And almost without exception, practitioners and experts (even its ideological opponents) will tell you that the ERLC is definitively the premier conservative evangelical public-policy organization.
As in every field, relationships are built on trust. This is vital in the religion-and-politics community. It’s a small world, and good reputations are earned slowly and lost quickly. Since Land’s resignation, the ERLC has avoided scandal or even the appearance of impropriety. Moore, whose counsel was sought in conservative evangelical political circles even when he was a professor and administrator at the SBC’s flagship seminary in Kentucky, has a sterling reputation among his colleagues and is well liked even by his opponents. ERLC staff are knowledgeable, professional, and honest in their dealings with political actors, coalition partners, Southern Baptist entities, and the press.
Those that know me will know that I am an unlikely person to write this post. I have had public disagreements with Southern Baptists on a number of fronts. My support for Moore’s positions is often qualified. But these people are top-notch. I hope other faith groups doing good work can learn from the ERLC’s very fine example.