Do you remember way back three months ago when conservative evangelical figureheads like Russell Moore were saying that the 81% of evangelicals supporting Donald Trump weren’t “real” evangelicals? Christianity Today found a way to manipulate survey data to show that a majority of evangelicals were not voting for Donald Trump when they are measured “by belief, not self identity.” Well, we live in a different universe now. I don’t know to what degree Christianity Today has faced a backlash from its subscribers for throwing Trump supporters under the bus, but the rhetorical maneuvering that Russell Moore undertook to put a “reasonable” face on evangelicalism in the age of Trump is now threatening to cost him his job.
Moore made the mistake of criticizing candidate Trump when it seemed very unlikely that he would win the election. Back during the Republican primaries, he made the inexcusable claim that “Ted Cruz is leading among the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading in the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing,” which prompted the Baptist Message to say that “Moore’s scale for assessing one’s biblical bona fides appears politically calculated to raise his own stock at the expense of other evangelical conservatives.” If you bet on the wrong horse during the primary, your words will be used against you after the election.
The Baptist Message goes on to pick apart Russell Moore’s less than perfectly strident stance on homosexuality (the primary political tactic conservative evangelical leaders have used to delegitimize each other for decades). Moore apparently allowed one of his research fellows at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Coalition to publish a piece “asserting ‘gay marriage remains an act rooted in love’ and arguing Christians should affirm homosexuals’ ‘longing to be loved and belong.'” He also “dismissed as a ‘utopian idea’ the belief that ‘if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with’ in reference to reparative therapy and change from homosexuality.”
Thus, the Baptist Message is able to couple Russell Moore’s opposition to Donald Trump with his supposed “softness” on homosexuality because he doesn’t proclaim a full-throat endorsement of reparative therapy and he allowed someone on his staff to say that gay people actually marry out of genuine love for each other. Moore is caught in an impossible tug-of-war between his attempt to rebrand conservative evangelicalism as “reasonable” and the lockstep expectations of his constituency to embrace their political choices. Perhaps if he hadn’t contradicted the Southern Baptist grassroots support for Trump, then he could have gotten away with having a more “nuanced” stance against the gays than Robert Gagnon or Michael Brown.SBC Today writer William Harrell asks whether Russell Moore is faithfully representing Southern Baptists or arrogantly telling them what to do:
This writer has to believe that after all the negative rhetoric and positioning done by the leadership of our lobbying entity concerning this recent election, they must have egg all over their faces. They were almost completely out of touch with the reality of how the people felt. In addition, it was not meant for the ERLC to get so involved in trying to influence the Southern Baptist people to reject a certain candidate. They have gone into an area that the people don’t appreciate. Also, I think it shows them just how little attention they are commanding. That’s what happens when leaders start living in a bubble and thinking that their opinions and actions in that bubble are applicable to everyone outside of their little intellectual world populated by only those who agree with them.
Moore has been furiously backpedaling and apologizing for the “overreach” of his criticism. This Monday he wrote, “I witnessed a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel. I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been. But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.”
Christianity Today asked this week if it’s “too late” for Russell Moore, shrewdly pivoting into the position of being neutral observers in the Trump controversy and giving pro-Trump Southern Baptist pastors a voice. Maybe they’ll be able to keep their subscriptions even if Moore has to lose his job.
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