Russell Moore, one of the current presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), is discovering what life is like for people who dissent from the tribe’s opinions–and I don’t think he likes it. Today we’ll see that schadenfreude is a dish best served with a side order of birth-control pills.
I’ve mentioned before that a lot of hardcore fundagelicals really didn’t like Donald Trump when he was gaining ground in his Presidential campaign. But they disliked him for entirely the wrong reasons. They didn’t like how noncommittal he seemed about stripping women of their bodily rights, and they were really not happy about how totally ignorant he seemed about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Mostly it was the borshun question that bothered them–and it bothered them an awful lot.
Russell Moore, along with a number of Southern Baptist bigwigs, loudly criticized Donald Trump from almost the get-go because he just wasn’t hardcore enough for the extremely hardline fundagelical leader. And the issue he wasn’t hardcore enough about was, of course, abortion rights.
To his shock, his tribe got mad at him for criticizing their crown prince.
Mr. Moore was experiencing the natural result of 50 years’ effort in training fundagelicals to see opposition to abortion as the most important stance that could ever be expected of any candidate–as the linchpin of how suitable a candidate was for office. Fundagelicals were presented with two candidates in 2016–one who embodied everything they wished they could be (rich, insouciant, sociopathic, completely self-focused) and one who was presented to them as Satan incarnate and quite possibly the Antichrist. It’s really no wonder that they glommed more onto Donald Trump, as a group, than any Christians ever have with any political candidate in recent memory. They might have mouthed concerns about Mr. Trump’s commitment to one of their favorite two culture wars, but they celebrated his ignorance, hatred, and general vileness in ways that I’ve simply never seen before in that group.
Republican and fundagelical leaders alike have been worrying for a while about their tribe’s increasing polarization with regard to fundagelicalism’s culture wars, but Donald Trump’s successful election (through fair means or foul–not that it mattered to his fans) only hardened their distasteful ideas into ossified, calcified hatred.
So when Russell Moore criticized Donald Trump, he was actually criticizing the seedy, seamy underbelly of his entire end of Christianity–striking at the very selfish core of their entire ideology, and trying to downplay the very baseline of their culture war against women to get them to pull away from a candidate who was, himself, the perfect leader for them.
It wasn’t just his vocal opposition to Donald Trump that got Mr. Moore into trouble, of course; that opposition went along with his calls for the SBC’s adherents to be less politicized and start thinking of themselves as a beleaguered-but-righteous minority, struggling to maintain purity and holiness in a culture gone amok with sin. (The whole thing should rightly make observers wonder if he’s actually been paying attention to the SBC these past few years.) In a truly sour-grapes turnaround, Mr. Moore had decided that maybe the SBC had been going at this “moral majority” idea all wrong and needed to stop trying to overtake popular culture by sheer numbers. He was probably one of the first of his group to recognize that the SBC had long ago stopped speaking for Americans in general. Worst of all, he was an outspoken advocate for racial diversity and (some kind of) reconciliation in a group marked by deep racism. So Southern Baptists probably saw Mr. Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump as the cherry on a very heretical sundae indeed.
No wonder Christianity Today asked back in December and only a little rhetorically, “Is it too late for Russell Moore to say he’s sorry?” — referring, of course, to his vocal opposition to big parts of the course the SBC had set for itself.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that Russell Moore thought things would work out for him any other way than they have. Toying with fundagelicals’ prejudices is like making caramel–you heat and heat and heat sugar, playing chicken against that moment it almost-but-not-quite hits the perfect shade of amber. Pull the pan from the heat one second too early and your caramel is too blond to taste like much; wait one second too late and it’s a smoking ruin.
The only real difference between it and the SBC is that that second came and went for them somewhere around 1970.
Not that they noticed it.
A Main Course, Delicately Served.
Russell Moore may well have counted on his denomination’s deeply-hierarchical structure and ideology to save him. Back before the election, Mr. Moore didn’t seem totally worried about Donald Trump winning–he was really more concerned about what the SBC’s overwhelming support of the man meant for their future as a guiding force in United States politics and culture. After all, he hardly even knew anybody who planned to vote for the man (though he conceded that he thought that a full 80% of his denomination would do so).
He might fret that there really weren’t any young powerhouse preachers coming up through the ranks, but Russell Moore clearly expected older evangelicals to take the lead in duly condemning the Republican nominee–and to serve as leadership figures for the legions of young evangelicals who just had no idea what to think or do in light of the rapid changes in American society.
That isn’t what happened.
Instead, he recently had a come-to-Jesus meeting with Frank Page, the president of the denomination’s executive committee, to talk about the denomination’s increasing dissatisfaction with his views.
It seems that a tiny number of the denomination’s churches have threatened to withhold financial support for one of the SBC’s denomination-wide financial causes. This particular fund is called its “umbrella fund;” in part, it funds Russell Moore’s little fiefdom, the euphemistically-named “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” (ERLC). Apparently the denomination’s leaders have gotten more complaints about Mr. Moore than they’ve ever gotten about anybody in their leadership, but now that dissatisfaction will possibly cut into the SBC’s bottom line so someone’s got to do something about it.
What I do find amusing in all of this mess is that Mr. Moore’s been talking like this for a while now, but it wasn’t until SBC churches threatened to pull funding from that umbrella fund–the specific fund that covers the ERLC–that action got taken. They might be super-worried about their “religious liberty” and whatever they conceive of as “ethics,” but not so concerned that they’ll fund the internal group specifically devoted to that cause if they don’t like its leader.
Reminds one of the scandal around World Vision, really: it’s one of those shining moments when Christians tell us in their out-loud voice what actually matters to them.
Now, Mr. Moore doesn’t actually report to the Mr. Page’s executive committee. He reports to a board of trustees that oversees the ERLC itself. Nonetheless, Mr. Page was, as he put it, “fully prepared” to demand Russell Moore’s resignation from the SBC leadership–and he possessed the power in his denomination to make that resignation happen if he didn’t like what he heard in that meeting.
It turned out pretty well, however. They had their meeting and at the end of it came out united and supporting each other–or at least that’s what they said. (Oh, to have been a fly on that wall!)
Notably, Russell Moore kept his job. But the churches who are angry with him still might pull their support of the umbrella fund. And the SBC has seen 49 churches fully withdraw from the SBC just over this past year, which is way up from the “half dozen or so” that usually do so each year. There’s no way to know if those 49 churches were specifically torqued over Russell Moore’s heretical stances and thus driven to leave their parent denomination, but it’s safe to say that a lot of factors probably went into those decisions–with the SBC’s leadership’s inability to keep Mr. Moore on message very likely forming one of those factors.
In short, he’s one of the leaders of what is still one of the biggest formal organizations of Christians on the planet–and the people he’s helping to lead have moved in a whole other direction, unable to be swayed or turned from their chosen path.
What It Means for The Rest of Us.
The real mistake would be to discount this latest squabble as yet another infight among the failed ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love, and to think that it has no repercussions for those outside the SBC’s fold. I mean, yes, it is exactly that–yet another infight–and yet it’s more than that.
It’s also a warning to the rest of us: a signal flare to let us know where this largest denomination is going in the years ahead.
Russell Moore’s attempt to rein in the worst impulses of his tribe has officially failed at this point. He pushed as hard as he possibly could, and he very nearly lost his entire position in the SBC because of that effort. The apologies he issued months ago weren’t enough–he needed to be chastened and schooled like a child to ensure that he would stop acting out of line with the SBC ethos of culture war.
Just a Wafer-Thin Mint.
We can very likely expect to see a greater amount of lockstep in the SBC leadership in coming years–and a certain inability to bend on issues that are clearly driving people away from them. They’re perfectly happy to drive out people who refuse to fall into line, as this meeting between Russell Moore and Frank Page demonstrated; Ed Stetzer has been talking about “convictional” and “cultural” Christians for ages, but what he really means by this twaddle is “Christians who agree with us” and “Christians who don’t.” Russell Moore didn’t agree with them, and so he had to be brought into line.
The SBC’s efforts to resolve the racism in their ranks are very likely going to slow down–since Mr. Moore was largely the person responsible for that attempt–and we can expect their opposition to women’s rights to continue apace, possibly hardening even further and becoming more extremist thanks to their November win in the Presidential election.
Right-wing Christians generally have decided that, far from examining their actions and ideals for hypocrisy, they will drill down on them. I don’t think the next couple of years are going to be a lot of fun for the rest of us. I’d never say that Russell Moore is some kind of prophet or hero–I’ve criticized him roundly in this blog many times for his hardline extremism–but when a hardline extremist is too soft-hearted for his denomination, that’s really, really bad news for everyone.
There’s no digestif that could possibly amend the heaviness of that mess of a meal.