Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you the story of a quintessential, consummate yes-man for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): Al Mohler, who leads their flagship seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Very early on, he realized exactly how he was going to need to behave to maintain his upward trajectory in the denomination. Well, now let’s look at Russell Moore, an SBC leader who didn’t behave himself. Yep, he recently faced the punishment that Al Mohler avoided so long ago: the loss of his job and his standing in the denomination. Today, I’ll show you how Russell Moore got it all — and then lost it.
(When I talk about evangelicals as a “tribe,” I’m using the term in its sociological sense. Here’s a decent writeup of how tribalism works. Also, a fundagelical is an evangelical fundamentalist.)
Everyone, Meet the ERLC.
One of the major SBC subgroups is the ERLC — the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. It was founded in 1947, according to La Wiki, but it was known as the “Christian Life Commission” from 1953-1997. When the Conservative Resurgence finished up, the denomination’s leaders changed its name to ERLC. The ERLC reports to the SBC Executive Committee (EC).
When American fundagelicals talk about religious liberty, what they actually mean is fundagelical privilege, enshrined into law. Don’t ever believe that their ultimate goal is freedom of religion. It isn’t. For most fundagelicals, freedom of religion just means being graciously allowed by King Them to choose what fundagelical church one will attend. However, their efforts to gain that kind of coercive power backfire both constantly and magnificently. Worse, we’ve seen some Christian-led studies indicating how disastrous this culture war truly is. Despite these contradictions from reality, fundagelicals are hooked on the idea of having legal powers of coercion over everyone.
So yeah, it’s downright alarming to see that the SBC operates a subgroup devoted to the concept of scare-quotes “religious liberty.”
As you might guess from the name, then, this subgroup clashes with the SBC’s cultural enemies and lobbies for political power. They engage with secular culture through political strong-arming and ginned-up moral panics. And they make sure that SBC member churches comply with the tribe’s culture wars.
I’m sure we’ll all be absolutely shocked to learn that the leadership of the ERLC was previously fraught with scandal and trouble.
Now Let’s Meet the Former King of the ERLC, Richard Land.
Richard Land led the ERLC as its president from 1988 to 2013. In that capacity, he kept himself busy. In 2005, Time even named him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”
However, his various stated policies and positions on issues of the day turned out to be less and less popular with people as social media came to be a major cultural force. After the Sandy Hook shooting, he told NPR that he felt it was his “moral and Christian obligation” to keep guns on hand to shoot the heads off of anyone seeking to harm him or his loved ones. (Hmm.)
That said, it was really his comments about Trayvon Martin’s death that may have spelled the end of Richard Land’s presidency. In March 2012 on his radio show Richard Land Live, he accused Barack Obama and civil rights leaders of using Trayvon Martin’s death to stir up racial unrest.
The next month, a Baptist blogger realized Land’s words on that episode had been lifted from someone else — without adequate attribution. As the blogger dug deeper, he discovered plenty of other similar thefts.
The ERLC’s executive committee performed an internal investigation. That investigation ended with them reprimanding their president and cancelling his radio show.
To nobody’s shock, Land decided to retire shortly after these two scandals.
But he was fine. Southern Evangelical Seminary hired him immediately to be their president. (Yep, an institute of supposedly-higher learning doesn’t mind having a plagiarist leader!) The ERLC also granted him an emeritus title. So don’t worry about Richard Land!
And Now, Russell Moore.
To heal the damage that Land had done to the ERLC’s reputation, the SBC turned to a company man, one who had a good understanding of politics and a squeaky-clean character:
He was raised in Baptist culture, attended SBC schools, and served in various SBC churches. In 2001, he began working for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Yes, the very same place that Al Mohler rules! And speaking of Carl Henry, from 2001 to 2009 Moore served as the Executive Director of the SBTS “Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement!”
Over the years, Russell Moore has performed a number of roles related to the SBC culture wars. He’s thick as thieves with the Calvinist side of the denomination. As well, he serves as Chairman of the Board for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). As you might have already guessed, he’s a gung-ho Calvinist himself.
Thus, I’ve no doubt the SBC hoped Russell Moore would be the man they needed to put Richard Land behind them all.
However, a few careful observers (like this guy) wondered why Russell Moore seemed so careful not to alienate or anger his predecessor.
Uh-Oh: Russell Moore and the Dangerous Ideas.
The SBC’s leaders figured out their group was in decline probably around 2013 or 2014. That’s when they began freaking out about what they called a “baptism drought.” By 2015, the rank-and-file flocks caught on.
This is about when we began to see a lot more polarization from fundagelicals like the SBC. More and more middle-aged white fundagelicals began feeling distress over their decline in power. They began absorbing erroneous ideas about America, its history, and its civics from greedy, vile hucksters like David Barton. We began to hear them cry out at political meetings and rallies that they wanted THEIR country back. Hate groups and outright racists proliferated in those last few years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Russell Moore didn’t accept all of the culture-war shifts occurring around this time. He rejected reparative/conversion therapy, advised parents not to throw their gay kids out, and tried to move past his tribe’s increasing partisan politicking. In addition, he’s spoken against the Confederate flag, supported Syrian refugees in 2015, and criticized Ted Cruz for wanting to impose a religious test on incoming refugees from the Middle East. In 2017, he condemned the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Really, by Southern Baptist leadership standards Russell Moore comes off looking like a barely-tolerable progressive. I’m sure his tribemates grumbled aplenty over it.
And then Donald Trump came along.
Russell Moore, the Anti-Trumpist.
From the earliest moments of Donald Trump’s entry into Republican politics, Russell Moore seems like he was right out there in front and swinging against him.
Of course, like almost all culture-warrior fundagelicals who did likewise, Moore opposed Trump for the worst reasons possible:
- First, he wasn’t sure Trump really, like reallyreally, supported the anti-abortion culture war.
- Second, he rightly realized that Trump would absolutely wreck his tribe’s sales metrics, which were already tanking.
But his reasons didn’t matter. He’d refused to kiss the Trumpian ring or slobber on the Trumpian sceptre. Trump himself noticed these criticisms and tweeted, “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”
(Ohh, the irony.)
Trump’s many, many supporters in the SBC got furious with Moore for that opposition. As CNN’s State tells it, even SBC leaders began to demand his firing or resignation.
After that run-in, I’m sure a lot of in-the-know observers wondered how long Moore would — or even could — keep his job.
In 2017, they got part of their answer. Sorta.
Called on the Carpet.
In 2017, the SBC called Russell Moore on the carpet. (We talked about it here.)
See, about 100 churches had decided to withhold donations to the SBC’s Cooperative Program out of anger over Russell Moore. That umbrella fund bankrolls seminaries, missionary efforts, and oh yeah: the ERLC itself. So yeah, it was big important news to the SBC.
Of course, the SBC contains about 47k member churches. So 100 churches was really a drop in the bucket. Even so, the SBC’s top leaders panicked. These were only the churches they knew about who planned to withhold money. Many others might decide to do likewise. Worse, it seemed like some churches were planning to leave the SBC entirely over this matter!
Nor do we know exactly how much money was at stake, but Washington Post tells us that one megachurch pastor threatened to hold back USD$1M.
So yeah, the SBC needed to act quickly.
After an extremely tense buildup, Russell Moore had a big come-to-Jesus meeting with Frank Page, then the leader of the SBC’s Executive Committee. (This was before Page’s own hypocrisy caught up with him. Wild, how hypocritical SBC leaders turn out to be, eh?)
We don’t know exactly what happened in that meeting, but Russell Moore came out of it with a job still and went pretty quiet afterward.
Fast Forward: Russell Moore, Back on the Carpet.
Of course, the tribe was still frosted with Russel Moore. That’s the strange thing about authoritarians in a religion that stresses forgiveness and mercy: they have neither for their dissenters. If someone steps out of line in fundagelicalism, the tribe will — if it can — stomp on that person with both feet until their victim capitulates. Capitulation might look like recanting the offending opinion or stopping the behavior the tribe dislikes. Whatever it is, the tribe will stop stomping then and only then.
However, after that the tribe enters a sort of Cold War tension with that barely-forgiven dissenter. They won’t ever really trust that person again. Any hint, any sign of potential friction will earn swift retaliation from the self-declared ambassadors of the Lord of Love and Prince of Peace. They’ll remain hypervigilant and always searching for reasons to go back onto the offensive.
I think that’s where Russell Moore found himself after his meeting with Frank Page. State describes extensive, hours-long struggle sessions that SBC leaders put him through for months afterward. These sound absolutely humiliating to me, but Moore played along with the farce.
It must have been disappointing for him to discover — even after all that capitulation and shown throat — that the tribe had no intention of forgiving or forgetting his betrayal. We learned about the SBC’s true hearts just this past February, when an official SBC report called Moore “a significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists.” The report claimed Moore had cost the SBC quite a lot of money, too. But nothing came of the report, at least not at the time.
Well, now we discover that Russell Moore is leaving the SBC after all.
The Good Ole Boys Network Strikes Again.
Not only is Russell Moore leaving the ERLC, but he’s heading straight for a nice position with Christianity Today (CT).
Astute readers of this blog might have noticed a few spiderwebs connecting Moore to this magazine already. This shift represents, to me at least, a natural progression.
- CT was founded in part by Carl Henry — much admired by Russell Moore, who headed a department in Henry’s name at SBTS.
- CT has a warm spot in its heart for Calvinists like Moore.
- The magazine also has a stated history of being anti-Trump (for the same awful reasons Moore has for being so).
- And both Moore and CT are still totally culture warriors — just they don’t want to be quite as nasty as the SBC likes to get in that fight.
The Good Ole Boys Network that Moore is leaving — the SBC — is having a self-righteous frat party right now over the departure of yet another dissenter from their ranks. It amazes me that they could possibly call Russell Moore, of all people, a liberal. But that’s what I’m seeing in their social media, as captured by Baptist News.
A liberal. Really. Oh my word.
Tell Me Another Good Joke, SBC Leaders!
Really, though, who’s surprised that they’re celebrating? After all, the leader of the inquest that called Russell Moore a “distraction from the Great Commission” was none other than Mike Stone. He’s an ambitious Old Guard faction member who is gunning for the Presidency of the SBC itself so he and his pals can really turn it into an authoritarian predator’s paradise. (We talked about Mike Stone a little here.)
Mike Stone’s the last guy who should be sniffing down his nose about Moore’s impact on the so-called “Great Commission,” but whatever. The SBC is solidly convinced that The Big Problem Here with their sales is that they’re not hardline enough. They seriously think that if the Old Guard — er Pretend Progressives — er super-duper-hardline Calvinists — come into power, then their problems are solved for good. But they’ll never be able to engage with why more and more people are rejecting them and their groups, so this whole fight is just them rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
This kind of thinking won’t be the SBC’s first mistake, though it may well end up being one of their last big ones. At least Russell Moore had the good sense to abandon that sinking ship!
NEXT UP: Another day, another huge denominational infight. But a lot is at stake for the SBC. We’ll check out their polarization — and why it’s happening. See you tomorrow!
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