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How Russell Moore Ended Up as the Leader of the ERLC in the First Place

How Russell Moore Ended Up as the Leader of the ERLC in the First Place June 5, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Gosh, Russell Moore, y’all. Just, Russell Moore. He’s always been an enigmatic figure in the upper leadership echelons of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the leader of the hilariously oxymoronically-named Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), he engaged with secular culture in ways that often discomfited the rest of his cohort — to say the least. Recently, someone at the SBC leaked an email he wrote about a year before he quit both his job and the denomination as a whole. We’re going to discuss the email situation, yes. But first, let’s talk about how someone like Russell Moore ended up leading any major SBC subgroup in the first place. As imperfect a fit as he was (and is) for the SBC’s dysfunctional and crony-driven leadership culture, Russell Moore seemed absolutely perfect for the ERLC once. Today, I’ll show you how a guy like him ended up in top leadership in the first place.

the lifeboat has lowered into the sbc's waters
Let’s all just quietly marvel at the notion of Russell Moore of all people once being the savior of the ERLC. (Will Francis.)

(Related posts about Russell Moore: Yes But Are They Hateful Enough; How to Fool a Monster; Russell Moore Reveals the SBC’s ‘Abuse of Faith’ Strategy; The SBC Just Drove Out Another Dissenter. Also see: The SBC Still Doesn’t Get Why People Don’t Like Them Anymore; Frank Page’s Very Clean Cup. “Fundagelicals” are fundamentalist evangelicals.)

Basic Stuff About the ERLC.

Circumstances were very weird in the cosmically-misnamed Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) in 2012. But to know why they were weird, here’s some basic info about this organization.

The ERLC is one of the SBC’s major subgroups. It reports directly to the Executive Committee (EC), which of course reports directly to the denomination’s President. The EC doesn’t directly control the SBC, but because it is in control of budgeting, it kinda does.

The SBC funds the ERLC through the Cooperative Program (CP), which funds all sorts of big, sprawling SBC projects — seminaries, missionary and outreach efforts that the denomination does as a whole, etc.

(See this endnote for way more info about the CP. This will be very important to tomorrow’s post too.)

Before Russell Moore: The ERLC That Was.

Before Russell Moore got the coveted president position of the ERLC, Richard Land led the group. And wow, did he ever screw the pooch on that one. Land’s constant blunders began to grate very seriously on the SBC. He kept exposing exactly what the denomination was really about: control, dominance, and absolute power.

Over the years, Richard Land kept putting the SBC’s foot in his mouth. Here are some of his greatest hits:

In 2008, he described politician Chuck Schumer with an obscene Yiddish slur.

In 2009, he compared Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to actual Nazis. For good measure, he also compared Obama’s doctor to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. At first, he refused to apologize or retract the remarks (“out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks”).

Boy oh boy, Richard Land just loved jumping into big culture-war fights. And he kept making the SBC look bad in the doing — and right when their decline began in earnest.

The Flashpoint for Richard Land.

At last, in 2012 Richard Land finally got canceled for good. He let his inner vicious fundagelical racist come out to play after Trayvon Martin’s death.

Using his SBC-funded radio show as his platform, Land railed against anti-racism activists and claimed they were deliberately stoking racial tension so Black people would cast more votes for Barack Obama in 2012. He even accused Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of being “racial ambulance chasers.”

Making matters worse, a Christian blogger, Aaron Weaver, soon discovered that Land had plagiarized these odious and disgusting comments. In fact, Land had plagiarized a lot of material over the years.

That plagiarism turned out to be the last straw for the SBC.

The ERLC reprimanded Land in strong words, but they allowed him to retire rather than flat-out firing him. They also pulled his radio show, which must have stung the arrogant blowhard just a little.

Don’t worry about Richard Land, though. He immediately started a nice cushy job leading Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. Yeah, you’ll never see top-level SBC leaders who played ball land too hard in these situations.

So now, the ERLC needed a new president.

More than that, they needed an image makeover.

Why Russell Moore Was Perfect for the Moment’s Need.

I think Russell Moore is an ambitious and methodical man. His career trajectory certainly suggests these traits.

Starting off as a youth minister while in seminary, Russell Moore soon moved up to an associate pastor position. In 2001, he landed a faculty job with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). You might remember that place from oh, so many posts. SBTS is the SBC’s big flagship seminary. Al Mohler runs it like his personal fiefdom — and the SBC sure treats it like it is exactly that. It is ultra-Calvinist, like the other SBC seminaries. It was also one of the flashpoint battlegrounds of the SBC’s big schism of the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative Resurgence.

At SBTS, Moore taught Christian Theology and Ethics, a position wherein he taught students how to engage with secular culture (among other stuff). Possibly more importantly, he served as SBTS’ Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement from 2001 to 2009.

Carl Henry figured very prominently in our recent posts about Al Mohler’s onetime support of women pastors. This Calvinist theologian was extremely influential. More importantly, Al Mohler considered Carl Henry his mentor-in-spirit. He fanboyed hard for this guy, which is why he was absolutely gutted when his idol slammed him for supporting women pastors. Chastened immediately into compliance, Al Mohler got his reward. He established the institute bearing Henry’s name in 1998 — just a few years after the SBC’s new fundagelical overlords gave him SBTS in 1993.

Do you reckon Al Mohler would have appointed Russell Moore without thinking Moore embodied the values Mohler felt his idol had passed on to not only himself but to SBTS as a whole? Cuz I sure don’t.

Moore did other stuff within the SBC’s countless committees and subgroups too, of course. That said, I’m willing to bet his SBTS performance ultimately won him the ERLC’s presidency.

Just Imagine Russell Moore Being the Breath of Fresh Air Someone Needed.

So now, we stand at an ERLC rocked by scandal, thanks to its arrogant and unpleasant culture-warrior blowhard of a former leader.

It’s almost as if the ERLC’s situation demanded Russell Moore in particular, out of every other potential candidate for the role.

In 2012, the SBC needed an ERLC leader who could represent the best face and overtly-stated values of the denomination — not its sordid underbelly and its covert values. They needed a man who’d behave in ways that people in and out of the SBC would find admirable. Someone who wasn’t a hypocrite. Someone who was ethically strong.

Most of all, the ERLC needed a leader who cared about more than just winning constant culture war slapfights that just made the SBC look worse somehow afterward, and wouldn’t be constantly embarrassing them with missteps and rash words.

Friends, we should not be astonished at all that the ERLC landed on Russell Moore’s name for their top leadership position. It was all but inevitable that they would.

Russell Moore must have seemed like a mini-savior to the EC after having to constantly clean up all the poop Richard Land kept flinging around.

Russell Moore, and Being Careful What We Wish For.

As we’ll see tomorrow, however, Russell Moore might have been the result of a monkey-paw wish. He did give the SBC and the ERLC exactly what they wanted — but at a cost.

In a broken system like the SBC, covert goals take precedence — far and above and way ahead — of any overtly-stated ones. Leaders overwhelmingly tend to care only about their own little pet projects and unstated needs, which they meet at the expense of the group and its followers.

As just one example among many I could name, Thom Rainer feathered his future nest and set up his future career while he led LifeWay, the SBC’s propaganda-producing subgroup. They sued him for violating his noncompete clause, but it seems like they eventually decided to settle with him. Rainer at least played ball.

Unfortunately, the SBC is just such a dysfunctional organization that his fellow leaders ultimately could not cope with having a guy like Russell Moore around.

Please understand: I’m not asserting by a longshot that Russell Moore is a good person. He’s a culture warrior just like the rest of ’em, and he shares most of his tribe’s extremely disturbing opinions on human rights and American civil liberties.

What I am saying, though, is that Russell Moore was very different from the usual SBC leader. His denomination would soon find out what a President Russell Moore of the ERLC entailed.

And tomorrow, so will we.

NEXT UP: I’m dead serious. Do not ever believe any big authoritarian Christian group’s hype about itself. You will always be bitterly disappointed because the people in that group do not, cannot, and will not ever live up to that hype. Tomorrow, let’s talk about why that is such a universally and completely true-and-honest fact. See you then!


Endnotes.

Quick info about the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP): 

I’ve begun tracking donations to the CP in my SBC database because it’s an important metric for the SBC. It’s how they measure member churches’ buy-in with the denomination’s greater aspirations and goals. Churches can’t actually meaningfully participate in the SBC’s business unless they donate a certain amount of money to the CP each year. If they don’t, then they can’t even send messengers (attendees) to the SBC’s big Annual Meeting each year.

So if those member church leaders don’t care what the denomination does, if they’re not invested in the SBC, they won’t give as much. Thus, the Annual Meetings are as much about wowing SBC churches about the CP as they are about reporting on the previous year, electing new officers, and voting on stuff.

I say all of this to stress just how much the EC cares about CP giving. It is incredibly important.

Initially and for many years, the SBC included a page of detailed information about state-level CP giving in every Annual Report. They usually placed this report right after the main statistics report. Eventually, that information condensed considerably. And then, in recent years, they stopped offering even cursory summaries and referred everyone to a webpage online for information. It’s strange, and I’m hoping that as I move through Annual Reports I’ll get a feel for why these shifts occurred.

I’ll definitely report back when I figure out what happened. Cuz look, any time the SBC holds back information, then we know one thing for sure happened: that information was solid bad news or otherwise embarrassing. If any information contained good news, flattered Southern Baptist pew-warmers, or would otherwise increase investment and donation levels, the SBC would share it — without hesitation. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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