(RNS) Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is in the spotlight Tuesday (Aug. 4) interviewing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at an evangelical conference in Nashville. Moore talks with Religion News Service’s Jonathan Merritt about a range of pressing issues and the message of Moore’s new book, “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.”
Q: Before you became a theologian, you worked in Democratic politics. What drew you to that party in those days?
A: The congressman that I was working for was a conservative pro-life Democrat in exile who was a Republican in everything but name. He is, in fact, now a Republican. But on issues of life, military preparedness and virtually any other issue one could name, he was as conservative as they come.
Q: In your book, you argue that we should do away with a “Moral Majority” mindset and adopt a “prophetic minority” mindset instead. What does that look like practically?
A: The assumption that the larger culture agrees with Christians on values issues led to evangelicals’ minimizing the theologically distinctive aspects of Christian witness. It also set up evangelicals to be disappointed when the culture did not turn out the way many expected it to turn out. So our response ought to be that we are always, in every culture, strangers in exile. That’s not a new phenomenon. We’re not exiled from American culture as if we were previously at home here. But now we have a clarity about where we fit in American culture that is appropriate and right, and that gives us an opportunity to speak as a people who are both alienated and engaged.
Q: You also talk in the book about how Christians should interact with culture. Franklin Graham said recently that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to immigrate to America. What do you think about that idea?
A: I am not for deporting or barring Muslims from the United States. It is not because I believe Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent. It is because I believe in the power of the gospel, and the presence of our Muslim neighbors doesn’t threaten that. We should be kind to these Muslim neighbors and share the gospel evangelistically with them. Many of the Muslim refugees in this country may well be our future brothers and sisters in Christ.
Q: Religious liberty is very important to you, and you’ve stated that a Christian business owner should be able to refuse service to an LGBT couple seeking to wed. We disagree on this, but can you explain succinctly why you believe this?
A: I think the government should not coerce people with the threat of running them out of business to participate in activities that they believe to be immoral. There is a difference between a business selling a product and a person using his or her creative talents to participate in a ceremony that he or she believes to be immoral.
Q: Why do you think the Christian cake baker should be able to refuse service on religious grounds to an LGBT couple, but should not be able to refuse service on religious grounds to an interracial couple or Muslim couple?
A: I don’t think the issue is refusing service, but participating in a wedding that is a moral violation of their conscience. The belief about human sexuality is one held by every major religion. This is not some novel idea.
Q: But what if, for example, you had a cake baker who was a Bob Jones University graduate that believed the Bible taught that a black person shouldn’t marry a white person. Would you support that cake baker refusing to “participate” in an interracial wedding because it would be “a moral violation of their conscience”?
A: No. Because no one is suggesting that religious liberty is an exemption from all laws and expectations. Rather, we are asking that the government show a compelling interest in why they are violating someone’s free exercise and how they are doing so in the least restrictive means. The government has shown a compelling interest in dealing with racial discrimination because we have a two-century-long history of state coercion of people on the basis of race. So I think the two categories are quite different.
Q: You took heat recently for opposing flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. What do you think you understood about this issue that other Christians overlooked?
A: The thing that surprised me was that I wasn’t criticized that much. When I wrote that article, I expected enormous blowback but I believed it was the right thing to do. I was pleasantly surprised that there was very little criticism and almost no criticism from the South. Most of the hate mail I received on the battle flag came from Northern ZIP codes. I think that is because Southern people — white and black — understand the meaning of the flag.
Q: Some people seem to think that America is, morally speaking, getting worse every day. But it seems to me if you asked an African-American woman if we’re better off now than in the 1950s, I think she would have a slightly different answer than a wealthy white male. Do you think America is in moral decline?
A: I think we’re worse in some ways and better in some ways than we were 50 and 60 years ago. Cultural revolutions and moral trends are never permanent. The New Testament speaks about things going “from bad to worse” in 2 Timothy 3, but also says at the same time, speaking of false teachers, “they will not get very far.” So the biblical picture is not one of an upward, linear progress or a precipitous, downward decline. It is a more complicated picture of a fallen world in which there is a gospel of power.
(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of “Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
LM/MG END MERRITT