Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions

The evolution of Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore

Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently talked with Religion News Service about why adoption has become his personal cause and why more evangelicals should be joining him. RNS photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

(RNS) Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf and Merle Haggard on his iPod.

russell moore

Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. RNS photo courtesy Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.

The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.

In between, he’s been meeting with pastors and politicians about immigration reform, all while keeping up a lively feed on Twitter. Moore, a native of Biloxi, Miss., and former seminary dean, is having the time of his life.

“A friend of mine called me ‘giddy,'” Moore said. “I don’t think I am giddy. But I am happy.”

In recent years, Moore’s been a rising star among evangelicals as a blogger, preacher, adoption advocate and, until recently, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is a new face for evangelical Christian activists.

He’s conservative but not angry, is skeptical about politics, and believes that kindness is not a weakness. He’s also critical of Bible Belt faith, which he says sees Christianity as a normal part of American life.

“I think that is a misreading of what evangelical Christianity is all about,” he said. “And that often leads us to confuse American civil religion with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Moore sees the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the federal ban on same-sex marriage as a sign that American culture and evangelical Christianity are parting ways. And that may be a good thing, he said, as it will make churches take their faith more seriously.

He also hopes the change will help church members learn how to love their neighbors, especially those with whom they disagree. That’s a lesson Moore had to learn the hard way.

In 2000, while a graduate student at Southern Seminary, Moore attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, made up of moderate Baptists who clashed with conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s over control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

He wrote a series of critical stories about the meeting for Baptist Press, the convention’s official news service. Cooperative Baptists called his reporting unethical and inaccurate. Moore said what he wrote was true, but his attitude toward Cooperative Baptists was unchristian.

“I was all too eager to fight like the devil to please the Lord,” he said. “I had this motivation to be proven right — in a way that I don’t think was the way of Christ.”

Some years later, Moore became friends with the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. Highland Baptist left the Southern Baptist Convention about 10 years ago and is known as a liberal congregation with openly gay members.

Phelps and Moore are fans of Wendell Berry, a farmer and author known for his critiques of modern American culture. They met several times to discuss Berry’s work and have coffee.

“What I appreciate about Russell is that he seems to have an open heart to other groups,” Phelps said. “I find him to be shaped by love and his understanding of the gospel.”

After he took office, Moore promised to work with other Baptist groups on issues such as religious liberty. Phelps said that was a good first step.

“We are not going to reunite, but we don’t need to be adversaries,” Phelps said.

Randy Davis, executive director and treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, is a fan of Moore. Davis, who is conservative, said Moore comes across as level-headed and congenial.

“I think he is one of the sharper young men in our convention,” he said.

Orphan care

One of the issues closest to Moore’s heart is adoption and orphan care. He and his wife, Maria, who have been married for 19 years, have five boys. The oldest two, both 12, were adopted from Russia.

Moore said that before adopting his sons, he had been concerned about issues such as poverty and the plight of orphaned children in an abstract way. Visiting his boys in a run-down orphanage made those issues personal.

Adoption also led to spiritual changes. He and his wife dealt with infertility for years and had several miscarriages before eventually having three biological children.

The infertility caused great heartache, he said, and forced them to rely on their faith.

“There was a sense of desperation in that — it was something we could not fix,” he said. “All we could do is cry out to God.”

Immigration agenda

One of the next big issues on Moore’s agenda is immigration.

Recently, Moore has been meeting with Hispanic Baptist pastors, whose congregations are affected by immigration.

“These are our church members,” he said.

Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, was part of a group called Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of faith-based groups that supports immigration reform. Moore plans to continue that involvement.

He said his interest in immigration is connected to a bigger question of human dignity. He opposes abortion because he believes all human beings are created in God’s image. His support for immigration reform also is tied to that belief.

“There is a way of dehumanizing unborn children by calling them embryos and fetuses, and there is a way of dehumanizing our immigration neighbors by calling them illegal aliens and anchor babies,” he said. “That’s not right.”


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Bob Smietana


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  • Same theology, same political stances. Note his attempts to co-opt the legacy of the Civil Rights movement for those opposed to same-sex marriage. Just the kinder, gentler face of Christian conservatism, now with a bigger megaphone.

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that cultural decline is great for fund raising so the SBC isn’t going to fight it to hard. Just compare the strategies of the NRA and Christians. The NRA almost never loses. Christians almost never win. The NRA would never stand for Government funding of anti-gun groups. A big hero to Christians is GW Bush who doubled funding for Planned Parenthood.

  • I have been a Southern Baptist all of my life and find the movement by Mr. Moore to more liberal positions to be very disturbing. This country has moved against the teachings of God and Jesus for the past few years and Mr. Moore will cause thousands of Southern Baptists to leave the church. Immigration reform should be based on the laws of the United States of America. If an immigrant wants to become a citizen they need to do so legally, as thousands of immigrants have done in the past, otherwise, why do we follow any laws of this country. Mr. Moore’s ideas are simply those of the liberal progressive. Christ loves the sinner and hates the sin. Trying to rationalize that if we just get along with everyone and love them, they will become Christians, is a fallacy. Christians must stand strong against the sins of homosexuality, illegal actions, abortion etc. Standing strong against the sins will result in people calling Christians intolerant and hateful but that is a small price to pay to stand for Christ’s teachings. This country and its government was founded on Christians beliefs. Do not let the Southern Baptist fall to the corruption and tyranny of a bad government. Jennie

  • As someone who long-ago, decided to be a Christian over a “Southern Baptist”, it appears to me that you are reading the Bible. The Holy Spirit, who wrote the Bible is all we need. Our true leaders are shepherds who feed us from the Word, not denominational “evolution”.

  • In answer to Mr. Moore being a Christian cultural Marxist, I refer you to Acts 4:32-37 where all the Christians were of one accord and sold ALL their property and shared everything they had. There were NO needy among them. That was following the leading of the Holy Spirit, but today would be called socialism. You call it Marxism and I call it obedience.

  • “Obiedience” isn’t having Caesar confiscate your property at the point of a spear and redistribute it after the governor takes a cut. The voluntary sharing of material possessions by first century Christians is vastly different than the socialist-marxist doctrine of Lenin. In the end, you fall into the same trap as all so-called leftist Christians: rendering unto Caesar what is Gods.

    With regard to this leftist move by the SBC, the latest speech by Mr. Moore urging Baptist judges in Alabama to go against the laws of nature and nature’s God and issue marriage licenses to Sodomites tells you all you need to know.