Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions

Does Russell Moore really represent Southern Baptists? (COMMENTARY)

ERLC President Russell Moore. Photo courtesy of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
ERLC President Russell Moore. Photo courtesy of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

ERLC President Russell Moore. Photo courtesy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

(RNS) When Russell Moore was appointed president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seemed like a perfect marriage. But according to Will Hall, editor of the Baptist Message, Louisiana Baptists’ state newspaper, the honeymoon may be over.

Hall penned an editorial last week raising questions about whether Moore really speaks for Southern Baptists. He argues that Moore has snubbed his fellow Southern Baptists and taken “troubling” stances on a number of key issues. And, according to Hall, Moore expresses “disrespect and even contempt for any Christian” who disagrees with him.

So does Moore truly represent the 15 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination?

As with most marriages, the health of the relationship is more complicated than some might assume. There is no mutiny among the masses, but not every Southern Baptist is a card-carrying member of the Russell Moore fan club, either.

When Moore was appointed in 2013, the denomination was in desperate need of a makeover. Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, spent years establishing himself as a key leader of the so-called religious right. But a new generation of believers was questioning whether the religious right had become little more than a bombastic mouthpiece for the Republican Party.

READ: Ted Cruz, you might want to listen to evangelicals on climate change (COMMENTARY)

After the death of Trayvon Martin ignited racial tensions across America in 2012, Land incited controversy by calling African-American leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “race mongers” and “racial ambulance chasers,” and said seeing young black men as threatening is “understandable” since they are “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” Though Land later apologized, the denomination nixed his radio program and he ultimately resigned.

The fresh-faced, 41-year-old Moore was picked to revamp the tarnished Southern Baptist brand. Moore had asserted himself as a capable voice of conservative reason from his post as dean of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He had authored several popular books and had handled himself well in numerous interviews. The announcement of his appointment was accompanied by a press kit containing 17 pages of endorsements from Baptist leaders across America.

Moore had barely settled into his new office before he — in the words of an ERLC staffer — “completely rebranded the organization.” A sleek website with a new logo was released and a broad range of initiatives and conferences were planned. Many in the media took note and began seeking out Moore to shed light on the current state of American evangelicalism.

As president of the ERLC, he has refused to budge on cornerstone conservative positions such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, but his approach is noticeably different from that of his predecessor. His rhetoric is more winsome, his positions are more nuanced, and his statements are often laced with pop-culture references.

But Moore has also taken surprising positions on other issues, even placing himself at odds with some of his fellow conservatives. To wit:

  • The ERLC hosted a 2014 conference on homosexuality that reasserted the organization’s opposition to LGBT marriage and same-sex relationships. But at the conference, Moore denounced ex-gay therapy, which has been widely discredited due to its ineffectiveness and the psychological damage it causes participants.
  • In the 2015 debate over whether the confederate battle flag should be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol, conservatives in the South were conflicted. Moore was not: “Let’s take down that flag,” he wrote.
  • At a Southern Baptist missions conference last summer, Moore interviewed some of the leading Republican presidential candidates. Some conservatives were upset that Southern Baptists Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz were not invited, while Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, was (though she declined).
  • When many conservatives called for a boycott of all Syrian refugees to the U.S., Moore signed a letter asking Congress to “reject damaging changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement system that would cause the life-saving program to grind to a halt.”
  • Most recently, Moore has opposed Donald Trump’s bid for president. Moore did so in the opinion pages of The New York Times and on social media, among other places. Recent polls indicate that a third or more of white evangelicals support Trump — more than any other candidate.

According to Hall, Moore may be overstepping his bounds. And Hall isn’t the only one. An article posted by the Christian Examiner cited criticism of Moore by Alabama pastor Rick Patrick and Tennessee pastor Ken Skelton. Other bloggers, such as Montana pastor J.D. Hall and Peter Lumpkins, have also posted criticisms of Moore. (A spokesperson from the ERLC declined to comment.)

READ: Panthers or Broncos? God does not care

The SBC is a voluntary gathering of autonomous congregations. As such, no single person can claim to speak for every Southern Baptist. On any given issue, Southern Baptists express a range of opinions and positions.

Furthermore, the denomination has been called “the battling Baptists” for good reason. Southern Baptists like to fight among themselves — a lot. So no matter who sits atop the ERLC, one can always expect some level of dissent.

I’ve been around Southern Baptists long enough to know controversy when I see it. This is not one. It would be more unusual if Southern Baptists weren’t griping. While the digital age allows both bloggers and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers to post their views online, not every opinion writer is equally influential. Don’t confuse the gripes of crazy Uncle Carl with a family feud.

Moore faces the tricky task of pushing for the right number of changes at the right time so that dissent never reaches a critical mass. As Moore himself told me a number of years ago, “One thing you have to remember about Southern Baptists: If you’re 9 percent out in front of them, you’re a trailblazer. If you’re 10 percent out in front of them, you’re dead.”

I have disagreed with Moore on several occasions, but it’s difficult to deny that he has improved the Southern Baptist brand. Under his leadership, the denomination has embraced a broader public agenda while becoming less partisan. Some old-school Baptists might not like Moore’s sophisticated approach because it sometimes sounds conciliatory to more liberal causes. But most Baptists — especially younger ones — don’t want their denomination’s political arm run by a sycophant happy to settle for the status quo. And that’s why most Southern Baptists still want more of Moore.

(Jonathan Merritt is a senior columnist for RNS)

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • Russell Moore is one of the more thoughtful, intelligent, logically consistent and articulate evangelicals in the public square today.
    So no, he does not represent Southern Baptists.

  • I was reared in the twilight years of Methodist Episcopal Church South. That organization had its own problems (so I resigned ), but I was shocked when exposed to the mean spirited tone of the Baptists of that time – and often still am. In a nutshell, the Baptists do not have opinions- they defend the God given TRUTH!
    That kneejerk intransigence defines the denomination. Russell Moore is straining with their long tradition of defining Christians as us – and them.

  • I would agree with pseudo-Jack that for the most part, Russell Moore is not bad. But he does represent millions of Southern Baptists who on the one hand don’t want to be seen as simply the Republican party at prayer while on the other hand, they don’t want the Southern Baptists to go the way of mainline Protestantism and become surrender monkeys on cultural and religious freedom issues.

    I’m not a Southern Baptist, nor a Baptist of any kind, but despite my occasional sharp criticisms of Moore, I am rooting for him to navigate successfully that careful middle ground of doctrinal and moral clarity and broader outreach

  • Samuel, it depends on what you think the Southern Baptists should be. About 30 years ago, they were locked in a battle to preserve their evangelical convictions against those who wanted them to go the way of mainline Protestantism, which even then had already become a haven for aging 60s refugees and old Stalinists nodding their ancient heads in approval.

    Basically, they fought a bitter battle to stop that hijacking. They succeeded, but they’re like the fighter who knocks his foe out of the ring but can’t stop fighting even after the fight is over.

  • Lucky, you make a good point about the weakness in much evangelical preaching, which tends to focus on sins of the flesh over sins of the spirit.

    Jesus obviously didn’t condone any sin, but He reserved His harshest rebukes for sins of the spirit such as hatred, meanness, miserliness, and cold self-righteousness.

  • Some of the worst racists are actually white leftists who, like the old Jim Crow racists, refuse to see black people as their equals — as in equal capabilities and equal ability to know right from wrong and act accordingly. And their racism comes pouring out of them whenever they encounter black moderates and black conservatives. They sound worse than old southern sheriffs in their bigotry.

  • About twenty years ago, if memeory serves, the Birmingham Baptists paid for a printed supplement to the Birmingham News (our largest newspaper). This very fat supplement listed the names of all of our residents who were GOING TO HELL. (I qualified).
    If you do not believe this insane story, contact the newspaper for verification.
    Wnen I say our Baptists are mean spirited and , I know what I am talking about. To be fair, they are also schizophrenic.

  • Some people have to invent imaginary leftists in their minds to deflect themselves from their own reality on the ground.

  • To many white American Christians particularly in the US South interracial dating and marriage are bigger sins than what Donald Trump has done. After all Donald Trump only slept with white women!

  • Jack:
    Your gift for revising the last 30 years of SBC is truly consistent with the Neo SBC “tradition” for last 20 years. Kudos

  • Of course he is, they changed their given form of bigotry from racism to anti-gay. Same old bigots, different target.

    Now they are trying to pretend that they were never the official church of slavers, segregationists and white supremacists.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.