(RNS) When Southern Baptists appointed a fresh-faced Russell Moore to head their public policy arm in 2013, many believed a new day had dawned for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. But when Moore became one of Donald Trump’s most vocal opponents, some leaders who once celebrated his ascendency suddenly came down with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.
“Some Baptist pastors are considering cutting funds that flow from their congregations to the Southern Baptist Convention — or to its policy agency, which Moore heads — in a potentially dramatic rebuke,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
A news story about Southern Baptists having a good ol'-fashioned fight is hardly surprising. The denomination seems to be swept up in an endless fight over all things theological, social and political. But this time, Baptists should beware. The denomination’s combative posture and partisan reputation has likely contributed to its shrinking membership and baptisms. Moore may be the best thing going for Southern Baptists, and marginalizing him will only exacerbate the denomination's problems.
When conservative leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention forced out moderates in the 1980s, some wondered if it would eventually lead to the demise of the denomination. After all, it’s often difficult for those accustomed to fighting to quit after the war has ended.
“If Southern Baptists are not careful, now that we are in a denomination without liberals to fight, we will turn on each other,” Baptist researcher Ed Stetzer once wrote. “Fifty years from now, what will historians write about us, that we were warrior children of the Conservative Resurgence, splintering into dozens of subgroups?”
Stetzer’s warning now seems more like prophecy. In recent years, the denomination has gone to war over private prayer languages, the consumption of alcohol, renaming the denomination, the rise of Calvinism, flying the Confederate flag and how to atone for its racist roots. There’s a reason the SBC has been dubbed “the battling Baptists.”
In the midst of its tumult, Moore has brought a sense of calm and conviction.
When critics claim Southern Baptists are bombastic and angry, a level-headed Moore appears in television interviews speaking in a measured tone and never losing his temper.
When haters argue that Southern Baptists are extreme and irrelevant, Moore tweets about the TV show "Stranger Things" and hip-hop albums.
When some claim that Southern Baptists are partisan hacks, Moore finds a way to challenge the Republican establishment while holding the line on cornerstone conservative issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
But in recent months, the last asset has become a liability. Because Moore opposed Trump from the start, and despite much pressure from fellow evangelicals, he never wavered.
His position made perfect sense to those of us familiar with evangelical beliefs.
Evangelicals value traditional marriage and sexual ethics, but Trump has married three times and has repeatedly bragged about sleeping with married women.
Most evangelicals believe gambling to be a moral evil, but Trump made millions from casinos, including one with a strip club attached.
Evangelicals support religious freedom for all, but Trump threatened to create a national registry for Muslims and deny immigrants based on religion.
Evangelicals have long said that “character counts” for presidential candidates, but Trump is a foul-mouthed serial liar.
The list rolls on, but you get the point.
Unfortunately, not all evangelical leaders behaved like evangelicals in this election. And some of them, it appears, now want to punish Moore for his consistency. But Southern Baptists should imagine for a moment what their future might look like without him.
The SBC has long struggled to attract young people to its denominational meetings and churches. Moore is one of the few top-tier young leaders in the denomination and has managed to develop a significant following among young people. In their eyes, he represents the best hope for the denomination’s future.
It’s difficult to imagine Moore’s critics are better suited to lead the denomination.
Consider, for example, Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas. For those unfamiliar, Jeffress is basically Pat Robertson without "The 700 Club." Jeffress has called the Catholic Church the “genius of Satan” and said Mormonism is a cult. In this election, he claimed that any Christian who didn’t vote for Trump was guilty of the sin of pride.
Jeffress insinuated to The Wall Street Journal that his church may withhold funds from Moore’s agency because it may not be the “wisest expenditure.” It’s odd to hear Jeffress speaking about stewardship of church funds, considering his church just spent $130 million on a construction project. The building, which The Dallas Morning News called “the largest church building program in modern history,” was widely criticized as wasteful and unnecessary.
If Jeffress didn’t fill the gap, perhaps former SBC President Jack Graham could lead in Moore’s absence.
“There was a disrespectfulness towards Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders, past and present,” Graham said of Moore’s comments about Trump in the Wall Street Journal article.
It’s curious that Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in North Texas, seems so offended by disrespectfulness. After all, Graham penned a column at FoxNews.com basically endorsing a candidate who commented on the sex appeal of his own daughter, attacked a grieving Gold Star family and speculated about a news anchor’s menstrual cycle.
When Trump publicly criticized former Miss Universe Alicia Machado’s weight, calling her Miss Piggy, Graham did not see fit to respond.
When it was revealed that Trump talked about sexually assaulting women by “grab(bing) them by the pussy,” Graham was silent. (This recusal is less confusing, given his church’s spotty record on responding to sexual abuse.)
If Graham is offended by disrespectfulness, you can’t tell it. The pastor continued to serve on Trump’s evangelical advisory board through some of the most disrespectful public comments ever uttered by a major American presidential candidate.
Try looking around for a more promising Southern Baptist leader than Moore, and you’ll likely not find one. Moore values principle over power, integrity over influence. But so many other Southern Baptist leaders have the opposite priorities.
As Graham noted, "(Moore's) going to have no access, basically, to President Trump."
Or as Brad Whitt, a Southern Baptist pastor in Georgia who is critical of Moore, told the Journal: "We want to see what he says, and whether he has a seat at the table in Washington. If not, we'll be wasting a whole lot of time, energy, and finances that could be going to the mission field."
Apparently, funds should go toward mission efforts unless they can buy Baptists access to the president.
Many Southern Baptists believe Trump represents their best hope at social dominance, or at least social renewal. They naturally want someone who is well-positioned to capitalize on their political agenda, not someone sitting in the bleachers watching it from afar. But unlike these Southern Baptists, Moore will not trade his principles and positions for a seat at the president's table.
And this unwavering posture is exactly why Moore’s stock has risen while the SBC has struggled. He has proved himself to be a winsome and capable leader among even those outside his denomination.
If Moore left his post, he could walk into the doors of many prominent organizations in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere and get a job offer tomorrow. Meanwhile, a Moore-less Southern Baptist Convention may become a mostly aging denomination destroying itself through infighting.
So denominational leaders should choose their next steps carefully. All things considered, Southern Baptists need Moore far more than he needs them.
(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for RNS and a contributing writer for The Atlantic)