I met a fellow professor at a conference recently. For various reasons, she’d been through a period of thinking about leaving the Catholic Church. She then told me her mother had said something that arrested her process: “Italian Catholic is one word.” It had made such an impression that the woman repeated it to me again. “Italian Catholic is one word.”
Russell Moore has come to a different conclusion about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but not without great difficulty. Although he describes his treatment by some of the leaders in the denomination in starkly negative terms, he notes that if he were to be wakened from the influence of anesthesia and asked about his religion, he has no doubt he’d say, “Southern Baptist.” The connection is deep. His departure comes with significant psychological and perhaps even spiritual implications.
Moore is Christianity Today’s editor in chief, director of the Public Theology Project, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He has previously served as the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a theology professor at an SBC seminary, and a pastor in a local SBC-affiliated congregation.
His book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America reflects on what he’s learned in the past decade of life in the public square and what he hopes other evangelicals can learn as we face the social and political challenges of the future.
Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America
Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America
Sentinel. 272 pp.
In Losing Our Religion, Russell Moore calls his fellow evangelical Christians to conversion over culture wars, to truth over tribalism, to the gospel over politics, to integrity over influence, and to renewal over nostalgia. With both prophetic honesty and pastoral love, Moore offers a word of counsel for how a new generation of disillusioned and exhausted believers can find a path forward after the crisis and confusion of the last several years. Believing the gospel is too important to leave it to hucksters and grifters, he shows how a Christian can avoid both cynicism and complicity in order to imagine a different, hopeful vision for the church.
Sentinel. 272 pp.
I confess I came to examine Moore’s thinking with a skeptical jeweler’s eye. Why? Because while Moore gave up a powerful platform and network within the Southern Baptist Convention, in the view of the world he has also ascended by doing so.
Just as David French, his good friend, has gone from National Review to the New York Times via the route of his intense Trump criticism and accompanying low view of many evangelicals, so, too, has Moore gone from being an author of books with excellent Christian publishers and being part of the flagship Baptist seminary to giving seminars at the University of Chicago and publishing with an imprint of Penguin Random House.
My question was whether I’d find in Moore’s new book something with real integrity or simply the voice of a climber settling into a posture of permanent critique. I say that as someone who vigorously defended Moore during the period of his leadership of the ERLC.
Some of us can recall when certain Baptists aspired to become Episcopalians and thus further their ascent within the American establishment. It was like going from a Pontiac to a Buick in the old GM lineup. I suspected that dynamic might be at work, so I approached the book with a certain amount of dread. I didn’t want to read an exvangelical text tainted with ambition from a man I’d long admired, appreciated, and defended.
After reading, my skepticism and dread had to yield significant ground. This is a text with important, legitimate things to say to the American Christian audience. Moore may have rejected the Southern Baptist Convention (or maybe was rejected by it), but he hasn’t rejected the Bible or the Christian faith. His connection to the faith is still real, vital, and heartfelt rather than a convenient hook on which to hang endless critiques for the sake of a secular audience.
Questions of Integrity
This is a text with important, legitimate things to say to the American Christian audience.
The most thought-provoking part of Moore’s thesis was his assertion the church must demonstrate it truly believes what it says it believes. He points to the tremendous cultural authority once wielded by the Catholic Church in Ireland that made it a cultural outlier—for example, regarding abortion—relative to the rest of Europe. More recently, though, Ireland has reverted to the mean and embraced abortion rights and the marriage revolution.
Why the change after decades of standing apart? Moore concludes the Catholic Church’s lack of integrity in handling the sex abuse crisis involving priests and minors proved to the laity that the church didn’t act on its own beliefs, thus communicating those beliefs weren’t all that important compared to financial considerations and maintaining prerogatives.
The connection to Moore’s own tribe (and mine), the Southern Baptists, is obvious. On the issue of sex abuse, he believes the SBC has likewise failed in its critical responsibility. From his perspective, his break with the SBC was in part occasioned by his zeal to address the problem with as much urgency and light as possible. In return, he’s under scrutiny and in the penalty box.
The other issue he identifies as a problem for Southern Baptists (and other evangelicals) is Donald Trump. He refused to endorse Trump and labeled him as wholly unfit, coming under attack by the candidate as “nasty” and “heartless.” Jerry Falwell Jr. took a verbal swing at Moore as someone who never had to meet a payroll. The Trump candidacy alienated Moore from at least some of the most prominent voices in the denomination.
In Moore’s narrative, both the sex abuse crisis and excessive willingness to support Trump demonstrated to large numbers of Americans that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals didn’t really believe what they’d said in the past about character and virtue in political leaders. He finds fault with silly apologetics (Trump as a “baby Christian”) extended on behalf of a man who abjured the idea of repentance and seemingly rejects sanctification.
For Moore, all these things add up to an indictment of Southern Baptists and evangelicals whose priority is maintaining power for evangelicals. The thesis is strikingly similar to the one put forward by Paul D. Miller in his book criticizing Christian nationalism: conservative Christians in the U.S. are losing influence and membership, which will only worsen with their grasping attempts to hold on to a sentimental (and false) golden age by making any compromise necessary.
Of course, there’s a counternarrative available. The desperation with which many long-time culture warriors determined to back Republican nominee (and then president) Trump stemmed from their desire to accomplish goals they connected with true justice.
Many pro-lifers (including me) voted for Trump despite massive reservations because they could see no other way to bring the life issue back to democratic consideration. He promised to appoint pro-life justices and succeeded in actually tipping the balance. The relationship was transactional. But the simple truth is that American voters have the opportunity to abolish abortion in their states, consistent with the belief of many (secular or religious) that abortion is the unjust killing of a nascent human being.
It’s important to acknowledge that First Amendment religious liberty has been tremendously bolstered by the change in the composition of the Court. With the new conservative majority, it seems likely that the most extraordinary threats to institutions such as Christian colleges, schools, and nonprofits, and to devout individuals involved in commerce, have receded significantly.
But there’s a counter to the counter, which I had to acknowledge publicly after the election. Though voting for Donald Trump accomplished historically important purposes related to fundamental justice and human rights, his post-election behavior also posed a danger to the American political order that can’t be easily dismissed as mere eccentricity.
Imagine if Vice President Mike Pence had been willing to follow the bizarre legal theory offered to him by Trump and his associates and had moved to interfere with the orderly transfer of power. There’s no telling how bad that situation could have become or how severely it could have damaged American politics and government.
People like Moore detected the defects in character that led to the post-election debacle. That has to count in his favor when the various factors are weighed. More broadly, though, this analysis shows why it’s important for Christians to bear with one another on political questions. Both the never-Trumpers and the avid Trump supporters have frequently been unfair to one another.
Temptations of Political Power
What are the major contentions Moore sets forth from his unique perch as a former powerhouse of the SBC who’s embraced a form of exile? I noted with interest his view that religious conservatives supported Trump because they were unwilling to give up their influence on national politics.
Compare that sentiment with this sentence from a pre-Trump book written by British journalist Tim Stanley about Pat Buchanan (specifically addressing his 1992 primary run): “The leadership of the religious right was not prepared to give up its influence for a candidate most commentators said could not win.” The old story is the new story. In one version, the Religious Right wouldn’t abandon the ultraestablishment George Bush. In the new story, they migrate from the establishment to Trump because they insist on having a seat at the table, no matter the price.
For Moore, this pattern suggests a failure among American Christians to embrace what he calls “an exilic identity.” He believes evangelicals, instead of fighting for influence, should lean into their strangeness and essentially make no compromises for the sake of politics.
Rather than fighting for influence, evangelicals should lean into their strangeness and essentially make no compromises for the sake of politics.
In this way, Moore believes Christians can demonstrate to the culture that they act according to their beliefs. We can give people confidence we’re inviting them into a relationship with the Lord and aren’t just another group vying for earthly influence. Moore doesn’t extend the argument further, but unstated is the notion that if you don’t compromise and don’t grasp to gain or keep power, you may end up at the head of a massive movement like the early church did.
Another valuable point Moore makes is that secularization isn’t exclusively a threat from the left. Evangelicals are trained to see secularization as a left-wing phenomenon. To be fair, it has mostly taken that shape over the last few decades. However, as democratic constitutionalism has become less and less stable, secular voices from the right have emerged with the same kind of intensity we’re accustomed to seeing on the left. The right-wing version often looks like a form of ethnic nationalism. Religion might be included, but more on the basis of tradition and identity rather than truth and an encounter with the living God.
Moore sees the new Christian nationalists as more nationalist than Christian, and he quips that they trade the blood of Christ for “blood and soil.” That’s a good applause line in the right venue, but I’m not sure it’s completely fair to all Christian nationalists. While there’s little question they have things in common with the more secular and ethnic-minded nationalists, many seem more heavily engaged with Scripture and serious about trying to be faithful.
As a Baptist like Moore (although he’s an ex-Baptist in his telling), I see more merit in the regenerate model of the church rather than in the comprehensive, cultural one, but I don’t doubt the integrity of many who are intently exploring the Christendom model. Good intentions aside, we’ve run the church-establishment experiment and discovered that nationalizing religion in a government structure works about as well as nationalizing industries. The historical record isn’t encouraging when it comes to real institutional unity of church and state.
What Can We Learn?
While I sometimes dislike Moore’s tendency to go for the applause line, there’s another example that deserves to stick to its target: his reminder that Christians have a “mission field” and not an earthly “battlefield.” That’s absolutely correct, and it has many implications.
One of the mistakes many evangelicals make is to engage in a never-ceasing and quixotic quest to prove the American founders were Christians, which is then supposed to underwrite some kind of claim about divine sanction for the American nation in the present. Let’s imagine those claims were fully vindicated. It doesn’t mean much if the majority of the current generation of Americans largely rejects the Christian faith and doesn’t feel bound by it.
I take Moore to be saying we should stop trying to put together a political coalition that can successfully unite a highly pluralistic American society through laws. Instead, we should refocus our efforts on treating our own country as a mission field and strengthening our work of discipleship and sanctification. One can always object that the real situation is a both/and, but Moore (and others) suggest the fireworks, power struggles, and horse-race aspects of politics take attention away from the primary spiritual mission and maybe even compromise it. It’s difficult to argue to the contrary.
The bottom line: there’ll be Baptists and other evangelicals who argue with Moore about his view of what happened to him and about his assessment of the current political and spiritual moment. But it’d be a mistake not to seriously consider Moore’s warnings. There’s an opportunity for iron to sharpen iron.