Russell Moore v. Conservatives: This Isn’t Just about Trump
There is almost nothing more frustrating than when the media get the fundamental essence of a controversial story wrong.
Yet that is exactly what seems to have happened with the widespread, incomplete reporting on the growing flap between conservative Southern Baptists and Dr. Russell Moore, president of that denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
A few weeks ago, a reporter at National Public Radio contacted me to comment on a story about Southern Baptist conservatives’ growing frustration with the head of the ERLC. The story noted that Moore was experiencing a backlash from conservatives in his denomination because of his “anti-Trump comments.”
I had explained to the reporter that, in fact, Moore’s anti-Trump comments were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to why conservatives were upset with Moore. I provided many details, but none of them made it into NPR’s story. And the inadequate “Moore’s only in trouble because he was just too moral and ethical to cave on his principles and get behind Trump” narrative kept spreading and spreading.
It even spread to Christian media. Moody Radio Network host Julie Roys, in a Jan. 6 op-ed at The Christian Post, posed the question, “Do Christians want leaders or lemmings?” before opining that “Moore is in hot water because he opposed Donald Trump during the campaign. … Russell Moore put his job and livelihood on the line to do what he thought was right. He should be rewarded for that, not censured. .. Southern Baptists need Russell Moore. Evangelicals need Russell Moore, and more leaders like him.”
Unfortunately, it’s easy to insufficiently conclude this is “all about Trump” if you’re just jumping into the controversy now.
What so many are missing here is that Moore started upsetting conservatives several years ago — and not just high-profile Southern Baptists like Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dr. Jack Graham or Dr. Robert Jeffress, but Southern Baptist laymen and pastors whose names most wouldn’t recognize. And even conservatives outside the Southern Baptist Convention, like yours truly.
I’ve been following the Russell Moore controversy since early 2014, and I can tell you that it wasn’t Moore’s opposition to Donald Trump, per se, that has landed him in hot water with conservative Southern Baptists. What bothered them more on that one issue was Moore’s behavior concerning Trump, which built to a crescendo over the course of many months.
But there’s more — a lot more.
Here are just a few examples of what has upset so many conservatives about Moore:
1. He’s caricatured and discredited conservatives and the Religious Right. Constructive criticism presented in a Christlike manner can be a good and iron-sharpening thing for us all; no one disputes this. But many of Moore’s diatribes against conservatives of the past and present have gone beyond that, as he often employed inflammatory language to make his points.
Describing himself as “a survivor of Bible Belt America,” Moore has referred to past Christian activists as those who “seem to make a living outdoing one another with outrageous comments. Too often, the race for fundraising success and media platform went to the most buffoonish and outlandish voices in the air. This confirmed a common secular caricature of Christianity as Elmer Gantry meets Yosemite Sam.” Yes, he really did state that nameless conservative Christian activists are confirmed to be combination cartoon characters and boozy, skirt-chasing religious hucksters! Which ones, exactly? Moore hasn’t said. Apparently, this is such a truism that offering particular names is unnecessary.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, he stated: “I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.” So in the words of the man who supported Marco Rubio, voting for Ted Cruz equates you with the Moral Majority that Moore so obviously disdains, while voting for Trump apparently means you’re easy prey for TV evangelists who consort with prostitutes. Having his own preference was one thing, but why was it necessary for Moore to go out of his way to demean Christians who didn’t support Rubio?
In 2014, Moore also took a broad swipe at Christian talk radio, uttering the following statement at the ERLC’s Leadership Summit in Nashville: “I listened on the way back up here from my hometown to some Christian talk radio this week, against my doctor’s orders. And, honestly, if all that I knew of Christianity was what I heard on Christian talk radio, I’d hate it, too.” As someone who works in Christian talk radio and has taken plenty of lumps, that remark was one of the worst I’ve ever heard. All of Christian talk radio makes people hate Christianity? Not only is that a ridiculous comment on its face, but once called out on the matter, Moore never would specify which show or host motivated him to make such a remark. Nor, when challenged by a number of people within Christian radio to walk back the sweeping statement that insulted the whole industry, did he ever offer a public apology for offending anyone.
2. He’s chastised conservatives for embracing politics at the expense of the gospel, as he’s regularly commented on and engaged in (largely liberal) politics. While it is true that Moore opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, while also advocating for religious liberty, focusing merely on those positions does not paint the entire picture. Moore, as many have noted, is a former aide to a Democrat, Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who was a Blue Dog nonetheless criticized for voting for Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and voting with Pelosi 82 percent of the time. And Moore’s disdain for Republicans has been on display over and over again.
On a number of occasions, Moore has stressed that Christianity must stop thinking of itself as a “Moral Majority” (note another Falwell swipe) because it obscures the “strangeness” of the gospel necessary to have a prophetic voice to the culture. In his piece, “Why Politics Can’t Drive the Gospel,” he expounded on the point: “We are prophetically distant, in that we don’t become court chaplains for anybody’s political or economic faction. We’re prophetically engaged in that we see the connection between gospel and justice, just as our forebears in the abolitionist and civil rights and pro-life activist communities did. The priority of the gospel doesn’t mean that we shrug off injustice or unrighteousness, but it means we fight a different way.”
But let it be noted that even as Moore tsk-tsked the wisdom of conservatives putting too much faith in political activism, lest the gospel lose its “strangeness,” he has jetted off to the White House to advocate for both amnesty and prison reform (One wonders: Did Moore “prophetically engage” President Obama about supporting Planned Parenthood or backing the radical goals of the homosexual-activist movement? Did he “prophetically engage” the president for his apathy over the genocide of Christians in the Middle East?).
Moore also took on a role as one of the heads of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a George Soros-funded entity tasked with coaxing evangelicals into embracing amnesty.
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