What is behind the Russell Moore showdown with Southern Baptists?
The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has come under fire because its president, Russell Moore, frequently criticised Donald Trump while a Republican candidate and nominee for president – criticisms that often extended to his supporters. However, as the debate reached a boiling point and congregations began withholding funds from the SBC, the executive board of the ERLC met with Moore and released a statement affirming Moore and calling for unity.
This recent showdown within the Southern Baptist Convention over Russell Moore's opposition to Donald Trump and criticism of his supporters demands a broader context about the largest Protestant denomination in America and a critical examination of what is actually dividing the SBC. While Moore has been criticised for his tone about Trump supporters and his unwillingness to engage with the broader Republican field of nominees in the lead up to the 2016 election in America, he also represents a broadened SBC political agenda that is no longer firmly in the grip of the Republican party. Attempts to force Moore to resign must be seen within this wider struggle to determine the political future of the SBC.
Former ERLC chairman Richard Land capitalized on a movement of the Southern Baptist Convention's policies toward the right, both theologically and politically. As moderate politics and theological stances lost their hold in the SBC, the Republican agenda gradually became linked with the SBC's relatively narrow political priorities, especially for the ERLC.
While Land had taken steps toward racial reconciliation within the SBC, he dramatically undermined his progress by politicizing the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. During his radio program, Land commented that black political leaders were using Martin's death to 'gin up the black vote'. Land's remarks isolated him from SBC leaders who were focusing on racial reconciliation that had become a high priority in the midst of the election of Fred Luter, the first ever black president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Shortly after this debacle, Land resigned.
Russell Moore took over in 2013 and made racial reconciliation a top priority as SBC president. For instance, after a police officer used a banned choke hold to kill Eric Garner while he was being handcuffed, Moore remarked, "It's high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem."
Beyond making racial justice and reconciliation a top priority in the ERLC, Moore also broadened the agenda to include immigration reform. In particular, Moore broke from the hardline Republican opposition to a path to citizenship and, most recently, signed the Evangelical Immigration Table—Syrian Refugee Letter in opposition to the policies of Donald Trump. When a mosque in northern New Jersey filed a lawsuit against its township over zoning opposition to its new building, Moore signed on the ERLC in support of the brief. While Moore saw the mosque as a broader religious freedom issue, many in the SBC viewed the case as outside the concerns of their denomination.
Moore is surely controversial, but he is hardly alone in his attempts to broader the agenda of the ERLC and the SBC in general beyond the increasingly extreme policies of the Republican party that appear to be hardly recognisable when compared to those of Ronald Reagan in the 1980's who, for instance, took a softer stance on undocumented immigrants and supported commonsense gun laws. A 2015 SBC pastors conference received significant pushback from a group of young Reformed pastors opposed to inviting Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. The group believed that the inclusion of Republican nominees at such events only added to the perception that the SBC was one and the same with the Republican party, thus harming the group's witness.
Most telling about the future of the SBC and politics is a letter from Byron J. Day, President of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, a group with over 4,000 member churches. Day encouraged the aggrieved SBC pastors to privately move toward reconciliation, adding his own endorsement of Moore:
'Russell Moore has done nothing worthy of discipline or firing. He has not violated The Baptist Faith and Message and, in fact, has been outstanding as president of the ERLC. He has represented all Southern Baptists, contending for the highly visible ethical issues of abortion and biblical marriage; but he has also addressed social injustices such as racism which have been long overlooked.'
While the board of the ERLC appears to support Moore and welcome his vision for the future, fractures remain that will most likely appear again in the midst of the Trump administration's extreme agenda that has selectively focused on a narrow group of policies aimed at appeasing his evangelical Christian supporters. As concerns over immigration, freedom of religion, and racial justice loom large over Trump's presidency, we shouldn't be surprised to see opposition to Moore rise again.
There may be legitimate critiques of Moore's tone and casual thumbnail sketches of Christian groups throughout the election. Moore himself has admitted his failures and apologized for them. It's possible that these fractures could be of his own making in some cases, but it's far more likely that any opposition to Trump would be met with the same resistance in light of existing divisions in the SBC.
Protestants outside of the SBC, such as myself, surely welcome the attempts of Moore to steer a less partisan course, critically engaging in immigration reform and racial justice outside of a partisan script. The greater concern is whether the SBC will hold onto Moore's moderate agenda while the Trump administration shoves the Republican party, and many SBC members along with him, further to the right.