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The recent media buzz that Russell Moore’s job was in jeopardy at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission happily turned out to be much ado about nothing . . . for the moment. Certain SBC churches, including Texas megachurch Prestonwood Baptist, have declared their intention to withhold contributions to the SBC’s Cooperative Program partly out of frustration with the perceived “disrespectfulness” with which Moore spoke about Donald Trump, and Trump’s evangelical supporters, during the fall 2016 campaign.

I am affiliated with the ERLC as a research fellow, but I hardly possess any “insider” insight into what is happening with the Russell Moore controversy. My hunch is that the acrimony that has broken out over Moore and his role is rooted not so much in Moore’s criticisms of Trump, but in the unexpected electoral triumph of Trump. Trump’s victory gave new life to the old dream of the Religious Right for political access and Christian-inspired reform.

As Ross Douthat explained earlier this week at The New York Times, even Trump’s primary victory seemed to vindicate the view of Russell Moore, Rod Dreher, and other observers that we are hurtling into post-Christian America, and that 2016 was our first fully post-Christian election. (I don’t need to explain again why critics felt this way about Trump, who historically seemed more comfortable on the Howard Stern show than within the bounds of church or Christian orthodoxy.) Trump’s nomination, Douthat writes,

threw the divisions among religious conservatives into relief as well. Moore (and many others) spent the campaign warning that a countercultural Christianity would risk its credibility by supporting a figure like Trump for the presidency. But other leaders, mostly in the movement’s older guard, found ways to cast Trump as a heaven-sent figure, whose flaws and failings were no worse than those of a King David or a Constantine.

And when Trump won, shockingly — with strong support from conservative churchgoers, however conflicted they might have been — the Trumpist faction claimed vindication, and among some Baptist pastors the knives came out for Moore.

Imagine if Trump had lost, which virtually all pundits expected him to do. Maybe the criticisms of Moore and other #NeverTrump evangelicals would not be nearly as loud. Or maybe the anti-Moore chorus would be even louder, blaming him and other #NeverTrumpers for the loss. In any case, we would have a Clinton presidency, and figures like Moore would be trying to explain where evangelicals should go from here, since getting behind the Trump train was not only morally dubious, but also a political failure.

Dubious it was, but it did not turn out to be a political failure, at least not in the short term—2016 ended up being as scintillating a victory for the old-style Religious Right as anything that’s happened since 1980, even if it meant overlooking and at times excusing moral problems they once deemed non-negotiables.

It left the #NeverTrumpers (including me) aghast and befuddled, certainly happy not to have a Clinton presidency, but uncertain about what evangelical support for Trump will have wrought, and what kind of enduring damage it will have done to evangelicals’ witness and unity, especially among African Americans and Hispanics. Douthat says it revealed

the strange position of conservative Christians in the age of Trump. Having spent the late Obama years trying to reconcile themselves to growing marginalization, to sudden secularization and increasing liberal pressure on their institutions, they suddenly find themselves with a real share of power — with allies all over the Trump cabinet, whatever the president himself may believe — in a political alignment that almost nobody saw coming. . . .

Thanks to Trump’s unlikely rise, religious conservatism has temporarily regained influence that its younger leaders and thinkers assumed was all but lost. But at a price — the price of being bound to an unstable and semi-competent form of right-wing nationalism, and suspended over the abyss by the not precisely Godlike hands of Donald Trump.

Douthat says that this “Back to the Future” moment and new life for the heirs of the Moral Majority will make books like Rod Dreher’s much-discussed Benedict Option more pertinent, not less. It also has made leaders like Russell Moore unexpectedly vulnerable. I believe Moore was right to warn against the consequences of staking so much of white evangelicals’ credibility on a candidate like Trump. But until November, that warning was paired with the near certainty that Trump would lose badly. Then the GOP and its evangelical base would have looked even more silly for having supported him.

But then Trump won. Some evangelicals saw the hand of Providence behind the near-miraculous triumph in the Electoral College. Republican evangelicals who supported Trump understandably wish to take maximum advantage of the access and opportunities that the moment affords—like Supreme Court nominations, defunding Planned Parenthood, and more. Taking maximum advantage, to some, may require the removal of #NeverTrump evangelicals whose reluctance might have denied them such opportunities in a Trump administration.


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20 thoughts on “What’s Really Behind the Russell Moore Controversy”

  1. kierkegaard71 says:

    Isn’t it ironic that you have Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic politlcal commentators expressing more solidarity with what I perceive to be classic Baptist church/state analysis than your standard-fare SBC churches?

  2. Jonathan says:

    This article is great at examining the Trump related criticism of Dr. Moore. The problem is that many people who are against Moore are more upset about his stances on, religious liberty, race, and gay weddings. I’m a huge Supporter of Dr. Moore, and I’ve defended him against a lot of critics, but the trump issue rarely comes up in conversation compared to the other issues listed above.

    Which brings me to my only criticism of this article. Secular and religious blogs and news agencies keep over simplifying the complaints and focus on the criticisms related to Trump. I think a fair article that really represents the complaints of the anti Moore group would be more helpful.

    Again, I love and support, Dr. Moore, but the repetitive articles like this make people like us who support him look like we are in our own echo chamber.

    1. I agree with your criticism. The continued over simplification of the complaints against Moore does not serve his supporters well. Many in that camp view such articles as intentional misrepresentations of their position and dismiss them out of hand. Blindly supporting anyone is not healthy as Moore made so clear during the last election cycle.

    2. Thomas says:

      This is so true. Moore’s supporters like Mr. Kidd and Mr. Carter simply don’t see how people could actually object, on principal and with Biblical support to Moore’s positions. We might not agree but let us not caricature.

  3. William Smith says:

    Let me ask two simple questions: (1) Why does the Southern Baptist Convention have a lobbying office, the ERLC, in Washington? (2) Why is Russell Moore speaking out for Southern Baptists about Donald Trump, the Confederate flag, immigration, race relations, etc.?

    Well, of course, I know the answer. These are issues of ethics and religious freedom. The SBC and other denominations need to speak out on these issues to offer moral leadership and defend religious freedom. Moreover, to use the language of The Gospel Coalition, these are all Gospel issues. Not to speak out is to deny the Gospel. To speak out to to testify to the whole Gospel.

    To which I say, Bull Hockey. I have another question: WWJ&AD? What would Jesus and the Apostles do? To judge by the New Testament records the answer is: NOTHING. Jesus would never have instructed his church to form an ERLC. There were plenty of issues of governmental ethics and protection of religious rights on which the Apostles might have spoken. But they said not a word.

    Here is the truth: Most white evangelicals are politically conservative. Eighty percent voted for Trump. Most blacks are politically progressive. What the percentage of black evangelicals (a hard group to define) who voted for Trump might be, I do not know, but I would be surprised if it varied much from the way all blacks voted.

    Now, if politics is the test of evangelicalism or Christian brotherhood, then disunity is certain, and splits likely.

  4. Cameron says:

    I am a millennial, born in 1990, and therefore would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered part of the “old guard religious right” and its “dream…for political access and Christian-inspired reform,” as you describe.

    I have tremendous sympathy for #NeverTrumpers for whom a vote for Trump seemed tantamount to compromising their Christian values and their witness to a watching world. A person should never act against his own conscience but always in accord with it. I also agree with your premise that the Trump victory may have led to a stronger response from his supporters who claim to have frustrations with Moore’s words against Trump and Christians voting for him.

    However, in this article you have simultaneously lumped all Christians who voted for Trump into one category by expressing your suspicions about what is motivating the reaction against Moore and effectively dismissed the decision by those who neatly fit into this category as “morally dubious.” Don’t you see this is the same thing Moore has done and this is the reason many are frustrated with him? No doubt, the group about which you write here (the old religious right who feel revitalized and empowered by a Trump victory) does exist! Yet not all Christians who voted for him are of this mind.

    Some of us saw two legitimate options for president and picked the one that we thought we be best for our society. It is a logical fallacy to say that a vote for Trump because he was better for the country than Hillary necessarily implies the desire to see the Religious Right gain political access and see Christian-inspired reform. This was not the aim of many thoughtful Christian Trump voters who acted according to their God-given consciences in voting for him. You yourself see the good in a Trump victory, claiming to be, “certainly happy not to have a Clinton presidency.” This was the reason and the goal for many of us casting our vote for Trump and by, once again, lumping us into the same category as the Religious Right you mentioned, you have denounced and dismissed our action as being “morally dubious.”

    Herein lies the frustration many have with Moore and your reiteration of his overly-simplistic arguments.

  5. S Wolfe says:

    Here’s some Moore quotes (and others) during the 2016 election. It is more likely that people have a legitimate concern over his generalizations and attacks. Why should baptists pay the salary of one who would so viciously attack them?

    “What we have in the Donald Trump phenomenon… is an embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem.”~~Russell Moore

    White American Christians who want to “Make America great again” are “blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.”~~Russell Moore

    “We’re losing a Bible Belt religion that held us back anyway. We’ve gained A29, TGC, ERLC, T4G, reformed hip hop and poetry, etc. Great!” — Ray Ortlund

    “This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.”~~Russell Moore

    “The question is whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus. That will mean standing up for the church’s future leaders, and for our mission, especially when they are politically powerless.”~~Russell Moore

    “American Christianity faces a test of whether we will identify as Christians first.”~~Russell Moore

    “Voting for Trump might be loving my neighbor—if my neighbor looked just like me. But I think that’s the very definition Jesus meant to rebuke the legalist for.”~~Jared C. Wilson, TGC

    “If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.”~~Russell Moore

    “When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse…This side of the New Jerusalem, we will never have a perfect candidate. But we cannot vote for evil, even if it’s our only option.”~~Russell Moore

    So let’s summarize, Moore accuses his own people of embracing moral decadence, being blind to murderous racial injustice, being nativist and bigots, being on the wrong side of Jesus, giving up their souls, and voting for evil. All this for weighing their options and outcomes between Hillary and Trump. Who in their right minds would pay the salary of one who would dish out such abuse?

    1. Cameron says:

      I’m thankful you posted these. There are, no doubt, even more statements of Moore’s to be mined from the last year that could be added to this list. I think the tone of Moore’s statements through the election season can be forgotten in the flurry of self-defenses he has offered recently and others have offered on his behalf. It is helpful for the sake of this discussion to have these represented.

      The logic of this article, while making an effort to assess the vitriol Moore has received because of his arguments, ends up being right in line with Moore’s and seems to be as follows…

      1. Insult Christian Trump voters by calling their vote “morally dubious” (or something akin to it).
      2. When they are offended by your pronounced moral judgement on their decision, doubly insult them by disregarding their felt offense, attributing it to reasons and fears they didn’t have when they placed their vote for Trump.

    2. S Jones says:

      These quotes speak the truth. They are biblical, and centered on urging the church to represent Jesus faithfully. Speaking the truth to the church is not abuse, it is love.

    3. Dan says:

      of course, he may have made those statements b/c they were true–the religious right in general spent the last 20+ years making statements about how morals were critical and non-negotiable in a candidate, and then turned hypocrite when they got scared and decided political power really was the answer.

      1. Cameron says:

        Dan, yours is another statement of presumptuous accusation. You presume to know the motives (fear) behind this large group of people (Religious Right) as they went into the booth. This is the same problem I have with most other takes I come across regarding the election: sweeping statements are made about large groups and are to be accepted as absolute fact. Sure, there were probably some who voted in the way you describe. But to make a statement such as you did is the exact thing Moore has been guilty of all along: speaking to a large and diverse group of people with varying opinions, theological aptitudes, and varying degrees of informed consciences as though they are one and are motivated by one thing. It is too simple and reductionist a take on an extremely layered and complex issue.

      2. Ed says:

        Who are you talking about? Be specific. There is nothing wrong with stating that moral character is important. It should continue to be said in the age of Trump. But when confronted with two incredibly morally flawed candidates, there is also nothing wrong with supporting the one who upholds better policies (or at least fewer immoral ones, or fewer anti-Christian ones).

    4. Micah Manore says:

      You succeeded.. in reminding me why I like Russel Moore so much.

  6. Jeff Rickel says:

    I think I need to bring you up to date on what Mr. Moore has said, written, and posted since the November election. He has called us to pray for and support the new president. He also understands that believers may have voted differently than he, but voted following Biblical principals and supported them. His articles and posts are full of grace, humility, forgiveness, and a desire that the church be unified and honor God and obey him. He has shown himself to be a leader and a valuable part of and representative of the Body of Christ and its head. The nation needs healing, and revival, the church needs grace and unity. The King in heaven is far above and far more important than the man in the white house and that is where our true identity and allegiance lie. Mr. Moore understands all of this and his purpose is to honor God and be obedient to him and encourage the church to do the same.

    “Consistently, no matter who is in office we are to pray for success. That doesn’t mean we pray for all of any leader’s ideas to be realized. But it means that we pray that he or she would succeed, would carry out an agenda that leads to the flourishing of the rest of society and, particularly, so that the church may “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” In contemporary American society, we’re supposed to want those we like to leave office as heroes and those we don’t to bumble and fail. That should never be our attitude.
    As Donald Trump takes office as the 45th President of the United States, we should pray that his presidency is a great and good one. That prayer applies to all, whether someone voted for the current president or not. Those who like the new president should pray that he governs so successfully that their hopes are realized. Those who don’t like the new president should pray that, at the end of his term if not before, they are surprised that they were wrong.” from http://www.russellmoore.com/2017/01/20/pray-president-trump/ which references the Washington Post Article “You should pray for Donald Trump no matter how you voted” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/20/you-should-pray-for-donald-trump-no-matter-how-you-voted/?

    postshare=391484913732881&tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.2200b57a04e0

    This is important because, regardless of which side you’re on, as Christians we are called to honor everyone (1 Pet. 2:17), and we ought to take the time to understand and not caricature one another. So, if you voted but your conscience wouldn’t allow you to vote for either major candidate, don’t stand in judgment over a Christian who prayerfully came to a different conclusion. Remember, whether it was concern for the unborn, the Supreme Court, or any number of other issues, most often it was a commitment to biblical convictions that motivated his or her vote.
    On the other hand, if you find yourself frustrated with someone whose conscience would not allow a vote for either major party candidate, don’t stand in judgment over that decision either. Most often, these voters were animated by biblical motivations too: many felt either that they could not sin against their conscience (Rom. 14:23) or that a vote for an ethically-compromised candidate would implicate them personally and be akin to “do[ing] evil that good may come” (Rom. 3:8). In either case, we all owe it to our brothers and sisters in Christ to understand their convictions and be slow to judgment when biblical motivations are the primary motivators. In the heat of an extraordinarily divisive campaign, that is something all of us, myself included, are wise to remember.
    http://www.russellmoore.com/2016/12/19/election-thoughts-christmastime/

  7. DCal3000 says:

    I think some of the controversy over Russell Moore is at least in part due to serious mistakes that he and the evangelical NeverTrump movement made last year. Most seriously, and arguably heretically, they made the act of voting–and not the motives behind voting–a test of orthodoxy. If you voted for Trump or Clinton, whatever the reason, you were betraying your faith. Second, they advocated no clear political philosophy other than opposition to Trump. While pretending to move the church away from politics, they used inherently political terms to describe themselves (i.e. “NeverTrumpers”). Then, they decried anyone voting for candidates they disliked, even though they suggested no clear alternatives. Third, NeverTrumpers like Russell Moore openly (even in the pages of the Washington Post) danced on the grave of the old “Christian Right” without specifying what the old “Christian Right” was. In the eyes of the secular world, every single evangelical pro-lifer is the “Christian Right,” so now, thanks to Russell Moore and his allies, the secular world can assume that even evangelical leaders think their laypeople are hyprocritical hicks. Fourth, NeverTrump evangelicals have repeatedly characterized themselves as champions of a vibrant new youth movement as opposed to older bigots. Young people want something noble and pure, or so the NeverTrump evangelicals claim, and that may be true. But by setting up the Trump debate as a debate between old fogies and wise youth, they have slapped tens of thousands of older evangelicals in the face.

    I don’t think Russell Moore should lose his position because of last year’s politics. Keeping a distance from Trump and criticizing Trump’s behavior was wise; Trump is neither trustworthy nor principled. But I think Moore and other NeverTrumpers missed a chance to provide a clear Christian witness in an election year. Instead, by questioning voters’ faith over the mere act of voting, and by promoting generational and racial divides, they repeated and multiplied the mistakes of the old Christian Right. The old Christian Right may have been too political, but to assess the entire health of the American church based on one candidate in one election year is far, far more political. I fear such short-sighted and shallow politics will set up our churches for problems in the future.

  8. DCal3000 says:

    After my previous comment, I want to clarify that I think most evangelical NeverTrumpers, Russell Moore and Dr. Kidd are principled Christians who tried hard last year to apply their faith to politics, and I hope my statement did not come across as overly harsh. I am grateful for their leadership in the evangelical community. My concern, both from last year and continued discussion this year, is that many NeverTrumpers seem to think that the debate over Donald Trump and now Russell Moore stems wholly from partisan, old, white bigots who are prone to rely on Trumpian politics as opposed to Christ. Some of Trump’s evangelical voters fit that description, but many do not. To lump them all together is insulting and unhelpful. Also, I believe that many NeverTrumpers fail to realize they have left the discussion unfinished. What now for Christian political philosophy? If we live in a post-Christian society, we may not in our lifetimes have a viable, principled Christian presidential candidate again. What do we do? Do we vote? Do we vote only for third-party candidates who will lose? What if none of the third parties are also unprincipled? What if the government tells us to disobey Christ? Do we comply, disobey, or resign our positions in society? Politics is not our savior, and the church does not stand or fall based on elections. But we live in a representative democracy, and we need more guidance than simply–Don’t vote for Trump and trust that the youth will create a better world.

  9. Parson says:

    At their convention in 1998, Southern Baptist passed the “Resolution on Character of Public Officials”. You can read the whole thing here http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/773/resolution-on-moral-character-of-public-officials but I’ll offer a couple of highlights from this resolution:

    Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and

    Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and

    Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.

    Russell Moore was only calling the SBC to follow their own resolution. Why make these resolutions if you aren’t going to have the resolve to actually follow through with them? Of course, this resolution was adopted when Bill Clinton was president. I guess it only counts if it’s a Democrat.

  10. William Smith says:

    What needs to be said and said clearly is this: One of the things that the whole Moore controversy has exposed is how much the kind of racial theory that once dominated the departments of African-American studies and now dominates whole universities has come do influence evangelical institutions and leaders. We now here frequently about white privilege, micro-aggression, majority culture dominance, oppression of brown and black skinned brothers and sisters. The truth is that this view of race in its secular form is influenced by Marxism and in its Christian form is influenced by Liberation Theology. And this needs to be said very clearly and forthrightly: Dr.
    Al Mohler at SBTS is giving cover to Jarvis Williams and Dr. Lig Duncan at RTS is giving cover to Jemar Tisby. I do not know if this is because Dr. Mohler and Dr. Duncan have changed their own views or whether they are unwilling to deal with the racial theory of Dr. Williams and Mr. Tisby. But the stakes have become very high for the future of evangelicalism. It has become a disagreement about how to read the Bible and about what the Gospel is. One would have never thought that, so soon after the birth of RTS and the conservative takeover of SBTS these things would be at stake, but they now are. Some of us who have paid high prices for our efforts on behalf of reconciliation of the races on a Biblical basis are deeply distressed that the Gospel has been so mixed with secular and liberationist philosophy as to distort the historic Protestant Christian understanding of how to read the Bible and what what the Gospel is.

    1. Ed says:

      Exactly right. These folks have let Liberation Theology concepts creep into orthodox denominations. And Moore has let Liberation Theology’s little sister, “Social Justice”, in as well.

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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