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.
And where was Moore on Christians’ concerns that tens of thousands of unvetted Muslims, all labeled “refugees” and hand-picked by the United Nations, are flooding across our borders at a time when Muslim migration has unleashed horrors on Europe, Islamic terrorism is on the rise and ISIS has vowed to come into our country within the “refugee” population? Where were his statements about Left-leaning “Christian” refugee resettlement agencies, who are really just federal government contractors making big bucks on per-head resettlements, failing to advocate to bring more Christian refugees into the U.S.? In fact, the Washington Post reported: “When many conservatives called for a boycott of all Syrian refugees to the U.S., Moore signed a letter asking Congress to ‘reject damaging changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement system that would cause the life-saving program to grind to a halt.’”
To many conservatives, Moore not only advocates against many of the very positions most Southern Baptists hold to politically, but he does it with a kind of “politics-is-OK-for-me-but-not-for-thee” hypocrisy. It seems his own stated announcement that Christians must have a prophetic voice that rises above politics to proclaim God’s kingdom only really seems to kick in for him when he decides conservatives, Republicans or the Religious Right need another verbal drubbing.
3. He’s said he would attend a same-sex wedding reception, has dialogued with homosexual activists (while marginalizing a conservative ministry that reaches out to those struggling with homosexuality) and baselessly repudiated a straw-man caricature of reparative therapy. The Wall Street Journal noted that at an October 2014 ERLC conference: “Baptists Strike New Tone on Homosexuality From the Pulpit, in Private,” quoting Moore as saying: “What if you get invited to a same-sex wedding ceremony? In that case, I would not attend the wedding. I would attend the reception.” But why, many conservatives wondered, would a Christian refuse to give moral credence to a sinful union, only to turn around at the reception to help the couple “celebrate?”
The story also noted that “More than a dozen Southern Baptists and gay-rights advocates” met for three hours but kept “the topic of discussion secret.” But according to sources within the Restored Hope Network (RHN) — a Christian group that reaches out to those struggling with sexual sin, including homosexuality — the ERLC did not allow RHN to have a booth or any representation at the gathering, even though there appeared to be plenty of room for them to set up, and several of their members attended the conference.
Moore also denounced reparative therapy, saying, “The utopian idea that if you come to Christ and if you go through our program you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with, I don’t think that is a Christian idea.” But as Dr. Robert Gagnon, considered the foremost theological authority on the Bible and homosexuality, argued in response, “I don’t think it is either, but neither is it an idea of Reparative Therapy. So what we are doing here is creating a straw man, beating on the straw man, and then pretending somehow we have effectively dealt with the issue. We haven’t, because these are not accurate statements but rather inaccurate depictions of Reparative Therapy.”
So while Moore and the ERLC seem to be advocating the “softened-tone-without-compromising-truth” tactic on the issue of homosexuality, many conservatives are troubled at the obvious drift in approach that has sidelined conservatives and mischaracterized positions with which Moore disagrees.
4. Only certain political candidates at Christian campuses drew his public opposition, while certain Southern Baptist GOP candidates were left off the invite list of the ERLC presidential candidates forum. As the Baptist Message pointed out: “While Moore stridently opposed Trump’s appearance at Liberty University, he did not object to the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders who spoke there only three months ago (Sanders is pro-abortion and strongly supports gay marriage).
“For that matter, Moore has held his own candidate forum, managing to grab a prime slot during a Southern Baptist missions conference—with 13,000 in attendance, July 2015, in Nashville—to interview Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. He also confessed he had invited Hillary Clinton—who has a raft of personal convictions and public positions which contravene Southern Baptists’ stated consensus beliefs—but that she declined. Moore said he was disappointed Clinton did not attend because he felt ‘he could have modeled our disagreements with her with civility.’ But he offers no such civility for Trump or his supporters.
“Importantly, Moore failed to invite three White-House-seeking Southern Baptists to his question and answer time —Lindsey Graham (now withdrawn from the race) Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.”
5. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Moore not only routinely criticized Donald Trump, but also appeared to delight in the provocation. Again, as the Baptist Message noted, “While Trump was speaking at Liberty University, Moore tweeted a stream of comments, each one more acerbic than the last: “Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery … This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ … Evangelicals can love a golden calf as long as Aaron promises to make Mexico pay for it.’ Afterward, he tweeted, ‘This is unofficial, I know, but Trump is apparently winning HUGE in the demographic of folks with eggs or cats as their Twitter avatars.’”
Moore’s criticisms were so relentless that Trump himself finally tweeted out: “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!” Immediately, Moore mocked Trump by responding, “Sad!” Moore later posted on his own Twitter bio that he was a “terrible representative of evangelicals, due to nastiness,” clearly proud as punch that his constant stream of pecks at Trump finally won him some high-level attention. And to the “nasty guy” remark, Moore posted a YouTube link to singer Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” music video. Why in the world would any Southern Baptist in such a public position rejoice over being called “nasty with no heart?” Shouldn’t that instead inspire some introspection and repentance?
So for many conservatives, Moore’s stated opposition to Trump as a viable presidential candidate wasn’t the real problem. The problem was that Moore intentionally baited and provoked Trump until he got his sought-after reaction, then gleefully spiked the football in a manner more becoming of a junior-high boy than the public-policy representative for the largest Protestant denomination in America. And, of course, Moore scored no points with his diatribes against Christians who ultimately opted to vote for Trump, even though many did so at the ninth hour, and then only somewhat reluctantly. He later attempted to draw a distinction between full-on Trump enthusiasts and Trump voters who wrestled with the choice — but for many by then, it was too little, too late.
The shake-up left conservatives asking: How can the ERLC even have an effective voice with the new Trump administration when Moore worked so hard to offend and insult the incoming president? For them, this is now about the degree to which Moore, given his careless comments, can effectively perform his job on behalf of Southern Baptists.
6. While regularly criticizing Donald Trump, Moore had little to say about Hillary Clinton, although he did note that he once wanted to marry a woman just like her. All these comments and articles on Trump, conservatives noted, but where are all of Moore’s articles and interviews criticizing corrupt, pro-abortion, pro-LGBT Hillary Clinton? Look for them in vain. When The New York Times asked Moore whether he might find more common cause with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Moore said, “I don’t know. I think that it would vary from issue to issue.” Where’s Moore’s “prophetic engagement” when he needs it?
We do know from his own pen, however, that Moore once hoped to marry a girl that would be a “Mississippi version of Hillary Rodham Clinton.” He explained it in a 2009 article about meeting and dating his wife: “On our first date, I almost turned around in her driveway when I saw the ‘Bush/Quayle ‘92’ sign in the yard. I was campaigning all over south Mississippi for a Democratic congressman, and I was going out with a Republican? … I had illusions that I was going to be governor of Mississippi one day, and I needed a wife who had the ‘fire in the belly’ to speak on the campaign stump, pressure donors into giving more, and attack back at political opponents. I needed a partner who was a Mississippi version of (at least the 1990s version of) Hillary Rodham Clinton, I guess I was thinking.”
Some may say: “Well, in his defense, he did say he wanted the 1990s version of Hillary!” In the 1990s, unfortunately, Hillary was still a radical, pro-abortion feminist who had written her senior college thesis on the Marxist organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky, who once tipped his hat to Lucifer as “the first radical known to man.”
7. Under Moore’s leadership, the ERLC jumped on board legally to help the Obama Administration bully a New Jersey township into allowing a mosque to be built, despite the township planners’ concerns about a lack of details on issues like parking and buffer zones bordering the site’s residential neighborhoods. But in signing on to an amicus brief in a lawsuit by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Moore pointed to the need to defend “religious liberty.”
However, when Pastor John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church in Arkansas questioned Moore about it at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention, asking why he would support building a mosque in view of the threat that radical Islam poses to Christians, Moore stated: “Sometimes we have to deal with questions that are really complicated .. and we have to spend a lot of time thinking them through … this isn’t one of those things. When you have a government that says we can decide whether a house of worship can be constructed … then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches who are not going to be able to build.” In making the remark, Moore expressed both a naive gullibility and a baseless claim about Baptist church construction (which Wofford was not allowed to publicly counter, as he later relayed that his microphone was cut off). And the statement skirted entirely the dire need to consider the facts surrounding the broader issues in this case — facts that actually should motivate people to “spend a lot of time thinking them through.”
One fact that wasn’t stated was that, as Jihad Watch director and Islamic expert Robert Spencer has noted, four commissioned studies thus far have shown that “80 percent of all American mosques are teaching jihad, Islamic supremacism and hatred and contempt for Jews and Christians. There are no countervailing studies that challenge these results. In 1998, Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Sufi leader, visited 114 mosques in the United States. Then he gave testimony before a State Department Open Forum in January 1999, and asserted that 80 percent of American mosques taught the ‘extremist ideology.'” Are these not important facts to spend time thinking through?
What’s more, this isn’t merely about religious freedom. As American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Pamela Geller has noted, the Obama Administration’s radicalized Department of Justice has routinely used the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to force towns across America to approve mosques, despite common-sense zoning restrictions or normal issues like concerns about parking. As she states, “In a striking violation of the establishment clause, Obama’s lawless administration is imposing the Shariah nationwide, allowing the rampant construction of rabats and jihad recruitment centers at a time when we should be monitoring the mosques and restricting construction of Muslim Brotherhood beachheads and Islamic State madrassas.” Is this not an important consideration to spend time thinking through?
As the Christian Post stated, Southern Baptists tried to counter the amicus brief controversy at last year’s convention but were unable to prevail. “At the SBC’s annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, some of the messengers called for action to be taken against the ERLC for joining the amicus brief. Messenger John Wofford requested a motion calling for the firing of SBC officials who support the building of mosques. .. Later during that same session Jerry Moss of South County Baptist Church in St. Louis proposed a resolution to have the ERLC remove its name from the amicus brief. .. While both motions received seconds, they were later ruled out of order because their application would have exceeded the authority of the SBC and its messengers.”
8. Despite the fact that the SBC has strongly supported the nation of Israel, Moore and the ERLC have yet to issue any statement opposing the barbaric, anti-Israel UNSC Resolution 2334. That’s right. The ERLC went out of its way to publicly support mosque-building, but thus far it has released no public statements on the UNSC resolution that, as Front Page Magazine detailed, portrays Israel as “a rogue state engaged in endemic criminality.” And yet, the SBC just last year passed a critical pro-Israel resolution that stated, ““[W]e support the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state and reject any activities that attack that right by promoting economic, cultural and academic boycotts against Israel.” So why has the Southern Baptist Convention’s own public-policy arm stayed so silent on an issue of such importance to the denomination?
There is much more to say, but to those who would defend Moore for his “gospel courage” or “bold leadership,” please understand that conservative objections to his ERLC leadership have a substantive and years-long foundation.
Opposing Moore isn’t about being mean, dodging important biblical challenges or wanting “lemmings” instead of “leaders.” Conservative Southern Baptists are simply tired of Moore’s hypocritical lectures, his pejoratives against conservatives, his rude behavior on the national stage and his political stances that don’t align with those held by a large number of the Southern Baptists who pay his salary.
Moore once made a key point regarding people who are turned off by the rhetoric of certain Christians. “It’s important to point out that when people turn away with scorn from ‘Christian’ rhetoric that is ridiculous or hateful or parasitic, it’s not an example of being ‘persecuted’ for the cause of Christ. It’s quite possible to seem strange to the culture not for commitment to gospel supernaturalism or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, but because of outrageous antics.”
In that vein, it should be noted that Southern Baptist conservatives who now want to withdraw financial support for the ERLC do not hate Russell Moore, nor are they persecuting him.
They’re just done with his outrageous antics.