In the first presidential election since Russell Moore became the leading evangelical voice in Washington, America saw more of him than ever before.
With each TV news appearance and op-ed parsing the complicated evangelical vote in this year’s contentious election, fellow Southern Baptists took notice of Moore’s personal conviction against Donald Trump, his characterizations of Trump supporters, and the broader changes he’d implemented as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over the previous three years.
It’s clear that Moore represents a significant shift for America’s largest Protestant denomination, and many welcome his leadership; more than 1,200 championed their support on Twitter with #IStandWithMoore this week amid media coverage of his SBC critics.
However, others question whether Moore’s outspokenness—particularly his critical remarks made toward fellow Southern Baptists and evangelicals at large who supported Trump—betrays the role he was appointed to.
This week, The Wall Street Journal (followed by NPR and Religion News Service) outlined the backlash Moore faces from within his denomination. Some leaders critical of Moore’s stance are considering withholding their megachurch’s or state convention’s support of the ERLC (through the denomination’s Cooperative Program fund). They believe Moore does not represent their political views, and fear he will not be able to advocate for them on Capitol Hill after so vocally lambasting Trump.
On Monday, Moore apologized for any sound bites during the campaign that may have overstated his criticism of Trump defenders. He wrote:
I witnessed a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel. I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been. But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.
His remarks on social media and in the news suggested that Trump supporters came from the “Jimmy Swaggart wing” of evangelicalism, that Christian defenses of the candidate were illogical, and that Southern Baptist leaders who met with Trump were “drinking the Kool-Aid.”
“How condescending can you be and not expect some kickback from the people who provide the monies for you to occupy the office you are misusing?” asked William F. Harrell in an op-ed for SBC Today, a blog which frequently carries critiques of the denomination. The post by the Georgia pastor, who served 16 years on the SBC’s Executive Committee and chaired it from 2006 to 2008, was one of the first published criticisms from a notable SBC name arguing that Moore’s stance during the election should have consequences.
Frank Page, current president of the Executive Committee, heard the chorus of Moore’s critics swell during the election. He is now planning discussions between Moore’s strongest supporters and detractors to work toward consensus.
“There’s got to be a humility on both sides to recognize that … we’ve not always talked to each other; we’ve talked about each other too much,” he said in an interview with CT. “There’s got to be intention that we are going to build a bridge, not burn the bridge.”
An ERLC spokesperson said Moore was unable to offer further comment this week beyond his “Christmastime thoughts.” As Southern Baptists took sides on social media, Moore tweeted Tuesday, “Appreciate all the kind words, y’all. If we’re going to hashtag, let’s #standwithSBC together. Our gospel mission is too important.”
Among Moore’s notable defenders: Al Mohler. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president has stood by Moore’s leadership of the ERLC, calling him “one of the most brilliant leaders” in this generation. Mohler shared Moore’s distaste for Trump during the campaign, suggesting evangelical support for the candidate would damage the church’s “moral credibility.”
The ERLC’s board chairman, Ken Barbic, defended Moore to Baptist Press as “a Gospel centered and faithful voice for Southern Baptists.” Barbic told the SBC news service:
He speaks with prophetic clarity to the pressing cultural and ethical issues of our time, with which every Christian must wrestle. I am particularly grateful for his courageous and convictional leadership, under which I've observed within our convention and beyond, significant newfound energy and excitement about the work of the ERLC the last several years. I have had the privilege of seeing up close the remarkable efforts he leads the ERLC to undertake here in Washington, across this country and abroad, all of which make me thankful for his leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist Press rounded up other Moore supporters and critics.
Moore’s election-year transformation into a lightning rod raises the question of to what extent the role of the ERLC is to advocate the denomination’s interests on Capitol Hill, and to what extent it also should guide the political convictions of Southern Baptists themselves. “Moore speaks for Baptists sometimes. But he also speaks to them,” wrote Jacob Lupfer, a Georgetown University Ph.D. student who blogs about faith and public policy.
The ERLC has always played both representative and prophetic roles for the denomination, according to Page. Previously called the Christian Life Commission, it was led by Richard Land—who maintained closer ties with the Religious Right—from 1988 up until his retirement in 2013.
“Certainly there’s a representative role in speaking what we believe is the word of the Lord into the public arena … but it’s also a prophetic role in speaking to Baptists about where we need to be,” said Page, who served on President Obama’s first council for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships and has met with Trump multiple times this year. Page acknowledged that such a position is especially hard because it requires addressing sensitive issues beyond missions and charity.
Jonathan Merritt, a religion writer and son of a past SBC president, once quoted Moore himself on the tricky balance of enacting change in his denomination: “One thing you have to remember about Southern Baptists: If you’re 9 percent out in front of them, you’re a trailblazer. If you’re 10 percent out in front of them, you’re dead.”
Last month, the Louisiana Baptist Convention became the first state group to propose studying the recent actions of the ERLC, a move seen as reflecting broader but still largely private concerns about Moore.
“In my opinion, he is not representing Southern Baptists. He’s representing himself,” said Ken Fryer, associate pastor at Riverside Baptist Church in Denham Springs, Louisiana.
Like other critics, Fryer said Moore’s positions on immigration, climate change, prison reform, and social justices issues do not reflect the conservative beliefs shared by many in the denomination. Fryer also said Moore’s tone toward the rest of the SBC doesn’t help.
He agrees with Jack Graham, an influential Texas pastor who served two terms as SBC president and was appointed to Trump’s evangelical advisory board, that Moore demonstrated a “disrespectfulness” toward more conservative leaders and Trump supporters (as quoted in the Journal).
If Moore had made it clear that his criticism was not directed at all Trump voters, “there would have been no need for an apology” like the one issued on Monday, Fryer said.
Some who are uncomfortable with Moore’s direction have gone as far as challenging the need for the ERLC itself. Since Moore was elected president, the ERLC has rebranded and expanded to offer regular conferences, produce publications, and engage with media.
“I would argue it is not necessary, or even Baptistic, to have one individual speak for all of our churches on public policy,” Josh Hall, a Baptist pastor in Missouri, blogged last month. “No position in the SBC has as much influence and authority to speak for the entire denomination, with as little oversight or accountability, as the president of the ERLC.” He suggested that the SBC monies the commission receives should be given to missions instead.
Hall followed up with a tweet this week commending Moore’s recent remarks: “Dr Moore’s rhetoric was unfair/divisive at times during the election. He has apologized. Time to forgive and go forward.”
“I’m trying to build bridges and pull people together,” Page said. “We need to make clear this is not a generational divide.
“I don’t want this to become a Corinthian ‘I’m for Apollos,’ ‘I’m for Paul’—that kind of thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, it could if that misconception continues.”