Ed: In the last year you’ve been thrust into the public square in a new way, especially as it relates to Donald Trump. From tweeting a viral photo of Christians laying hands on the president to pray for him to your role as an ad hoc spokesperson for the so-called Evangelical Advisory Board (a group you helped form) to being a vocal advocate for dreamers, you’ve been on people’s radar screens. Why have you suddenly become so involved in politics?
Johnnie Moore: First of all, I *hate* politics, but I love people. Sometimes, the latter requires that you’re involved in the former. In my case, there were three formative events that led me to be more (and probably temporarily) involved in electoral politics.
First, I watched SB 1146 nearly survive in California and it was not inconceivable that the bill would have been upheld at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had it been passed and challenged. That bill threatened the very existence of religious schools in my state, and California tends to be a bellwether state. It was an existential threat to religious liberty.
I got involved in that fight, helped those developing the strategy, and helped amplify the impact of a consequential editorial written by Archbishop Gomez and Bishop Charles Blake in Los Angeles. Moving from Virginia to California showed me that we are walking a knife’s edge sometimes on these issues. Keep in mind that in California in 2016 there wasn’t even a Republican senatorial candidate to vote for on the ballot.
Second, I care deeply about persecuted Christians (and others) abroad and I saw how some of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations’ foreign policy decisions had inadvertently resulted in the death or displacement of countless millions of people in the Middle East (the area of the world I love the most), in particular Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities.
I had to fight such foolish things like when the State Department refused to grant a visa to an Iraqi ‘mother theresa’ when she was asked to testify to Congress about what she had experienced. I had to fight the State Department publicly for weeks, rallying millions through the press in order to get our own State Department to allow her to testify to Congress about what had happened to Christians in Iraq.
We also confuse the role of Congress and the president. Congress likes it because it lets them off the hook, but we must put a focus on Congress in regards to comprehensive immigration reform, funding foreign aid, criminal justice reform, and dealing with DREAMers. Churches matter to these elected officials.
Third, the untimely death of Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court threatened a shift on the Supreme Court that likely would not be reversed for a generation, if ever. For instance, bills like SB 1146 would not survive a challenge in a court with the Scalia seat filled with an originalist. I have often said that the 2016 election was not an election made by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but by Antonin Scalia. It was a single issue election for me.
Meanwhile, I also had a preexisting relationship with a number of the candidates, including Donald Trump (whom I met in 2011). So, I decided to get involved mainly behind the scenes because I felt I had a moral obligation to do it because of who I knew and what I knew. I cared about certain issues and I had a personal relationship with several of those who might end up serving as president. It became to me about the steward of influence.
Eventually, I was asked to join an evangelical advisory board for candidate Trump. It was a non-endorsing board, but it offered the opportunity to provide real advice. As I said from the beginning, I would have accepted the opportunity to join a similar board for Secretary Clinton as well although, clearly, she might not have liked my advice very much when it came to issues like her refusal to support a ban on the truly inhumane and grotesque practice of partial birth abortion!
The board included a diverse group of some really amazing people and friends like Rev. Samuel Rodriquez, Dr. Jack Graham, and Dr. George Wood. Throughout the election, we had Monday calls which often included Trump, Pence, and senior staffers. The relationship has continued into the White House. We have real access, which is a stewardship.
We have agreed and disagreed with the administration, but we’ve always felt heard, and we have often been pleasantly surprised. A few of us have also had the opportunity to be a kind of personal counselor to various staffers as well.
I’ve written about all of this previously.
Ed: You approached me about serving on the informal Trump advisory board and I declined. In general, I am interested in why you think some evangelicals have declined to advise candidate or President Trump.
Johnnie: There are several reasons people have told me. The primary reason is that certain evangelicals just do not want to get involved with politics under normal circumstances and this environment is an especially hostile one. Others are pressured by their boards and elders not to be involved. Others are willing to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Others idolize their reputations and are unwilling to take the inevitable criticism and hostility levied at those who are active in the public square. Some are legitimately not called to the public square but are called to focus on ministries of compassion, teaching, or service.
I’ve come to respect the different opinions and the different roles that people play within the Body of Christ.
In the public square, it all gets sorted out in the market place of ideas, and in the church it becomes “iron sharpening iron.” The whole world is broken by sin. We’re always going to be imperfect people on an imperfect path and we need little course corrections here and there. That’s one of the reasons why we need each other to fully play our roles in the body.
Some people are called to be prophets and others are called to be pastors, teachers, etc. I’m called to be a principled bridge builder. I’m not a prophet, but I appreciate those who are. We need them. I affirm their gift! I’m not going to try and be them either. I’m also not going to be a coward in moments when we must speak up for righteousness and justice. Usually, I’m a bridge builder and a kind of teacher who discusses what I believe rather than declares it.
Ed: I think what surprised some of us about you getting so close to the administration is that you don’t always fit the bill. Let’s take the example of refugees. For years, you’ve been an advocate for refugees. How do you stay involved as you are when the administration has such a different point of view?
Johnnie: Well, first of all, I am almost entirely involved in international issues. There are lots of issues I don’t get involved in and some issues I don’t have opinions on at all. On most days, the only issue I care about is religious freedom and human rights abroad.
But your question highlights precisely why I stay involved. I have a seat at the table to share my point of view, and I share it. I don’t change my opinions based upon who is in the room.
I generally criticize people privately and praise them publicly. I have the opportunity to be frank and sometimes I am. But I always try to handle things responsibly and respectfully.
Even with the previous administration, I would only resort to public criticism when I no longer had the opportunity to privately express my disagreement, which is eventually what happened with the ISIS situation. The Obama White House was openly opposing genocide resolutions against ISIS passed unanimously by both houses of Congress. Stop and think about that—100% of Republicans and Democrats voted for genocide resolutions which the White House tried to block!
Sometimes, my advice to the administration has made a *significant* difference and sometimes it hasn’t at all. I’m not going to stop giving advice and I’ve never felt any pressure to tow the party line.
I also do what some are unwilling to do and that’s give credit where credit is due. If you cannot find things to praise about someone you disagree with, then you have a problem. I remember commending President Obama’s final National Prayer Breakfast speech when he so openly addressed Christian persecution. I was always complementary of President Obama as a father and husband. Yet, certain opponents of President Trump will never say a positive thing about him publicly.
I also think evangelicals could be much smarter and more objective about the policies they are concerned about.
For example, let’s look at refugees. I was amazed how certain evangelicals who believe in the separation of church and state were suddenly appropriating Matthew 24 as a moral call for government to take in more refugees.
Matthew 24 might inspire the U.S. government to action, but the government is not morally obligated to fulfill it. It would have been much smarter to argue on the economic, foreign, and domestic policy merits for more refugees.
I was very impressed with how World Relief President Scott Arbeiter and CEO Tim Breene handled themselves compared to certain other organizations on the issue. They always argued on the merits. They didn’t try to impose their moral opinion on the government, but they tried to persuade the government as to why it was in their best domestic and foreign policy interest to continue this program. They made a difference because of it.
Additionally, we have to be objective and recognize that there is a need for legitimate reforms on this and other issues (particularly as it relates to the relationship between the U.S. and the U.N.), and that there is merit to discussions about the value/preference/cost of helping refugees abroad versus bringing them here. There is merit to the argument that the government’s job is security and everything else is secondary, including acts of compassion.
Don’t get me wrong, I want the U.S. government to take in many more people, but I understand why the administration has the perspective they have (even when I disagree). And we all ought to agree that foreign assistance is preferable from the beginning because: (a) people don’t want to leave their homes, (b) we must stabilize fragile states, (c) it is most cost effective, and (d) you potentially help millions of people.
It is both/and, not either/or.
On whatever issue, if we don’t argue with objectivity, then the arguments become zero sum games with no room for negotiation. This ends up producing a power dynamic that makes it difficult to get to any compromise. Our system of government demands compromise in the best interests of all parties, or we won’t get anywhere.
The same applies abroad. Bishop Joseph D’Souza (President of the All India Christian Council) is extraordinary at this in India, working cooperatively and effectively with the Indian government. Rather than beginning the conversation by saying, “This is morally wrong and here’s why,” we should begin the conversation by saying, “You’re right about XYZ, but there’s a way to do both and here it is and why you should do it.”
We must also be humble enough to recognize that we can’t know everything because the government has information we don’t have and sometimes cannot disclose. Yet, we should also never stop fighting for our point of view.
Ed: Last month, you announced the Bahrain Declaration for Religious Freedom, written with an Arab King. Earlier this year, you received the Jewish Simon Wiesenthal Center’s medal of valor. And you recently delivered the official sermon to the In Defense of Christians Conference at the Ecumenical worship service in view of four patriarchs from the Eastern Church. Tell us about the role you clearly believe evangelicals should play in the interfaith world.
Johnnie: I believe you can be entirely faithful to the gospel and have rich relationships with people of other Christian traditions and of other faiths entirely. This is, in fact, what I love to do the most. I love to build these relationships and then to work together on issues of mutual concern, especially humanitarian causes and in pursuit of religious liberty abroad.
I believe in the idea of “co-belligerency,” which Francis Schaeffer popularized in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. This idea was hugely influential in the founding of Liberty University.
We don’t have to agree on everything (or almost anything) in order to work together on the issues we do agree about. That philosophy has guided a lot of my decisions here and abroad, interdenominationally, between faiths and otherwise.
We live in a world where the abuse of religion has caused enormous problems and, as I learned from Dr. Chris Seiple, the “best of faith is often the solution to the worst of religion.” Religious leaders are often the only leaders left with any moral authority in moments of tension or conflict.
The interfaith world has often been monopolized by pluralists who seek the dilution of conviction in pursuit of unity. That’s not where I live in the conversation, although I know many of those people and their intentions are pure. But I’m a believer in Christianity and dogmatic in my belief!
I believe we must find a way to bring together people who believe deeply, convictionally. It’s an entirely different thing when you bring together reformed Jews and liberal evangelicals than orthodox Jews and conservative evangelicals or orthodox Jews and traditional Muslims and convictional evangelicals.
We need a world with total religious freedom that forbids forced observance (as the Bahraini king does in his Bahrain Declaration), allows people to change their beliefs, and where people of deep, sincere beliefs (even dogmatic beliefs and exclusivist beliefs) can learn to coexist.
On the contrary, we are increasingly living in a world where people simply do not know how to get along with those different from them. In social media, we self-select those we are exposed to, and generally they enforce our own opinions.
Of course, there are also amazing conversations to be had with Muslims about Isa (Jesus) and the Injil (the gospel), and I love listening to rabbis talk about the Torah (it was their book before it was ours) and Jewish law. I love Jewish philosophy and how comfortable it is with unanswered questions (and how it challenges our Aristotelian way of looking at the world), and I love Islamic culture and history.
I will never change what I believe about Jesus, the Bible, and salvation, but Christians cannot have a litmus test for friendship and we don’t have permission to not love anyone.
There is so much to learn from others who bear the image of God as we all go through life together.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.