Battling for the Heart and Soul of the Southern Baptist Convention

For those who have not been paying attention, there has been religious fallout following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President.

Many have been following the saga of Dr. Russell Moore who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who stood up against supporting Trump for president, but he is by no means the only person of faith who resisted Trump. Among them are pastor and author Max LucadoDr. Michael Brown, and NC pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz.

Moore’s resistance to Trump made him the subject of a Trump tweet during the campaign: “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”

I dare say Donald Trump never took the time to read the doctrine of the Baptist denomination but he cavalierly deemed Moore a nasty guy with no heart.

Dr. Russell Moore, 45, is a man of courage. It is difficult to stand up to the overwhelming majority, a head wind he has faced since splitting from the (as it turned out) overwhelming decision within the evangelical community to vote for Donald Trump (an estimated 81 percent of evangelicals backed Trump).

In January he wrote a letter to Donald Trump. As I noted before:

Not only is there a split in the country during these polarizing days but there is a split within the evangelical community. We all know the Franklin Grahams and others very publicly supported Donald Trump and delivered their flocks for him. Less known are the men who stood up to their religious peers — Dr. Russell Moore who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor and author Max Lucado, Matt BarberDr. Michael Brown, and others.

As a Southern Baptist, I was grateful when Dr. Moore held onto his faith and sound ethics. You can bet he is now in a battle to save his position because, in the religious world just as in the political world, sharks are waiting. Because he didn’t climb on the band wagon but instead stood by his faith, he has a target on his back.

Now, as a result of Moore’s stand, members of the convention have made their move to challenge him and threaten his position. The Atlantic reported (see Russell Moore and the Fight for the Soul of the Southern Baptist Convention):

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Russell Moore—the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm—might lose his job. The denomination’s executive committee had asked Moore for a private meeting to discuss an unfolding controversy: More than 100 churches are considering cutting off funding from the Convention, according to the Post, and the influential Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas announced in February that it will temporarily withhold roughly $1 million from the Convention’s cooperative mission programs. The executive committee has recently begun an investigation into why these funds are being withheld.

While the controversy might seem like routine bureaucratic in-fighting in the country’s largest Protestant denomination, it is symbolic of deeper tensions. “The SBC is in the middle of a huge identity crisis,” said Dave Miller, the senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, who edits the blog SBC Voices. “We don’t know who we are.”

However, in the midst of the in-fighting, another wing of the denomination has come to Dr. Moore’s defense (see Black Southern Baptists Not on Board to Defund Russell Moore):

Concerns are building among some black Southern Baptists about a predominantly white conservative church movement to redirect funds away from the denomination’s policy arm because of disagreements with Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore.

The threats to withhold funding come from congregations such as megachurch Prestonwood Baptist outside of Dallas, Texas.

This distresses some notable African-Americans within the SBC, many of whom generally shared Moore’s anti-Trump stance during the 2016 election and appreciate his emphasis on issues of racial justice.

Frank Page, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, said in an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday that while he does not presume to speak for all black Southern Baptists, he noted that many “do feel that Dr. Moore has spoken to issues that are of importance to them and so it would be very hurtful if he were to leave.”

Imagine that. The head of the ethics division of the denomination had a problem with Donald Trump who was less than sensitive to the plight of minorities and immigrants. Because Moore did not walk lock-step, some in the denomination are after his head. It makes those raised Baptist shake their heads, yet they face the same push-back and scorn from those who felt they had no other option than to vote for Trump.

But things are a-changing within the denomination and, more and more, today’s Baptists are not your dad’s religion. Again from The Atlantic article:

The fight over Moore is not just about him, though. The Southern Baptist Convention is changing, and Moore represents the denomination’s shift in orientation. Moore has frequently spoken out against the old-guard religious right, which was led in the 1990s and ’00s in part by his predecessor at the ERLC, Richard Land. Moore has called on the denomination to divorce itself from Republican politics, especially as younger evangelicals show themselves to be more politically diverse, and has moved his organization in that direction. He is part of a new generation of pastors, who tend to be more Calvinist in orientation, who have taken over leadership roles.

Indeed, Baptists are becoming more diverse, both politically and ethnically:

Some of the most vibrant, growing communities in the church include Hispanic evangelicals, for example. During his nearly four years in his position with the ERLC, Moore has focused on racial reconciliation as a key part of his job.

The Washington Post echoed Dr. Moore’s grasp on the changing dynamics of the church:

Since he was elected in 2013, Moore, 45, has been praised by younger evangelicals for challenging the political approach of an older generation. He is also very popular among many evangelicals of color, who have welcomed Moore’s promotion of racial justice, including his vigorous opposition to public displays of the Confederate flag.

When I was in high school, a big shift occurred within the church when it was influenced more by the younger generation in its music, dress, and even the choice of Bibles, and there was resistance at the time. It is a natural reaction, and Dr. Moore’s challenge, if he survives the effort to oust him, will be to bring the two sides together.

The latest news sounds as if there may be a reprieve although anything could happen (see the very comprehensive The Baptist Battle Over Russell Moore Really Matters — Here’s Why). For those of us who grew up in the church, this National Review article absolutely nails it by delving into the church’s doctrine and long-standing teachings that are deeply ingrained in cradle Baptists:

Yesterday, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, appeared to dodge a bullet. … Yet the question of Moore’s status may not be permanently resolved.

Moore was an early critic of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The core of his critique was simple: that American Christians shouldn’t excuse or rationalize sin for the sake of political victory in any single election. Moreover, the same moral standards one applies to political opponents should also apply to one’s political friends. If sexual misconduct, for example, rendered Bill Clinton unfit for office in the 1990s, how should Christians think about a thrice-married serial adulterer in 2016 — especially one who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals?

On a broader level, Moore was mapping out a vision for Christians that declared the church to be more than just another interest group. Rather than narrowly seeking its own perceived political interests, it should offer a God-honoring moral voice that is concerned with ends and means. In other words, those who lie to secure power are still liars, even if they prove to be marginally better politicians than the candidates they defeat. The church does not glorify God when it aligns itself with corruption in either party.

… in making his critiques and stating his case against Clinton and Trump, Moore was doing little more than quoting the Southern Baptist Convention back to itself. In 1998, as Bill Clinton faced impeachment for his sexual misconduct, the Convention penned a short but powerful Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. The resolution laid out a series of key biblical truths, including truths that should prick the conscience of politically involved Christians of both parties.

For example, the convention noted that “many Americans are willing to excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails.” That is most certainly true, and so is this: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

In 1998 the Southern Baptist Convention declared: “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.”

Some may say that was way back in 1998. I say there is no statute of limitations on morality, decency, kindness, and character.

Character matters.

The National Review ends with these all-important questions:

Moore may have offended with his rhetoric (some of it was harsh, but some Christians are snowflakes). Was he wrong, though, to argue that the church fundamentally should have a more prophetic than partisan role in our culture? How much is God calling Christians to compromise other values for the sake of perceived progress on life and religious liberty? Should the church defend the liberties of others that it would like to exercise itself? Was Moore wrong to cling to the principles outlined in the church’s own resolutions?

These are the questions at issue not just for Southern Baptists but for all Christians. Moore’s fate matters because these questions matter. The church is not a partisan interest group. Moore understands this reality. Do his critics?

Author David French dug deep for this article and actually understood the conflicts presented to Baptist believers who were uncomfortable following a man who stood against their beliefs. The struggle is real. The choice exposed the battle between firmly held Christian morals and beliefs that are lived every day — the proverbial walk the walk, and weighing only the political benefits in an election that was unlike any other in our lifetimes.

As to Dr. Moore, he continues to stand for the 20 percent of Baptists and evangelicals who did not vote for Trump.  Stay tuned to see if he survives the spiritual battle for the heart and soul of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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