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What Russell Moore knew

Russell Moore while president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Photo courtesy of ERLC

(RNS) — There’s this truism in business trends that if you’re too early, you’re crazy, but if you’re too late, you’re out of touch. Entrepreneurial types love to attribute Steve Jobs’ success to knowing how to launch new products right in that not-too-early-but-not-too-late sweet spot. 

But Russell Moore provides an interesting counterexample to this axiom. He’s been early, on time and late to taking the Southern Baptist Convention to task for its snake ball of issues (white nationalism, sexual abuse, Trump stuff) and has been branded equal parts crazy and out of touch the entire time. 

He’s on NPR this week plugging his new book, “Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America,” and one particular excerpt from his interview has gone kinda viral. 

It was the result of having multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — “turn the other cheek” — (and) to have someone come up after to say, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, “I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,” the response would not be, “I apologize.” The response would be, “Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.

Well, this story has everything, including but not limited to an opportunity for liberals to play one of those “Jesus would have been a Democrat, actually!” cards they love so much. 

Obviously, more conservative Southern Baptists don’t like Moore for this kind of talk. They chased him out of their denomination with torches and pitchforks years ago. But the really interesting thing to me here is how many liberals and progressives I’ve seen share this quote with eye-roll-y “told ya so” snark. “Oh, when we warn evangelicals to stay away from Trump, we’re communists. But when Russell Moore says it, it’s on NPR.” That sort of talk, along with the usual: Don’t say we didn’t warn ya, MAGA Chud! Sucks to suck! 

I’m not particularly interested in linking to any of these posts because I am a man of peace but, suffice to say, it’s included a few people who should really know better. Moore has been banging this drum since Donald Trump was just a twinkle in the SBC’s eye, and Moore’s been predicting this exact scenario since long before many “exvangelicals” and so-on got on their high horses about it. 

For a long, long time, Moore was president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the SBC’s public policy wing. Affable, engaging and as well-versed in Spider-Man as he is in Spurgeon, Moore stood out from an SBC that was starting to feel a little dusty even in 2013. He had a very vocal commitment to racial justice and a frank reckoning with his denomination’s racist roots.

“Time and time again in the white American Bible Belt the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow because you cannot serve both,” he said. “And tragically, many often chose to serve Jim Crow and to rename him Jesus Christ.” Good stuff! If you aren’t a Southern Baptist, you really can’t imagine what absolute freaks the SBC can be about talk like this. 

But Moore never strayed too far from the SBC’s conservative policy advocacy and repeatedly affirmed his belief that only the straights can get married. Credit where it’s due: He did thoroughly excoriate gay conversion therapy as abusive. So that’s something. But it is deeply unserious to brand the guy as a liberal, let alone a leftist. 

But in 2015, Moore started paying attention to the Trump stuff, and he made it clear that he was not interested in being part of any SBC that got cozy with Trump. At the time, he wasn’t alone. Lots of high-ranking SBC guys talked a big “never, ever, period” game, only to flip to “sometimes, definitely, if I feel like it” when the cards were down. But Moore stuck to his guns. 

There are no haters like SBC haters, and Moore’s haters absolutely unloaded on him. Over 100 SBC churches stopped paying their dues in protest of Moore’s role in the ERLC. Jack Graham — pastor of Prestonwood Baptist, home of this deranged TikTok — dangled his annual million-dollar donation like a carrot in front of Moore’s bosses. “It’s him or the money.” 

In the end, the SBC didn’t fire Moore but did tell him to shut up. For a while, Moore seemed willing to play ball. But then hell broke loose, and I mean that literally.

The Houston Chronicle’s bombshell “Abuse of Faith” series exposed a sexual abuse cover-up to rival the Catholic Church’s. The Chronicle’s reporters uncovered an ongoing and systemic pattern of SBC leadership ignoring, dismissing and disparaging sexual abuse survivors in their churches when they weren’t outright protecting the abusers. 

Russell Moore while president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Photo by Susan Whitley/NAMB, courtesy of ERLC

Moore was one of the few guys in leadership who took this seriously, and probably the highest-ranking one to do so. He called it the Southern Baptist apocalypse. “It’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”

Religion News Service got hold of a fire and brimstone letter he sent to the executive leadership, accusing people in SBC leadership of threatening to silence him for calling out racial injustice and sexual abuse cover-up in the SBC. He said high-ranking people in his denomination wanted him “to live in psychological terror,” writing that “from the very beginning of my service, I have been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters, and have been told to be quiet about this by others.” 

“When God called me to himself in Jesus, and when he called me to serve him in ministry, he called me to stand for the truth, to point the way to the kingdom, to die to self, and to carry the cross. He did not call me to provide cover for racial bigotry and child molestation. I will not do that.”

He turned in his resignation later that month. 

These days, Moore is working for Christianity Today and pastoring a nondenominational church here in Nashville, Tennessee. And, apparently, he’s writing books about losing religion. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get around to it. 

Moore doesn’t need my defending and I’m not particularly interested in doing so. We disagree about a lot of really serious things. What I do want to stress is that this is a good example of something I’ve written about a few times but that continues to drive me nuts: how often liberals and progressives show their whole entire ass by celebrating three-point shots when they actually airballed. The sheer amount of “don’t say we didn’t warn ya!” energy being directed Moore’s way by people who seem to think he’s some bewildered country bumpkin Rip Van Winkle-ing through the culture wars is a real embarrassment. You cannot claim to be the voice of moral clarity when you’re gatekeeping this incoherently. 

Because, of all the things you could take Moore to task for — and there are plenty — accusing him of being late to this particular fight is absurd. He knew this was coming. He saw it a mile away. He has been on this hill the entire time, and the price he’s paid has been higher than most exvangelical types ever have or likely would even want to. Whatever else he is, Moore is a guy of integrity who stood by his convictions. Too few of ’em out there.

(Tyler Huckabee is a writer living in Nashville with his wife and dog. This article was originally published at his Substack, where you can read more of his writing. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Religion News Service.)

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