A constant commandment for journalists is to “assess thy sources.”
The running debate on “what is an evangelical,” so pertinent for newswriters during this presidential campaign, involves “who speaks for evangelicals” and consequently “who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention”? The sprawling SBC is by far this category’s largest U.S. denomination, with 15.5 million members, 46,000 congregations, and $11 billion in annual receipts.
As noted by Jonathan Merritt in Religion News Service, the issue has been pursued with a vengeance by Will Hall, the new editor of the state Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana. Hall targets as unrepresentative the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president since 2013, the Rev. Russell D. Moore, 44, who’s the Southern Baptists’ prime spokesman on moral and social issues in the public sphere.
An editorial by Hall charged that Moore’s dislike for presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular “goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently” while Moore otherwise “has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists.”
Moore is certainly outspoken about Trump. In a New York Times op-ed last Sept. 17, he said evangelicals and other social conservatives who back the billionaire “must repudiate everything they believe.” He joined the 22 essayists in the “Against Trump” package in the Feb. 15National Review. Moore said with Trump, “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power” that religious conservatives should view as “decadent and deviant.”
Hall is also peeved because last July Moore sponsored his own candidate forum for 15,000 attendees and interviewed (Catholics) Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, invited (Methodist) Hillary Clinton who didn’t show, but failed to include fellow Southern Baptists Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Mike Huckabee. Other complaints:
-- Two of Moore’s five top aides aren’t even members of the SBC and four “had ties to the Calvinistic network The Gospel Coalition.”
-- Moore thinks the southeastern Bible Belt harbors an “almost Christianity” that “prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity.”
-- Moore said public officials should resign rather than resist the Supreme Court’s gay marriage go-ahead, and criticized “reparative therapy” to attempt to change sexual orientation.
-- Moore joined an evangelical appeal to Congress opposed to enhanced security checks for Syrian refugees.
No question Moore is a different fellow from his outspoken predecessor at ERLC, Richard Land, now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, N.C., who functioned more or less as chaplain to the “religious right.”
Moore’s appointment to the ERLC was hailed by the likes of Gov. Bobby Jindal, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the Rev. Rick Warren and Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who proclaimed him “the most brilliant theologian of his generation” in any Christian branch.
Moore’s progress has been rapid. He joined the ethics faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before completing his Ph.D. there, and was appointed dean of its School of Theology a mere three years later.
An equally telling biographical aspect may be his four pre-seminary years on the staff of longtime Democratic Congressman Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Taylor, whose seat flipped Republican in 2010, was one of the shrinking tribe of moderate “blue dog” Democrats. Interest groups ranked the Congressman as a middle-of-the-roader on economic policy, defense, labor and the environment, but staunchly conservative on guns, abortion and sexuality issues.
Whether representative, or not, or not quite, Moore is a Southern Baptist to watch closely.