Ideal doctoral dissertation for the Trump Epoch: Washington's religious lobbyists

Last May 9, Donald Trump tweeted (yes, at 3:05 a.m.) that the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore is “truly a terrible representative of evangelicals,” not to mention “a nasty guy with no heart!”

As beat specialists know, Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, had issued numerous sharp moral denunciations of Trump during the campaign.

Nonetheless, Moore has now found one deed of President Trump worth praise. The Baptist was first out of the box in religious maneuvering over Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, within hours rallying 52 evangelical Protestant leaders to endorse the Episcopalian. The 52 declared that the “Senate should work diligently to confirm his appointment without obstruction.” Good luck with that.

By coincidence, the day of the Gorsuch announcement patheos.com blogger Jacob Lupfer lauded the ERLC’s effectiveness as the socio-political voice of America’s biggest Protestant denomination. Lupfer said the experts consider this “highly professional” shop to be “definitively the premier conservative evangelical public-policy organization,” which outpaces “just about any other faith group involved in politics.”

Lupfer admits he is “an unlikely person” to say such things, considering his own  disagreements with the Baptists' views.

But here is an alert for scribes: In April he completes a Georgetown University political science dissertation about religious lobbies in Washington, D.C. This study should provide journalists good grist for an article, with a book sure to follow, and Lupfer will remain a quotable source throughout the Trump Epoch.

Moore issued a Christmastime semi-apology if anyone thought he scorned  Christians who voted for Trump, explaining: “There’s a massive difference between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality, and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience.” He's also come under fire from some Southern Baptists because his agency supports religious freedom for Muslims seeking to build new mosques. 

Lupfer figures Moore has enough institutional and personal support in the right places to defy Trump acolytes and keep the job, and asserts that the personable bureaucrat combines political know-how, theological authenticity, and 21st Century media savvy.

Otherwise, what’s the key to the Baptists’ effectiveness? In a word, focus. The ERLC emphasizes religious liberty under the Constitution, one reason Gorsuch is so appealing, sidestepping matters like, say, nuclear proliferation on which Christians and Southern Baptists lack consensus.

Lupfer says with D.C. religion lobbies too often “you get harried staff rushing in and out of coalition meetings, irrelevant sign-on letters that never sway members of Congress, and a general lack of accountability or effectiveness.” He avoids naming the obvious example journalists might analyze for comparison, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

The Methodists’ office is strangely warmed (so to speak) by a swirl of energy implementing 448 social statements issued by the nation’s second-largest Protestant body. Eyeballing its website we find liberal sentiments on (cue: drumroll): Church and state, civil rights, clean water, climate justice, criminal justice,  the death penalty, domestic violence, environmental justice, the federal budget, gun violence, healthcare policy, HIV-AIDS, human sexuality, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, the living wage, mass imprisonment, mental health, migrants, Nigeria, oppression of women and children, Palestine, payday lenders, the Philippines, public education, refugees, “reproductive health,” the Standing Rock oil pipeline, Syria, torture, voter mobilization and world peace. Also, of course, alcohol and gambling.

Regarding the Baptists' favored cause of religious freedom, the site promises “information coming soon!”

Historical notes:

-- During the 2006 campaign, board General Secretary Jim Winkler  disunited the United Methodists by urging impeachment of George W. Bush, the first President from their denomination since 1901. At issue: Iraq.  Winkler is now general secretary of the National Council of Churches, working next door to the Methodist office hard by the Supreme Court building.

-- A pioneering book on this topic was 1970’s “The Growing Church Lobby in Washington” by James L. Adams, an editor and sometime religion writer with the Cincinnati Post (R.I.P. both author and newspaper).

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