About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully'

Suffice it to say, I received more than a few emails yesterday asking for my reaction to yesterday's Washington Post story by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey that ran under this long, detailed, dramatic headline: "Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job? Churches threaten to pull funds after months of Trump controversy."

One email late last night, which I will decline to share, offered a 500-word plus dissection of the whole piece focusing on this question that many others were asking: Was it accurate to say that the Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, "indicated" that he was prepared to ask Moore -- the denomination's high-profile point man in Washington, D.C. -- to resign on Monday?

As you would imagine, this quickly morphed into discussions of whether Moore -- a consistent #AntiTrump #AntiHillary voice during the madness of 2016 -- was going to be fired.

Out of all of his blunt quotes about Trump, and there are many, here is one from an op-ed in The New York Times that I think expresses what Moore was consistently saying:

Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.

As you would imagine (and I say this as someone who was openly #AntiTrump #AntiHillary), more than a few people in Southern Baptist circles argued -- in public and behind the scenes -- that Moore's opposition to Trump was the same thing as offering support to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

This brings us to the overture of Bailey's much circulated story, a story that was updated with quite a bit of new material on Monday evening.

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.
More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.
Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and has been relatively quiet since the election, declined to comment for this article. Page declined to discuss the plan for Monday’s meeting. When asked whether he could ask for Moore’s resignation, Page responded, “If the meeting doesn’t goes well, I’m fully prepared to ask him for a change in his status.” His response indicated that he would not rule out the possibility that he could ask Moore to resign. He said there was no assumption that Moore would resign, and he hopes Moore and those who oppose him will agree to pursue efforts toward reconciliation.

The story now states, right after that:

On Monday evening, Moore and Page issued a joint statement of support for each other. “We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come,” the statement read. “We will collaborate on developing future steps to deepen connections with all Southern Baptists as we work together to advance the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

One wise member of my extended and well-connected Southern Baptist family (ordained as a Southern Baptist deacon at 28, I am now Eastern Orthodox) likes to refer to this kind of thing as a "We love God" statement.

An editor's note at the end of the updated Post story states that Moore and Page both declined to be interviewed.

Now, I am not going to do much dissecting work on this report for two good reasons. First of all, Bailey is a former colleague and members of the GetReligion team always make that clear when we discuss her work. Second, I got to know Moore quite well during my years of work in Washington for the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. For starters, I share his conviction that Johnny Cash is at or near the top of, well, just about any list of anything that has to do with prophetic voices in American culture.

I would, however, like to make a few comments simply to underline a few key points in the Bailey report.

* First of all, I can understand why people read this story as a statement that Moore was about to be fired. Any veteran reporter knows what it's like to talk to a major leader who simply does not want to show any of his or her cards, one way or the other, when facing a reporter ahead of an important event. Still, Bailey tweeted out:

* On Twitter, I questioned the degree to which the original story's emphasis on race in the lede. Obviously, the Southern Baptists have a complex and at times dark history on race, but there have been major positive developments in recent years. Moore has been a strong voice on matters of racial reconciliation, but so have many other SBC leaders -- of all ages and all levels of SBC work.

I think it is accurate to say that pushing Moore out the door would have major implications for SBC work on issues of race and social justice. See the top of this recent Baptist Press story:

LAUREL, Md. (BP) -- The president of a network of some 4,000 predominantly African American Southern Baptist churches has issued an open letter urging reconciliation between Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore and those threatening to withhold Cooperative Program money over his actions.
Byron Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in a March 9 letter that while "feathers have been ruffled on both sides," "obedience to the Bible's teaching can surely offer a solution so that we can get back to working together to share the good news of God's love, forgiveness, and gift of eternal life."

It's impossible to avoid race, when discussing the past, present and future of SBC life. I don't think, however, that racial issues played a major role in the push to punish Moore for his opposition to Trump.

The current version of the Post story adds depth on this topic -- well down in the story.

* Many people have commented on the fact that only 100 out of 46,000 SBC churches are part of the anti-Moore effort. Why worry so much about a small group? Well, this is a matter of location, location, location. I will simply add, as the signs and bumper stickers say: "Don't Mess With Texas."

* But the key material in the Bailey report nails what I think is the central issue here, which is a generational conflict in evangelical and SBC life that has been worsened by the rise of Trump. This has affected all kinds of issues, such as discussions of immigration and even arguments over the tactics used to defend religious liberty.

This generational issue has often pitted old-guard SBC leaders linked to the Religious Right against younger evangelicals who, while just as conservative on moral and social issues, have cheered for Moore's attempts to focus on missions and the defense of basic Christian beliefs in an increasingly post-Christian (according to the hard numbers in the polls) America.

One side, in other word, sees Trump's win as a major victory for Christians in America. The other side -- even if they saw Trump as a safer option than Clinton -- sees America's new president as yet another symptom of the bitter divisions and chaos in the nation's soul.

It doesn't help that this younger generation, like Moore, believes that historic Calvinism should play a vital role in SBC life and work. Bailey's story includes this passage, with a strategic URL link to a Christianity Today report:

In addition to topics such as immigration and Muslim rights, Southern Baptists have also been embroiled in a theological debate over how to understand salvation that has also divided the denomination along generational lines.
During last year’s annual convention, two Southern Baptist leaders went head to head in a presidential election that represented a generational and theological divide. Southern Baptists were evenly split between J.D. Greear, a younger pastor, and Tennessee pastor Steve Gaines, who was perceived as representing an older generation of Southern Baptists. After neither received enough votes in a runoff, Greear withdrew from the race and Gaines became president. Gaines declined to comment.
Greear said Moore has represented a younger generation well with his tone and his hesitancy toward partisanship. He said part of the generational debate involves how deeply the denomination of 15 million members should venture into policy beyond abortion and civil rights.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.

Journalists, I would note one other interesting point in this act in the Moore drama. Yesterday's Post report does not include this significant word -- Louisville, as in Kentucky.

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