Settling in to follow the Russell Moore story: Where will Southern Baptists gather to talk shop?

Having seen a few Southern Baptist Convention rodeos during my time, I would assume that most of the key debates about the work of the Rev. Russell Moore have moved back into the world of emails, cellphones and talks behind closed doors.

The key for reporters -- other than paying attention to social media -- will be to try to figure out when and where young and old Baptists in the various niches will gather to talk shop over coffee during breaks in their usual meetings. (Few Southern Baptists hide out and talk in bars. But think about it: Would reporters ever think to look for them there?)

Maybe look for gatherings of pastors at the level of regional associations, maybe in North Texas and other hot zones? As I suggested in my earlier post, I would also keep an eye on Louisville and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Moore has many ties. The leader of that campus, of course, is the influential President Albert Mohler, Jr., another articulate conservative critic of Donald Trump.

Now that public debates about Moore's work have begun -- with some journalists paying attention -- it is crucial that key leaders in the growing networks of African-American Southern Baptist churches have made their views clear. These churches are crucial to the SBC's future and national leaders know it. Click here for a strategic Baptist Press story on that, released before the March 13 meeting between Moore and the Rev. Frank Page, head of the SBC executive committee.

In terms of a mainstream news update on these developments, look to this story by Religion News Service veteran Adelle Banks, with this headline: "Black Southern Baptists: ‘We are pulling for Dr. Moore’."

Like I said, they are making their views quite clear.

(RNS) Embattled Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, the public face of the nation’s largest Protestant group, has at least one group of vocal supporters: African-American Southern Baptist leaders.
From the head of the SBC’s black fellowship to former Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter, these officials have made it clear that, as one of their statements said, “We are pulling for Dr. Moore.”

Wait, there is more. The whole Banks report is a must-read item.

Two of three recent statements featuring black leaders’ support of Moore compare him to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader whose messages about justice were rejected by some of his generation, including some Southern Baptists.
In an open letter published last week in Baptist outlets, Byron J. Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, called for unity within the denomination.
“There are some who have suggested withholding cooperative dollars until Dr. Moore is either disciplined or fired. However, Russell Moore has done nothing worthy of discipline or firing,” he wrote. “He has represented all Southern Baptists, contending for the highly visible ethical issues of abortion and biblical marriage; but he has also addressed social injustices such as racism which have been long overlooked.”

Once again, when I get hate email about Moore (whenever he is mentioned here at GetReligion), these blasts always focus on issues directly linked to Trump and/or immigration. The key, it appears, is that many think Moore is a heretic when it comes to politics, as opposed to his moral theology on hot-button social issues.

But, more than anything else, Moore has stressed the need for broad coalitions in support of religious liberty. As he stated at the national SBC gathering last year, while defending SBC support for fair treatment of mainstream Muslims seeking permits to build mosques:

"What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody," Moore said. "[W]hen you have a government that says, 'We can decide whether or not a house of worship is being constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship,' then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build."

In that context, I keep waiting for someone to note that there is nothing new about Moore striving to make a case for conservative beliefs in hostile political territory, including among liberals in the public square. Reporters need to note an early line on his resume.

As a young adult -- in the early 1990s -- he worked for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose views on abortion and many other social issues were more conservative than most garden-variety Republicans. Taylor became a Republican in 2014, after leaving Congress a few years earlier. Here is a key piece of a Moore tribute to Taylor:

This was a man who was a Democratic United States Congressman, at that time in the state of Mississippi, there wasn’t really a difference between Democratic and Republican parties on the social issues -- most of the Democrats were pro-life and pro-family -- but as he was dealing with the national party, I remember hearing some party bosses saying to him, “You might have a future if you didn’t have the position that you have on the abortion question.” And around that time right before that and right after that, you had a lot of politicians in that party who switched on the abortion issue because they knew that they would never be able to make it nationally, not going to be chosen to be vice president, not going to be able to win a presidential nomination. ... I don’t think my boss thought that, but many of them do and my boss just said, as he heard one person say to him, “Well, if you alter that position on abortion, then you might have a future,” his response to that was to say “Yeah, but then I’d be a prostitute.”
I was pro-life before I came to work for him but I don’t think I cared about the issue until I was with him and I saw that for him it wasn’t just a platform issue, it wasn’t just a pro-forma sort of thing, he really cared about this issue, which is why he always mentioned it. I cannot think of a campaign that he ran when he wouldn’t talk about the unborn, not just about life generally, but about unborn children and so I learned a lot from that.

Stop and think about that. It is one think to make the pro-life case in a fundraising letter to other religious conservatives. It is something else to learn how to take that stand, and push for realistic pro-life legislation, in rooms full of Democrats in the early 1990s.

Moore has -- facing a more complex, pluralistic America -- been taking a similar approach in defense of religious liberty.

Suffice it to say that, if and when Trump signs an executive order or a major bill defending religious liberty, Moore will be the first to cheer, while also striving to get moderate Democrats to meet conservatives half way on issues linked to the First Amendment.

In conclusion, let me point GetReligion readers toward one other news report, as we look to the future of this complex story.

Several people have written me to note that some reporters need to grasp that, under the structures that govern Southern Baptist work, Page was not the person who had the right to demand that Moore resign. Others would have to sign on to flip that switch.

You can see a nod to this in a new Emma Green piece at The Atlantic. This section of her analysis is long, but crucial. I urge journalists to check out the URLs in this section, as well.

Short of Moore deciding he was going to resign, it was unlikely he would have lost his job on Monday. The governing structure of the Southern Baptist Convention is complex: Only the board of trustees that specifically oversees Moore’s organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has the power to ask him to resign; Page couldn’t have fired Moore even if he wanted to. Ken Barbaric, who chairs the ERLC’s board of trustees, has openly praised Moore and emphasized his support for Moore’s work.

This leads to a discussion of the key theme in this drama, a growing division in the style and priorities of two different generations of SBC leaders. The main quote here is from the Rev. Dave Miller of Sioux City, Iowa, who edits the SBC Voices weblog.

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.
“When I was young, there was a culture that the SBC had,” said Miller. “You could go into any SBC church, and there just was a way we did things. The preachers dressed alike, and we sang from the same hymnbook, and there was a culture that bound us together. That’s been blown completely to pieces.”
The denomination is also looking ahead to a future membership that will be less white and more black and brown: Some of the most vibrant, growing communities in the church include Hispanic evangelicals, for example.

That's all for now. Please leave me links, in our comments pages, to key stories and blog posts that you think would interest reporters covering this ongoing story.

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