It’s mid-June and time for the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, this year in sweltering Phoenix.
During the years I worked for the Houston Chronicle, attending this confab was a two-reporter affair, with space on A1 all but guaranteed. The Chronicle’s religion section had the reputation of providing incisive coverage, so we prepped for it for weeks, scoping out all the various factions.
Press coverage of the SBC in recent years is not what it was in the turbulent ‘80s, the years of the conservative takeover (or take back) of the denomination -- an era in which I saw the most delicious displays of religious politics. Unlike other denominations that pretend they’re too good for this sort of thing, the Southern Baptists took great pleasure in wheeling and dealing.
But far fewer reporters today are following the ins and outs of the SBC, which is why it was a nice change to see this Wall Street Journal piece on the Rev. Russell Moore, whose opposition to Donald Trump has cost him dearly.
WASHINGTON -- When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty last month, he was surrounded in the White House Rose Garden by religious figures -- Catholics, orthodox Jews, Sikhs and a host of evangelical Christians.
One prominent evangelical was conspicuously missing: Russell Moore, the public face and chief lobbyist of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Mr. Moore’s absence was a sign of the rift between him and the new administration, and hinted at a rupture within the Southern Baptist Convention itself that is challenging Mr. Moore’s leadership and potentially pushing the powerful, conservative institution off the political course he set.
As Southern Baptists head into their annual meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Moore, 45 years old, is at the center of a generational struggle over the denomination’s future. The outcome could determine whether Southern Baptists continue to be a leading conservative voice in cultural disputes over abortion and gay rights -- and whether evangelical Christians remain a reliably Republican voting bloc.
But Mr. Moore has no access to Mr. Trump, fueling questions about how effectively he can do his job. Some Southern Baptists are talking about eliminating the public-policy group he leads at the annual meeting.
“The election revealed some differences among us, in the broader evangelical community as well as the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Frank Page, president of the denomination’s executive committee. “They aren’t going to go away after the election.”
The Journal piece went on to quote people on both sides of the Southern Baptist divide although the reporter might want to expand his Rolodex a bit.
Last December, he quoted an Atlanta resident named Ruth Malhotra as an example of younger Baptists who support Moore. The piece that ran June 9 also quoted Ms. Malhotra.
After years of feeling shut out during the Obama administration, evangelicals are now enjoying far greater access at the White House. Mr. Moore, however, has been shut out, according to evangelicals who work in Washington. A White House spokeswoman said Mr. Moore didn’t appear to have visited since Mr. Trump took office.
While other evangelical leaders were in the White House Rose Garden last month, he was at a conference about orphans in Nashville, according to his Twitter feed.
On March 3, about a month after Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court, two dozen religious leaders gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to strategize how to help his Senate confirmation process. Mr. Graham was there, as was Tony Perkins, a Southern Baptist pastor and president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. Mr. Moore was not.
Then the piece has the most delicious tidbit:
At one point this spring, Mr. Moore’s staff had to search for a way to get in touch with the White House.
“Dr. Moore’s office reached out to ask if I could give them a good email address for the White House,” said Johnnie Moore (no relation to Russell Moore), a 34-year-old Southern Baptist member of Mr. Trump’s evangelical advisory board and founder of the Kairos Co., a public-relations firm that represents many religious figures.
“It was a strange question from a multimillion-dollar public-policy organization. They apparently still couldn’t find the front door, despite that door being in plain sight,” said Johnnie Moore, who sent Mr. Moore an email address for the White House. “The polite thing to do was to help.”
Of course, the question wasn't how to email the White House. The question was how to email someone in Trump's White House who was in a position to act.
One thing the article didn’t allude to, but which is well known is President Trump’s penchant for revenge. How high up does the alienation from the White House go? If Trump hasn’t personally dealt out this punishment to Moore, who near the Oval Office is doing this?
Still, some pastors are now going around Mr. Moore to lobby in Washington, building their own relationships with the White House or working with other conservative groups.
“I think this Russell Moore controversy was really a catalyst to begin asking a bigger question, which is whether the ERLC is even relevant anymore,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Dallas and another member of Mr. Trump’s evangelical advisory board. “No one person represents the views of Southern Baptists.”
For those of us who enjoy watching these sorts of dramas, Mr. Moore is in a tough spot. I can’t see his access problem getting solved unless he was to utterly grovel before Trump, which he won’t do.
Other newspapers, such as the Tennessean, have run similar walk-ups to the SBC meeting, but I didn't see info about Moore's White House shut-out elsewhere.
It is noteworthy that the Tennessee Gannett network story did a much better job of covering several other elements of this important story, such as Moore's fierce defense of religious liberty for all religious groups in America -- including Muslims. This has angered some pastors. See the video at the top of this post from SBC 2016, which captures the heart of that debate.
Then there is the whole question of SBC life in the age of social media. It's impossible to talk about Moore's comments about Trump without mentioning the ERLC leader's high profile on Twitter. Needless to say, the old-guard SBC leaders are not jousting with reporters and other activists in Twitter.
Like I said above, in Southern Baptist politics, only the strong survive and Moore hasn't gotten to where he is now without some smarts and friends in high places. For now, he has to stick with the stand he's taken. I suspect he'll pull his way out of this mess when the White House comes to him when it needs him for something.
Which, considering Trump's plummeting poll numbers, might be sooner rather than later.