Thinking about the past: CNN reporter follows his own roots into SBC's Russell Moore wars

Let's flash back about a month to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix. You may recall that the hot story turned out to be the mishandling of a stirring resolution on politics and race that, for America's largest Protestant flock, attempted to drive a stake into the heart of the alt-right.

In terms of the religion beat, it was interesting to watch major news operations scramble to cover the story, since -- in this age when few Godbeat reporters are granted even minimum travel budgets -- hardly anyone had boots on the ground in Arizona.

However, to the surprise of your GetReligionistas, CNN was there -- in the person of multimedia specialist Chris Moody of the network's political team.

Now, let me stress right here that I have long ties to Moody and to his family. For starters, he was one of my best students at Palm Beach Atlantic University and then in the first, experimental Washington Journalism Center semester. Decades earlier, Moody's grandfather -- a legendary Southern Baptist preacher, the Rev. Jess Moody -- was a good friend of my late father.

Chris Moody headed to Phoenix while reporting a background feature on what everyone expected to be the hot story at the 2017 SBC meetings -- the battle over the future of the Rev. Russell Moore, the outspoken (and very #NeverTrump #NeverHillary) leader of the convention's Washington, D.C., office, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Apparently, Moore more than survived in Arizona. He also played a high-profile role in the alt-right drama, contributing a five-star soundbite on that front. That quote made it into a new Moody feature about Moore, that is now online. Moore said this, concerning the revised SBC resolution. The opening image sounds like something from a Johnny Cash song.

“This resolution has a number on it. It’s Resolution Number 10. The white supremacy it opposes also has a number on it. It’s 666,” [Moore] said, referring to the biblical number representing the devil. “When we stand together as a convention and speak clearly, we are saying that white supremacy and racist ideologies are dangerous because they oppress our brothers and sisters in Christ. They oppress those who are made in the vision of God. They oppress our mission field. Even above and beyond that, unrepentant racism is not just wrong, unrepentant racism sends unrepentant racists to Hell.”

But here is where the 2016 story gets interesting.

Chris Moody wrote this feature in first-person voice because, while watching the Moore drama unfold, he saw many similarities between this showdown and the tensions that surrounded his grandfather -- who in 1969 preached a prophetic sermon against the Vietnam War. Jess Moody (who is still alive and almost certainly still trying to kick the principalities and powers) was just as outspoken on matters of race.

Embedded in this new CNN feature is an audio recording of that 1969 Jess Moody sermon to the SBC Pastors Conference. You'll want to turn this one up and sit down. This is stunning stuff, especially if you are not used to hearing a great Baptist orator in full flight.

Imagine someone shouting the following quote at a convention hall full of Southern Baptists nearly 50 years ago. Take it away Jess:

"It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Lord have mercy. All of this puts this new CNN feature into think piece territory, at least as far as I'm concerned. Here is the crucial transition section of the Chris Moody feature, starting in the aftermath of Trump's victory.

Some leaders pressed for Moore’s resignation, saying the election proved he was out of step with the majority of Southern Baptists. They were especially angry about his characterization of Christians who stuck with Trump even through the worst periods of the campaign.
More than 100 churches threatened to withhold donations to the fund that supports mission programs, Baptist seminaries and the ERLC, the denomination’s executive committee told The Washington Post. Others left the denomination entirely, according to pastors I interviewed.
“He really offended a lot of the guys across the convention who were supporting President Trump,” said the Rev. Fred Luter, a pastor and former convention president who supports Moore. “I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he would do some things differently. I don’t think he would change his message, but his method.”
I went to Phoenix to see how this drama combining the nation's largest Protestant denomination with the most rollicking presidential campaign in recent history would play out. I also went because Moore's trials, in a small way, reminded me of someone close to me. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist pastor named Jess Moody, found himself similarly isolated about 50 years earlier as the denomination debated the Vietnam War and struggled with questions about race relations. With the nation in turmoil, his principled opposition to the war and unvarnished chastisement of churches that had failed to integrate won him few friends at the time.
In studying both instances, I learned that even the deepest splits of our time can ultimately be overcome.

Moore's language attacking Trump was a key issue. So was his fierce conviction that the First Amendment protects the religious liberty of all Americans, including Muslims -- in prisons, in schools and in suburban zoning-law debates.

Most of all, he kept reminding Southern Baptists of hard-to-deny cultural trends that were reshaping postmodern America. He urged his fellow doctrinal and cultural conservatives not to be tempted into thinking that the Moral Majority is going to rise from the dead. Chris Moody quotes, from Moore's 2014 book, "Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel":

“Some sectors of religious activism are willing to receive, as Christians, heretics and demagogues, so long as they are with us politically,” Moore wrote. “When that happens, we are demonstrating what we believe to be truly important, and we are embracing then a different gospel from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He also rejected the notion that the United States was a nation in covenant with God.
“Our end goal is not a Christian America,” he wrote. “That illusion is over, and happily so.”

Now where, one might ask, did Moore get his skill for arguing in favor of morally and doctrinally conservative goals in a hostile environment?

Chris Moody and I have discussed this subject in the past, so I imagine he tried to work this angle into his report. However, this would have taken quite a bit of ink.

Let's back up to one of my earlier posts on Moore and the SBC, one with this headline: "Settling in to follow the Russell Moore story: Where will Southern Baptists gather to talk shop?" You see, in the early 1990s the young Moore worked for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose views on abortion and other social issues were more conservative than most garden-variety Republicans. Taylor became a Republican in 2014, after leaving Congress.

Moore, in a tribute to Taylor, once wrote:

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.

Let that soak in.

As I argued in that earlier post.

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.

Think about that subject, while reading this Chris Moody piece. Read it all.

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