I arrived in Houston in 1986 as a freshly minted religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle. This was about the same time as Bible teacher Beth Moore was becoming known as a master teacher of women. This was an era, in lots of evangelical churches, when women weren’t supposed to be teaching men in any way, shape or form.
She wasn’t famous at that point, although I vaguely remember hearing about her. She got her start leading aerobics classes at First Baptist Church in Houston, one of several megachurches in the city. By the time I arrived she was segueing into teaching Bible studies for women and the rest is history.
Well, almost. For 30-some years, she’s been a best-selling Christian author who hasn’t said much that’s controversial — until Donald Trump started running for president. According to a new profile on her in The Atlantic, 2016 was the year when everything changed.
These days, the profile says, Moore is taking on “the evangelical political machine” — singular. But is she really? Is there one group of evangelicals active in American politics, or is the reality more complex than that?
When Beth Moore arrived in Houston in the 1980s, she found few models for young women who wanted to teach scripture. Many conservative Christian denominations believed that women should not hold authority over men, whether in church or at home; many denominations still believe this. In some congregations, women could not speak from the lectern on a Sunday or even read the Bible in front of men. But Moore was resolute: God, she felt, had called her to serve. So she went where many women in Texas were going in the ’80s: aerobics class. Moore kicked her way into ministry, choreographing routines to contemporary Christian music for the women of Houston’s First Baptist Church. …
Her Bible studies were what made her famous.
A publishing career followed, further magnifying Moore’s influence. She was the first woman to have a Bible study published by LifeWay, the Christian retail giant, and has since reached 22 million women, the most among its female authors. Today, her Bible studies are ubiquitous, guiding readers through scriptural passages with group-discussion questions and fill-in-the-blank workbooks. “It would be hard to find a church anywhere where at least some segment of the congregation has not been through at least one Beth Moore study,” Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (and no relation to Beth) told me.
Moore’s success was possible because she spent her career carefully mapping the boundaries of acceptability for female evangelical leaders. She rarely spoke to the press and made a point of keeping her politics to herself. Her persona embodies what a young fan described to me as the “Southern-belle white Christian woman.”
Once damning information about Trump’s behavior came out on the “Access Hollywood” tape weeks before the election, she was appalled enough to remind her 900,000 Twitter followers that women put up with this sort of abuse all the time.
The next day, Moore wrote a few short messages to her nearly 900,000 followers. “Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement & power,” she said in one tweet. “Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.” Like other women, Moore wrote, she had been “misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to.” As pastors took to the airwaves to defend Trump, she was trying to understand how “some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
The tweets upended Moore’s cheerful, feminine world.
The piece says she got nasty emails and calls, while attendance at her events dropped and some evangelical male leaders told her to recant. But recent scandals, such as the one involving Bill Hybels, former lead pastor of Willowcreek Church in suburban Chicago, have validated Moore’s reactions. Note that Hybels worked on the more progressive side of the evangelical world.
Now Moore almost never gives interviews, so for her to allow an Atlantic reporter Emma Green to visit her at home in Houston is a real scoop. The only other profile I’m aware of is this 2010 Christianity Today piece by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey where the questions were screened and approved beforehand with no follow-up interviews allowed. (Non-subscribers to CT can find the link here)
I don’t see any evidence from the piece that Moore has taken a financial -– or otherwise -– hit from her outspokenness, so far. The author’s visit to a recent Seattle-area Beth Moore conference suggested no appreciable fallout. While at the conference, which sounded well-attended to me, Green writes:
Many of these same women have been put off by Moore’s political turn, which was not in evidence onstage that night. Even those who might disdain Trump see her outspokenness as divisive and inappropriate for a Bible teacher. “I don’t think this is the avenue for political discussions,” said Shelly, 56. “I think it should stay focused on God.”
But she only quotes one woman’s opinion, not “many.”
As is often the case, the headline is a overly alarmist and zooms past the actual facts reported in the article. The headline says Moore could “lose everything” if she continues to speak out.
I don’t think so. Once again, read the actual article.
Green’s reporting shows that Moore has powerful backers amidst her SBC brethren (two are quoted near the beginning of the piece). So, unless Moore comes out in favor of gay marriage and transgender pronouns, I doubt she’ll lose much support among mainstream Southern Baptists.
Members of the GetReligion team have written plenty of pieces about the evangelical divide over Trump, so this is not news midway through his presidential term. Where’s the evidence that Moore is taking a huge hit because of her stance? Her tweets are tame compared with what fellow evangelical Jen Hatmaker has said. And Hatmaker isn’t suffering a whole lot either, unless you can call best-selling books, popular podcasts and a well-attended speaking tour “suffering.”
So, show me an evangelical female critic of Trump who was super-popular before 2016, but is now losing lots of fans and money over this. I’m not seeing it. And I’m unconvinced that Moore is taking on any monolithic machine, much less some kind of evangelical Deep State apparatus.
This is not to say the woman hasn’t taken risks. Read this May 2018 letter to her Southern Baptist “brothers” about the bizarre sexism and put-downs from clueless men she’s had to endure during her years on the speaking circuit about the evangelical Protestant world. She also waited until she was in her early 60s to come out with that statement, which she admits near the end of her letter.
Still, there were key pastors who apologized to Moore for this treatment, according to CBN.
I was just reading a series of tweets by Moore, one of which is reproduced above, and the sheer humor of what she says is very appealing.
What’s discouraging are the people on Twitter who trash her for simply saying what she thinks. (Read the replies to that tweet and you’ll see what I mean). So obviously she’s in the firing line and she’s a public figure who takes arrows from all sides.
She is taking on a lot of evangelicals, especially men. At the same time, many very powerful evangelicals — men included — are rising to her defense.
Are there evangelicals who are totally pro-Trump? Of course. Are they mad at Moore? Of course. But is that pack of politicos THE evangelical “political machine”? Singular?
I know editors want to find a political connection to every religion story, but in this case, the analogy just doesn’t fit. Evangelicalism is more complex than that.