Does the ERLC Represent the SBC?
Will Hall | Editor
Baptist Message, Louisiana
When an unnamed staffer “boasted” to the online media outlet Think Progress in October 2014 that Russell Moore had “completely rebranded” the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, few could have imagined what this meant.
However, Moore’s all-in campaign against presidential candidate Donald Trump, highlighted by his most recent attacks on Liberty University for hosting Trump at a student convocation, reveals something quite unexpected about Moore when he was elected to lead the ERLC in 2013—a penchant for disdain for Christians who think differently than him.
Moore rightly points out Trump’s moral flaws—and character should count—and he has a right and responsibility to comment on Trump’s policies and to share his view of what these might mean in terms of Christian values.
But Moore’s dislike for Trump goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently than Moore when comparing the range of personal beliefs and behaviors as well as public records of ability and achievement within such a large field of candidates for the White House.
DISRESPECT FOR OTHERS
In an editorial for the New York Times, Moore called evangelicals’ support for Trump “illogical” and declared “these voters must repudiate everything they believe” in backing Trump.
He even ranks the spirituality of evangelicals according to the candidate they support.
Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, reported Moore as saying, “Ted Cruz is leading among the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading in the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.”
“He was suggesting that Cruz appealed to Moral Majority types like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who has endorsed him,” Roll Call observed. “And Trump, Moore said, attracts ‘the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism,’ who tend to believe God will ‘financially reward believers.’”
But Moore’s scale for assessing one’s biblical bona fides appears politically calculated to raise his own stock at the expense of other evangelical conservatives:
— Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of the Liberty University his father founded, called Trump “a breath of fresh air” when introducing Trump to students and faculty Jan. 18.
— Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, wrote in an editorial for Fox News that evangelicals back Trump for his strong leadership: “They are not under any illusion that Trump will be conducting Bible studies in the Oval Office, nor do they feel like they are abandoning their Christian values to support Trump,” he said.
— Franklin Graham, president of his father’s Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, also seems to invalidate Moore’s hierarchy of righteousness.
Although, Graham has said he will not comment on the presidential race, he has announced support for Trump’s position on U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran. He also agreed with Trump’s objection to bringing Syrian refugees into the United States: “For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
While Moore stridently opposed Trump’s appearance at Liberty University, he did not object to the self-described Socialist Bernie Sanders who spoke there only three months ago (Sanders is pro-abortion and strongly supports gay marriage).
For that matter, Moore has held his own candidate forum, managing to grab a prime slot during a Southern Baptist missions conference—with 13,000 in attendance, July 2015, in Nashville—to interview Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
He also confessed he had invited Hillary Clinton—who has a raft of personal convictions and public positions which contravene Southern Baptists’ stated consensus beliefs—but that she declined. Moore said he was disappointed Clinton did not attend because he felt “he could have modeled our disagreements with her with civility.”
But he offers no such civility for Trump or his supporters.
Importantly, Moore failed to invite three White-House-seeking Southern Baptists to his question and answer time—Lindsey Graham (now withdrawn from the race) Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, who served 10 years as governor of Arkansas was educated at a Southern Baptist college and a Southern Baptist seminary, pastored Southern Baptist churches and served as president of a Southern Baptist state convention (helping to raise millions of dollars for Southern Baptist causes)—and he has already experienced the highs and lows of running for president as a proud Southern Baptist.
If Moore was looking for someone to explain the issues and politics of the 2016 presidential campaign in context of the vision and values of Southern Baptists, he missed the mark.
SOUTHERN BAPTIST SNUBS
Obviously, Huckabee was not the face of evangelicals Moore wanted to project to the audience, and on that note, Moore has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists:
— During a Sept. 2015 meeting, he told ERLC trustees “We must see to it that the future of the SBC is not a bunch of old, angry white men who have around us a few people that are African American and Latino and Asian Americans.” Yet, four out of five of his first top hires were white males—two of the five were not even members of Southern Baptist congregations but four of the five had ties to the Calvinistic network The Gospel Coalition.
— This theme continued at the ERLC “Gospel and Politics” conference held in conjunction with “Send North America,” when one panel discussed how the era of “white, angry evangelicalism” was over. Yet, the overwhelming faces who appeared on stage for the whole of the event were white and male—just not men like Huckabee or Jeffress.
— He has even declared the Bible Belt (a map marked in Southern Baptist red) as populated by “almost Christianity” a kind of “God-and-Country civil religion that prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity.”
During his young tenure at the ERLC helm, other actions have been equally as troubling:
— An ERLC research fellow published an article in Christianity Today asserting “gay marriage remains an act rooted in love” and arguing Christians should affirm homosexuals’ “longing to be loved and belong.”
— His team played a major role in drafting “An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals,” with a key member concluding in an accompanying article that the “entire biblical witness” suggests “animals may very well be co-inheritors with us of the new creation.”
— He signed an Evangelical Immigration Table—Syrian Refugee Letter to Congress, arguing among other points against increasing security checks or enhancing the vetting process of those seeking to come to the United States from countries with a known ISIS presence. The 1,000-word missive cites Christian duties multiple times, but mentions Jesus only once to describe Him as “a refugee,” not as Savior, Lord or King.
— In a public flap perceived to be directed at Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, Russell Moore suggested Christians in public office should resign rather than resist after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned traditional marriage (despite an SBC resolution urging the opposite).
— He dismissed as a “utopian idea” the belief that “if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with” in reference to reparative therapy and change from homosexuality (causing at least one national figure to suggest Moore should confer with actual experts on the matter.)
For the record, former lesbian Jackie Hill-Perry, now a Christian lyricist and hip hop performer, celebrates being completely changed, attractions and all.
“We’ve made God very little if we believe He cannot change people,” she says. “If He can make a moon, stars and a galaxy that we have yet to fully comprehend, how can He not simply change my desires?”
DISDAIN FOR LIBERTY
While Trump was speaking at Liberty University, Moore tweeted a stream of comments, each one more acerbic than the last: “Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery … This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ … Evangelicals can love a golden calf as long as Aaron promises to make Mexico pay for it.”
Afterward, he tweeted, “This is unofficial, I know, but Trump is apparently winning HUGE in the demographic of folks with eggs or cats as their Twitter avatars.”
Shortly after Moore’s election to his ERLC post, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Moore’s mentor, offered an interesting observation to the Wall Street Journal regarding Moore’s future in context of the gravitas of his predecessor.
“When Richard Land spoke to most issues, he was certain that Southern Baptists were behind him and he was their mouthpiece,” Mohler said. “Russ will need a deft touch to make sure that Southern Baptists stay behind him.”
In the end, it’s a rhetorical exercise to ask whether the ERLC represents the SBC—organizationally, it absolutely does.
But the question many Southern Baptists are asking is whether this ERLC represents them.
Does it represent you?