Interview spotlight: Dr. Russell Moore the future of the Religious RightNovember 2, 2016
We are continuing our series on Trumping the Faith—what I characterize as the effect Donald Trump’s candidacy is having on the Christian public witness here in America. Trump is not the problem. His candidacy has exposed deep divisions within and among America’s recognized Christian and conservative leaders. The religious right has been exposed as being more interested and aligned with maybe politics and nationalistic concerns, than with the kingdom ideals of the Christ whose authority it claims.
Here to discuss whether or not the religious right is dead or can be saved is Dr. Russell Moore. Dr. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The public policy agency of our nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He previously served as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also taught as a professor of theology and ethics.
Carmen LaBerge: Dr. Moore, welcome back to the Reconnect.
Dr. Russell Moore: It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Carmen: Absolutely. The 2016 Presidential election process has as you have noted, exposed some ugly truths about the religious right. I’m wondering on this reformation day are you ready to declare it dead? Or at least in need of total reformation?
Dr. Moore: I think part of it is we have to define what we mean by religious right. I think people use those words in different ways. Some people when they say religious right, what they mean are religious people who are conservative and who are involved in social or political questions. If that’s how one is defining religious right then, no. It’s not dead at all and is doing quite well in many ways. If somebody is defining religious right as the institutions of kind of old line political activists institutions, then yes. It’s very much in need of a reformation. I think this year has exposed all sorts of things dealing with all kinds of fractures in American life. This is one of them.
Carmen: What do you feel like are the critical things that have been exposed?
Dr. Moore: One of them is an evangelicalism in this country that is not first and foremost theologically defined. If we define ourselves first in terms of politics, or values, or culture, or so forth rather than defining ourselves first theologically, what we believe about the Gospel, then we’re going to end up with priorities that are out of whack. I think that’s one of the things we’ve seen with a kind of evangelicalism that will include for instance prosperity Gospel teachers. People who are really exploiting people with predictions and prophesies that don’t end up coming true. We have some of the people selling end times prepping, emergency supplies to people. Just a number of other things that are included in the mix of allies within evangelicalism. I think that’s a big problem that’s taking place.
What that leads to and if you define yourself first politically, then that means that you’re going to shift along with wherever your political allies go. I think that’s a danger on the left and on the right. We as people who are Gospel people ought to be defined first and foremost by what we believe about the good news of Jesus Christ.
Carmen: I think you’ve really hit on something there. When you talk about our primary identity … We’re all pretty complicated creatures. We do have these various in sundry, as you would describe it maybe, alliances. People with whom we connect on different subjects and around different things. This is a conversation about our primary identity and whether or not that primary identity is really an integrated primary identity that influences every aspect of our lives.
Let me ask you this question, most folks or many folks across the country may not have yet heard your Erasmus lecture that you gave for First Things. I’m going to encourage them to go to RussellMoore.com where they can have access to that. Folks have been distracted by the World Series and other things. They may not have tuned in for that lecture, but I’m going to send them there. I’m going to ask you a question about something that you said. You said the religious right turns out to be the people, the religious right, warned us about. What did you mean by that? Then a question that maybe your critics would ask, by what authority do you say such things?
Dr. Moore: In terms of authority I think that the Reformation has shown us that we have the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian not only has the responsibility or the authority to discern what is going on in the culture around them, but the responsibility to do that. In terms of what I mean by that is to say, if you look at what leading religious conservative figures were warning about say twenty, thirty years ago in terms of moral decline. In terms of moral relativism. In terms of … Look at the sorts of things that we saw with religious groups that were abandoning their principles on sexual harassment and those sorts of things in order to defend Bill Clinton. It was easy to see through this and to say, “Well they don’t really care about those principles. Those principles are just about supporting the candidates that they want to support.” We’re seeing a great deal of that this year across the board from the far left to the far right. That’s something that really ought to concern us.
The primary issue that we ought to have is not with whether or not these political movements are ultimately sustainable. The question is, when people overhear us, what do they overhear? I think there’s a tendency of a lot of people who are looking at evangelical Christianity to wonder, “Is the Christianity here just a means to an end?” That’s a pivotal question and it has been from the very beginning. Since we’re the people who have been sent by Jesus, then that means that our Christianity isn’t just some malleable set of things that we can use in order to get things that we would want even if Jesus were still dead. We ought to transcend that in terms of the Gospel message.
Carmen: I’m wondering if part of that confusion in terms of, are we using Jesus toward a political end? I’m wondering if some of that confusion doesn’t stem from evangelicalism itself. Which has at least at some level said to people, “You can just use Jesus as fire insurance. Use Jesus to gain the salvation that you need.” Instead of this more holistic, “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ where that permeates every cell, every emotion, every thought, every word, every deed?” Do you think that there the possibility that across evangelicalism in general over a period of time, there’s been this shrinking of the Gospel down to something that we could check off a list as opposed to something that really consumed us?
Dr. Moore: I think that’s exactly right. One of the things that concerns me is if you look at what the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5 he says, “It is not those on the outside that I judge. It’s those who are on the inside.” That’s consistently Paul’s posture. It’s also the posture of Jesus and the apostle Peter and others, who are holding a high accountability for those who claim to be in Christ. For those who are within the people of God. Speaking to the outside world with the call to repentance, and a call to mercy, but a high level of accountability.
One of the things that we’ve seen in the twentieth century and then beyond is a sense in which Jesus is often presented as the way to be a normal American. You pray to receive Christ so that you can be a part of the church. When you are part of the church then you’re a good American. You’re a good citizen. That’s not really what Jesus does. What Jesus does is to put us out of step with the culture around us with every culture no matter where we are in a fallen universe. I think that has been confused sometimes. When that’s confused, that leads to a really uncertain Gospel message.
Carmen: I share with you this hope that an authentically Christian public witness is going to emerge on the other side of this election no matter who is elected. One of the things required for that to happen is a real distinction between what we might observe as politically populist to nationalism, and distinctively Christian kingdom, conscious driven something. Can you identify maybe what a couple of those distinctions are or cast a vision of what this positive possible future might be for the Christian public witness in America?
Dr. Moore: I think what has to happen is if the people who are skeptical of politics withdraw from those conversations, then that means that the opening that is there will be filled by people who are obsessed with politics. I think that’s what we’ve seen over the last generation. You’ve had movements that are not led by pastor theologians, but by political activists. Those who are involved in various ways in terms of political activism. That’s what has to change. You have people who are skeptical of politics, they’re unwilling to make it into an idol and their worried about making it into an idol, including in their own lives, who are then engaging as people who have a first priority of the Gospel. We’re recognizing that in everything that we say on any particular issue, the first thing that we want to be overheard by the people who are listening to us is, “This is what it means to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.”
Right now, what tends to happen is the people who are motivated by that first and foremost, tend to just leave those political and social sorts of engagements to other people. That has to change. I think we have a great possibility of that changing. Some of that is going to be dependent on what happens in American life coming out of 2016.
Carmen: That sounds an awful lot like Martin Luther King Jr. What you talk about speaking to the people who are kind of already in the conversation and you talk about also speaking with the detractors or those who may openly disagree with you. Then you talk about this third audience. These over hearers. People who might be on the periphery of the conversation, but really who constitute the masses. They constitute the majority. Is that more what you’re talking about then the way we have maybe seen?
Dr. Moore: Absolutely… What Martin Luther King did he first of all had a distinctive message which meant that he had to say, “We’re not going the direction of Malcolm X. We’re not going the direction of Huey Newton. We’re not going in the direction of these violent nationalist groups.” Or at least in theory violent nationalist groups. “We’re going to be nonviolent. We’re going to be theologically informed. This is who we’re going to be.” Then King is speaking to the people who aren’t with him yet and casting an imaginative vision of what his America would look like, knowing that he’s being overheard by many people who aren’t really looking to join any movement at that time. They’re seeing the sort of consistency in the life and thought of King and they’re contrasting that with George Wallace, Bull Connor, and other. Saying, “This more closely aligns with what my conscious teaches.” That overhearing continues to this day. Long after the death of Martin Luther King. I think that’s exactly the sort of model we ought to emulate.
Carmen: One last question before we go. Thank you for being so generous with your time. The critics are going to say, or the cynics are going to say, “All Russell Moore is looking for is for the current guys that are in the seats of power to be pushed out so that he and others like him can have those seats.” Can you just speak to how radically different what you’re talking about is then simply a shifting of who is in power at the time?
Dr. Moore: I don’t think there’s any power to be had out here. One of the things we have seen this year is just how powerless evangelical Christianity actually is. Certainly in terms of moral authority. What we need though is to engage people who are in the pews in churches. People who are future Christians, but are coming into the faith right now, to apply that faith across the board in terms of where they’re going to go. We just don’t have twenty-five year-old examples of the status quo. What I worry about is that we’re going to see the next generation overreacting to some of the bad things that they’ve seen where they withdraw. I think that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen because it doesn’t achieve what we think it will achieve. It doesn’t depoliticize the faith. It instead kind of hyper-politicizes the faith. It baptized whatever is the status quo. That’s what concerns me. When I see a next generation that are saying, “In order to keep from being the TV evangelists with the voter guide, I’m just going to talk about evangelism and personal discipleship and not talk about the social and political spheres of our lives.”
Carmen: Dr. Moore, thank you so much for being with us here today on the Reconnect.