The Inevitable Flagellation of Russell Moore
Though not a Southern Baptist (or Calvinist) myself, I’ve long admired the work done by Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Moore’s ministry has coupled rigorous theology (and an unwillingness to yield to ideological pressures) with willingness to advance a holistic Christian message across traditional partisan lines. Under his leadership, the ERLC has weighed in on criminal justice reform, racial reconciliation, immigration, and respect for Muslims’ religious freedom, just to name a few. I would go so far as to label his work one of the best things to happen to American evangelicalism in the last decade.
Yet in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Moore—who heavily criticized President-elect Donald Trump—has come under serious fire from his fellow Southern Baptists. Critics have castigated Moore for his anti-Trump advocacy, particularly given the core issues (abortion and religious liberty) likely to be affected by the new president’s Supreme Court appointments. Some have even called for the abolition of Moore’s ERLC, arguing that since it doesn’t speak for them, it ought not to exist at all.
As a fairly close follower of these issues, I had no idea that this anti-Moore revolt was brewing—and I find it deeply disheartening that someone who has stood so firmly on principle is being tarred for apparently political reasons. Yet perhaps the recent backlash is something that, had I been carefully weighing the forces in play, I should’ve seen coming. I tentatively suggest that this problem is attributable (at least in part) to a clash between irreconcilable traditions of political theology within the Southern Baptist denomination.
While the Southern Baptist Convention is a “big-tent” denomination that allows for both Calvinist and non-Calvinist positions on salvation, both Moore and recent Convention president Al Mohler are prominent Calvinists, and much of the denomination’s intellectual energy in recent years has come from the Calvinist wing. Both non-Baptist and Baptist Calvinists with a political bent often invoke theologian Abraham Kuyper, who wrote in 1880: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
As a teenager, I was very interested in studying “worldviews,” and Kuyper’s quote was frequently cited by Christian writers in this realm. I read this quote as stressing the importance of bearing out a Christian witness across all of life—through one’s job, through the art one creates, through the worship one engages in, and so forth.
Later on, however, I became acquainted with a much more pugnacious interpretation of Kuyper’s words—namely, the idea that in order to recognize the sovereignty of God, Christians ought ultimately to collapse any distinction between matters of church and state. At its most extreme, Kuyperian theology mutates into theonomy or Christian Reconstructionism, the belief that Old Testament civil law should be enforced in modern secular societies.
While Moore clearly doesn’t hold to these views himself (no theonomist worth their salt would defend, as Moore has, the right of Muslims to build a mosque), he hails from an intellectual tradition that has often defended a highly integrated view of the state and the sacred. Efforts by Reformed thinkers to articulate a normative and holistic Christian paradigm for society (as Moore has, via his work with the ERLC) necessarily exist in Kuyper’s (and Calvin’s) shadow; observers may therefore have difficulty decoupling Moore’s political advocacy (“Muslims should be equally free to build a mosque”) from a form of theological advocacy (“Islam is equally true”). Moore may be trying to thread an impossible needle: advancing a broad Christian social ethic, as Kuyperianism demands, but simultaneously not calling for this to be done by the coercive power of the state.
Moreover, the longstanding Baptist emphasis on congregationalist polity inherently cuts against efforts to promulgate a unified cultural witness: if individual churches are viewed as fundamentally autonomous and self-governing, any efforts by the ERLC to articulate a “Baptist position” on a given issue will necessarily reek of authoritarianism. “Who is Moore, after all,” the argument runs, “to speak for all of us, when we clearly don’t agree?”
The challenges of political theology are (obviously) not unique to Baptists. My own Lutheran tradition—which stresses an essential separation between sacred and secular domains of authority (“two kingdoms”)—has occasionally been accused of political quietism. As Lutheran theologian Theodore Graebner wrote in 1938, in The Borderland of Right and Wrong: “Beyond possibility of misunderstanding our Lord proclaims that carnal weapons should not be employed in the fight for His kingdom … it is folly to endeavor to build through carnal means what the Spirit of God must build by His Gospel. Let us Lutherans, by the grace of God and as far as our influence reaches, labor towards that end that in our country Church and State may remain separate.” In the Lutheran view, then, reasonable minds may differ over the best approach to criminal justice, and Christian considerations may be invoked as grounds for preferring one approach over another—but there is ultimately no need for a defined “Lutheran position” on the topic. While this philosophy frustrates those interested in advancing a unified “Christian” message, it also avoids shackling the church to policy positions inessential to Christian doctrine.
It also warrants mention that in contemporary times, the Catholic Church has generally sidestepped this particular problem: the presence of a unitary magisterial authority alongside a longstanding corpus of tradition allows the Church’s political theology to be justified by appeals to common principle, such as the “preferential option for the poor.”
In light of these intersecting forces, two points stand out:
1) While the ERLC’s existence reflects the Reformed impulse to transform society in a distinctly Christian way, the ERLC’s positions have reflected a de facto two-kingdoms theology that diverges, in some key respects, from certain conservative Reformed approaches to politics. I certainly hope that Moore continues his tenure with the ERLC, but I would (tragically) not be surprised if someone with a harder-edged approach replaces him.
2) The broader concept of a politically-oriented lobbying body (like the ERLC itself) may simply be philosophically incompatible with Southern Baptist congregationalist polity, whether Russell Moore or someone else is at the helm. Kuyperian Calvinist pressures to advance a single vision of a “Christian society” aside, the denomination’s strong individualist streak may simply militate against a unified approach to cultural messaging.
I write here as a Lutheran, but this discussion of the Russell Moore controversy isn’t merely academic: as my own denomination anticipates reopening its office in Washington, D.C., similar challenges will no doubt arise. For my part, I hope Lutherans are blessed with a leader as principled and courageous as Dr. Moore, no matter what happens in the months and years to come. If the Southern Baptist Convention decides to remove him, they will have done themselves a great disservice.