Russell Moore: “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?”

Christians must seriously consider what, exactly, informs and shapes our primary identity. (Hint: It’s not Republican politics.)
The Cross and the Flag
Too close for comfort… (MadisonCC BY-NC 2.0)

Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. As a Southern Baptist, you might think that’s he yet another evangelical leader who’s thrown their lot in with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. However, Moore has been one of Trump’s most vocal and persistent critics in evangelical Christian circles — and earlier this week, he delivered what may very well be his pièce de résistance: his speech at First Things’ 2016 Erasmus Lectures. (Skip to around the 15:30 mark.)

It’s over an hour long but well worth your time if you have any concerns over the close relationship between American evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party, or if you’ve been troubled by the number of Christian “leaders” who’ve hitched their wagon to Trump’s campaign.

The transcript will be printed in First Things magazine, but Rod Dreher has typed up a few excerpts on his blog. For example:

The crisis before us now is that of a national Religious Right political establishment that has waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality — from calls for torture and war crimes to the embrace of an “alt-Right” movement of white identity ethno-nationalists and anti-Semites to the kind of sexual degradation of women we could previously avoid by not choosing to listen to Howard Stern on the radio or the subscribe to Hustler magazine. Some of these — mostly evangelical — political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as “locker room talk” or “macho” behavior. Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be “a choirboy” — thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women and respect for the vulnerable and respect for sexual morality is infantile and unrealistic. One said that his support for this candidate was never about shared values anyway. Others suggested that we need a strongman, and implied a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions, in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture. Some Christian political activist leaders said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates this year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes worthy of an Obama Administration solicitor general.

Moore goes into great detail explaining how things got so bad, and surprise, the Church only has itself to blame, through compromises for political gain and theological ignorance (to name but two reasons). He also spends a lot of time exploring and laying out a vision for how things could get better. It’s too much to type out here, but here’s a snippet, courtesy of Dreher:

The evangelical commitment to the Bible means the possibility of the shaping of the consciences of the people, not just by the doctrines and propositions of the Scripture but also by experiencing the world through a sense of place in the biblical story. Jesus recognized the temptations of the devil not merely by opposing propositions with propositions but by seeing that he stood where Israel had stood before, in the wilderness before the tribunal of God. The recovery of the kind of catechesis that fits the whole Bible together around the centrality of Christ crucified is necessary for Christians to see that they are indeed “strangers and aliens” to every culture, but that their allegiances transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural. We need public arguments. We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing. But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word of “Thus saith the Lord.”

In other words, political interest and activity aren’t bad. As Christians, we should be aware of our culture’s political tides and movements, and we should work to promote justice and prosperity for our neighbors (see Jeremiah 29:4 – 7). But, as Moore puts it, our ultimate allegiances “transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural.” And we can’t understand or appreciate that allegiance unless we are aware of, and seek to promote, sustain, and enrich, that which makes us uniquely Christian before we promote, sustain, and enrich that which makes us uniquely American.

Moore’s not advocating a “run for the hills” approach here, as can be evidenced by his own willingness to enter the public square time and again. Nor is he advocating anything remotely resembling theonomy or theocracy, as can be seen by his adamant support for Islamic religious freedom. But he is calling on Christians to seriously consider what, exactly, informs and shapes our primary identity. Is it being an American and a Republican (or Democrat, for that matter)? Is it being conservative or liberal? Or is it the Gospel of Christ that transcends any and all other political, cultural, and social distinctives?

As Dreher writes in his analysis of Moore’s speech:

Moore said that the loss of the local churches as “intentional, cohesive, conscience-shaping communities of identity and social solidarity” has been devastating for Christianity in this country. We have to rebuild that.

In sum, if the Religious Right is to be saved, it needs not just a tune-up, but a heart transplant. “Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved,” he said. If we lack a radical commitment to the Gospel, said Moore, all we have to offer is moralism. “We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries,” he said “that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.”

I’ve been deeply disturbed and saddened by the amount of support that Trump — an unrepentant sexist, misogynistic narcissist whose campaign willfully trades in racism and alt-right nationalism — has received from members and leaders of my particular “tribe.” As my friend Alan Noble put it:

As a conservative evangelical, the past year has been emotionally and spiritually draining. I have watched as leaders on the religious right who purport to represent me have enthusiastically supported a presidential candidate who opposes the very values that supposedly defined the religious right. And although some evangelicals have denounced Trump’s campaign as promoting a racist, nationalist, fraudulent, and ignorant form of politics, others have warned that if Clinton is elected, the American experiment will come to an end.

But Moore’s speech, while certainly full of strong and pointed language (but not that kind of strong language; remember, he’s Southern Baptist not Reformed) has me excited and encouraged. If the Religious Right suffers a mortal blow by way of Trump’s defeat and is weakened further by a Clinton presidency (which will almost certainly happen, given Clinton’s inflexible views on abortion rights and religious freedom), I doubt I’ll shed too many tears.

It’s long past time for the Religious Right to die, and for a smaller, less politicized — yet more vibrant, intentional, localized, and orthodox — Christianity to emerge and take its place.