What keeps Russell Moore up at night?
The Southern Baptist leader talks about culture, the gospel, and politics
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention (ERLC), has become one of evangelical Christianity’s most visible and articulate spokesmen. His most recent book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, came out Aug. 1. At a recent ERLC-sponsored convention, Moore interviewed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., both presidential candidates, in front of about 13,000 Southern Baptists. The next day, he hosted about 500 of those same Southern Baptist pastors for a conference on politics and the gospel. I had this conversation with Moore at that event.
You led a panel today that included people with different views about how Christians should engage culture. Rod Dreher has been advocating the Benedict option. You also had Michael Gerson, who calls for patient pluralism. What constructive elements came from those guys having a public conversation and sharing their various perspectives? There’s sometimes a caricature that the debate is between withdrawal [from the culture] and more of the same, and I think we were able to see in that conversation, we’re actually closer to one another than we think. I think we’re all affirming the necessity of building countercultural Christian institutions, which means a thick ecclesiology. It means a strong confessionalism. All of that must be present. Then what Mike Gerson is pointing out is exactly right, that politics can be a positive good. I would argue it can only be a positive good when you have people who are shaped by moral communities in a way that is robust. But I think there’s more agreement there than disagreement.
Where the disagreement comes down is, how do we view American culture itself? Is American culture in a free fall of decline, or are the culture and moral virtues within the culture more resilient than it might seem right now? I think that’s the fundamental difference between some of the emphases.
You’ve headed the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for two years now, and you’ve gotten some criticism from the more conservative wings of evangelicalism. One of the things that I try to say to all of our people, our young pastors and leaders, is you’re going to receive criticism in stereo if you’re trying to live out your life with conviction. When it comes to engaging, for instance, with convictional kindness, some people are going to object to the conviction, and some people are going to object to the kindness. Some people will object to Jesus eating with tax collectors at Zacchaeus’ house, and then the tax collectors, many of them will object to the fact that he’s calling them to repentance once he gets there. That’s just what following Christ ought to be like.
Do you think your organization is experiencing more scrutiny now than it has in the past? No, I think we’ve always had a great deal of scrutiny in American culture because Christianity is inherently controversial. [It] always has been for 2,000 years, and especially right now at this moment in American life, when we have perpetual cultural wars even about some of the most basic issues where there once was consensus.
How do you respond to such criticism? I think my message this morning is what I try to live my life by, which is to say, we shouldn’t be concerned about personal offense. We should be concerned about the liberty and freedom of others and the advance of the gospel.
Yesterday you interviewed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Did you accomplish in those conversations what you had hoped? Yes. What I hoped to do was to model, especially for younger pastors and church planters, engaging with those who are elected officials or seeking elected office in a way that seeks to listen and to be informed. That was really the primary objective was to give that model, and that’s what I think happened. We didn’t have a political rally. No one was standing up to say, “Here’s why you should vote for me, and here’s why the other people are bad,” but, instead, here are these problems that we’re facing. How would you address them?
I’ve seen you operate for the last couple of years in this role. You seem like a pretty relaxed guy, but what keeps you awake at night? The religious liberty concerns do keep me awake at night for two reasons. One, I think we have genuine challenges coming down the pike when it comes to religious liberty, especially because religious liberty is now becoming a culture-war issue in a way that it wasn’t before. … We previously had consensus from the far left to the far right on religious liberty, even if we disagreed on particulars and particular cases. Now you see headlines in which religious liberty is put in scare quotes, and even the most basic religious liberty protections are caricatured. That’s a dangerous place to be, not only for conservative evangelical Christians and others, but for everybody. That’s worrisome to me in terms of the culture at large.
Then, [I’m concerned] in terms of making sure that we are preparing a new generation of evangelical Christians to be able to live in the sort of American culture where they may face not only potential legal pitfalls, but even more than that, social marginalization that they never did before, which means we have to have strong discipleship, people who understand what it means to carry a cross and follow Christ.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Russell Moore on Listening In.
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