The Rebel Evangelical: A Man of Faith in a Faithless Age

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White evangelical Christians have proven to be President Trump's most reliable base of support. But not all of their leaders are on board. Russell D. Moore, a pastor and author—and the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the more than 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention—refused to support Trump in 2016. "Trump's vitriolic—and often racist and sexist—language about immigrants, women, the disabled and others ought to concern anyone who believes that all persons, not just the 'winners' of the moment, are created in God's image," he wrote in the National Review that year. His vocal opposition won him a Trump Tweet, in which the soon-to-be President called him "a nasty guy with no heart."

Moore, 47, has made amends with fellow Southern Baptists who support the President, but he remains a rare anti-Trump voice in evangelical Christian leadership. A prolific author and speaker born and raised in Biloxi, Mississippi, he has continued to call out racism, which he calls "Satanism." He pushed through a resolution on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 2017, condemning white nationalism and he has said the Confederate flag "cannot coexist" with the Christian cross. Prior to entering the ministry, Moore was an aide to Democratic U.S. Representative Gene Taylor of Mississippi.

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On July 23, he talked to Majazihaabout issues ranging from America as a Christian nation and racism and hate speech—before Trump's latest salvo at the city of Baltimore and its citizens—to evangelicals as a political force. Here are some edited excerpts:

You've stepped away from your summer writing project to talk to us. What are you working on right now?
A book on courage, because I find that one of the primary questions that I'm asked is about fear. And about dealing with fear and anxiety, both in terms of cultural pressures, but also in terms of personal and family issues as well. I think there's a reason why one of the most repeated commands in scripture is 'fear not.' That's a relevant word for our time.

What is provoking more fear and anxiety? How is this era different from, say, the Cold War, with the prospect of nuclear war looming over our heads?
I think fear is a universal human condition. So in that sense, I don't think it's new. And you're right, there have always been these moments. I remember as a kid watching Red Dawn and The Day After about impending nuclear holocaust. I think right now there's perhaps a different kind of fear as it relates to a fear of disconnection. I think the loneliness that we see around us is amping up a sense of being under siege. And I think that's one of the reasons why we see this drive toward herd mentalities on social media. People are finding a sense of belonging digitally because they can't find it personally. And that tends to manifest itself in terms of outrage rather than in terms of intimacy.

You mentioned a sense of belonging. Isn't church supposed to be a place for people to find belonging?
Well a number of things have happened. I would make a distinction between the Christian church as it originally emerged in the first century Roman empire from what we would tend to think of today when we think of a church. The early church had no cultural cachet at all in the world around them. But they formed a real community that transcended all sorts of dividing lines. What we see in American life is a changing nature of church that I don't think is entirely bad. For a long time in American life, one had to belong to a church at least nominally to be seen as a good person. That has changed.

We hear a lot of white evangelical Christians talking about how they feel under siege. Do you agree?
Sometimes secular people will speak about Christians feeling under siege as though that is somehow ridiculous and not grounded in reality. I say, of course evangelical Christians and traditional Roman Catholics and other religious people feel that way when you have so many aspects of secular culture treating them as throwbacks and dangerous bigots. Simply for holding on to their deepest held religious convictions. If we could go back in a time machine to 1983 and say we would someday force nuns to pay for contraceptives, no one would've believed that. It would've sounded ridiculous but that's exactly where we were in terms of the court.

Dr. Moore, you mentioned the word bigot. The SBC has had long struggles with racism. Two weeks ago in Greenville, North Carolina, you saw that spectacle of whites at a Trump rally chanting "Send her back," referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar. How do you see your role and the role of the evangelical church in terms of dealing with white racism and hate speech?
I hope that we don't see a racially divisive and ugly 2020 presidential campaign. I am very worried about resurgent racism and anti-Semitism all over the world. That again isn't new, but it is new in terms of the speed with which it can travel in a social media era. For me, racism is not a social or political issue. Racism is Satanism in my view, because it's the idolatry of the flesh—and a sense of superiority and dominion over other people. That can manifest itself in neo-Nazi movements in Germany, in racist memes on Facebook or in left wing anti-Semitic posts and movements around the world as well. That is a special burden for me as a Mississippian who went through a spiritual crisis when I was about 15 years old that had a lot to do with some of the bigotry and racism that I saw around me in some places, including among some religious people.

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Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience with racism and failing faith?
I was looking at some very high profile moral failings happening—not just around me, but around the world. This would've been the 1980s, the time of the television evangelist scandals. And then also hearing people, not in my church, but in my community, who claimed to be followers of Christ who would nonetheless tell racist jokes. I didn't have enough of an awareness of human nature to be able to see that the Bible never presents an idealized view of humanity or of the church. I was crushed and disappointed because the church—broadly speaking—didn't live up to what I thought I needed it to be. But Jesus did. And so I think that that was a lesson to me at the moment, both about the limits of human nature, but also about the need for moral credibility when it comes to the church.

Talking about that 15 year old, millennials and Gen Z are known to care less about these social issues—gay marriage, for example—than the evangelical community as a voting whole. How do you see that playing out?
I don't see as big a divide as perhaps you would when it comes to churchgoing millennials. I really don't see that big of a division when it comes to issues of marriage and family, for instance. Or the necessity of protecting unborn human life. The issue that I face is not so much that I find young people wanting to abandon a traditional Biblical Christian ethic on some of these issues. It's more that I often am dealing with younger people who want to withdraw completely from the public arena, which I don't think is wise.

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Jim Bakker, former Assemblies of God minister and host of The PTL Club, an evangelical Christian television program, accused of sexual misconduct and fraud. Getty/Bettmann Archive

Where do you stand on the whole issue of political action and Republicans using churches to assemble white evangelical Christians as a political force? Should Christians be organized as a political force?
Well it depends on what someone means by organized as a political force. The church is not a political action committee and should never be a means to any earthly end. Church has a much bigger mission than that. Christians should be engaged in the world around them, including in their callings as citizens. The fortunes of the church don't rise and fall with whoever's winning and losing in the political arena. But then I will find myself sometimes even on the same day preaching to, say, a group of younger church planters. And making the point you can't withdraw from the public arena and still love thy neighbor. You have responsibilities as citizens.

We're in a situation now where the white evangelical Christians are extremely important to President Trump's coalition going into 2020. They are actually acting as a political organization to be relied upon in reelecting the president.
Well some of them are, but I don't think the majority of evangelicals, even white evangelicals, even Trump-voting evangelicals, would actually see themselves as being primarily a political constituency. And so many of them are thinking through the options that they have and are concerned about some very real threats that Christian institutions face, for instance, when it comes to religious liberty. And this is the political calculus that they have made as voters. Whether you agree with that or disagree with that. That is what's happening in their mind. That's a very different thing from being part of seeing oneself as primarily part of an organized political constituency.

But the political organization is explicit. Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom organization, for example, can marshall tens of thousands of people very, very quickly.
Sure, but I think there's a difference between para-church political organizations of which there are groups among every constituency and every ideology in American life, and speaking of the church as a whole. I mean I often tell secular journalists that the frustrating thing for me is that often many people who don't actually know very many evangelicals think of us as cicadas who go into dormancy in between every caucus.

OK, onto another topic: We've got the Jeffrey Epstein spectacle, many unaddressed accusations against the President from women and "#Metoo." The SBC has been dealing with a burst dam of allegations of sexual abuse. What are you doing to address sexual abuse issue in the church?
One of the most persistent problems we've had to deal with is a sense of invulnerability. Many churches and many Christians had assumed this couldn't happen in church. I am sensing much less of that feeling of invulnerability, and I think that's a good thing. As people are becoming more educated about how abuse happens, and that predators don't appear to be scary, obvious perpetrators in the midst. They use mechanisms of trust in order to prey upon people. So what we've been working on is a way to equip churches in terms of prevention and then what to do when abuse has happened in terms of reporting and also in terms of care for survivors. This fall in Dallas we're calling people from churches all over the country for several days of training on every aspect of this, in terms of reporting, also in terms of establishing policies at the church level, in training volunteers, and background checks.

Dr. Moore, is America a Christian nation?
It depends quite a bit on what someone means by Christian. People use the word Christian in a multitude of different ways. If someone is asking: "Are most people in America professing Christians," then the answer to that sociologically would be yes. If the question is: "Was the founding of the country heavily influenced by Christianity, in some ways?" Yes. But what most people mean is [whether] the United States of America is in a special covenant relationship with God? And to that, my answer would be "no," because I believe in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, which means that people don't come to God nation by nation, or family by family or tribe by tribe. People come to God one by one.

How does that answer relate to issues of immigration and asylum that we're facing?
Well, Christians can disagree about what our exact policies should be in terms of how many immigrants should be let in every year, how many refugees should be let in every year, how exactly do we deal with issues of border security and what to do about people who are in the country without documentation right now. What we can't disagree about would be immigrants themselves. The Bible very clearly reveals that what we're dealing with here is not a problem to be solved, but people who are created in the image of God. And so, while a Christian may have a disagreement with another Christian about exactly what bill should be passed to address the problem, a Christian can't participate in immigrant bashing and demonization of or mistreatment of people who are suffering around the world.

Let's talk about the future a bit. You are said to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible was written some millennia ago when slavery existed and people died of now easily cured disease. Humans are almost, I wouldn't say God-like, but medicine can do some amazing things. And similarly we have these weapons, from social media, all the way up to nuclear weapons that can destroy us and that were never even imagined by the writers of the Bible. How do you reconcile the notion of inerrancy with modernity?
I believe the Bible is the word of God. So I don't believe that the Bible is a collection of human musings on reality. I believe that the spirit of God was working through human authors, so that what we have in the Bible is the revelation of God. You are right about a human feeling of Godhood in light of modern technology. And I think that that aspiration for Godhood has led to a great deal of hellish suffering. I think it also is behind some of the deep anxiety and dislocation happening around us. Human beings are aspiring to be gods, but we know that we're not. There is this simultaneous exuberance about our technological ability, while at the same time there's this awful fear that we're losing what it means to be human. And I think that in a time of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, there has perhaps never been a time more relevant to what the scripture teaches about what it means to be a creature.

Update (8/12/19 10.40 a.m.): This headline has been updated.

The Rebel Evangelical: A Man of Faith in a Faithless Age