By NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
The new leader of the Southern Baptist political arm says Christians have lost the culture and need to act accordingly.
‘The Bible Belt is collapsing,” says Russell Moore. Oddly, the incoming president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission doesn’t seem upset. In a recent visit to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Moore explains that he thinks the Bible Belt’s decline may be “bad for America, but it’s good for the church.”
Why? Because “we are no longer the moral majority. We are a prophetic minority.”
The phrase is arresting coming from such a prominent religious leader—akin to a general who says the Army has shrunk to the point it can no longer fight two wars. A youthful 41, Mr. Moore is among the leaders of a new generation who think that evangelicals need to recognize that their values no longer define mainstream American culture the way they did 50 or even 20 years ago.
On gay marriage, abortion, even on basic religious affiliation, the culture has moved away. So evangelicals need a new way of thinking—a new strategy, if you will—to attract and keep believers, as well as to influence American politics.
The easy days of mobilizing a ready-made majority are gone. By “prophetic minority,” he means that Christians must return to the days when they were a moral example and vanguard—defenders of belief in a larger unbelieving culture. He views this less as a defeat than as an opportunity.
To illustrate his point, Mr. Moore tells the story about a friend from college two decades ago, an atheist, who asked for the name of a church that wasn’t very demanding of its congregation. When Mr. Moore inquired why, the friend said he needed a church to attend because he planned to run for governor some day. Mr. Moore says the story shows that in the past you had to join a church even if you had no belief because everyone else belonged. But today his friend wouldn’t feel so obliged because “the idea that to be a good person, to be a good American, you have to go to church” has largely disappeared.
Vigorous, cheerful and fiercely articulate, Mr. Moore will take on one of evangelical America’s most prominent jobs when he is officially installed next month. He succeeds the influential Richard Land, who served in that role for a quarter of a century. Like his predecessor, Mr. Moore is deeply knowledgeable about religion, American history and politics. He has been an ordained pastor and worked as an aide in Congress to former Rep. Gene Taylor (D., Miss.).
Most recently Mr. Moore was dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where his cultural savvy gained him a following among coreligionists and the secular media. He is a regular on Twitter and Facebook, with posts that range from serious theology to self-deprecating jokes: “My toe is broken. My car is broken down. A lifetime of country music has prepared me for this.” The cover story he wrote for the May issue of Christianity Today was called “W.W. Jay-Z? How Christian hip-hop could call the American church back to the gospel—and hip-hop back to its roots.”
He is definitely pushing a new tone for this generation of evangelicals. “This is the end of ‘slouching toward Gomorrah,’ ” he says. Not only is the doomsaying not winning Christians any popularity contests, but he doesn’t think it’s religiously appropriate either. “We were never promised that the culture would embrace us.”
He also questions the political approach of what was once called “the religious right.” Though his boyish looks bring to mind the former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, Mr. Moore is decidedly not a fan of the “values voter checklists” the group employs. “There is no Christian position on the line-item veto,” Mr. Moore says. “There is no Christian position on the balanced-budget amendment.”
Which is not to say that Mr. Moore wants evangelicals to “turn inward” and reject the larger U.S. culture. Rather, he wants to refocus the movement on serving as a religious example battling in the public square on “three core issues”—life, marriage and religious liberty.
On protecting the unborn, Mr. Moore says he is a “long-term optimist” but “a short-term pessimist.” He doesn’t get excited every time a poll shows that more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice. He worries that the whole issue may be changed soon “by technology”—that is, chemically induced abortions may soon become the norm, with abortion clinics no longer the focal point of the debate. He also worries that the fight for the unborn has become a one-party battle, hardened along a Democrat and Republican divide. “The letterhead of Democrats for Life,” Mr. Moore says, “doesn’t include the names of any current members of Congress.”
But he also believes that this battle will not be won in Washington: “You have to take it to a personal level.” He touts the many faith-based pregnancy crisis centers that not only try to talk women out of having abortions, but also help with child-care, job training and housing—”all of the things that have brought them there in the first place.”
Mr. Moore is also deeply involved in the evangelical adoption movement. Eleven years ago, he and his wife, Maria, adopted two year-old babies, both boys, from a Russian orphanage. When the couple (who have three other sons) arrived at the orphanage, he says, they were struck by the “creepy silence” in a building filled with babies. The children had stopped crying because they had learned that no one would respond.
In evangelical churches across the U.S., adoption—foreign and domestic—has become increasingly common. “You don’t need a canned adoption ministry program,” Mr. Moore says. As members of the congregation get to know families who have adopted, the example spreads.
He says the same dynamic has made evangelicals more favorable to immigration. “The immigration debate has become personalized,” he says. “In the Midwest and South and Southwest, our churches now have large immigrant populations. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ.” The people in the pews “understand we’re not going to deport 11 million people without a big government police state”—something his coreligionists do not want.
Though the Southern Baptist Convention 2011 resolution on immigration opposed “amnesty,” it also says: “The Scriptures call us, in imitation of God Himself, to show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us.” Mr. Moore notes the importance of keeping families together and says that “self-deportation is not a solution.”
His cultural revival plan is also to focus more on local churches. When the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage came down in June, Mr. Moore sent a message to pastors to help them talk with their congregants about the Southern Baptist opposition to the law. “We don’t hate our gay and lesbian neighbors,” he says, but redefining marriage on their behalf is another matter.
There are a couple of reasons why Christians are losing the debate over gay marriage, Mr. Moore says. One is that even many Christians don’t have a real understanding of what marriage is. “We have embraced certain aspects of the sexual revolution,” he says, like the “divorce culture.”
Another is that many people assume “my marriage is my business”—why should they care if their neighbors marry someone of the same sex? Mr. Moore says the part of the marriage ceremony when the pastor asks if anyone knows of a reason why the couple should not wed is like a “vestigial organ.” No one ever objects “except in romantic comedies,” but there was a time when a couple’s marriage decision was thought to be of church concern. He would like it to be again.
As a “prophetic minority,” Mr. Moore thinks his most profound political task will be defending religious liberty from the assaults of a secular government. The cause is at the heart of his plan to fight the contraception mandate in ObamaCare. President Obama may have thought that religious employers would accept being forced to pay for contraception, the morning-after abortion pill or sterilization under the law. “But we are not adjusting to the new normal,” Mr. Moore avers. “We are not going to go away or back down.”
On Aug. 7, Colorado Christian University became the first nonprofit to sue the Department of Health and Human Services for its “final” rule on the issue. The HHS rule requires organizations opposed on religious grounds to specific contraceptives, sterilization or abortion to “designate” a third party to provide those services.
Mr. Moore sees this as a chance to unite believers of many faiths, and last month he joined Archbishop William Lori of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders in writing to Mr. Obama: “The HHS policy is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining—or casting aside—religious doctrine. This should trouble every American.”
Mr. Moore says he hopes to make the ObamaCare mandate a major issue in the 2016 election. By then, it will have become clear how intrusive the health-care law has become, he says, and the American people will side with religious groups that protest having to act against their beliefs. “The separation of church and state,” Mr. Moore says, “is not a liberal issue.”
In this task, he adds, the Baptists are returning to their roots as a minority at America’s founding. He mentions how 17th century Virginia passed a law requiring that all ministers be ordained by the Anglican church—then the established church of the colony. Many Baptist preachers were jailed for resisting the law, which is said to have influenced James Madison’s views on religious liberty.
One of the jailed preachers was the prominent evangelist Jeremiah Moore, who wrote in 1773: “God himself is the only one to whom man is accountable for his religious sentiments simply, nor has he erected any tribunal on earth qualified to judge whether the man worships in an acceptable manner or not.”
History turns, but the fight for religious liberty is eternal. Says another Moore, 240 years later, “We are not going to go quietly into the night.”
Russell D. Moore is an American evangelical theologian, ethicist, preacher, and President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.