Russell Moore's Latest Salvo In the New Evangelical Culture War
In my widely read First Things article on the three worlds of evangelicalism, I noted that with our entry into the negative world - the unprecedented current day time in which for the first time in American history secular elite culture treats Christianity negatively - there has been a rise in intra-evangelical conflict. I especially noted that the group I labeled cultural engagers, which had previously tried to positively dialogue with the culture rather than fight against it like the old religious right, had decided to declare their own culture war. Only their war is against other evangelicals, not the world. I wrote:
This split has been acrimonious at times. The culture warriors have been fiercely hostile toward the establishment. Hostility to elites is part of the populist affect, and their combativeness against what they perceive as theological drift flows from their heritage. For their part, the cultural engagers in upper-middle-class milieux have likewise adopted a separatist approach. They are keen to show the world that they are not at all aligned with the Trumpist culture warriors, whom they have harshly denounced in some cases. In effect, they have declared their own culture war, but theirs is against other evangelicals rather than the world.
Shortly after my article was published, David Brooks came out with a lengthy NYT piece about “the dissenters trying to save evangelicalism from itself” that validated my thesis, describing this cultural engager war against other evangelicals. It should also be seen as a salvo in that war, since Brooks is clearly a partisan of the people he profiled, some of whom are his personal friends. His article provides a roster of some of the key names in this culture war, one of whom is Russell Moore.
Moore, formerly head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), is not a clean fit as a cultural engager. He’s unique in many ways. But he’s been among the more aggressive in publicly attacking other evangelicals over the last several years. And he’s clearly allied with others who making similar attacks. While it’s hard to precisely define the group of evangelicals Moore is unhappy with, it certainly amounts to the vast majority of them, including the majority of the SBC. So no surprise, he left or was pushed out of his job at the ERLC, left the SBC itself, and now has a new job as editor of Christianity Today (whose president is one of the other people featured in Brooks’ article). In this new institutional home he is now fully free to campaign against his former SBC colleagues and others.
Moore’s latest salvo in this new evangelical culture war is his new book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. The book is a fundamentalist style denunciation of his evangelical opponents along with a victimology about the way Moore say he was mistreated by them.
I had originally planned to do a detailed review of the book, but decided against it. First, it is no secret that I have been publicly critical of Moore for some time for doing things like trashing in the pages of the New York Times the people whose tithes were paying his salary and whom he was being paid to represent. So I’m surely biased. Secondly, I find his fundamentalist style and cadences off putting. In fact, that style is one of the reasons I don’t put him cleanly in the cultural engagement camp.
I was raised in a rural, fundamentalist style Pentecostal church. Unlike many who came from that environment, I have many positive things to say about that church, but I have chosen a different path as an adult. Yet that experience lets me recognize the fundamentalist motifs Moore employs. For example, one of his go to moves is to imply that his opponents are not saved. In this book, for instance, he writes, “I couldn’t help but wonder if the plot twist to the story of American conservative Christianity was that what we thought was the Shire was Mordor all along.” Mordor is an almost literal fire and brimstone reference. This is one of many ponderous, fundamentalist style denunciations in the book. Even the victimology is reminiscent of the persecution complex some fundamentalists have. This style resonates with millions of people, but I’m not one of them. I’m sure it plays better back in Moore’s Mississippi hometown.
What I want to do instead is to encourage you to read the book for yourself. I’m serious about that. Read it. It is a key example of the positions and thinking of one of key figures in the new evangelical culture war. Hence it gives a good window into that movement. Consider the book’s claims. Think about its style. And then draw your own conclusion about whether you think Moore is accurate, complete, and fair. And possibly his rhetorical style will strike you very differently than it struck me.
The thing I do want to comment on is the victimology. Somewhat unusually for a Christian book, Moore spends time describing the way he believes he was mistreated by others, as well as the shocking behavior he says he witnessed while in the SBC.
One day, though, the “Come to Jesus” meetings change. I found myself sitting, sometimes for eight hours at a time, with Southern Baptists like me in heresy trials in which I was not the inquisitor I had been trained to be, but the defendant.
I can actually relate to some of Moore’s feelings. He and I are almost the same age, both Generation X. Moore is obviously smart, talented, and ambitious. Yet he spent his career inside of a denomination that was heavily dominated by Boomer and older figures. I have little doubt that there really was the kind of boys club network that he describes in the SBC. I’m sure the made men really did get away with some stuff. Moore was probably also smarter and more talented than some of those guys. I’m sure that as with many Gen X people, having to play the role of more junior guy who wasn’t allowed to rock the boat had to chafe.
At the same time, Moore’s portrayal of himself reminded me a lot of Greg Thornbury. Thornbury, who is the same age as Moore and me, was another Gen X Southern Baptist high flyer. He was the president of the King’s College in New York, an evangelical school, when he resigned and became a harsh critic of conservative evangelicals. Thornbury was undergoing a sort of personal crisis at the time, which Moore is not. And to be clear, nor does Moore appear to be taking Thornbury’s theological path. But there are some similarities in their story arcs. They’ve made some overlapping criticisms of conservative evangelicalism, for example. In both cases, some - though by no means all - of the things they said about conservative evangelicals and such were true. It’s hard to argue against Thornbury and Moore’s claim that Donald Trump is a man of low character, for example.
But there’s also a similarity in terms of how they described their previous relationship to conservative evangelicalism. Thornbury described himself as a “hostage of the alt-Christian right.” I don’t think that’s right. I think it would be more accurate to say that Thornbury was a card carrying inner party member of conservative evangelicalism, going all the way back to when he was Al Mohler’s research assistant while he was in seminary. If conservative evangelicalism is as horrible as he says, what does he say have to say about having spent over two decades pursuing a career within it? To say he was a “hostage” is to essentially claim that he has no moral responsibility for his own complicity in the things he now denounces. It’s one thing to change your position. Everybody does that from time to time. Everybody gets things wrong. But at least own it.
Similarly, Moore appears to view himself primarily as a victim, despite having spent 20+ years building an excellent and successful career within the movement and institutions he now denounces. If they really were as terrible as he claims, how does Moore justify having been part of them for so long? He, like Thornbury, was a former research assistant for Al Mohler in seminary and had a rapid rise from there. Like Thornbury, he also implies he was a hostage, writing, “Through it all I maintained what some some said was a Stockholm syndrome level of loyalty to my Southern Baptist identity.” Stockholm syndrome, of course, is when hostages come to emotionally identify with or even join up with their kidnappers. He wants us to see him as a victim of others, or at least blind to what was going on, rather than the inner party participant that he actually was.
To Moore’s credit, there is one area where he does acknowledge he believed and did things that were wrong. That was his patriarchal approach to gender that I wrote about in newsletter #78. The book has a passage very similar to his Christianity Today essay on the subject where Moore basically repents of his previous behavior. But ultimately, if conservative evangelicalism is as bad as he says, then it reflects very poorly on his character to have spent essentially his entire adult life in its service.
More likely in my view is that conservative evangelicalism, despite its flaws, is not as bad as Moore suggests. And his new hostility is primarily a result of personal and political conflicts that shifted his views in a more extreme direction. That is, it is a product of the same polarization effect we are now all too familiar with, along with his affiliating with a new tribe of likeminded people who also found themselves in the evangelical minority position rather than the majority one to which they were accustomed (e.g., David French). I would place the book in the context of this greater realignment and the new intra-evangelical conflict about which David Brooks and I wrote. That is part of what makes it worth reading, to gain insight into one side in that bigger intra-evangelical culture war.
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Cover image credit: Theology 147, CC BY-SA 3.0