Officers of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty have affirmed the leadership of agency head Russell Moore, amid media reports that he might be fired.
In an unusual statement March 20, the ERLC executive committee said Moore, under investigation by the SBC Executive Committee and possibly the Louisiana Baptist Convention for criticizing Donald Trump during last year’s presidential campaign, will continue in his job “with the confidence of our support.”
Moore, 45, issued his own statement apologizing for “contextless or unhelpful posts on social media about the whirl of the news cycle” that failed to “distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel.”
He apologized “for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh.”
Early in the campaign Moore, whose style is often contrasted to the Religious Right ideology of his predecessor Richard Land, interviewed GOP hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio during a “civil forum discussion” at a national conference. He later joined Rubio to co-author a Washington Post commentary critical of President Obama.
Not long after a photo appeared online showing pastors including Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas laying hands on Trump in a prayer circle during a private meeting at Trump Tower, Moore observed that “many evangelicals, or at least professing evangelicals, are saying character doesn’t matter when it comes to Donald Trump.”
“In the 1990s, some of these social conservatives argued that ‘If Bill Clinton’s wife can’t trust him, neither can we,’” Moore wrote in a New York Times op-ed in September 2015. “If character matters, character matters. Today’s evangelicals should ask, whatever happened to our commitment to ‘traditional family values?’”
In December 2015 Moore criticized Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty should denounce this reckless, demagogic rhetoric,” Moore said on his personal website.
In January 2016 Moore contributed to a collection of National Review articles headlined “Conservatives against Trump.” Moore’s 500-word commentary questioned Trump’s abortion stance, personal life and call to temporarily ban Muslim immigration.
“Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy that Neil Postman warned us about years ago, in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses,” Moore wrote. “Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant. For them to view it any other way now would be for them to lose their soul.”
Moore later voiced concern about evangelical leaders who “have tossed aside everything that they previously said they believed in order to embrace and to support the Trump candidacy.”
“When you have some leaders pronouncing Donald Trump to be a Christian — despite the fact that he openly boasts and brags about adulterous affairs and uses racially tinged and derogatory speech and a thousand other things, and says he has nothing for which to ask forgiveness from God — that to me is not a political issue,” he said. “It is a gospel issue, and that has to do with who evangelicals actually are.”
In May 2016 Moore went on the CBS program Face the Nation to compare Trump’s candidacy to “reality television moral sewage.” He denounced “cultural rot” that conservatives used to oppose but “now want to put it on C-SPAN for the next four years.”
Trump responded with a tweet calling Moore a “truly a terrible representative of evangelicals” and a “nasty guy with no heart.”
A month later Moore described Trump as a lost soul in need of salvation.
“My primary prayer for Donald Trump is that he would first of all repent of sin and come to faith in Jesus Christ,” Moore said in an interview with CBN News June 3. “That’s my prayer for any lost person.”
Last June Trump included Southern Baptist Convention leaders Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, Richard Land and others on a board to advise his campaign on matters important to people of faith.
In October a financial supporter of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Moore worked before coming to the ERLC in 2013, said in a Louisville Courier-Journal op-ed that he wasn’t surprised by Moore’s “never Trump” position, “as he was always fond of reminding me that he was a Democrat.”
After exit polls indicated that four out of five white evangelicals voted for Trump, a former SBC Executive Committee leader from Louisiana said ERLC leaders “were almost completely out of touch with the reality of how the people felt” and that the agency currently “is causing more disturbance than it is serving us in a positive way.”
In November the Louisiana Baptist Convention referred without discussion a motion asking the state convention’s executive board to “study the recent actions of SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with regard to issues of concern to Louisiana Baptists.”
In December the Wall Street Journal quoted former SBC President Jack Graham as saying his 40,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church “is considering making major changes in our support of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Graham later told the Louisiana Baptist Message his church was holding Cooperative Baptist funds in escrow in response to “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that do not reflect the beliefs and values of many in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
In February the SBC Executive Committee formed a subcommittee “to study and recommend redemptive solutions to the current reality in Southern Baptist life of churches’ either escrowing or discontinuing Cooperative Program funds” and asked officers to monitor activities of any SBC entity that “might adversely affect” giving to the denomination.
Executive Committee chairman Stephen Rummage said in an interview with SBC This Week that the study isn’t due solely to the action of Prestonwood Baptist Church.
“The truth is there are a lot of other churches who have concerns about some of the things that are happening in certain SBC entities,” said Rummage, pastor Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., adding that Executive Committee staff had received more calls, letters and emails than “from any other issue in memory.”
“Certainly Prestonwood church’s action caused a lot of attention, but Prestonwood is not by itself,” Rummage said. “In fact I think Prestonwood is giving voice to what a lot of other churches that might not have as large a voice, they are giving voice to those same concerns.”
Moore said in his statement March 20 he did not mean to suggest it was sinful for Southern Baptists to advise candidates or to serve on advisory boards. “What I was attempting to talk about were those — most often prosperity gospel teachers — who were willing to define the gospel in ways that I believe untrue to the plan of salvation, or to dismiss the moral concerns other Christians had,” he said.
“As the year progressed, I felt convicted — both by my personal conscience and by my assignment by Southern Baptists — to speak out on issues of what the gospel is and is not, what sexual morality and sexual assault are and are not, and the crucial need for white Christians to listen to the concerns of our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ,” Moore said.
“I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well — such that I wounded some, including close friends,” he said. “I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions. But I can — and do — apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”