Russell Moore’s critics in the Southern Baptist Convention think his departure to the evangelical magazine Christianity Today proves what they’ve believed all along: He’s a liberal.
Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the past eight years, announced on his personal website May 18 that he will leave the Nashville-based agency June 1 to assume a new role at Christianity Today as public theologian and director of the Christianity Today Public Theology Project.
Along with well-wishes from Moore’s many fans inside and outside the SBC, social media immediately lit up with the equivalent of “don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out” from his detractors. These critics tend to represent the most far-right sector of the already conservative SBC, a vocal minority seeking to force a second “conservative resurgence” on the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.
Nathaniel Jolly, a Southern Baptist pastor in Homer, Alaska, tweeted: “I’m not about to apologize or pretend that I’m not thrilled Russell Moore is leaving the ERLC. My preference is always that leaders return to clear biblical thinking. That is the best and most desired outcome, but if not, I will throw a party when they leave.”
Wade Lentz, a Southern Baptist pastor in Vilonia, Ark., tweeted: “Russell Moore leaving the SBC is the best news I’ve heard since Biden has taken office! Go be a Democrat sympathizer somewhere else, Mr. Moore.”
The shape of this summer’s convention
Moore’s departure before the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville this June could temporarily defuse one of the hottest debates that might have happened there. The most conservative wing of the SBC, led by a group called the Conservative Baptist Network, has sought Moore’s removal. Some churches have been withholding Cooperative Program funding from the agency in protest of Moore’s leadership, but the ERLC’s board of trustees — elected by the SBC in annual session — has held firm behind Moore and refused to fire him.
His perceived offenses? Speaking out against Donald Trump as morally unfit to serve as president. And being an advocate for immigration and interdenominational cooperation. And failing to join California pastor John MacArthur (who is not a Southern Baptist) in being outraged that state and local governments required churches to stop meeting indoors and in-person to stop the spread of COVID-19.
When the ERLC trustees refused to remove Moore — whose conservative evangelical bona fides on issues like abortion and biblical authority are otherwise impeccable — the SBC Executive Committee stepped in to conduct its own investigation. That unusual action outraged ERLC trustees and Moore’s supporters.
The external inquiry was created and led by Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who is one of four candidates for the SBC’s presidency this summer and represents the most conservative wing of the denomination. Another of the candidates is Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where Moore previously served as provost and dean and taught theology and ethics. Moore also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southern Seminary.
At the time the special task force was created in February 2020, Stone served as chairman of the SBC Executive Committee. He also named himself chair of the investigative task force, which carefully skirted the normal governance hierarchy of SBC agencies by making its work about Cooperative Program giving.
At the time, Stone said: “The ERLC is governed by their board of trustees. This is not a governance issue. This is a budget issue related to their fulfillment of their mission and ministry assignment. We continue to hear reports that are largely anecdotal but increasing in number where churches are either decreasing or withholding Cooperative Program funds related to concerns with the ERLC. We have a responsibility that we are granted under the bylaws of the SBC to look at this.”
When the report came back in February 2021, however, it outlined a litany of complaints about Moore and the ERLC. The report listed 10 areas of concern about the ERLC’s work, topped by “the open opposition of a candidate for president of the United States.”
Second on the 10-point list was this: “The accusation of receiving funding from an organization with ties to George Soros.”
That is a previously debunked conspiracy theory likely originating out of the QAnon movement that claimed the ERLC was part of an immigrant advocacy group funded by Soros, a favorite boogeyman of the far right and conspiracy theorists. Baptist Press explained a year earlier why this isn’t true, and yet it ended up as the second bullet point of the study group’s list of accusations.
Amid this backdrop came the May 18 announcement of Moore’s departure for Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham and considered a bulwark of traditional evangelical Christianity. The magazine endured its own criticism in 2020 when its retiring editor in chief, Mark Galli, penned an editorial also calling Trump morally unfit for office.
SBC attitudes about Moore and Christianity Today illustrate the Trump-era divide within religious and political conservatism.
In his announcement, Moore cited the influence of “faithful voices of gospel integrity” who he grew up reading in Christianity Today, including Carl Henry, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Charles Colson and John Perkins.
He explained his new role as “cultivating a forward-looking, joyful, consistent gospel witness.”
Moore did not say whether he would remain a Southern Baptist, although that seems likely — unlike popular Bible study leader and author Beth Moore, who made international headlines earlier this spring by announcing her departure from the denomination, in part because of its unflinching support for Trump. (Russell Moore and Beth Moore are not related but they have appeared on programs together.)
Progressive evangelical author Brian Zahnd tweeted: “It appears that the Southern Baptists have traded Beth Moore and Russell Moore for Donald Trump.”
ERLC board expresses gratitude
Concurrent with Moore’s announcement, the ERLC issued a news release with a statement from David Prince, chairman of the ERLC board of trustees and pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
“On behalf of the ERLC board of trustees and Southern Baptists everywhere, I want to extend our deepest gratitude to Russell Moore for his eight years of principled, energetic and prophetic ministry,” Prince said. “He led with integrity, courage and convictional kindness during tumultuous times. It has been our joy as trustees and fellow Southern Baptists to be on mission for Christ and his kingdom with the utmost confidence in Dr. Moore’s leadership and in the effectiveness of the commission’s ministry.”
Prince said the ERLC’s mission “remains essential to the SBC” and that trustees will begin taking steps to identify Moore’s successor. In the interim, the ERLC Executive Committee named Daniel Patterson, ERLC executive vice president, as acting president.
Patterson came to the ERLC staff along with Moore, moving from Southern Seminary in Louisville, where he was executive assistant to the senior vice president. He earned master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees at Southern Seminary, after completing undergraduate studies in communication at Middle Tennessee State University.