What’s Really Behind the Russell Moore Controversy

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The recent media buzz that Russell Moore’s job was in jeopardy at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission happily turned out to be much ado about nothing . . . for the moment. Certain SBC churches, including Texas megachurch Prestonwood Baptist, have declared their intention to withhold contributions to the SBC’s Cooperative Program partly out of frustration with the perceived “disrespectfulness” with which Moore spoke about Donald Trump, and Trump’s evangelical supporters, during the fall 2016 campaign.

I am affiliated with the ERLC as a research fellow, but I hardly possess any “insider” insight into what is happening with the Russell Moore controversy. My hunch is that the acrimony that has broken out over Moore and his role is rooted not so much in Moore’s criticisms of Trump, but in the unexpected electoral triumph of Trump. Trump’s victory gave new life to the old dream of the Religious Right for political access and Christian-inspired reform.

As Ross Douthat explained earlier this week at The New York Times, even Trump’s primary victory seemed to vindicate the view of Russell Moore, Rod Dreher, and other observers that we are hurtling into post-Christian America, and that 2016 was our first fully post-Christian election. (I don’t need to explain again why critics felt this way about Trump, who historically seemed more comfortable on the Howard Stern show than within the bounds of church or Christian orthodoxy.) Trump’s nomination, Douthat writes,

threw the divisions among religious conservatives into relief as well. Moore (and many others) spent the campaign warning that a countercultural Christianity would risk its credibility by supporting a figure like Trump for the presidency. But other leaders, mostly in the movement’s older guard, found ways to cast Trump as a heaven-sent figure, whose flaws and failings were no worse than those of a King David or a Constantine.

And when Trump won, shockingly — with strong support from conservative churchgoers, however conflicted they might have been — the Trumpist faction claimed vindication, and among some Baptist pastors the knives came out for Moore.

Imagine if Trump had lost, which virtually all pundits expected him to do. Maybe the criticisms of Moore and other #NeverTrump evangelicals would not be nearly as loud. Or maybe the anti-Moore chorus would be even louder, blaming him and other #NeverTrumpers for the loss. In any case, we would have a Clinton presidency, and figures like Moore would be trying to explain where evangelicals should go from here, since getting behind the Trump train was not only morally dubious, but also a political failure.

Dubious it was, but it did not turn out to be a political failure, at least not in the short term—2016 ended up being as scintillating a victory for the old-style Religious Right as anything that’s happened since 1980, even if it meant overlooking and at times excusing moral problems they once deemed non-negotiables.

It left the #NeverTrumpers (including me) aghast and befuddled, certainly happy not to have a Clinton presidency, but uncertain about what evangelical support for Trump will have wrought, and what kind of enduring damage it will have done to evangelicals’ witness and unity, especially among African Americans and Hispanics. Douthat says it revealed

the strange position of conservative Christians in the age of Trump. Having spent the late Obama years trying to reconcile themselves to growing marginalization, to sudden secularization and increasing liberal pressure on their institutions, they suddenly find themselves with a real share of power — with allies all over the Trump cabinet, whatever the president himself may believe — in a political alignment that almost nobody saw coming. . . .

Thanks to Trump’s unlikely rise, religious conservatism has temporarily regained influence that its younger leaders and thinkers assumed was all but lost. But at a price — the price of being bound to an unstable and semi-competent form of right-wing nationalism, and suspended over the abyss by the not precisely Godlike hands of Donald Trump.

Douthat says that this “Back to the Future” moment and new life for the heirs of the Moral Majority will make books like Rod Dreher’s much-discussed Benedict Option more pertinent, not less. It also has made leaders like Russell Moore unexpectedly vulnerable. I believe Moore was right to warn against the consequences of staking so much of white evangelicals’ credibility on a candidate like Trump. But until November, that warning was paired with the near certainty that Trump would lose badly. Then the GOP and its evangelical base would have looked even more silly for having supported him.

But then Trump won. Some evangelicals saw the hand of Providence behind the near-miraculous triumph in the Electoral College. Republican evangelicals who supported Trump understandably wish to take maximum advantage of the access and opportunities that the moment affords—like Supreme Court nominations, defunding Planned Parenthood, and more. Taking maximum advantage, to some, may require the removal of #NeverTrump evangelicals whose reluctance might have denied them such opportunities in a Trump administration.

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