Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m., more than 10,000 students pour into the Vines Center at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to hear top-line musical worship performances and talks by the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the Rev. Rick Warren, all recent speakers.
Liberty’s “convocation” is the largest regular gathering of young evangelicals in the country.
And the guy who picks who speaks is Johnnie Moore, a charismatic campus preacher and Liberty vice president who at 28 is becoming a heavy-hitter in the world of conservative Christianity. At a time when young white evangelicals are pushing back against the marriage of their faith with the GOP, Moore looks like he might be a key to the future, espousing a Christianity that is at once orthodox and social justice-minded. He is the go-to adviser for some conservative leaders trying to understand what the heck is going on.
They got a wake-up call in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama captured 33 percent of young white evangelical voters, nearly triple the percentage John Kerry received four years earlier. Moore agrees with many experts who say he did this by tapping into their disaffection with politics and instead inviting them in their own language to be part of a movement.
While Moore says he would “never call myself a Republican,” he has already counseled five Republican presidential candidates and speaks in hip, Millennial ways about his own conservative political agenda that is pro-small government and anti-Obamacare.
“Johnnie very well may be a significant part of the bridge that may save conservative Christianity. He’s a saving thread because he’s cool, relevant, not a fanatic,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, leader of the country’s largest Latino evangelical group.
During a recent visit on campus, Moore demurred when his striking Brazilian wife called him a politics junkie.
He is, he says, ambivalent about the mixing of religion and politics and stays away from the biggest young evangelical conferences, saying he’s wary about “what’s in.” He has also pulled back from blogging too much, freaked out by the harsh tone of the blogosphere.
As such, he seems the perfect envoy for young evangelicals in flux.
“The nitty gritty of politics, that isn’t me. It’s too confrontational,” he says. “It’s kind of a necessary evil, it’s how things are affected. And I want to influence things.”
Growing up in the Bible Belt, Moore saw the pulpit as the center of community power.
His paternal grandfather was a pastor, and even as a child he remembers feeling he was “supposed” to preach. A tiny lectern that now stands in his huge Liberty office was saved by his grandmother to commemorate his first “sermon” at age 5.
But the Christianity around him was filled with painful contradictions.
Both his father and grandfather had neglected children they’d fathered before marriage for fear of looking like phony Christians. The pastor his parents turned to for marital help was involved with the wife of another pastor. As his dad struggled to find regular work, the family moved 20 times in Moore’s first decade, mostly around the South. Even as their finances and marriage were imploding, Moore’s parents’ continued to waltz into various churches each Sunday with fake smiles.
Church was a staple, a cultural requirement for conservative Christians, he says, but never a place Moore saw people being honest about their personal struggles, their flaws, their spiritual doubts.
Little Johnnie decided to fix things by mapping out his own path to the pulpit. Once he moved with his mother and sister to Lynchburg when he was 15, he plunged into competitive public speaking and became one of the top Virginia high-schoolers.
He took up magic and began performing on Christian cruises and National Right to Life conventions.
“To have divorced parents when you come from the heart of the Bible Belt is like a scarlet letter. Magic was very much an escape,” he says.
His pastor at the time was the Moral Majority’s founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who took up an interest in the youth. Moore quickly became Falwell’s protege. When Moore got to Liberty a few years later, Falwell made him a campus pastor within two years and soon a school spokesman. Moore often traveled with Falwell around the world as his assistant until Falwell’s death in 2007.
Today, Moore is not only a vice president of the 12,500-person campus but the best-known of a half-dozen campus pastors, the one who leads Sunday student services. He also heads the thrice-weekly convocation and directs a 17-person department that sends Liberty students around the world on missions.
From this lofty perch, he has come to two conclusions about American evangelicals.
The first is that they have become too callous, a somewhat ironic charge coming from a protege of Falwell, who blamed gays and pagans for the Sept. 11 attacks and called the Islamic prophet Muhammad a “terrorist.” Moore says evangelicals have cared too much in recent decades about building massive megachurches for the upper-middle class and too little about getting their hands dirty serving the poor.
His second conclusion is more Falwell-esque: Evangelicals are becoming too liberal about their faith. To Moore, if you say you believe in the Bible as literal truth, but privately believe it’s a metaphor, you’re a phony. In a new book called “Honestly: Really Living What We Say We Believe,” Moore rails against “fake cultural Christianity.”
“When I choose to believe in God, I don’t get to choose what I want to believe, and I don’t get to decide what truth is worth believing. I choose whom to believe, and he gets to tell me what to believe,” he writes. For Moore, Christianity leads to conservative politics.
The Bible says man, not government, is responsible for his own behavior. God, not the government, should decide when life begins or ends. The Bible says people will take the easy route if offered them, which is what he believes the new Obama-backed health-care law does for young adults, many of whom can now remain on their parents’ health plans.
“If I’m confused on something, I go to a higher source,” he says, “the Bible.”
Before Texas Gov. Rick Perry addressed the Liberty convocation one morning in September, Moore sat in his sprawling office juggling mobile devices to coordinate the day’s events. Uncharacteristically dressed in a suit, not jeans, he was anxious to see whether Perry’s campaign would follow his advice.
Moore sees his fellow young evangelicals as highly emotional and “entitled” — but idealistic. They don’t trust organizations or traditional political activism (which is why he thinks they don’t identify with the tea party), but they want to be a part of causes (which he believes Obama convinced them they were).
Moore encouraged Perry to focus on the word “opportunity” and offered a sentence constructed for an entitled generation: “Ensuring that your generation gets the same opportunity to experience the American dream.”
Moore is regularly the only 20-something in the room at small meetings called by old-line Christian conservative leaders.
Among them are Tony Perkins, head of advocacy powerhouse Family Research Council and prominent evangelist and GOP kingmaker James Robison, who advised Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Rick Tyler, a former close aide to Newt Gingrich, says hiring Moore was his “number one” priority before he left the campaign.
“Johnnie is in all the rooms. He doesn’t grandstand, gives terrific advice. If you’re in the Green Room at convocation and listen to Johnnie, you’ll do well. If you don’t, you won’t.”
Moore urges conservatives to pay more attention to Obama’s outreach to young people: the president used the same communications systems they do (Facebook, texting) and placed 20-somethings in prominent positions, including speechwriters.
He also counsels abortion opponents who speak at convocation not to use judgmental language.
“I’m totally pro-life but thousands of girls in the room have had abortions, not because they wanted to but because they were trapped. It’s insufficient to preach truth without climbing into the situation,” he says.
In the years since he started running convocation, he has expanded the speaker list to include not just pastors but also more Christian leaders of other fields such as business and the arts. He says his job is to “spark questions, not give the answers.”
“My mantra is ‘Things are more complicated than they seem,’ ” he says.
Students at Liberty, he says, are turned off by politics, and partisan politics in particular.
But partisanship was on full display the day of the Perry speech. Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s chancellor, said at a brief press conference that “anyone would be better than Obama.” If Republican candidates “stick to conservative values they’ll be fine” with young evangelical voters, he says.
Thousands of students laughed and cheered as Falwell introduced Perry with a story about how thankful he is that Perry decided to run; Falwell went on to tease about Liberty getting a positive credit rating as “Obama and the United States” got a poor one.
Students before and after the speech said the most important thing Perry or other candidates could do — beyond any policy position they could take — is to be very public in their Christianity. Several praised events like a huge prayer rally Perry had co-hosted a few weeks earlier.
Scenes like this at Liberty have led some prominent young evangelicals to conclude that the university still represents a marriage between faith and politics that has lost its appeal to many.
A far different vibe existed at the Catalyst Conference, one of the biggest gatherings of young evangelicals, earlier this month. Its key speaker was liberal civil rights activist Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and author.
“These people aren’t interested in engaging the political process in order to gain power and force people to bend to their values. That’s the difference between Catalyst and Liberty,” says Jonathan Merritt, an outspoken writer and activist who went to Liberty and grew up as the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president.
Rodriguez, the Latino evangelical leader, says evangelicals like Moore will eventually merge in America with ethnic minorities and be a massive force.
“Some of these other groups have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about their Christianity; it’s sort of clandestine, they kind of dilute it. But Johnnie would say: Why can’t we be both sold out to Christ and addressing issues like sex trafficking?”
Moore knows he’s walking a shifting line. He shares some of the instincts of his generation that evangelicals have become too invested in politics — GOP politics in particular — but he also is attracted to the power that comes with being campus pastor at the world’s largest Christian school.
In his car after Perry’s convocation, Moore analyzed the talk. “A little preachy,” he concluded, but overall impressive.
Once his wife, who is head of Liberty’s social media department, was back in her office after lunch, he was quick to dispute her point that he loves politics.
But he added: “No one gets anywhere by not being in the conversation.”