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Acts of Faith

Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job? Churches threaten to pull funds after months of Trump controversy

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

March 13, 2017 at 7:35 PM

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Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, could lose his job after months of controversy over his criticism of President Trump’s 2016 campaign and his supporters. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

More than 100 of the denomination's 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC's umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other "personality issue" in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.

Moore, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and has been relatively quiet since the election, declined to comment for this article. Page declined to discuss the plan for Monday's meeting. When asked whether he might ask for Moore's resignation, Page responded, "If the meeting doesn't goes well, I'm fully prepared to ask him for a change in his status." But he said there was no assumption that Moore would resign, and he hoped Moore and those who oppose him would agree to work toward reconciliation. Although Page is influential within the SBC, Moore does not report to the executive committee, but to the ERLC's board of trustees.

On Monday evening, Moore and Page issued a joint statement of support for each other. "We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come," the statement read. "We will collaborate on developing future steps to deepen connections with all Southern Baptists as we work together to advance the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Since he was elected in 2013, Moore, 45, has been praised by younger evangelicals for challenging the political approach of an older generation. He is also very popular among many evangelicals of color, who have welcomed Moore's promotion of racial justice, including his vigorous opposition to public displays of the Confederate flag.

A threat to Moore's job would have a "chilling" effect on efforts toward racial reconciliation, said Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor of Anacostia River Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Washington. "The fallout will be the denomination signaling to African American and other ethnic groups that they're tone deaf and disinterested in that membership," said Anyabwile, who is black.

But Moore's anti-Trump activism during the presidential campaign and criticism of his followers continued to upset many established white Southern Baptist leaders, who question whether Moore can now lobby effectively for their concerns with the Trump administration. Further highlighting divisions, influential Texas megachurch pastor Jack Graham said in February after a meeting with Moore that his Prestonwood Baptist Church would begin withholding $1 million in donations to the SBC umbrella fund.

Withdrawal of church donations from the fund threatens not only the ERLC (which receives just 1.65 percent of it) but other Southern Baptist agencies and state conventions. Graham, who sat on Trump's evangelical advisory council during the campaign, declined to comment.

More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, according to exit polls, and many did so with the belief that they thought he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposes abortion.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gives the entity’s report during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 15, 2016, in St. Louis. (Adam Covington/Baptist Press via RNS)

Some say the debate is less about Moore's politics than it is about Moore, whom some view as arrogant and out of touch with many rank-and-file Southern Baptists, particularly in rural churches.

"There's a disconnect between that world and what some perceive as an elitist position by some of our leaders," Page said. "I work hard at dispelling the notion … but that's a big concern out there."

Page also recently met with black megachurch pastors and said he wants to avoid setting back efforts toward racial reconciliation.

"I have heard of no one opposed to racial reconciliation efforts by Russell Moore," he said. "But I want our brothers and sisters of ethnic groups to know we deeply and desperately care about their concerns."

But whether Moore stays or goes, Page said, events have caused "deep hurt" within the convention.

The larger debate
The controversy surrounding Moore appears to extend beyond his opposition to Trump to encompass a larger debate over white evangelical alignment with Trump and the Republican Party.

During his tenure, Moore has criticized the involvement of evangelicals in political affairs, calling into question past strategies of the Religious Right. He called on younger evangelicals in particular to reject the old idea of a "moral majority" and embrace a role as "prophetic minority."

Moore, who said he could vote for neither major party candidate, was an early critic of Trump and the evangelical leaders who supported him, accusing them of "normalizing an awful candidate." When other Southern Baptist leaders met at Trump Tower last summer, Moore suggested they had "drunk the Kool-Aid."

Trump drew attention to Moore when he tweeted in May that Moore was "a nasty guy with no heart!" Moore replied, "Sad!"

After a report about a videotape of Trump's lewd comments directed at women was published by The Washington Post, Moore tweeted outrage at leaders who still continued to back the candidate.

Former SBC president Ronnie Floyd, who sits with other Southern Baptists on Trump's advisory council, said some leaders were especially upset by Moore's delivery.

"I have no problem with a minister articulating concern over an issue. But at the same time, there's a way to do it," Floyd said. "It's a matter of being able to do it and keep respect for everyone who may disagree."

Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, said: "He may have to bend over backwards to be positive about the good things Trump does."

Moore reports to the 35 trustees of the ERLC, who would decide his ultimate fate if he faced requests to resign. His board chairman, Ken Barbic, who attends Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, wrote in a text message that "Russell Moore is a Gospel-centered, faithful, and prophetic voice for Southern Baptists," and that he and the board "wholeheartedly support his leadership."

In an ironic twist, Moore's lack of White House access reflects his belief that evangelicals should be prophetic outsiders, although no one thought such a shift would take place under a Republican president, said religion columnist Jonathan Merritt, who is son of former SBC president James Merritt and supports Moore.

"I think he's not sitting in an apartment lamenting [his lack of access]," Merritt said. "I don't think he's celebrating it either."

After the election, Moore wrote that his criticism was for "a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel."

"But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump," Moore wrote. "I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that's what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize."

But some thought his apology did not go far enough.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist, told a TownHall columnist that he was "utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them." Huckabee declined to speak with The Post.

Outspoken on other matters
Eight of the 10 policy priorities recently highlighted by Moore's team touch on abortion, but last year, the ERLC first prioritized religious freedom, an area where tensions have been building among evangelicals.

In 2016, Moore's ERLC and the denomination's International Missions Board filed an amicus brief in support of a Muslim community's right to build a mosque in New Jersey. Earlier this year, a trustee of the IMB resigned over the move, saying that Islam is not a religion and does not deserve protection. The trustee's megachurch also pulled funding from the SBC.

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, right, leads a panel discussion on June 9, 2014, as David Platt, now president of the International Missions Board, listens. (Adelle M. Banks/RNS)

David Platt, president of the IMB, apologized for the brief, and declined to comment.

Moore's comments on the mosque received a standing ovation from many during last year's denominational convention, and he has not issued an apology.

Page said the mosque issue "touched on a climate of fear and suspicion" of Muslims.

"It wasn't the support of a Hindu temple … there are no radicals come out of a Hindu temple. That's not the perception of a mosque," Page said.

Moore also has been outspoken on immigration and refugees, often not necessarily reflecting mainstream white evangelical attitudes. For instance, Moore effectively denounced Trump's refugee executive order, while 76 percent of evangelicals say they approve of it.

Though Moore has not changed the SBC's stance on policy positions, his willingness to diverge from the evangelical pack has made him enormously popular among a younger generation and people of color.

Moore follows his predecessor, Richard Land, who pushed the convention on issues related to race beyond many members' comfort level. The convention voted in 1995 to apologize for the role that slavery played in the creation of the SBC, the denomination's opposition to civil rights and the past exclusion of blacks from churches.

Although important Southern Baptist leaders have opposed Moore, he has also received key support from black Southern Baptist leaders, including New Orleans pastor Fred Luter, the SBC's first black president, who issued support in response to the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which commissioned an investigation of ERLC's actions during the election.

While Moore did not start the SBC’s conversation on racial reconciliation, he has helped it progress by speaking out forcefully about the nation’s racial climate, making it one of his key focuses at ERLC, said Anyabwile of Anacostia River Church. Twenty percent of Southern Baptist churches are nonwhite, and about half of the denomination’s new church plants in 2015 were nonwhite congregations.

Anyabwile said that terms like "Southern Baptist" and "evangelical" have recently been called into question by those concerned about broad support of Trump.

"We're experiencing a realignment and people thinking through their theological identity and how useful the label evangelical is and who wants to be associated with it," he said. "A lot of African Americans, if they were ever comfortable with the term evangelical, are decidedly not now."

A Southern Baptist realignment
The denomination has gone through a significant realignment before. In the 1980s, Southern Baptists hotly debated the interpretation of the Bible as President Ronald Reagan took office. During his two terms, conservatives in the SBC tended to side with Reagan while moderates tended to side with Jimmy Carter-style Democrats, said Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist historian. The debates led to nearly 2,000 churches breaking away to form a the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that ordains women.

"The last time Southern Baptists were this divided, the Republican Party was reinventing itself," said Finn, who is dean of Union University's School of Theology and Missions.

In addition to topics such as immigration and Muslim rights, Southern Baptists have also been embroiled in a theological debate over how to understand salvation that has also divided the denomination along generational lines.

During last year’s annual convention, two Southern Baptist leaders went head to head in a presidential election that represented a generational and theological divide. Southern Baptists were evenly split between J.D. Greear, a younger pastor, and Tennessee pastor Steve Gaines, who was perceived as representing an older generation of Southern Baptists. After neither received enough votes in a runoff, Greear withdrew from the race and Gaines became president. Gaines declined to comment.

Greear said Moore has represented a younger generation well with his tone and his hesitancy toward partisanship. He said part of the generational debate involves how deeply the denomination of 15 million members should venture into policy beyond abortion and civil rights. He and others of his generation question, for example, whether Southern Baptists should weigh in on specifics of refugee policy.

A Southern Baptist who ventures too far out from the political mainstream for the denomination, like Moore, risks being cut adrift, Finn said.

"If you're one step in front of Southern Baptists, you're a leader," he said. "If you're two steps in front, you're a prophet. Three steps in front of Southern Baptists? You're a target. A lot of Southern Baptists think Russell Moore is three or four steps in front of Southern Baptists."

This article was updated at 7:39 p.m. Monday to include more quotes from Page's interview and include an updated statement. Moore and Page did not return requests for comment on Monday.


Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a religion reporter, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and...everything.

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