NASHVILLE — As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore faces his first presidential election cycle as president of the largest Protestant denomination’s public policy arm, he is expected to put two Republicans in the hot seat on Tuesday. Ahead of Thursday’s first presidential debate, Moore will interview former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in front of 13,000 evangelicals at a missions conference.
Moore has faced some criticism for inviting the candidates to a conference that focuses on evangelism and church growth. In April, after several weeks of criticism about mixing religion and politics, mostly from younger Baptist pastors, the organizers of a Baptist conference asked GOP candidates Ben Carson to withdraw from speaking at the event, and he agreed.
“There is no better place for such an interview to take place than at a missions conference,” Moore said. “Every one of them will have to have those conversations, not with a president or potential president, but with a mayor about zoning regulations or a police chief about racial profiling. I hope to model a way to do that that is engaged but not captive to the political process.”
Earlier this year, Moore said, the president of the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board asked him to invite presidential candidates to be interviewed at a missions conference this week. Moore agreed, and in May, he sent invitations to the leading candidates, those with at least 10 percent in the Real Clear Politics average by July 4. At the time, businessman Donald Trump was at 5 percent, but he has since surged in the polls.
“I’m more than willing to talk with Trump at any point,” Moore said. “It would’ve made for a memorable afternoon, that’s for sure.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton were both invited but declined.
Moore said he expects to ask the candidates about questions ranging from abortion to racial justice to international issues.
How did Moore become the one to interview Bush and Rubio? Of course, there is no single spokesperson for evangelicals, but Moore, the head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, which has around 15 million members, is now seen as one of evangelicals’ most visible leaders.
While Moore was dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, he became known in evangelical circles for his adoption advocacy (he has two adopted boys from Russia). His profile has been steadily rising since his Southern Baptist Convention appointment in 2013. In June, his call to South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that flew over state Capitol grounds was seen as instrumental in the flag’s eventual removal.
Just decades ago, Southern Baptists looked at evangelicals with suspicion, as evangelicals were seen as “Yankees.” But now Southern Baptists usually associate themselves with the broader evangelical label. Evangelicals make up the largest religious group in the nation, at about 25 percent, according to the 2015 Pew Research Religious Landscape study. Though they are politically and theologically diverse, evangelicals have played an important role in Republican politics since the 1970s.
On Tuesday, Moore will interview two Catholic presidential candidates, which might have been unthinkable when Southern Baptists questioned whether President John F. Kennedy would listen to Vatican more than he would the American people.
“He wants to draw a distinction between religious institutions and political institutions. He doesn’t mean religion and politics should have nothing to do with each other,” said John Green, a political science and religion expert at the University of Akron. “It’s more a focus on a candidates’ positions than a candidates’ religious identification.”
Two years into his SBC position, 43-year-old Moore faces a political landscape that includes rapidly changing demographics and opinions on social issues. Previously, Moore said, evangelicals focused on preparing teenagers for places like universities, where they could encounter Darwinism or atheism. With the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, he said, the cultural pressure faces people immediately.
“There is an evangelical overreaction sometimes to the hyper political organizing of the last generation that wants to simply retreat from engagement on political issues, which I think is a mistake,” Moore said. “We must retain prophetic distance but also be engaged with the leaders who are going to be making decisions about such basic questions, such as religious freedom in the United States and around the world.”
Not only are evangelicals facing a change in the culture, they are facing changes in leadership. Several leaders from the Religious Right of past decades have died or retired, leaving an opening for people like Moore to fill.
For instance, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, one of the most visible and respected evangelical leaders among an older generation, was replaced in 2005 by its current president Jim Daly. Both Daly and Moore are known for their work on adoption and are seen as trying to set a new kind of tone in the culture wars. Neither leader seems eager to partner with some of the older, established Christian Right organizations in Washington.
“In the days of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, they acted as if they were the majority and were hard edged and critical and turned a lot of people off. It was ‘Our way or the highway,'” Green said. “The way you get a hearing is by having a much softer approach.”
Though Moore has not publicly criticized some of the other conservative Christian leaders in Washington like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the two have not noticeably collaborated on issues. Moore has also drawn a large following on social media from people who might not hear his commentary on Christian radio and television, through direct mail or other media platforms that would be familiar to an old Religious Right.
The Southern Baptist Convention has had a mixed relationship with politics in the past. In the 1980s, with the rise of conservative Christian leaders like James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell Jr., Moore’s predecessor Richard Land was often lumped in with the Christian Right. Land supported President George W. Bush on Iraq and other issues, credited by some observers with helping an overall effort to put Bush into office.
In the early 1990s, Moore was an aide to then-Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.). But Land was more of a Washington insider than Moore, said Barry Hankins, coauthor of the book “Baptist in America” with fellow Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd. Moore, on the other hand, is more of a Southern Baptist insider.
“Russell Moore talks about congregations as doing God’s work,” Hankins said. “You have to have a grassroots conservatism in churches as opposed to going to Washington and speaking to subcommittees about what needs to change in America.”
Moore mobilizes Christians by leveraging heavily theological language, said Jonathan Merritt, a columnist for Religion News Service and son of a former Southern Baptist president. In contrast, a classical culture warrior would likely use the language of fear to mobilize Christians in the public square for political ends, Merritt said.
Moore has learned how to navigate the waters of a massive denomination in order to accomplish his goals, said Merritt, who brought a group of Christian environmentalists to press him on the issue of climate change at Southern Seminary.
“He said something to me I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Jonathan, one thing you have to remember about Southern Baptists is, if you’re 9 percent out in front of them, you’re a trail blazer. If you’re 10 percent out in front of them, you’re dead,’” Merritt said. “I thought, ‘This is a guy who understands when to push, how much to push and when to put on the brakes.’ He knows how to do that as effectively as any Southern Baptist leader I know.”