The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russell Moore delivers an unflinching indictment of the Southern Baptist Convention

The Rev. Russell Moore in Nashville in October 2014. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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Russell Moore is either a politically disillusioned troublemaker or a prophet in a time of darkness. In a 4,000-word letter charging the Southern Baptist Convention with racism and sexual abuse, he has single-handedly brought the evangelical Christian world to its knees.

Moore wrote his hard-charging letter in February 2020, while still serving as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the influential policy arm of the Southern Baptists. But the letter didn’t become public until it was leaked on June 2, the day after Immanuel Nashville, a church that’s not part of the SBC, announced that Moore would become its pastor in residence and, perhaps not coincidentally, about 10 days before the Convention meets in Nashville to discuss its mission.

Because this column is only around 800 words, I’ll have to do some considerable summarizing. Suffice to say that Moore’s letter to the ERLC’s board of trustees was an unflinching indictment of the executive committee of the country’s largest Protestant group. The Convention has more than 47,000 churches with some 14 million members.

“The presenting issue here is . . . sexual abuse,” Moore wrote. “This (SBC) Executive Committee, through their bylaws workgroup, ‘exonerated’ churches, in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up.”

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Moore was referring to the case of Jennifer Lyell, who accused a Southern Baptist seminary professor of sexual abuse. Moore corroborated Lyell’s account in his letter, as did at least four other employees, past and present. In a separate letter several days ago to the outgoing president of the SBC, Moore said that the SBC Executive Committee altered Lyell’s words “to make it seem as though this horrifying experience had been a consensual affair.”

Lyell, who was a former vice president at the SBC’s publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, told The Post that she had lost her job, her reputation and her health because of bullying and intimidating by the executive committee. In his February letter, Moore wrote with added emphasis: “I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then ‘broken down.’

Moore wrote that the other “draining and unrelenting issue” concerned racial reconciliation. Moore said one SBC leader “ripped me to shreds,” when Moore suggested in 2011 that the Southern Baptist Convention should elect an African American president. “This same leader told a gathering that, ‘The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.’ ” Moore claimed that he and his family have been constantly threatened by white nationalists and white supremacists, including some within the convention itself.

Moore’s words carry weight not least because he’s one of the most-respected evangelicals in the United States. His greatest sin seems to be that he often thinks, speaks and acts as a Christian. Among other things, he was a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, which borders on blasphemy among the Trump faithful.

When evangelical Christians threw their support to Trump, many Americans (including yours truly) were perplexed if not shocked. How could they support someone such as Trump, who was willing to divide and conquer through race-baiting and whose misogyny was a sweaty paw on the heart of American womanhood? The overlap between conservative Christianity, especially the Southern Baptist variety, and the Confederate flag-waving constituency has long been apparent and concerning. But the convergence of racist sentiment and Christian leadership is next-level disturbing.

According to Moore, an SBC leader discussing police violence against Blacks said that “only those with guns would prevent black people from burning down all of our cities.” One SBC figure said to Moore in 2017: “We know we can’t take you down. All our wives and kids are with you. This is psychological warfare, to make you think twice before you do or say something.”

Exposed within that threat is a nugget of unintentional insight: Women and young people are living a different reality than the overwhelmingly White and male SBC leadership, which also could be read as the Republican Party. A Venn diagram of both organizations would show not so much overlap as a near-perfect circle.

Neither this column nor Moore’s letter should be viewed as an indictment of Christianity, without which we wouldn’t have much that is culturally good and morally necessary.

But all institutions are subject to corruption and there’s no turning away from what Moore has exposed, notwithstanding a not-surprising rebuttal letter from Pastor Mike Stone, who is running for president of the SBC. Stone dismissed Moore’s claims as the politically motivated work of a “disillusioned” man.

Or, perhaps, a prophet. May the angels protect him.

Read more:

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein: Several Black pastors break with the Southern Baptist Convention over a statement on race