Christine Emba is the editor of In Theory, and she writes about ideas for The Washington Post’s Opinions section. Follow her @christineemba
Since 2013, Rev. Russell Moore has been president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, this country’s biggest Protestant denomination. While deeply conservative on traditionally religious issues such as abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom, Moore was one of the few prominent evangelicals this election season to remain an outspoken critic of Donald Trump throughout the presidential campaign. He challenged the candidate on issues that seemed fairly obvious to any practicing Christian (the serial lying, immoral business practices, questionable sexual ethics, etc.) in surprising contrast to many others on the religious right who ignored or even made excuses for the candidate’s behavior.
Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote. And for his trouble, Moore is now under fire from prominent voices within his own church. According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, a number of Baptist pastors are considering cutting funding to the organization he heads “in a potentially dramatic rebuke” for his behavior. “Since Dr. Moore has taken over [the ERLC], there are a lot of things that are being said on various issues that the Southern Baptist people at large don’t agree with,” one pastor told NPR.
The criticism being leveled at Moore by his religious counterparts says more about what the evangelical establishment mistakenly values today than it does about anything that Moore has done wrong. And it misunderstands the true role that Christians could — and should — play in the public square under a president who is likely to be dismissive of their cause.
So what is it that Moore said that these ostensible moral leaders don’t agree with? The statement that “if character matters, character matters”? His argument that if social conservatives were willing to argue against Bill Clinton in the 1990s, evangelical voters today should ask hard questions about a potential president’s personal morality and fitness for office?
Perhaps it was that he pointed out how it was “a scandal and a disgrace” that when the sexually predatory “Access Hollywood” tapes were released, virtually all of the reaffirmations of support for Trump came from religious conservative leaders.
Or maybe it was Moore’s writing that “what affects black and Hispanic and Asian Christians ought to affect white Christians.” As one conservative Christian friend of mine observed, nothing says “white identity comes before Christian identity” quite like a prominent evangelical organization trying to oust an otherwise-orthodox pastor for daring to promote racial reconciliation.
Really, what the majority of Moore’s statements have in common (apart from being, well, correct — at least according to traditional, values-first Christian teaching) is that they might offend those being criticized, the president-elect included. That, in turn, might result in — gasp — a loss of political power.
And that’s what his Christian critics seem to be responding to. “He’s going to have no access, basically, to President Trump,” was the observation of one of the pastors considering yanking Moore’s funding. Because — and how did we miss this? — access is now the end goal of Christians in Washington.
The thing is, even when religious groups have bowed and kowtowed enough to think they have the ear of a president, it rarely works out as expected: Christian leaders who think that having access means that they’ll be taken seriously when it comes to policymaking have been disappointed, including during the tenures of self-declared Christian presidents like the evangelical George W. Bush or Barack Obama. David Kuo, the now-deceased deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under Bush, recalled in 2006 how quickly his office dropped down the president’s list of priorities. Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, who was in frequent contact with Obama’s team, called the president’s advisers “useful idiots.” Under President-elect Trump, it’s hard to imagine that the results would be any better.
Evangelical Christians still make up a healthy swath of the U.S. population, but they’re firmly in the minority and shrinking fast. Some scholars argue that the rising number of people who have decided against affiliating with any religion is due to a rejection of how Christianity especially often finds itself amorally entangled with conservative politics.
Many Christian leaders have made the bet that, as their numbers dwindle, their best hope for promoting the ethically sound policies on topics such as abortion, marriage and gender is maintaining access and influence where it counts — the White House and the Supreme Court.
But where Christian leaders should be seeking influence, especially in a rapidly secularizing society in which their views seem ever more countercultural, is in trying to remain a respected moral voice worth engaging with — not by setting aside their most distinctive values in a grab for shifting political power. The most persuasive religious leaders will be those who, like Russell Moore, remain distinguishable from everyone else. Attacking the most principled among themselves is an attack on Christians’ best chance for survival in the public square.