For Russell Moore, a tattered scrap of cloth pinned to the pegboard of his basement study had once been a reminder of loss and a testament to resilience.
It was a Mississippi flag, pulled from the wreckage of Moore’s Biloxi home town in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 swept away his grandparents’ houses, the churches where he had heard and preached the Gospel, and most of the landmarks of his youth.
But one day when Moore was planning to have some African American friends over, he saw that flag, with its Confederate cross in the upper left corner, through the eyes of his guests.
“I found myself wincing, wondering what the flag communicates. Should I explain this is not the Confederate flag? I wish it were different, but it’s not,” he said.
Moore pulled the flag down, and as he did, it fell apart in his hands.
These days, Moore is the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which makes him the leading public voice of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
He is also a new kind of evangelical leader, as evidenced on Friday, when he stepped into — and helped shape — the rapidly gelling movement to banish the Confederate battle flag from the public sphere.
Moore, 43, preached his message through a 21st-century means, with a blog post, that he typed in half an hour.
“The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire,” he wrote two days after nine black chuchgoers were fatally shot in an apparent hate crime in Charleston, S.C. “White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them.”
Moore’s blog post landed as political leaders in that region and nationally were struggling with whether the South Carolina shootings should force a reappraisal of the flag question, which has pitted those who consider it an expression of their heritage against those who say it celebrates slavery.
It instantly went viral.
“For a Christian to finally give us a strong biblical rationale for removing the flag — it was something the church had never waded into,” said Matt Moore (no relation), the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
Nor is it the first time Russell Moore has put himself on the front line of a controversy. Last year, for instance, he criticized some Christian talk radio hosts as not being “Gospel-focused.”
“There are some people who believe that fidelity to the Gospel simply means speaking, ‘You kids get off my lawn,’ ” he said.
And Moore has denounced as “severely counterproductive” the therapies that some Christians claim can “cure” gay people of their sexual orientation.
His large following on social media gives him an audience beyond traditional religious outlets. His Instagram feed, for instance, features a mix of his family life, his encounters with famous people including President Obama and singer Carrie Underwood, quotes from authors such as Walker Percy, and the occasional country music reference.
Some people — particularly conservatives — are discomfited by Moore’s approach.
“People have been really suspect of Russell Moore,” said one evangelical political leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The people that I run with think he’s a liberal.”
Moore has maintained some distance from older, established Christian-right organizations in Washington, including the Family Research Council.
He is the son of a Catholic mother and a Baptist father and grew up in a working-class, heavily Democratic neighborhood.
He earned a PhD in systematic theology from Southern Baptist Seminary, where he worked closely with the seminary’s president, Albert Mohler. In the early 1990s, he was an aide to then-Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).
Moore first became known in religious circles as an early advocate for evangelicals to adopt children. He and his wife, Maria, adopted two boys from Russia before having three biological sons.
Evangelical Christians have been a major force in Republican politics, especially in the South, since the 1970s.
Few organizations have had clout that rivals that of the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which has been a leading force in battles over issues such as abortion and prayer in schools, as well as more recent fights over same-sex marriage and how far government can encroach upon religious institutions.
“Southern Baptist is institutionally and culturally a dominating force in the South. When one of its leaders speaks out boldly like that, it has an impact. People will pay attention,” said Burns Strider, a Southern Baptist from Mississippi who is a faith adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At the same time, however, the Southern Baptist Convention and other traditional denominations are struggling to remain relevant, particularly among young people, who tend to be less religious and have been turned off by the blistering culture-war rhetoric of the religious right.
Moore appears to have taken note of this, holding regular conference calls with high-profile pastors, some of whom lead megachurches, to discuss how to speak about political and cultural issues.
However, the distinction between Moore and older generations of evangelical leaders, including his predecessor Richard Land, appears primarily to be one of tone and emphasis. On matters of doctrine and policy, there is almost no difference.
For this reason, comparisons are sometimes made between Pope Francis and Moore, who moved into his current role just months after the pontiff was elected in 2013.
“They both have the pastor’s ability to relate to people where they are,” said Robert George, a professor at Princeton University. “There’s no substantive difference between them and their predecessors. But maybe the style Russell Moore and Pope Francis have makes it easier for people to hear.”