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Russell Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership prompts questions over its future

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm since 2013, speaks at a 2017 news conference in Phoenix. (Angie Wang/AP)

Prominent Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who blasted former president Donald Trump and his evangelical fans, announced Tuesday that he will be leaving the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention where he has been the president of its policy arm since 2013.

Moore’s departure from the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) follows other high-profile exits from the denomination, including popular Bible teacher Beth Moore (no relation) and Black pastors. Some evangelicals are wondering what their departures signal about the direction of the convention, which has included louder voices on the far right in recent years.

Russell Moore will be joining the staff of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine founded by the late evangelist Billy Graham, where he will write content and help launch a “Public Theology Project,” hosting events and gatherings about theology.

Moore was an early critic of Trump and accused other evangelical leaders of “normalizing an awful candidate.” When other Southern Baptist leaders met with the then-presidential candidate at Trump Tower in 2016, Moore suggested they had “drunk the Kool-Aid.”

Trump drew national attention to Moore when he tweeted in 2016 that Moore was “a nasty guy with no heart!” Moore replied, “Sad!”

A suit-and-tie guy who says he deeply appreciates both country and rap music, Moore was raised by a Catholic mother and a Baptist father in a working-class neighborhood in Biloxi, Miss. In the early 1990s, before seminary, Moore was an aide to U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor, who was then a Catholic Democrat from Mississippi.

During his time at the ERLC, Moore led the charge on key issues for Southern Baptists, including abortion and religious freedom, but he also befriended several Black Christian artists, openly advocated for immigration reform and led the convention’s response to allegations of sexual abuse within the denomination. In recent months, he has urged evangelicals to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Moore became a symbol for many, as someone who could be bold and speak truth to power, but after Trump won in 2016, Moore became quiet on many hot-button political topics. On Jan. 6, however, he called on Trump to resign over the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Beth Moore said in a direct message that Russell Moore first won her respect when he became outspoken on Trump.

“It was 2016 and the evangelical world was turning upside down and he had the guts — or the gall, depending on how you saw it — to [call out Trump],” she said.

Beth Moore, who received her own backlash for speaking against Trump, said they were both “reeling from what appeared to us a profoundly compromised witness playing out on a global stage. The backlash Russell received for speaking out was swift, severe and unrelenting.”

“If he would not bow — and he wouldn’t — there were some who’d do their best to cut his legs out from under him,” she said. “He is one of those rare leaders who can live without public approval but not without his personal God-given convictions.”

Three people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their jobs, said Russell Moore was ultimately not a good political insider within the SBC and preferred to steer his own ship at the ERLC. One observer who works for a Southern Baptist organization said he did not connect well with grass-roots Baptists.

But Southern Baptists also say he tried to provide a middle way for the convention, pushing it toward a modern approach on topics like immigration and race while maintaining his conservative Baptist theology.

Brent Leatherwood, a spokesman for the ERLC, said Moore was unavailable for comment because he was out of the office for the rest of the week. Leatherwood said Moore attends Grace Community Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Nashville, where he is expected to remain a member.

Before he became head of the ERLC, Moore received his PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and became the dean of the school of theology there. For the past several years, the ERLC has been put under more scrutiny, and some were worried it could eventually lose funding, essentially rendering it powerless.

Moore’s move to Christianity Today, which is seen as the flagship publication of all evangelicals and not just Southern Baptists, is expected to be mutually beneficial. CT’s president and chief executive, Timothy Dalrymple, said the flagship magazine has 90,000 paid subscribers, and the company, which has other products and websites, reaches 4.5 million people per month on its various platforms.

CT has been perceived as more moderate for several years because it features and publishes female preachers and has been more liberal on social justice issues than most Southern Baptist churches. Some evangelicals believe that CT has drifted to the left, and a 2019 editorial in CT calling for Trump’s removal after his impeachment caused a huge stir in the evangelical world.

Trevin Wax, an editor for the SBC’s publishing arm, LifeWay, said Moore will probably pull CT in a more conservative direction without being “too fiery.”

“One of the things I love about Russ Moore is, he’s comfortably orthodox, he’s not cantankerously orthodox,” Wax said. “I think Russ has a comfort and confidence and winsomeness that will serve CT well.”

Many younger evangelicals are trying to find ways to move forward in a modern world, where LGBT issues and the Black Lives Matter movement have been at the forefront of social conversations and can make them feel uncomfortable. Many young leaders in the SBC are attempting to chart a modern path but remain conservative theologically, and Moore gave them an example.

Joash Thomas, a 28-year-old seminarian and aspiring public theologian who lives in Atlanta, said he joined the SBC because of Moore’s influence. Thomas, who grew up in a house church in Mumbai, came to the United States at 18.

“I was oblivious to what the SBC was apart from caricatures about Baptists that I had coming in as an immigrant. We started to look for an SBC church because quite naively I thought that the ERLC was the perfect representation of the SBC and everyone would be like Dr. Moore.”

Thomas worked in Republican politics and was impressed by how Moore was prophetic on issues like immigration, but he quickly learned that many of the people he went to church with were not fans of Moore.

Thomas’s SBC church closed permanently during the pandemic, and he no longer affiliates with the denomination.

“It’s given us great respite to know we’re not in the SBC anymore. If there isn’t a place for Dr. Moore in the SBC, I don’t think there’s a place for me as a person of color.”

Thomas subscribed to CT on Tuesday night after he saw Moore’s announcement.

Barry Hankins, chair of the history department at Baylor University and a writer who focuses on culture and Christianity, predicted Moore’s exit will “liberate him to do what he’s been constrained to do” by SBC leaders who oppose him.

“He’ll be able to develop public theology based on biblical principles and sound theological thinking and not Christian nationalism or Republican politics or those sorts of things,” Hankins said.

He said it’s significant that Moore is joining CT, a publication that hosts writers from both complementarian and egalitarian perspectives on women’s spiritual leadership. Moore must have “some degree of toleration” for egalitarian views, Hankins said.

During Moore’s tenure, the SBC, like the GOP and evangelicalism, has seen the “mainstream” shift to the right, Hankins said. But the Trump years escalated things. Moore, he said, is the public face of the younger faction of the convention, people who don’t want the SBC to be essentially a wing of the GOP.

Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy at the humanitarian group World Relief, said Moore’s exit will allow him to reach a broader audience — not just Southern Baptists and not just on priorities presented by the convention.

“Russell will continue to have a large impact on the church,” she said. “I feel he’ll be able to speak in a nuanced way to help the church respond” to issues, including racial justice, immigration and religious freedom.

Megan Lively, who previously shared her story of how she was raped at a Southern Baptist seminary, said Moore was seen as a huge advocate for abuse survivors, and he was one of the few people she could trust.

“He became known in the community as someone who was safe to talk to,” Lively said. “He’s never tried to protect a name or institution.”

In June, Lively will go to Nashville to join thousands of other Southern Baptists to vote for their next president. She plans to vote for Ed Litton, a pastor in Alabama who she says will be the least divisive. If Litton doesn’t win, she said, she doesn’t know whether she will stay.