Church

Russell Moore Loses His Religion

Jon Harris

Russell Moore, the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, recently authored a critique of the current state of evangelicalism called Losing Our Religion: An Alter Call for Evangelical America. In decades past, rank and file evangelicals might take someone with Moore’s credentials seriously. Moore served as the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention for eight years. Before that he taught theology at the largest Protestant seminary in the country. Yet in 2023, this pedigree can actually serve to decrease one’s credibility in the minds of many conservative evangelicals.

Some of Moore’s own former supporters now see his brand of evangelicalism as controversial. The obvious question is, “What happened?” How did someone who climbed their way to the top of conservative Christianity find themselves on the fringes? The question stretches beyond Russell Moore. Other evangelical elites like Beth Moore, David Platt, and Matt Chandler could ask the same question as they have watched their audience divide and shrink for the past few years. Moore’s answer can be summed up with the reverse of a common breakup line: “It’s not me, it’s you.”

As the title of the book suggests, evangelicals are in the process of losing their religion to a false political gospel and need to come back to the faith. Unlike them, Russell Moore and those who agree with him “never changed.” He writes, after undergoing lengthy “heresy trials” during his time working for the Southern Baptists, “I hadn’t changed my theology, or my behavior, at all. What I had done, as the president of my denomination’s public policy agency, was refuse to endorse Donald Trump.” In Moore’s mind, he “paid the price” for the sharp political divide President Trump exposed. [1]

It is important to remember that three months before his departure, a Southern Baptist task force determined that Moore’s organization was “a source of significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists.” The report cited things like participating in the partially Soros-funded Evangelical Immigration Table, filing an amicus brief to support a mosque, failing to support the religious liberty of California churches during Covid-19, and a general tone of condescension and unresponsiveness. Moore’s opposition to President Trump was only factor in determining mission drift. [2] This lack of self-awareness on Moore’s part can almost be considered the theme of his book.

If Moore were to apply many of his critiques against politically conservative evangelicals to himself he would be found guilty.

If Moore were to apply many of his critiques against politically conservative evangelicals to himself he would be found guilty. For example, Moore accuses Trump-supporting evangelicals of relativism when they justify their endorsement using the lesser-of-two-evils approach. He thinks these conservatives believe “immorality is necessary to combat even worse immorality.” That is certainly not the rationale most Christians who voted for Trump used. Yet, Moore himself employed a similar approach to shame evangelicals for failing to sacrifice popularity in order to “preach the gospel” like Martin Luther King Jr. In this case, Moore preferred a man with heretical theology and major character deficiencies over his own evangelical siblings who did not publicly support the Civil Right’s Movement. [3]

Moore also critiques “ends justifies the means” thinking, yet supports things like attending gay wedding receptions in order to be a witness. He attacks what he calls “conflict entrepreneurs” who seek to gain an audience based on controversy. Yet, this could be an apt description of what Moore did to rise to the level he now holds. Moore believes people in the church are normalizing “crazed and irrational conspiracy theories” yet he aggressively promoted the Covid vaccine and thinks white supremacy is a pervasive threat. One might ask Moore: “And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out?” [4]        

Of course, Moore does not see himself as engaged in the very thing to which he objects. Instead, he is one of the heroes of the story courageously accepting the position of underdog for the purpose of telling the truth. He draws a parallel between his situation and the situation of Outlaw Country artists like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. They were exiled from Music Row, free to write more authentic songs “that seemed real to them.” They breathed new life into a failing genre by breaking established rules and embracing something pure. In the same way, Moore says “American conservative Protestantism [is also] seeking revival.” [5] In order to get there, evil and corruption must be opposed.

In accomplishing this, Moore awkwardly promotes “winsomeness” while simultaneously describing his political enemies in terms severe enough to make the most boisterous Fundamentalist blush. He compares “American conservative Christianity” to Mordor and describes politically conservative evangelicals as controversy-craving power-hungry psychopaths. They suffer from irrational fears such as “the supposed loss of the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ in stores.” They allow conspiracy theories to “keep people from life-saving vaccines.” They are the people who fail to oppose slavery and segregation, cover up sexual abuse, and embrace a false political gospel by adopting “nationalistic movements” that swapped the “blood of Christ for blood-and-soil.” So much for the winsomeness, gentleness, and reasonableness Moore claims he supports. [6]

The root problem, according to Moore, is that conservative evangelicals are too invested in this world and as a result pursue political power at the expense of their theology. This is why they see the culture war as a spiritual war. [7] They got to this point most recently during the COVID-19 lockdowns when churches closed and members swapped their church communities for online communities which in turn radicalized them on race and healthcare issues.[8] Moore does not seem to see the irony that he supported these lockdowns in the first place. Yet, he believes he knows the solution for the recent divisions he helped create.

American Christians, Moore contends, must see themselves first as “part of the global Body of Christ” instead of “white middle-class Americans.” Once they embrace this “exilic identity” they will realize the United States is not the “Promised Land” and they will not concern themselves with their own social marginalization. [9] If a Christian figure existed who wished to advise totalitarian regimes in pacifying the believers under their authority they would not be much different than Russell Moore. His assumption that temporal and eternal identities are somehow in competition with each other serves to neutralize Christian political resistance to evil. Interestingly, this all comes from a man who ran the Southern Baptist’s political-engagement arm.

What Moore fails to consider is that perhaps the divisions in evangelical Christianity have more to do with people like him than they do the vast majority of evangelicals who supported Trump. Pew-sitters prevented from attending church watched their pastors hold racial reconciliation sessions over Zoom. Some of their own leaders marched with Black Lives Matter during the height of civil unrest. Nothing like this on such a large scale had happened in recent memory. As a result, common people did lose faith in their spiritual leaders, which Moore sees as the crux of the problem. Yet it is worth noting they also lost faith in medical and political authorities at the same time and for similar reasons. One wonders how Moore does not see this clearly. But his ability to ignore his own role in problems afflicting the church may be unmatched.

This is easily seen in how Moore interacts with the people he criticizes. He does not even try to demonstrate why their arguments are wrong and his are right. Instead, he vilifies them by impugning their motives and claiming the moral high ground for himself. For example, he assumes the legitimacy of a contested Houston Chronicle story outlining abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention then proceeds to hammer those who disagree with it. Instead of addressing reasons for their disagreement, such as in Megan Basham’s article critiquing the abuse narrative, he portrays his opponents as hypocritical “Alt-Right fundamentalist groups” who simply think the MeToo movement is a Marxist tool of the devil. In other words, they indirectly support abuse and he does not. [10]

He characterizes his opponents in embarrassing ways at times. He says at one point: “American flags were thrown down and replaced with Trump and Confederate flags” during the January 6th protest for election integrity. To be sure, there were a variety of flags including state, regional, and historic ones, but there were an overwhelming amount of national banners as well—way more than are visible at leftist protests where they are sometimes more likely to be burned than displayed. [11] Though it is an odd question to ask about someone who spent the majority of his adult life in evangelical institutions, one wonders whether Moore actually knows the working-class evangelicals he critiques.

One group that Moore may know something about are the evangelical elites he maintained a club membership with for so many years. For guild-members to his right (theologically and politically) he seems to harbor disdain based on his first-hand experience working with them. Without naming names, Moore tells personal stories that reveal corruption behind closed doors. A “respected older Baptist leader” told him that in order to “play the game” right he should “give [Southern Baptists] 90 percent of the red meat they expect” before focusing on things that mattered to him like supporting racial justice and refugees. Moore claims that two respected Southern Baptist leaders (possibly Paige Patterson and Al Mohler) used intimidation tactics. At one point he says that “some of the most ferocious of denouncers of sexual immorality ‘in the culture’ are sexual nihilists inside.” [12]

It is hard to know whether such vague and general accusations are accurate but they do reveal a pattern. In 2018, David Platt resigned from the Southern Baptist’s International Mission Board. In his final address to trustees he stated:

I hate the politics of the SBC. And I don’t say that as an outsider. I say that as an insider these last four years. Some of the lowest points in my leadership have been when I found myself participating in them — jockeying for position, continual self-promotion, backroom deals followed by spin in the front room, strategizing like brothers are your enemy, feeling like others see you as their enemy … getting to the point where you wonder if you can trust anyone even as you start to wonder how trustworthy you’ve become. [13]

Platt’s indictment of the Southern Baptist upper echelon is as unhelpful as Moore’s since he also left out specifics. Yet, it does raise questions. Perhaps some of Moore’s cynicism, displayed when he rebukes Christian organizations for platforming atheist James Lindsay and those who reject “aspects of Trinitarian dogma” (possibly Owen Strachan and Bruce Ware), is due to the fact that he himself is part of a group that ignores theological errors in order to move the needle politically. [14] Moore cannot separate himself from the threats he claims Christians face.

Perhaps this sad conclusion is the major take-away from the book. Despite Russell Moore’s desperate attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for the divisions in Christianity he simply cannot do it and his efforts seem pathetic. There are more opportunities for the gospel with politically conservative and culturally Christian people than there have been in a while. Yet for them, Moore expresses only disgust. He instead mimics much of the same talking-points exvangelicals use to justify their rejection of Christianity. Perhaps it’s not Evangelical America that has lost its religion, but it is left-wing evangelical elites like Russell Moore.


[1] 94, 3.

[2] “Report to the SBC Executive Committee by the ERLC Study Task Force,” January 16, 2021.

[3] 113; Jon Harris, Christianity and Social Justice: Religions in Conflict (Reformation Zion Publishing, LLC, 2021), 40-41.

[4] 125; Tamara Audi, “Southern Baptists, Gay Community Break Bread at Conference,” The Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/southern-baptists-gay-community-break-bread-at-conference-1414691923; 80, 55-56; Luke 11:19.

[5] 134-135.

[6] 6, 59, 117, 77-79, 3, 2, 151, 74-77, 124.

[7] 23, 97, 84.

[8] 43.

[9] 163-164, 97.

[10] 4.

[11] 41.

[12] 3-4, 111, 121.

[13] David Roach, “Platt’s IMB Farewell: ‘Rise above’ SBC Challenges,” Baptist Press, September 28, 2018, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/platts-imb-farewell-rise-above-sbc-challenges/.

[14] 82, 151.

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