Like many, I did not take Donald Trump’s candidacy all that seriously in the beginning, and I was never a fan. I’ve been forthright with my criticism of Trump and have long said that I don’t believe he’s a constitutional conservative or a conservative Christian and that he will not conduct his presidency like one. Due to that, I never really cared that Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist organization The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), criticized Donald Trump or Trump supporters. I also never paid attention to it; I would glance at headlines but never bothered to really read what he said. However, in the last couple of months since Trump won, I’ve learned that people have been irked at Moore by his comments, with many leaders and churches in the SBC calling for him to be removed from his position or else they will stop financially supporting the ERLC.
Younger evangelicals (Moore is only 45) are rushing to his defense and decrying that the old geezers of the SBC are mistreating him for being bold enough to speak unpopular truth and calling them out on their support of a bad candidate (I’m paraphrasing slightly 😉 ). Perhaps this may be correct regarding some people, but I think this controversy highlights other issues too, issues that actually might be legitimate to question.
So… what exactly do you do here?
Most Southern Baptists don’t even know what the ERLC is or what it does. Heck, I’m a graduate from an SBC seminary, and the most I can do is talk in generalities. I know the organization’s goal is to equip churches to know how to engage culture and controversial topics as well as to be a representative of the SBC to policy makers, aiming to protect the right of religious liberty against incursions. That sounds all well and good, but how that is actually implemented is not always known. I’m not blaming the organization for this; I’m sure they’re pretty forthright about what they do, but the fact of the matter is that the average churchgoer doesn’t know or care.
This does raise some questions, though. If most SBC churches and members don’t see any impact of the ERLC at all, they may wonder why some of the money they give to the convention is given to it. What actual effect does the ERLC have on churches? Do we need an arm in Washington? Should Christians even be that involved in politics? These are fair questions to ask. With Moore making some headlines, many SBC churches may be rather less than inclined to fund what they see as simply a platform for Moore to express his opinions, especially if they feel like those opinions are not representative of the denomination. Which leads to another issue: Is it even possible for someone like Moore to speak for a denomination like the SBC?
Baptists and Local Church Autonomy
What makes Baptists what they are is ecclessiology, namely their view of local church autonomy and governance. Baptists can affiliate with one another via conventions, but those conventions do not exercise the same kind of top-down authority of other denominations such as the PCA. Not understanding this leads to numerous confusions, such as blaming Baptist churches for the actions of Baylor University. Not only has Baylor willingly disassociated from the national convention, even if they didn’t, Southern Baptist churches have virtually no control over their denomination’s most famous university.
This also means that there is a notorious amount of diversity of opinion among Baptists on a host of matters. Some view this as a strength, and on some issues, this is undoubtedly true as healthy debate encourages humility and sharpness of mind. This also means, however, that it can be somewhat difficult to know what churches and individuals believe on some topics. This difficulty is not nearly as pronounced as it is among the Church of Christ, whose belief in local church autonomy is more extreme, but it is nonetheless true that Baptist churches can sometimes vary quite a bit. And if churches vary, you can bet individuals vary more.
In this environment, it can be worth asking how much someone like Moore can speak on behalf of all of these churches. Particularly in a polarizing election like this one, you can bet that anything he said would have met disagreement in some sectors. Given that his rhetoric was apparently sometimes pretty strong, it is no surprise that many SBC churches and leaders didn’t like it. Jack Graham, pastor of the huge SBC church Prestonwood Baptist in Plano, was very critical of Moore for speaking condescendingly towards evangelical Trump voters when Graham felt like he did not really do justice to how Baptists were feeling as a whole. And perhaps he has a small point, which goes back to question of the role and necessity of the ERLC.
The need for clarity and for less emphasis on feelings
So there are legitimate questions concerning the necessity of the ERLC and how much it can even speak for the denomination. Fair enough. I think it’s fair to say that Moore should have been more understanding towards those who voted for Trump and more nuanced in his criticisms, as I tried to be even though I refused to vote for Trump myself. Most Christian voters for Trump did not do so gladly and did not simply forget their Christian principles but chose what they thought to be the less problematic of two undesirable candidates. I also think it may have been helpful for Moore to clearly state that he does not and probably cannot speak for the denomination as a whole on this matter since there isn’t as much consensus on it as there is on something like abortion (and even then, there are several more liberal SBC churches who wouldn’t agree, though their reasons would be rather less biblical). If he had done these things, maybe he would not have come off as so sanctimonious.
All of that said, Moore brought up some valid points on which many SBC leaders and members should self-reflect. Sure, maybe Moore cannot speak so brazenly for the whole denomination, but he was chosen for that role for a reason, and he is certainly entitled to his own opinion even if there is significant disagreement among other SBC leaders. I put very little stock into hurt feelings, and a lot of the ire I’m seeing towards Moore boils down to personal offense. I frankly do not care; if there is something wrong with his argument, then spell it out. Don’t simply complain that it offended you. When people do that, it strikes me as a sign that what Moore said hit a sore spot that they should probably think about. It seems that much of their questioning of the ERLC is not nuanced but instead reactionary towards someone who hurt their feelings, which is kind of a dumb reason, to be honest. Moore has a history of being pretty biblical on his stances on all social issues as well as being more understanding to the upcoming generation, so it would behoove SBC leaders to listen, even if he made some legitimate mistakes.
The ERLC and Moore’s position may or may not be needed or helpful. Those are fair discussions to have. However, as long as that position exists, it is Moore’s job to give his opinion, even if it is not possible for him to speak for a denomination like the SBC in a comprehensive manner. Baptists are free to agree or disagree with him and critique him if he makes mistakes, but we should also be willing to self-reflect if what he said hits a little bit too close to home. That is, after all, what makes us Baptists.