May 10, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Russell Moore
Are conservative evangelicals rethinking their political engagement? We asked the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Russell Moore, the recently-elected president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, replacing the recently retired Richard Land. Prior to accepting this position, he was the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Moore is a popular author and speaker. His latest book is Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. He is a widely sought-after commentator and public speaker, frequently quoted in leading religious and secular publications.
Today we chat with Moore about the changing face of evangelical activism, his relationship with President Obama, and what he means by “convictional kindness.”
You were recently elected as President of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. How do you feel your life experience has prepared you for this moment?
From the very beginning of my Christian life, I have felt a tension between two callings: to the pulpit and to the public square. I sensed a call to ministry early in my teens, but veered away from it for some time, pursuing a life in the political arena. My wife and I dated on the campaign trail, as I was working for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor. She was with me from county fair to fundraiser to seafood festival in our congressional district in south Mississippi, drumming up support for Gene.
While gearing up for a political life, I sensed a renewed call to the ministry, and here we are. It always seemed to me that those years of political preparation weren't wasted time, but that God was afoot, getting me ready for something.
In my years in academia, I have spent most of my attention on the subject of the kingdom of God in Christ, which is the consuming passion of my life. This issue is central to the questions I'll be addressing as president of the ERLC.
Your election comes at a time when Southern Baptists (and evangelicals in general) seem to be reexamining their public engagement. Does your election signal new messaging?
I hope my election signals a commitment to the priority of the gospel in our public engagement. I want to address the outside world with what I call "convictional kindness." This means a refusal to capitulate to the patterns of this age, which is what I think we've done, for instance, with the divorce culture. Evangelical Christians are as counter-cultural as we want to be, and it is clear that we are slow-train sexual revolutionaries, embracing the assumptions of the outside culture a few years behind everybody else. This has had disastrous consequences.
This conviction is rooted in kindness, which in the Bible isn't equated with passivity but with spiritual warfare. We love and care about our neighbors because they aren't our enemies. We wrestle with accusing demons, not with their prey.
I was recently on a lesbian feminist talk show on the West Coast. The host wanted to hear what evangelical Christians believe about same-sex marriage, and why. She easily could have caricatured me and used me as an ideological piñata to score points with her base, but she didn't. She listened to me and shared her concerns with me. We were able to have a civil dialogue because we respected each other. She sought to persuade me that I was wrong, and I sought to persuade her to consider the Christian vision of sexuality and, ultimately, of the gospel behind it.
If I really believe the gospel, and I do, then I know that the ultimate issue isn't my rightness. This lesbian feminist talk-show host is made in the image of God, and she is loved by God. Jesus died for her and offers her a queenship in his kingdom. How can I not respect her and treat her with kindness? And if I really believe what I say I believe, then she is just a sinner's prayer away from being my sister in Christ. This lesbian feminist talk-show host could be the next Corrie Ten Boom.
I am not here to represent the Bible Belt's political interest to a post-Christian culture. I'm here to help equip churches to signal the coming kingdom of God. The message of that kingdom isn't a cranky "Hey you kids, get off our lawn." Our message is "Make way for the coming of the Lord."
Younger evangelicals seem to favor a broader portfolio of issues of concern, adding issues like immigration reform, human trafficking, and racial reconciliation to the traditional issues of life and marriage. Is this a good thing?
It is a good thing. The issues you mentioned are interrelated because they have to do with human dignity. The perpetual satanic temptation is to dehumanize or to depersonalize persons. This often shows up first in language. The N-word wasn't just rude; it was a way for idolatrous white supremacists to rob human beings of their natural dignity as God's image-bearers. When a person is thought of as an "embryo" or a "fetus" or an "anchor baby" or an "illegal," it is easy to quiet the conscience into seeing that person as a problem rather than as a person.
A holistic view of the human person means that we care about human life and human flourishing in all their complexities, regardless of whose political program this impedes. We oppose abortion and sex-trafficking and the harassment of immigrants and racial bigotry because Jesus identifies himself with the marginalized, and we will give an account for caring about those he sees and knows.
We advocate for natural marriage not because we want some special privilege but because we believe marriage is creational not political. The state can't redefine it but can only confuse it. And if marriage isn't safeguarded, women and children will be the ones who are hurt because the permanent one-flesh union of a man and a woman isn't just a cultural icon. Having both a mother and a father is what is best for children and for families and communities.
The temptation, of course, is for Christians to pick and choose our issues so that the biblical witness becomes a prop for our political aspirations. Conservatives then could easily talk about family matters but never about the poor and the sojourner. And progressives could easily talk about environmental stewardship and immigration reform but ignore one of the most pressing issues of the day: the denial of personhood to millions of orphaned, unborn children.
When we speak as Christians, we speak with a complexity that stands over and sometimes in judgment of the binary political polarizations of the day. That frustrates our allies, sure, but we're not working for them.
Christians seem to swing the pendulum between pietistic disengagement and hard-boiled partisan politics. Should pastors and church leaders advocate a third way?
The church of Jesus Christ isn't a political action committee, affixing Bible verses to already-existing political programs. The church is a colony of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That has social and political implications, but these implications are as much about the next trillion years as they are about the next four.
You are right that the evangelical community seems to swing between partisan occupation and pietistic disengagement. Neither fits the biblical pattern. The errors of the last generation, in politicizing everything, can result in a dangerous over-correction by the Millennial generation into a hyper-libertarianism that reduces the gospel to the question "Who is my neighbor?" and avoids moral discourse as a defense against legalism.
Ironically, this form of disengagement itself becomes a kind of Pharisaism, building hedges around the point of temptation in order to avoid falling into it.
We must tie everything we do explicitly to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the mission of Christ. This means we speak to the whole of human existence, including what it means to live together in civil society and as citizens. We do so recognizing there are some areas where the church speaks with clear authority, because of a clearly revealed truth in Scripture, and other points at which we speak with a more nuanced voice. There is not a Christian position on a balanced budget amendment or gun control legislation, for instance, although there are certainly Christian principles that inform our motivations and goals on such things. On the means to those ends, we can agree to disagree.
The primary aspect of this third way though is the priority of focus. The state is important. The culture is important. But the church is the focal point of Christ's reign in the present era. We must be in all the areas of cultural and political influence. Decisions made there flow backward into our communities and congregations with all sorts of implications. But I think the first step of Christian engagement with the outside world is a gospel-driven, counter-cultural, Bible-disciplined congregational life.
The change I seek isn't moral majoritarianism or isolationist libertarianism, but an engaged communitarianism that not only advocates for justice but demonstrates it in lived congregational reality.
You've had the opportunity to meet with President Obama and his staff on a number of issues. Will you continue that dialogue?
I have disagreements with President Obama on some crucially important things, such as matters of life, marriage, and religious liberty. I have respect for him as a leader and as our president, and I like him as a person. When you pray for someone every day, it is hard not to love that person, even when he disappoints you in some area or another.
He and his Administration have always treated me with kindness and respect, and I have friends I love in the Administration. We don't have to agree on everything to work together sometimes, and to seek to understand one another when we don't agree.
I hope to honor and to pray for the President, as the Bible commands us to do, even when we disagree, and to work with his Administration when we have points of mutual concern for the common good.
I have learned a lot by watching the example of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in his friendship with the President. In a profile of Sen. Coburn in TIME Magazine, written by President Obama himself, of all people, the senator is quoted as saying, "What better way to influence someone than to love them?" I recognize the Spirit of Christ in that statement, and I hope to live up to it.