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Lexey Swall/Genesis

To protect and project

Religion | Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore wants to help Christians in a broken culture that increasingly sees their religion as strange

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

WASHINGTON—Russell Moore, 42, held up a jagged shard of glass before Southern Baptist leaders assembled earlier this year to install him as the eighth president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm.

A relic from his Mississippi youth, the shard still provides Moore with a reminder of childhood days playing ball outside Woolmarket Baptist Church. One particular Sunday evening, a boy threw a ball and shattered a church window. As others scattered, Moore bent down and picked up a piece of the glass: He’s kept it “through every stage of my life to remind me of what I owe to those people in that little church in that little town in Mississippi who taught me everything.”

Now, Moore meets with White House and congressional officials to fight for religious freedom, unborn children, and marriage. It’s an ideal gig for someone who loved watching election returns as far back as kindergarten in Biloxi, Miss., and who volunteered and then worked full time for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).

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Moore comes to the ERLC after serving as professor and dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His new office is within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol, but his vision is sharply focused on helping roughly 45,000 SBC churches navigate an ever-changing political culture that increasingly marginalizes most Southern Baptists’ beliefs. Moore often tells Christians that their votes to receive new church members is more significant than their votes for president of the United States.

Moore’s grandfather was pastor of Woolmarket Baptist Church: He died when Moore was 6. At age 12, Moore professed faith in Christ during a revival meeting. Two weeks later—following in his grandfather’s footsteps—he preached during Woolmarket’s youth night, sickened from jangled nerves. It was, he jokes, a “miserable sermon, six to eight minutes covering the entire cannon of Scripture and not very well.” He met his wife at Woolmarket, and he married her there. He still visits whenever he is in Biloxi.

All that time, Moore regularly watched the church’s members care for each other, and that deepened his appreciation for God’s work through churches. Now he sees congregations losing influence “as Christianity becomes increasingly freakish-sounding to American culture,” but he offers perspective. “We are a long way from the sort of persecution that our brothers and sisters are going through in Sudan and China and Iran.”

The “Mayberry church”—which Moore also calls an “almost-gospel church”—is dying in the Bible Belt, he says, and is taking with it a nominal Christianity that wouldn’t survive anyway. People who see the church as a spiritual version of the Lions Club will lose any social motivation for attending—and Moore is fine with that: “The message of the church is the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the forgiveness of sins. The kind of Christianity that can withstand what is happening in the secular culture is the kind that brings good news.”

Moore says he sees his job as twofold: keeping Christians out of jail, and making sure Christians go to jail for the right reasons if they do. He wants to protect them in their churches, but also project them into the culture.

Christians should not avoid controversial policy issues any more than they should avoid difficult faith issues, he says. “If you and I do not speak of justice and morality, we do not love our neighbors,” he recently told members of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “But we must never speak to these issues simply in order to get ‘amens’ from the people who already agree with us. … You and I are advocates for justice and advocates for righteousness, but we are not prosecuting attorneys. We are ambassadors of reconciliation who are pleading with broken hearts. It would be devilish to be people with values right-side-up and crosses upside-down.”

If it doesn’t point to the blood of Christ, Moore says, “justice” is not enough for the Christian engaged in policy debates. He defines the Great Commission role of the ERLC as modeling for churches how to apply the gospel to current issues while disagreeing with a mix of conviction and kindness that reflects the gospel. For example, on immigration he opposes blanket amnesty but wants to find solutions that respect human life and the integrity of the family. 

A good example, he says, is the pro-life movement, which cares for unborn children but also the men and women scarred by the abortion culture. Moore hopes to help the next generation of Southern Baptists stand for Christ when that may be less socially acceptable, more confounding as technology creates greater ethical and spiritual quandaries, and more complex as Americans push the envelope artistically and relationally.

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