On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.


[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).

 

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On Russell Moore and Convictional Kindness in the Public Square

The wickedly keen theologian and ethicist Russell D. Moore will arrive on SEBTS’ campus December 3 in order to preach in chapel, speak to the faculty, and serve on a panel for the general public that evening. In preparation for his visit, I’ve had opportunity to re-read his inaugural address and reflect upon the way he is leading the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the SBC in his new role as President of the ERLC.

There are many reasons to admire Moore and follow his leadership: he is a top-shelf theologian, a bona fide Southern Baptist, an excellent preacher, and a visionary leader. As much or more than any of those reasons, however, I am motivated to follow his leadership because of the way he combines gospel conviction and Christian kindness. Regretfully, this sort of convictional kindness has not always been a trademark of conservative evangelical interaction in the public square. I recognize my own failure in this area over the years.

In his inaugural address on September 10th of this year, Moore said, “As we march forward into the days that are before us, the worst thing we can possibly do in changing times is to come with a sour and dour and gloomy pessimism about the culture around us. We cannot stand and speak, ‘You kids get off my lawn.’ The word that Jesus has given to His church is a word that is filled with optimism and joy.”

The time has come for the church to proclaim the kingdom of God not merely in terms of how the culture falls short of that ideal, but rather in terms of what that ideal actually looks like. Speaking of the ministry of Jesus, Moore continued, “The crowd would have loved to have heard Jesus rail against the culture of the Roman Empire. . . . But instead, what Jesus does is to turn and to show His hearers how they had themselves been conformed to the pattern of the age around them.”

This calls for a transformation of the church so that the church genuinely serves as a preview of Christ’s kingdom. “In order for God to bless us,” Moore said, “we must recognize and know that God is forming first and foremost colonies of the kingdom that are accountable to the word that says, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” So the church must conform to Christ by submitting to his word and in so doing the church serves as a sort of window through which the world can see Christ and imagine his kingdom.

Moore addressed what “success” will look like in upcoming years, when he said, “The way we will see success is in congregations first and foremost, that start to look freakishly strange.” He went on to describe believers who, for example, respect human life even when the broader public does not and who go beyond advocating for social causes in order to embody those causes.

Our churches must go beyond moral engagement in order to facilitate gospel engagement. Moore continued, “We are ministers of reconciliation, which means that we will speak hard words, and we will speak truthful words, and we will address the conscience, even when that costs us everything. But we will never end there. We will always end with the word that our Lord Jesus has given to us, the invitation if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.”

In other words, God’s people must engage our society and culture with gospel witness that leads to moral reformation. The order must never be reversed or the church will have lost its message. “We will stand as good American citizens, and we will fight for justice, and we will fight . . . for all of those things that have been given to us, guaranteed by our Constitution as Americans. . . . But we will also remember that we are not Americans first. We belong to another kingdom. And we will stand and speak for that kingdom, recognizing that between now and then there are little congregations raising up little boys and girls to recognize what is permanent, what stands, what remains: a kingdom, a culture, a mission.”

Alongside of Dr. Moore’s comments, and in agreement with them, I wish to affirm that the Christian mission centers on God and the gospel and, as such, is comprehensive and multidirectional. As we worship God instead of idols (upward), we declare to our nation that God alone is worthy of worship. As we proclaim and promote the gospel through the church’s inner life (inward), we provoke our neighbors to jealousy so that they also will embrace the Savior. As we seek to live every aspect of our social and cultural life in accordance with God’s creational design (backward), we give our nation a glimpse of God’s original intentions for his world to be marked by universal peace, order, justice, and delight. As we proclaim and promote the gospel as a sign of his not-yet kingdom (forward), we give the nations a foretaste of the future banquet and a preview of the new heavens and earth.

As God’s people, we are a contrast community whose multi-directional gospel mission should give our nation a preview of Christ’s kingdom (positively) rather than merely declaring to our nation how far short it falls of that kingdom (negatively). Moore’s call for gospel witness and convictional kindness is one which we can and should heed.

Come here Dr. Russell Moore speak in chapel on December 3 at 10 a.m. Or, you may listen live at: http://www.sebts.edu/news-resources/livestream.aspx

The full text of Dr. Moore’s inaugural address can be found at: http://erlc.com/article/a-prophetic-minority-kingdom-culture-and-mission-in-a-new-era

 

 

Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

On Monday, I published the first half of my reflections on the Houston Convention. This is my second and final post on this topic.

4. The ERLC Transition. One of the most important happenings at the Convention this year was the leadership transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Richard Land has led that ministry for a quarter-century. Over those years, Land became a key leader among the so-called Religious Right, taking a clear stand on such matters as the sanctity of human life and the importance of biblical/traditional views on sexuality and marriage. He was also a leading proponent of an “accommodationist” understanding of church-state separation. I would argue that Richard Land was the public face of Southern Baptists, particularly to non-religious people who only know us through the media. Of course, Land retired a few weeks ago and Russ Moore of Southern Seminary became the new president of ERLC.

There is little doubt that Russ Moore and Richard Land have far more in common than they do different. In fact, I would suspect that the left-wing journalists who seem elated at Land’s retirement and Moore’s appointment will become less enamored with Moore once they find out that he, too, is pro-life and affirms biblical sexuality and traditional marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Moore has less of an “edge” than Land. Moore is also a champion of several issues that younger Southern Baptists identify with such as adoption and orphan care and combating human sex trafficking. As an added bonus, Moore is one of the best preachers in the SBC. My students were more excited about hearing Moore’s vision for ERLC than they were anything else at the Annual Meeting besides Danny Akin’s Convention sermon.

5. The Resolutions. Messengers passed several interesting resolutions at the Houston Convention. You can read them all at the SBC website. Many of them have attracted attention, and understandably so. For the purposes of this post, I will only mention two resolutions. First, our resolution related to the Boy Scouts, which has garnered the most attention from the press, strikes a good balance by criticizing the BSA’s new membership policy, but without calling for a universal exodus from the Scouts. Though I’ve been vocal in my opposition to the Boy Scouts’ new policy, I believe it would be premature to urge all Southern Baptist churches to pull back from sponsoring Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.

Second, the resolution recognizing the 125th anniversary of Woman’s Missionary Union, though unmentioned in the press, is noteworthy. No organization has done more to raise missions awareness among Southern Baptist churches than the WMU. We should be thankful for the WMU and their contribution to our Great Commission efforts over the years. Thank you, ladies, for all that you do.

6. The Calvinism Discussion. There was a tremendous spirit of unity in Houston among Southern Baptists with varying views of the “doctrines of grace.” The Executive Committee hosted well-attended panel discussion with members of the Calvinism Advisory Committee on Monday. By all accounts, the Committee’s published statement has been well-received by almost everyone. The comments made from the Convention platform were uniformly gracious and helpful. (This has not always been the case at previous Conventions.) We should be grateful to EC president Frank Page for his statesmanlike leadership in this discussion and to David Dockery and the rest of the Calvinism Advisory Committee for their willingness to lead by example on this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable, the “chatter” about Calvinism in the Convention hall, the exhibit booths, and in various meetings was generally very encouraging. Virtually everyone seems eager to move forward in a spirit of Great Commission cooperation. The only unfortunate moment was the surreal Baptist 21 interview with Louisiana College president Joe Aguillard. By and large, however, it seems that most engaged Southern Baptists agree with my argument that Calvinism is, and should remain, a tertiary matter in the wider denomination. Join me in praying that this sense of unity and good will becomes more pervasive among all of our state conventions as well.

7. SEBTS Students. For the second year, I taught the Southern Baptist Convention course for Southeastern Seminary. Over thirty SEBTS students enrolled in the course and attended the Convention; for almost all of them, it was their first SBC Annual Meeting. They had the chance to hear from new ERLC president Russ Moore on Tuesday night and meet with IMB vice president Clyde Meador on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the students told me they enjoyed being at the Convention, learning more about our various ministries and emphases, and meeting other Southern Baptists from hither and yon. They are excited to be Southern Baptists. And if they are our future, then I’m even more excited than they are to be a part of the people of God called Southern Baptist.