As Donald Trump prepared for his inauguration as U.S. President, one Southern Baptist leader faced backlash for his comments about the President-Elect during the campaign. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was a vocal critic of Trump leading up to the election. Some fellow Baptists believe his criticism extended to anyone who voted for the Republican nominee.
A December article in the Wall Street Journal about Moore quoted some SBC pastors who said their churches might consider modifying their Cooperative Program giving (the ERLC receives a small percentage of CP funds) because of Moore’s public stances on key recent issues.
“There was a disrespectfulness towards Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders, past and present,” Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, told the WSJ. “It’s disheartening that this election has created this kind of divisiveness.”
During the campaign, Moore called Trump’s support from evangelicals and social conservatives “illogical” in a September opinion piece for The New York Times. “To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” he wrote.
Following Trump, he continued, “would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.”
Immediately after Trump’s victory in November, Moore wrote a blog post about how the church should respond to the election, beginning by praying for the President-Elect. In December, he apologized to those who felt he had criticized all who voted for Trump, noting that his comments in one particular instance were meant for “a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel.
“I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been,” Moore wrote. “But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.”
In the blog post, Moore also clarified his reasons for speaking out like he did during the campaign, while acknowledging the agonizing decisions many people faced during the election season.
“Regardless of how we voted, I think we can all agree that 2016 has been fraught with ugliness, much of which couldn’t be left unchecked. In my personal situation, there were some outrageous moments in the midst of the campaign that I felt compelled by my job to address. When those moments came, occasionally I was tempted to remain silent for the sake of the ‘team’ or the issues at stake. After all, these issues are the ones I’ve spent my life defending and the ones my denomination has been vocal and insistent about for decades.
“Even still, in my case, it is precisely because Southern Baptists are pro-life, pro-family, pro-religious freedom, pro-racial reconciliation, and pro-character-in-public-office that I felt it was my responsibility to speak out on those issues. For me, to remain silent—rightly or wrongly—felt negligent.”
On social media, support for Moore came swiftly, and often from younger leaders. The hashtag #IStandWithMoore became a sign of solidarity with the embattled leader.
“Russell Moore has displayed over and over again that he is a man of principle and he will not trade that in for political appeasement,” Josh Monda, pastor of First Baptist Church, Washington, posted on the IBSA Facebook page. “It is a shame that so many are so willing to sacrifice the gospel on the altar of political expediency.”
Moore’s stance on Trump’s candidacy isn’t the only position that has some Southern Baptists feeling alienated, the Wall Street Journal reported. David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, cited other areas where Moore has “disagreement with a large majority of his constituents,” including some of his comments on same-sex marriage court decisions and his support for a Muslim group in New Jersey to be able to build a mosque.
In November, Louisiana Baptists voted at their annual meeting to ask their Executive Board to study recent actions by the ERLC. Hankins told the WSJ the board is considering whether to approve the study.
“I’m not aware of any churches that have pulled funding yet, but I’m aware some have said they’re going to,” he told the newspaper. “People are mulling their options.”
In the wake of the criticism of Moore and subsequent online debate, three Tennessee pastors called Southern Baptists to renewed unity. In a Dec. 21 open letter titled “A plea for denominational statesmanship in a time of tension,” Jonathan Akin, Nathan Finn, and Micah Fries noted differences among Baptists in theology, polity, methodology, strategy, and “cultural engagement, especially the relationship between faith and elective politics.”
The differences, the pastors wrote, have been made all the more public in this information age, and possibly exaggerated by it. They called on Southern Baptists to see not each other as the enemy, but “the Prince of Darkness to whom the lost are enslaved.”
Pointing to vast spiritual lostness worldwide, Akin, Finn, and Fries, wrote, “Now isn’t the time for division….Our hope is for men in key leadership roles in Southern Baptist life—elected officers, denominational officials, and pastors alike—to step forward and lead us in building a renewed consensus within the SBC.”