A Further Perspective

No Pullback, No Retreat

A Southern Baptist spokesman is mischaracterized.

By 11.4.13

Theology147 (Creative Commons)

Russell Moore, the new political spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, has clarified that he’s not urging Christian political withdrawal, as a recent Wall Street Journal profilesurmised (“Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars”), and to which George Neumayr responded in The American Spectator.

In his own response (on his Facebook page) to the WSJ piece, Catholic philosopher Robert George of Princeton University, a “very close friend” to Moore, recalled being interviewed by the WSJ’s writer at Moore’s recent inauguration, where George was a speaker. When asked if Moore was urging a “pull back from politics and the culture war,” George offered an “avalanche of evidence from Russell’s statements and actions showing that he certainly does not favor a ‘withdrawal’ (or ‘truce’) on social issues, but, rather, believes that Evangelicals and their allies need to fight harder and smarter.” George observed that his comments were “to no avail” with the WSJ writer, who was focused on his “narrative” of “pull back,” which George speculates was “wishful thinking” of a “liberal reporter.”

In his own commentary reacting to the WSJ, Moore called the profile’s “pullback” headline “awfully misleading,” since he’s instead urging a “reenergizing of politics.” “If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor,” but a “different sort of engagement,” focused on “priority.” As an exemplar, Moore commended the pro-life movement’s “holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion” by urging “laws to outlaw abortion,” caring for women in crisis pregnancies, urging adoption and foster care, ministering to women “scarred” by abortion, and “cultivating” a wider pro-life culture.

Moore touted a new, more winsome Christian political witness operating not “as gloomy pessimists,” or “naïve utopians,” but instead “cheerily marching to Zion, knowing that whatever the short-term setbacks, we are on the winning side of history.” He specified “that means we speak and we vote and we mobilize.” And Moore specified that “we want to see our so-called enemies out-voted when they’re doing harmful things, unelected from office when they’re hurting the common good,” while also striving to see them converted by the Gospel.

The WSJ article compared Moore’s supposed “pullback” message to “those in the Republican Party who want the GOP to back off hot-button cultural issues to stress themes such as job creation and education." In a Christian Post interview Moore countered: "Goodness no,” and affirmed his continued engagement with hot buttons, “from abortion and same-sex marriage all the way through to questions of surrogacy and immigration reform."

In further rebuttal to the WSJ “pullback” interpretation, Moore spoke on Fox & Friends with Tucker Carlson in defense of religious traditionalists targeted "because they won't sing out of the hymn book of the church of the sexual revolution." He was specifically criticizing Obamacare’s HHS mandate compelling religious institutions and believers to subsidize contraceptives and abortifacients, which he denounced as “just one fiery rafter in a burning house," The Southern Baptist Convention’s health and financial benefits agency has filed suit against the HHS mandate. Moore warned that “religious liberty is under assault all over the place in this country in ways that I think are probably more pronounced than we have seen since the founding era.”

So clearly Moore as political spokesman for America’s second largest religious body is not retreating from the culture wars and will deploy his own “fiery rafter” rhetoric when needed. His predecessor as head of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, was part of the founding generation of modern conservative religious activism, most of whose icons are now deceased or retired. Their battles, fought when evangelicals were still an emerging subculture not typically accustomed to full political engagement, required a different rhetorical gusto to mobilize a previously often politically passive constituency.

Today, evangelical church officials like Moore are trying to motivate a new postmodern generation unaccustomed to biblical moral certainties and instead often more attuned to therapeutic reassurance, even from their evangelical pulpits. At the same time, a growing Evangelical Left, at least among church elites, is urging safety from the culture wars by full throttle endorsing most of the secular left’s political agenda, above all the constant expansion of the federal welfare, entitlement and regulatory state.

Others on the left are inspired by Anabaptist thought and urge reorganization of the evangelical church into an alternative community that does not directly address the state. Meanwhile, some despairing conservative evangelicals are counseling surrender or at least retreat back to a form of political separatism, hoping to build walls against secularism’s assaults, bracing even for civil disobedience and jail time.

In his recent memoir Writing From Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, whose theology of free markets has inspired many evangelicals, notes that detached Episcopalians historically have performed better at statecraft than more personally intense Baptists. His critique likely applies more broadly to evangelicals, who traditionally think dramatically in terms of conversion, apostasy, damnation, ecstasy, apocalypse, crusade, revival and divine deliverance.

Politics is decidedly under the mandate of Providence and requires perpetual Christian engagement. But most of politics is prudential, gray, incremental, a smorgasbord of competing interest groups and typically inconclusive. Evangelicals may have to recalibrate their political witness with more appreciation for St. Augustine’s minimal temporal expectations or liberal Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr’s cold realism. Combining that subtly with evangelical energy and zeal will be a challenge.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.