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The stunning Southern Baptist controversy over Donald Trump and Russell Moore, explained

Bonnie Kristian

Russell Moore is a public theologian and, since 2013, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy organ of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). His theology is consistently conservative. The top article on his personal website, as of this writing, advocates legal protection for abortion survivors — Moore himself is the father of adopted sons — and it was originally published at National Review, long the flagship magazine of conservative politics. A former pastor and professor at multiple Baptist universities, Moore's most recent book is about shaping family life around the gospel. His office is decorated with bobbleheads of Thomas Jefferson and Billy Graham. He is a teetotaler.

How could this man be the target of what many see as an attempted purge by his fellow Southern Baptists?

Donald Trump, of course. Here's what's happening.

During the 2016 Republican primary campaign, Moore was one of many who publicly questioned whether Trump represented the values of evangelical voters — but while other voices fell quiet, he maintained his opposition after it became apparent Trump would be the GOP nominee.

Now, as Religion News Service detailed in a lengthy report Thursday, a small but vocal cadre of Southern Baptists has initiated a dispute over Moore's tenure at the ERLC and the merits of the organization itself. First, a tiny fraction of the denomination's 46,000 congregations have indicated they will no longer contribute to the ERLC budget. Among those churches is First Baptist Dallas, led by Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump's most enthusiastic court evangelicals. Also on the list is Prestonwood Baptist Church, pastored by two-time SBC President Jack Graham, who is a member of Trump's Religious Advisory Council. Graham "felt that Moore's criticisms of Trump and his evangelical supporters [were] out of bounds," RNS reports.

More seriously, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee voted Tuesday to create a task force to "review the past and present activities" of the ERLC in response to "ongoing concerns" from "state leadership and other pastors across the country." And while the committee's chair, Mike Stone, who will head up the task force, told Baptist Press it's "not an attempt to remove Dr. Moore," the notion that Moore is not under scrutiny is hardly credible.

The attention to Moore personally certainly seemed obvious to the ERLC executive committee, which responded to news of the task force Thursday with a pointed letter calling the investigation "unwarranted, divisive, and disrespectful." The letter's fifth and final item is a categorical expression of trust in Moore's leadership, theology, and character, and it closes with an announcement of noncompliance unless elected representatives of the denomination at large "have an opportunity to signal their belief that such a task force is appropriate and legitimate" at the SBC Annual Meeting in June.

Other Moore defenders as well as his critics also see the task force in this light. "Churches have left the SBC in ever-growing numbers since the 2016 presidential election fiasco — a campaign season that saw Russell Moore attacking conservative Southern Baptists on the pages of The Washington Post and New York Times," one blog alleged in a post asking what the ERLC "has to hide."

"Some are still unhappy given [Moore's] posture on President Trump," Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an opponent of the investigation, told RNS. "That's a sticking point for many people. It's a point of contention."

So what exactly did Moore say to cause all this commotion? That's what makes the controversy so stunning: Yes, he was critical of Trump during the 2016 election. But the criticism was factual and presented from exactly the staunch evangelical perspective you'd expect of someone like Moore. It was the sort of thing that wouldn't have raised evangelical eyebrows just a few years prior.

In The New York Times in September 2015, for instance, he argued Trump's "personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts." Moore's argument ran along standard evangelical lines, highlighting Trump's defense of abortion, his gambling-funded wealth, his obvious religious ignorance, and his divisive language. He called fellow evangelicals to remember their 1990s-era attention to character in politics. Around the same time, Moore called Trump an "arrogant huckster" in a tweet linking to another evangelical critique, and in December of that year, he opposed Trump's "Muslim ban" proposal at The Washington Post.

In January 2016, Moore contended Trump "is not the moral leader we need" in a contribution to National Review's "Never Trump" issue. Once again focusing on typical evangelical concerns of personal character, abortion, family values, and religious liberty, Moore censured "Trump's vitriolic — and often racist and sexist — language." That same month, Trump gave his infamous "Two Corinthians" speech at Liberty University, and Moore tweeted multiple criticisms of Trump as well as Christian abandonment of principle for power.

Then, in a May appearance on CBS, Moore said Trump represents "an embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem." That shot evidently hit its target, as Trump responded by tweeting that Moore is "A nasty guy with no heart!" (Moore responded with a classic Baptist comment on his own sin and need for salvation.)

The tweet brought Moore's anti-Trump activism to wider attention and helped fuel an SBC debate over whether Moore should be fired. Moore never backtracked on his assessment of Trump, but he did modify his approach and rhetoric. The day after the election, he called for Christian allegiance to God over politics at The Washington Post. On Inauguration Day, he said Christians should pray for Trump no matter how they voted. And in December 2016 and March 2017, he issued apologies "for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn't have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh."

Since then, Moore has continued his issue-based activism at the ERLC, sometimes opposing Trump administration policies but refraining from the wider criticisms he leveled at Trump the candidate. That shift is why one interviewee for the RNS report expressed surprise at the task force, "saying he had not seen Moore make any controversial comments in months."

Evidently, Moore's comparative silence is not enough — which I cannot find anything but bizarre. I know well the 81 percent statistic of white evangelical support for Trump in 2016. I've written about Trump's relationship to evangelicals repeatedly, and I attended two Southern Baptist churches growing up, though I am now part of a different Christian denomination. Pre-Trump, the notion that Russell Moore — Russell Moore — would be such a controversial figure among Southern Baptists would have been unfathomable. Disagreements, sure. But this?

The Trump presidency has been revelatory indeed.

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