When covering Moore's exit from SBC power, scribes should ponder what made him 'liberal'

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This may be a strange place to start when discussing early news coverage of the Rev. Russell Moore moving from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — the crucial Southern Baptist camp in Beltway land — to what looks like a Christianity Today think tank on theology and public life.

So be it. This is where we will start — with the whole Moore is “too liberal” thing.

What does “liberal” mean in that curse that has been tossed about in Baptist social media?

Remember that one of Moore’s primary duties in Washington, D.C., has been to help Southern Baptists defend attacks on religious liberty and the First Amendment in general. With that in mind, let me return to a question that I have been asking here at GetReligion — while focusing on the role that labels play in American journalism — for a decade or so. This is from a 2015 post:

What do you call people who are weak in their defense of free speech, weak in their defense of freedom of association and weak in their defense of religious liberty (in other words, basic First Amendment rights)?

The answer: I don’t know, but it would be totally inaccurate — considering the history of American political thought — to call these people “liberals.”

So what do you call someone, like Moore, who has been defending free speech, defending the freedom of association and defending religious liberty?

Wait. For. It. You can accurately call him a “liberal” in that context. In this framework, the New York Times editorial pages and, in many cases, the American Civil Liberties Union, are now — what? What is the accurate term, these days?

Note that this struggle to define “liberal” was at the heart of the celebrated clash between Bari Weiss and the Times. I would argue that it was part of the newsroom warfare that led to the ousting of Liz Spayd as the Times public editor (when she dared to ask the newspaper was committed to fair, accurate coverage of half of America). It’s at the heart of the growing tensions between gay-rights icon Andrew Sullivan and the LGBTQ establishment. I could go on and on.

But back to another cluster of issues linked to Moore. Note that he is fiercely pro-life, yet he knows that any meaningful cultural change of that issue will require working with pro-life Democrats and, in particular, the Black Church. He has been called “woke” on race when, in reality, he consistently backs the biblical Civil Rights Movement ideals of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as opposed to some (repeat “some”) secular and political dogmas of Critical Race Theory. When he attacks sexual abuse — in SBC circles, or elsewhere — he stresses abusive males are failing to act like Christian men.

More than anything else, of course, Moore was called “liberal” for attempting to hold Donald Trump to the same standards, in terms of personal behavior, that he and other Southern Baptist conservatives applied to Bill Clinton. More than anything else, the cyber-hurricane that has raged around Moore was caused by Trump-era politics and their impact on pulpits and pews.

Thus, here is the headline for the Religion News Service piece on Moore’s move: “Russell Moore, Baptist ethicist and Trump critic, to leave ERLC for Christianity Today.” The term “Never Trumper” made it into the lede.

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Later on in that piece, religion-beat veteran Bob Smietana — an old hand in Nashville and SBC affairs — offered this crucial summary:

Moore’s work as ERLC president has been increasingly overshadowed by friction over his criticism of former President Donald Trump, putting him at odds with many Southern Baptist and evangelical leaders.

In 2015, Moore called Trump an “arrogant huckster” who was unfit for office. Trump responded by labeling Moore “a nasty guy with no heart.” 

Moore came to the ERLC in 2013 after serving as a dean, provost and theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

Now there’s a crucial link worth further investigation. Did Moore have any options to move back into SBC life at the seminary level.

Back to the early, must-read RNS piece:

… With the rise of Trump, Moore took on a more political profile, and his opposition to the president led some Southern Baptist megachurches to withhold their giving to the denomination while others called for the ERLC to be defunded. A move to cut funding for the ERLC failed in 2018.

Still, controversy remained. A recent task force report to the SBC’s Executive Committee labeled the ERLC “a distraction” for Southern Baptists. David Prince, chair of the ERLC’s trustees, defended Moore after the report, saying the ERLC “has served Southern Baptists faithfully during a time of political, cultural and, in some cases, denominational chaos.” …

The Baptist ethicist has also been an outspoken supporter of survivors of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and has called for Southern Baptists and other evangelicals to do more to heal racial divides in the church and the country. 

Toss in Moore’s support for COVID-19 vaccines and other mainstream positions on worship issues in 2020 and it’s clear that his work pretty much forced him to keep diving on political and cultural hand grenades. Oh, and he took a rather George W. Bush approach to immigration issues, as well.

What’s my main point here? When reading mainstream coverage of this issue, news consumers need to look for material from Moore supporters and critics that address the doctrinal elements of these disputes, along with the unavoidable clashes about Trump-era politics. Look for the times when Moore praised the Trump White House and note how his words were linked to life issues and the First Amendment.

Reporters and editors need to include these doctrinal facts in this coverage. As opposed to, well, the top of this Reuters train wreck: “Southern Baptist official and Trump critic Russell Moore to leave his post.

A senior Southern Baptist Convention official who had criticized former President Donald Trump is leaving his post with the influential evangelical U.S. Christian denomination.

Russell Moore said in a statement that he will leave the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission after eight years as its president. Moore will work for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today as a theologian and also lead a new Public Theology Project. The project will also be the main outlet for Moore’s regular writing and his podcast, according to a news release from Christianity Today.

Many evangelical Christians have been strong supporters of right-wing American politics. In November’s U.S. presidential election, 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump and 24% for Joe Biden, according to Edison Research exit polls.

You get the idea.

Meanwhile, readers will want to click here and read Moore’s own missive about his ERLC departure. Here’s the lede:

From the time I was a child, the Lord worked in my life through two institutions. One was my Southern Baptist church, which introduced me to Jesus and taught me how to follow him. The other was Christianity Today, through which I found faithful voices of gospel integrity such as Carl Henry, John Stott, J. I. Packer, Charles Colson, John Perkins, and many others.

The initial Baptist Press report is also must reading.

Please let me know if you see mainstream reporting on this — good or bad — that deserves comment. I’ll do the best that I can, even though I will be traveling for the next 10 days or so.

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