Russell Moore is one of the leading Christian voices in the public square today. At the time of this interview, Moore was serving as the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the moral and public policy agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Shortly after this interview, he resigned his position and left the Southern Baptist Convention. He is now serving as Public Theologian at Christianity Today, as well as directing Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project. Moore also spent many years in the Christian academy, serving as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also taught theology and ethics. He was named to the 2017 Politico magazine top fifty influencers in Washington list and has been profiled in publications such as The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer are co-directors of The Winsome Conviction Project at Biola University where Muehlhoff is Professor of Communication and Langer is Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology.
In May 2021, Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer interviewed Russell Moore regarding Christian engagement in the public square and how Christian academics can help the church find a faithful voice in our troubled times. This article is an edited transcript of the conversation.
RL: It seems the past several years have not only been polarizing within the American public square, but also within the church. Do you see the church tribalizing into progressive and conservative camps in a way that is broadly parallel to secular society, or would you characterize it differently?
RM: I don’t think that the church is polarizing along conservative, progressive lines. I do agree that the church is polarizing as much as or more than the outside but in a different way than the two-party paradigm. Instead, it seems to me that what we’re seeing is a divide over what J. Gresham Machen defined as “liberalism” back in the 1920s. Machen didn’t mean progressivism or even modernism, but the idea of using Christianity as a means to an end. For example, using Christianity as a means to establishing social harmony and justice, or bringing about a moral order, or combating communism (and Machen, of course was all for combating communism). But once Christianity is embraced as a means to fight communism, then it is, in his view, no longer Christianity. And it seems to me that is where the divide lies—is Christianity a means to an end?
RL: That’s really interesting. Unpack the notion that younger evangelicals are anxious about their elders not holding to biblical orthodoxy. I think the common perception would be the opposite concern, that is, the older people are worried about the younger people abandoning biblical truth.
RM: Well, I was talking a couple of years ago to a Roman Catholic man who is a faithful, committed, Mass-going Catholic, who told me that he didn’t think that he was going to go to Mass anymore. And he said, “It’s not because I no longer believe what my church teaches, it’s that I fear that my church doesn’t believe what my church teaches.” In his case, it was a disillusionment about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and leaders in the church, empowering or neglecting or covering up those scandals. And I see the exact same phenomenon taking place within evangelical Christianity. And people start to wonder if Christianity really isn’t a transcendent claim, but rather a mascot for some political or cultural agenda.Fifteen years ago, I think many people assumed that younger evangelicals would move on a trajectory toward the progressive political left and be liberalized [in the sense that Machen described]. I’m not seeing that happen at all. Instead, I’m hearing from younger evangelicals a kind of lament that they don’t really believe that their elders hold to biblical orthodoxy in the way that they thought they did. And so that’s where I think the real divide is right now, not neatly packaged in conservative and progressive categories.
And I resonate with that as someone who went through a deep spiritual crisis as a 15-year-old in the Bible Belt, wondering if perhaps Christianity really just was a useful way to prop up Southern culture. Thankfully, I had read C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia so many times as a child that I recognized the name C. S. Lewis on the spine of Mere Christianity and picked it up. What Lewis did for me is not so much to provide arguments for the Christian faith. I didn’t have a problem with the intellectual credibility of Christianity. What he did was to speak with a tone that so obviously was not trying to sell anything or trying to manipulate me or trying to mobilize me as a voter, but simply bearing witness to Christ.
I think that is what often is the longing of younger evangelicals. I’m seeing people leave the church because they have come to the conclusion that Christians really aren’t a religious body, but a political body, indulging in political activism under a religious label. What one does not see very much of, though, are younger Christians in the church who are wanting to toss aside the supernatural. There is no social advantage for an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old to embrace a historic Christianity. Those who do, have already made a decision to walk in a different direction than their peers. So, the culture has almost solved that problem for us.
The other dynamic that’s different is fifteen years ago, I would hear from many parents who were worried about their children following something other than Christianity. Now, every day, as recently as five minutes before I came to this interview, I’m hearing from younger evangelicals who are worried about their parents having embraced conspiracy theories on Facebook or something along these lines. And furthermore, there was a time in American life where the assumption was that rural America was the heartland for faith, and the urban areas were the places that were perilous for faith—parents would worry about their children leaving rural Mississippi to go to New York City. Right now, we see vibrant and vital Christian churches in major urban areas, and in university and college towns. And we see many of the rural areas decimated by opioid usage and economic despair and these other problems. So, it’s almost an inversion of what I think many of us were trained to expect.
TM: From a communication standpoint, we talk about ethos, the credibility that is so important in communication. So, when younger evangelicals look to their elders, there’s been so much going on today that has eroded confidence. The #MeToo movement, for example, has peeled back abuses that are happening to women. And then we were shocked and saddened by the Ravi Zacharias scandal. We find college students just throwing their hands up and saying, “Is there anyone you can trust who doesn’t have a dark secret?” Can you speak to the deep skepticism of young evangelicals today?
RM: Yes. Part of it that is happening across global Western culture right now with a loss of faith in institutions. There have been institutional scandals in virtually every era. What seems unique is that we’re in a time when there’s almost no institution that is not vulnerable to cynicism. So, if one looks at the issues raised by the #MeToo movement, there were some people who would think that one could find refuge from sexual predation in some ideological or theological movement. So, one might say, “Look at Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein—this is what happens with a secularizing sexual ethic.” But we cannot say that because we look around and see the same thing happening with a Ravi Zacharias and many, many more people within the Christian church
If you step on into the Christian world, Christians often want to say my particular brand of theology will protect us from this, but that’s not the case either. Complementarianism on the gender issue does not protect from this sort of predation, obviously, given the scandals from Bill Gothard all the way over to Ravi Zacharias. And egalitarianism doesn’t protect from these either as seen by the scandals with Bill Hybels at Willow Creek and other egalitarian places.
When one thinks of the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, or the caricature of Elmer Gantry in the early twentieth century, this behavior has always been with us. What’s different now is that there is what you mentioned, the expectation that there’s always another shoe to drop. And the question is, “Is there anyone whom I can trust?” And when Christians say, “Well, you shouldn’t put your confidence in people, you should put your confidence in Jesus.” Of course, that’s true. But the question then comes down to, “Does the new birth exist?” We expect that the transforming power of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, [but it seems] that everything is about marketing or image maintenance. That’s when we’re thrown into the kind of crisis that we face now.
TM: Should the problems within the church affect our civility when somebody outside the church falls? Should we be less quick to jump in and go after the moral failings of that person, knowing that we ourselves have experienced things like this? Should we be just slower to jump in and just utterly condemn and maybe add a little bit more compassion and civility?
RM: It should, and it also ought to cause more proactive accountability within the church. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 said that it is not those outside the church that I judge, it’s those on the inside whom I judge in the sense of holding accountable. It’s easier to do the reverse. The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom had an editorial a few years ago, looking at American evangelicalism and noted that American evangelicalism tends to highlight the sins that least tempt its members, and they ignore the sins that most tempt its members.
And it’s hard to argue with that characterization. So, sometimes I think that it’s not just that we failed to show civility when we’re looking at the moral realities of people outside of Christ, but also that we weaponize civility internally, in a way that simply means no accountability. And of course, that’s not civility, that’s a kind of oppression. We show partiality to those who have what we perceive to be power at the expense of those they are harming. And that of course is completely contrary to a biblical and a Christian ethic.
RL: Carl Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of the Modern Fundamentalist about seventy-five years ago. I was recently re-reading it and was struck by how relevant it still seemed. Both then and now, it appears that the church has an extremely difficult time combining faithful proclamation of the gospel with faithful love of neighbor in the public square. It seems like we do one, or we do the other, or even some churches are good at one, others are good at the other, but we have a hard time doing it together. But Henry seemed to be adamant that we had to do both. Was he right, and if so, what might that look like for the church in 2022 and beyond?
RM: Henry was right. And you are correct that Uneasy Conscience still reads as though it had been written last year, because he’s still speaking to the many of the same issues we face, though sometimes for different reasons. When Henry was writing, he assumed that the primary problems were theological in terms of the implications of classical dispensationalism and some of the implications of a strand of Reformed Theology. And sometimes those aren’t the influences at work today, but the end result is the same.
Henry talked about the attempt to divide the God of justice from the God of justification. In Scripture, the two go together—just as a love of God and love of neighbor go together. The Bible warns us about putting a both-and where there should be an either-or: there cannot be both God and Baal, both God and mammon, both Christ and self. But it’s also true that putting an either-or where the Bible puts a both-and is dangerous: love of God or love of neighbor, soul or the body, faith or obedience. All of those things should be held together.
This has also shown up in the kind of tribalism that says, “Here is one aspect of the revelation that I will choose to define me and define my tribe. These are other parts of biblical revelation that we will downplay or even ignore.” I have heard even in recent days multiple pastors tell me close to the same anecdote, about giving a message alluding to, without citing, a part of the Sermon on the Mount. They are then confronted by a church member alarmed by their liberalism and saying, “You know what, what you’re saying there, it doesn’t work, that’s not how we need to fight.” And the pastors say, “These are literally the words of Jesus Christ.”
It’s almost the reverse of what one might have seen much of in the twentieth century where people say, “We like the ethics of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, but we can’t accept supernatural ideas such as the virgin birth, or the resurrection, or the second coming.” Now we often see people who will cognitively ascent to virgin births and miracles and empty tombs, but revolt against the ethical teaching of Jesus. I mean, all of this has to be held together. We can’t be choosing a tribe: I’m following the Pharisees, or I’m following the Sadducees or I’m following the Zealots. You don’t do that. And he calls all that into judgment when he says, “Come, follow me.” That’s a very difficult message to hear and to receive.
RL: Most of our readership are university professors, many are serving at Christian schools, but others at secular schools. In your mind, what’s the unique contribution a scholar offers to the Christian community facing the kind of challenges that we’re facing at present?
RM: There are multiple ways that scholars can serve in this present moment. Cultivating the life of the mind is as important or more important now than ever, and especially because one of the key challenges is the contested notion of truth itself. The question is not simply, “Are Christian truth claims credible?,” but “Can there be any truth claims?” And the challenges there are not where we previously thought they would have come: logical positivism or post-modern deconstructionism or something like that. They’re coming from a general cultural malaise that’s leading towards cynicism that anything can be believed. And some of that is moved along by social media—not just the content that comes from social media, but also the suspicion that everything that one sees and hears is a nudge coming from an algorithm.
Teaching students and the next generation to think is vital, whether it’s in classroom teaching or in scholarship. But secondly, I think that university faculties, when they are at their best can teach the church a great deal about diversity of gifts. When a university faculty devolves into factionalism and rivalry, that’s lamentable. But in those faculties where people actually are not only cultivating their own gifts, but also benefitting from the particular areas of research or expertise of others, there really is a model for the rest of the church for how to have unity and diversity at once. That’s something that the university can contribute.
RL: As you mentioned, historically, we’ve had challenges from logical positivism or post-modern deconstructionism. We certainly have this general cultural malaise, a despair of finding truth. It also brings to mind the current inclination towards conspiracy theories. Many people just seem to have departed from the normal canons of rational justification. Is that operating off the same current of thought or is something different going on in the conspiracy world?
RM: I think that some of this is operating out of the same current, but I think that often what’s happening with conspiracy theorizing is not at the level of intellectual gullibility as much as it is with a longing for membership. And the conspiracy theory turns out to be the price of membership in some particular tribe. And usually these days, these are digital tribes, and usually cultural political tribes.
But the breakdown affects others as well. So, when a seventeen-year-old sees people that he or she trusted for discipleship and guidance, are now believing something that’s obviously not true—for example, that there’s a pedophile ring being run out of the basement of Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C.—they start to wonder, “Can I trust you on the much more important things that you always taught me?” I mean, Jesus said, “If you cannot believe me in earthly things, how can you hear me in spiritual things?” Well, there are many people asking that very question. If you are adopting viewpoints that are verifiably untrue, but they are completely unfalsifiable to you, then how do I hear you when you’re attempting to bear witness to something that strikes at the very heart of the meaning of life and the cosmos?
TM: This brings up an interesting point about groupthink. Belonging to a group is a way we get our fellowship needs met. There was a 2015 study from Brigham Young University that found that being disconnected from a group or community was as detrimental to our overall health as obesity or smoking. So, we want to stay part of these groups. When we hear things that don’t feel right, a lot of Christians just keep quiet about it because this is my group, my kids are friends with their kids, and I do not want to be pushed out. So, I’m silent when I start to listen to an uncharitable take on a political party, or an uncharitable take on the transgendered community, or a conspiracy theory. What would you say to a person struggling with a group to which they are attached?
RM: Marilynne Robinson, the novelist said, “When loyalty to the truth becomes disloyalty to the tribe, we have moved into very dangerous territory.”1 It’s not only dangerous in terms of the ramifications for the outside world, it’s also dangerous for the person because every human life is going to be met with crises. And those crises are going to ask essentially what Jesus is asking of Simon Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” rather than “Who do you say that you are?” Group membership will not get one safely through those moments of crisis, because one really has to rely on a reality that is not self-constructed and cannot be characterized as self-constructive.
There was a sociologist who talked several years ago about why email scams are all so similar: “A Nigerian Prince needs your credit card number to get back to his throne or what have you.” And many people will say, “Well, why don’t they come up with more sophisticated sorts of pitches that people haven’t already heard? And their argument was, “That’s strategic.” They want to filter out the people who have the sorts of resources to know or to discover that they’re being scammed. If they can find someone who hasn’t heard the Nigerian Prince story, then they know that they’ve already filtered out the people whom they would lose later on.
It seems that much of what’s going on right now is partly that. Also, it’s partly what George Orwell warned about, that the party demands that you not believe your own eyes and ears, and that’s the first and most important command. So, believing things that are outrageously unbelievable then becomes a way to prove one’s loyalty to the tribe.
TM: In your book, The Courage to Stand, you say that standing sometimes requires facing the fear that we might lose our belonging in whatever tribe we find safety. You have opposed President Trump in both 2016 and 2020. In doing so, you have faced opposition that was often harsh and even more than harsh. In a CNN article, it was mentioned that you have even received death threats and that people have investigated you to see if you have leaned liberal. So, can we ask you this question? Why do it? Why put yourself out there and face those kinds of emotional and physical threats?
RM: Because I have a fifteen-year-old son, and I’m worried about the fifteen-year-olds out there who might be in the same situation that I was in in the 1980s of wondering whether Christianity is actually a claim to one’s life or whether Christianity is just a way to articulate one’s political loyalties. I don’t care about who’s up, who’s down—partisan politics—I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in the sorts of divisions and arguments that come with that. What I am worried about is the witness of the church, when the church is identified with a figure to such a degree that the church is willing to reverse, or deemphasize, what we have been saying about character, about a variety of other issues. That’s what has concerned me about this particular moment.
RL: Are there any lessons you have learned or recommendations you would give to people who have a group of friends they talk to, but they’re not sure of what the consequences of speaking up would be. Any wisdom to share for the how-to of speaking up?
RM: Well, I don’t think that there’s a moral obligation for everyone to speak to everything. The reasons that I spoke to the various Trump-related issues really came down to a couple of things. I saw an outside world conflating evangelicalism with loyalty to this figure, a figure whom I rightly or wrongly believed to be an authoritarian demagogue. But regardless of whether I’m right or wrong about that, the identification of evangelical Christianity with the wholesale loyalty to any figure is dangerous. And so, I felt there needed to be a counter-voice, and I really couldn’t have remained quiet about that. This was an illustration of various things that I had been concerned about within the American evangelical church for some time. So, those were some of the reasons why. I don’t think that every person needs to feel a moral obligation to speak to everything.
I would say there are going to be issues in every Christian life that are going to require a willingness to break with one’s tribe in order to be faithful to Christ. So, the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 1 and 2, talking about the Judaizing teachers within the Galatian church, “I did not yield to them for a moment. And why? So that the gospel would be preserved for you.”2
One of the reasons that I think I was so alarmed by the political moment is because I lived right over the state line from Louisiana during the emergence of David Duke, who of course was a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and American Nazi Party member who ran for United States Senate and then for governor. At the time, I would never have believed that evangelical Christians would ever support something like that. But I saw many who did, and who were able to justify it with these “lesser of two evils” sorts of arguments which I reject. But the supporters never stayed at the level of lesser of two evils—they always ended up with hearty approval. And that’s the trajectory that I found, and find, to be dangerous.
TM: What would you say to readers of this interview who are just shaking their heads right now thinking, “I cannot believe David Duke was brought up in the same breath as President Trump, and that we’re being blind to all the challenges we’re going to be facing under a Biden administration, starting with the Equality Act?”
RM: I would say, first of all, that the issue is not whether David Duke is emblematic of any current moment. The problem is the trajectory toward loyalty to things that we have previously morally rejected. That’s where the danger is. David Duke was an extreme example, but the extremity of it was precisely why it was so impressive. I would have thought Nazi Party affiliation would be an automatic disqualifier for anybody. And it turned out not to be.
The arguments that were given often used Christian concepts and weaponizing them for political ends. David Duke at the time said, “I’m born again. I’m a new man.” It was obvious in listening to the dog whistles—and louder than dog whistles—that he was giving, that was not the case. But the Christian language could shield him from questions at the moment.
That’s what I think the larger problem is. I don’t have a problem at all with people who disagree with me on President Trump. I have a great deal more respect, however, for someone who would say that they’re a supporter of President Trump because of some specific set of issues—maybe, as you mentioned, the Equality Act, or maybe judicial appointments—but who are not willing to follow along in those areas that are obviously out of step with their prior moral commitments.
RL: I hear a lot of people talking about our cultural moment as if we’re having a crisis of leadership. We didn’t like Hillary Clinton for President; many people didn’t like Donald Trump for President. Many people felt the same with Biden and Trump. We point our fingers at leadership. I’m suspicious of two things. Number one is that leadership is often appointed by God as a judgment on followership. And secondly, that we aren’t helping each other be good followers. In other words, in a Bible study group, when one person starts to go off on a conspiracy theory and doesn’t get any pushback from his peers sitting beside him. I don’t think we can blame that on bad leadership. That’s just failing to be a faithful disciple, isn’t it?
RM: It is. And I think the reason that people, as you say, allow this to silently go by, is not anything malicious or even cowardly. The reason is that I think many people assume this is temporary; it will evaporate. And there’s a very good biblical instinct toward being patient, not wanting to be confrontational in the wrong way—what Paul described to Timothy as an unhealthy craving for controversy. So, I think some of those instincts are right and good, but the end point that they thought would come isn’t coming.
And I think you’re exactly right about the leader-follower dynamic. A governor called me one time and said, “Why can’t you get these pastors to actually show leadership because all of this craziness is destroying our country and these insane pastors are responsible.” I said, “Well, I hate to tell you this, but despite the maybe cartoonish figures that you’ve seen on TV, the pastors are actually the sane ones. They’re often encountering all sorts of conspiracy theories and conflicts within their congregations that they’re trying to navigate.” He said, “Well, why don’t they have the courage to call this out.” And I said, “Well, they haven’t been training to do this for all of their lives. They anticipated being biblical scholars and perhaps organizational leaders and pastoral counselors, but didn’t anticipate being epistemologists, political scientists, and running snopes.com.” That’s not what anyone signed up for.
Pastors, in my experience anyway, are doing the best that they can against some really challenging circumstances. And many of them are discouraged and believe themselves to be failures when they’re not. And some of that has to do with these dynamics. I can’t tell you how many pastors will tell me that when they look on Facebook and see the sorts of things that their church members are saying to one another, and how they’re saying those things, the pastor concludes, “What have I been doing, has my discipling all been in vain?” That’s the crisis that many leaders are facing right now.
TM: Let’s close with two questions. Readers may be thinking as they look over this theme issue: “Isn’t it too late for winsomeness? When we see the cultural ground that’s being lost, what we need is a strong prophetic voice to speak God’s truth into the culture.” So, here’s my two questions: What do you think they mean when they say we need a “prophetic voice”? And second, what’s your take on it being just too late for winsomeness?
RM: There is a tendency for Christians to unintentionally adopt a kind of theistic social Darwinism and conclude that the way of Jesus is not realistic for times like these. In that sense, they exaggerate the challenges that we are facing in our moment. Jesus was facing an overwhelming Roman empire with a polytheistic cult and sexual hedonism across the Greco-Roman world. He still announced a Kingdom that comes through a cross and through the way of the cross. And so, losing confidence in that, I think means losing confidence in Him. Furthermore, we often identify a prophetic voice as being a theatrically outraged voice, which is not what the prophets were doing.
The primary thing that the prophets proclaim is Jesus—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. There has to be a message to the world that is rooted in the confidence that the Holy Spirit actually is alive. The frantic hostility and perpetual outrage that we see really is a loss of confidence. We actually don’t expect to persuade people and we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to be able to transform people. We simply operate as though our so-called enemies right now will always be our enemies. Well, that’s not the way that the gospel works. Many of the people who are opponents right now are our future brothers and sisters in Christ.
RL: We want to thank you for your time, and we also want to express appreciation for your ministry in this moment. I heard that The Wall Street Journal described you as “vigorous, cheerful and fiercely articulate.” We’d like to echo their praise. Maintaining that kind of a posture as a recognized figure in the public square is a wonderful thing, and not easy to do. We deeply appreciate your efforts!