During the presidential race, Russell Moore, the public face of the Southern Baptist denomination, emerged as one of the most persistent and high-profile conservative critics of Donald Trump. He denounced the Republican candidate’s stance on immigration and his moral character, and sharply questioned many of the evangelical Christians who supported him.
That message has prompted indignation from prominent figures within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with more than 15 million members. And it has put Mr. Moore in a precarious position, as Baptists argue over the political direction of an organization with a global reach and a powerful impact on American life.
Some Baptist pastors are considering cutting funds that flow from their congregations to the Southern Baptist Convention—or to its policy agency, which Mr. Moore heads—in a potentially dramatic rebuke.
In interviews, pastors in multiple states, including leaders of some of the country’s largest congregations, said Mr. Moore’s rhetoric insulted many of the people he was supposed to represent as the Baptists’ chief advocate in Washington, D.C.
“There was a disrespectfulness towards Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders, past and present,” Baptist pastor Jack Graham said of Mr. Moore’s denunciations of Mr. Trump and some of his supporters. “It’s disheartening that this election has created this kind of divisiveness.”
Mr. Graham, the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Texas congregation with more than 40,000 members across two campuses, said his church is “considering making major changes in our support of the Southern Baptist Convention,” as are others.
Mr. Moore addressed the backlash in an essay he wrote that was shared with The Wall Street Journal before its publication. Noting that pastors and friends read his comments as criticizing anyone who voted for Mr. Trump, he said, “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.”
Although Mr. Trump’s candidacy caused friction among conservative Christians, more than 80% of white evangelicals voted for him, according to exit polls.
Frustration with Mr. Moore began long before the election, several pastors said, and is part of a larger struggle over evangelical values and political priorities.
Since his election in 2013 as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Baptists’ public-policy arm, Mr. Moore has sought to remake evangelicals’ approach to hot-button social issues by pulling back from the fiery rhetoric of his predecessors.
A 45-year-old father of five, Mr. Moore holds deeply conservative positions on abortion and marriage and hasn’t wavered on core Baptist beliefs. But he attempted to guide Baptists to adopt a softer tone toward gays and lesbians, and to build alliances with Muslims, Jews and Catholics.
He has come to be viewed as a moderating force for Baptists, much in the way Pope Francis is seen by Roman Catholics.
He also castigated religious conservatives for reflexively supporting the Republican Party, regardless of the candidate.
In an essay published in the January 2017 edition of the religious journal First Things, Mr. Moore said that during the election, “the old-guard religious right political establishment normalized an awful candidate,” adding that religious conservatives were one of the only groups “willing to defend serious moral problems, in high-flying moral terms no less.” The essay was adapted from a lecture he gave during the campaign.
This stance won him some support, especially among younger evangelicals who are becoming more diverse and who appeared to be turned off by the culture wars of their parents’ generation.
“Young Christians like me are craving authentic leadership, people willing to risk access in order to stay true to their goals,” said Ruth Malhotra, a 32-year-old Baptist and lifelong Republican who opposed Mr. Trump. She said Mr. Moore represented that conviction as well as anyone, adding she hoped voices like his “will become the leading voices.”
But Mr. Moore has alienated an array of figures within the Southern Baptist denomination, some of whom are questioning whether he truly lines up with most Baptists’ values. Following the election, William F. Harrell, a former member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, said in a blog post that the ERLC needs to change significantly or be eliminated entirely, adding that he knew of a number of pastors who had considered withholding their donations “until something is done about this entity of ours.”
In an interview, he said the ERLC should continue under Mr. Moore’s leadership only if “he will start doing what the ERLC was meant to do, and that’s simply represent the Southern Baptist people in Washington.”
“Don’t talk condescendingly to the Southern Baptist people if they don’t agree with you,” he said.
Mr. Moore was hardly the only Baptist to oppose Mr. Trump. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also criticized evangelical leaders who defended Mr. Trump. He called Mr. Moore “one of the most brilliant leaders” in his generation.
“I know his heart and his character and his love for the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mr. Mohler said in an email. “I also have confidence in his ability to serve all Southern Baptists as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.”
Yet some pastors fear Mr. Moore’s criticisms of President-elect Trump mean he can’t be an effective advocate within the Trump White House, thereby costing Baptists a chance to capitalize on a victory for the religious right.
“He’s going to have no access, basically, to President Trump,” said Mr. Graham, the Texas pastor.
A representative of Mr. Trump’s team didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal – Ian Lovett