from The Atlantic / by Emma Green
Beth Moore grew her flock by teaching scripture to women—and being deferential to men. Now her outspokenness on sexism could cost her everything.
When Beth Moore arrived in Houston in the 1980s, she found few models for young women who wanted to teach scripture. Many conservative Christian denominations believed that women should not hold authority over men, whether in church or at home; many denominations still believe this. In some congregations, women could not speak from the lectern on a Sunday or even read the Bible in front of men. But Moore was resolute: God, she felt, had called her to serve. So she went where many women in Texas were going in the ’80s: aerobics class. Moore kicked her way into ministry, choreographing routines to contemporary Christian music for the women of Houston’s First Baptist Church.
At the time, most Texas seminaries weren’t offering the kind of instruction she sought, so Moore found a private tutor. Slowly, she started getting invitations to speak at women’s luncheons and study groups, in exchange for a plate of food or a potted plant. In tiny church social halls, she laid the cornerstone of an evangelical empire.
Moore’s audience seemed to be starved for a teacher who understood their lives. To them, she was a revelation: a petite bottle blonde from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, who could talk seriously about Jesus one moment and the impossibility of finding decent child care the next. As charismatic as her male peers, she was also earnest and charmingly self-deprecating. Friends call her Beth La Ham.
In one of her most famous talks, Moore describes an encounter with a haggard, elderly man in an airport terminal. Suddenly, she feels called by God to brush the man’s hair—not to bear witness to him, or even help him board his plane, but to smooth his tangled locks. Moore describes her embarrassment, recounting her inner dialogue with God, in which she tries to talk her way out of the divine directive. Ultimately, however, she obeys. What began as a comic set piece ends as a moving testament to faith and the power of intimate acts of kindness. The Lord knows what our need is, Moore says. “The man didn’t need witnessing to. He needed his hair brushed!”
By the late ’90s, women were packing sports arenas to hear Moore tell this and other parables. She earned speaking slots at big-name churches, including Hillsong and Saddleback, whose pastor, Rick Warren, calls her a dear friend. “She’s a singularly influential figure among evangelicals as a woman leader,” Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, the elite evangelical school outside of Chicago, told me. “Beth just is a category by herself.”
A publishing career followed, further magnifying Moore’s influence. She was the first woman to have a Bible study published by LifeWay, the Christian retail giant, and has since reached 22 million women, the most among its female authors. Today, her Bible studies are ubiquitous, guiding readers through scriptural passages with group-discussion questions and fill-in-the-blank workbooks. “It would be hard to find a church anywhere where at least some segment of the congregation has not been through at least one Beth Moore study,” Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (and no relation to Beth) told me.
Moore’s success was possible because she spent her career carefully mapping the boundaries of acceptability for female evangelical leaders. She rarely spoke to the press and made a point of keeping her politics to herself. Her persona embodies what a young fan described to me as the “Southern-belle white Christian woman.”
Privately, however, Moore has never cared much for the delicate norms of Christian femininity. Her days are tightly scheduled and obsessively focused on writing. She spends hours alone in an office decorated with a Bible verse written in a swirling font (“I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven,” Luke 7:47). Though she often performs domestic femininity for her audience, in her own life she has balanced motherhood with demanding professional ambitions. She traveled every other weekend while her two daughters were growing up—they told me they ate a lot of takeout. Like other Southern Baptists, Moore considers herself a complementarian: She believes the Bible teaches that men and women have distinctive roles and that men should hold positions of authority and leadership over women in the home and in the church. Yet her husband, Keith, a retired plumber, sees his vocation as helping his wife succeed. “That’s what I do,” he told me. “I lay blocks so O.J. can run.”
For decades, Moore never broke stride. In the past few years, however, she has felt out of step with the evangelical community. During the 2016 campaign, many of its leaders not only excused Donald Trump’s boorish behavior but painted him as a great defender of Christianity—evangelicals’ “dream president,” in the words of Jerry Falwell Jr. More recently, a series of high-profile pastors have been toppled by accusations of sexual misconduct. The deferential reserve that defined Moore’s career has become harder for her to maintain.
On a chilly Texas evening recently, Moore and I sat in rocking chairs on her porch. It was the first time she had invited a reporter to visit her home, on the outskirts of Houston. Moore, who is 61, was the consummate hostess, fussing about feeding me and making sure I was warm enough beside the mesquite-wood fire. But as we settled into conversation, her demeanor changed. She fixed her perfectly mascaraed eyes on me. “The old way is over,” she said. “The stakes are too high now.”
SOURCE: The Atlantic