Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas and columnist for The Baptist Standard, the news service affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Raabe recently wrote an opinion column entitled "Voices: What's at stake for the SBC in backlash against Russell Moore?" arguing that it is a mistake for Southern Baptists to either silence or dismiss the views of the president of the Ethics and Religious Life Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore.
It would be naive to claim all of Moore's political beliefs align perfectly with those of Southern Baptists at large. Speaking strictly in terms of politics, but not theology, Moore has been a consistent moderating voice in a convention that recently has been extremely conservative. However, silencing or dismissing Moore would be a grave mistake for Southern Baptists.
Raabe cites the recent action of the Louisiana Baptist Convention to "study the recent actions of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission with regard to issues of concern to Louisiana Baptists" as part of the public backlash against Russell Moore. He claims a negative editorial against Russell Moore written by Louisiana's Baptist Messenger editor, Will Hall, is mainly responsible for Louisiana's action, along with a blog post by William F. "Bill" Harrell published on the SBC Today website.
Raabe interprets the backlash against Moore fundamentally as defying "Baptists' oldest legacy," the legacy of dissent he rightly insists remains "a hallmark of Baptist history and identity." Raabe rhetorically asks, "Should John Smyth and Thomas Helwys have stepped down from their congregations because the majority of Christians in England in the 17th century believed in infant Baptism?" To that question, I wholeheartedly agree with Raabe's presumable answer. Not on your life.
The problem with citing Smyth and Helwys' resistance toward infant baptism in the state church is that it illustrates the opposite of what Raabe intends. In standing against infant baptism, Smyth and Helwys were accurately reflecting and therefore fully representing the Baptist movement in their dissent against the culture and the state church. Louisiana Baptists, on the other hand, were questioning in their action whether Moore's views either reflect or represent their interests as Louisiana Baptists and/or, at least by implication, Southern Baptists. Indeed, the editorial Will Hall wrote asked that very question: "Does the ERLC represent the SBC?"
Of course, we believe in dissent. Of course, we believe Russell Moore has every right as a Baptist to stand his ground on his own convictions and speak to issues he cares deeply about. I applaud him in it, and will stand toe to toe against anyone who would deny him that fundamental right.
But whether Russell Moore has a right to personally dissent is not at stake in what Raabe interprets as a "backlash" against him. Instead the issue here is whether Russell Moore fairly represents and reflects the views and actions of the Southern Baptist Convention to whom he is accountable. In the words of the ERLC statement itself, the ERLC exists to "Represent Southern Baptists in communicating the ethical positions of the Southern Baptist Convention to the public and to public officials."
The fact is, as a representative of Southern Baptists, Russell Moore has no more right to dissent from the views, actions, and positions of the Southern Baptist Convention than Smyth or Helwys had a right to represent the Baptist movement by dissenting to the position of infant baptism in the Church of England. By dissenting they would have forfeited their position in speaking for Baptists. Why then should Russell Moore not forfeit his position in speaking for Southern Baptists when he takes positions either contrary to or not representative of many, if not most, within the Southern Baptist Convention?
What is more, to assume the approach Raabe seems to be suggesting—that is, Dr. Moore should not be silenced or dismissed for views he presents in the public square that are not in line with Southern Baptists at large—is to set up a scenario where the public spokesman for Southern Baptists could embrace most any view no matter how contrary it might be to the churches he represents. Consequently, what accountability would Moore have to the constituents he's hired to represent?
For example, what if Moore began to take a view more in line with the trendy Socialism of Bernie Sanders? What if Moore moderates his views on abortion so that it no longer fits into the mainstream Pro-life position? What if Moore decides he's more in line with evolutionary science than Intelligent Design or creation science? What if Moore finally succumbs to the LGBT agenda? There's no evidence he'll do any of these, of course. However, to take Raabe's position that a representative spokesman of the Southern Baptist Convention should have the fundamental Baptist right of dissenting from the views of the convention he's supposed to publicly reflect implies Southern Baptists should accept it because that's who we are. That's what's implied in the way Raabe seems to interpret Baptists' oldest legacy.
In short, according to the way I understand Raabe, we're stuck paying the enormous salary of an individual to represent us in the public square even though he may not reflect us accurately all because that's the "hallmark of Baptist history and identity." For me, this makes exactly zero sense. Nor is it how Baptist dissent has teased itself out in Baptist life.
Raabe goes on to inquire whether church members should withhold offerings if something the pastor says strikes them as wrong.
Should we withhold tithes and offerings from our church if we disagree with something the pastor preaches? To do so ultimately assumes we as individuals never need correction or alternative viewpoints, a sentiment that is prideful and has no place in the Christian life. To dismiss Moore because his political viewpoints differ with a large number of Southern Baptists is to assume those members of the convention are without need of correction or challenge, a spiritually dangerous claim to make.
In response, comparing what goes on in a local church to what ought to go on at the convention level simply does not follow. No, we should not withhold tithes and offerings if we disagree with something the pastor preaches for the simple reason the pastor is charged to "preach the Word" regardless of its agreement with every person's view in the pew. Tithes and offerings in a local church support the church's entire ministry whether the church even has a pastor at the time the offering is collected.
Even so, Russell Moore is not the convention's pastor nor is the convention in any sense a church. Russell Moore is an employee of an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention and is paid to represent us in the town square. Nor is it Moore's job to "correct" the convention. He might advise the convention. He could even instruct the convention through many venues including printed and digital resources.
But Russell Moore has absolutely no mandate as president of the ERLC to either correct the convention's views, positions, or actions; nor does he have the delegated authority to publicly criticize the Southern Baptist Convention for views, positions, or actions they might take; nor does Moore have the right to publicly present his personal view if his personal view collides with the convention's views, positions, and/or actions. Moore is not president of the ERLC to present his views, promote his agenda, or propagate his cause.
Rather Moore is president of the ERLC to reflect the views, positions, and actions of the convention. If he cannot do so, but insists on reflecting his personal views in the public square rather than the views of those whom he represents, it seems to me integrity demands Russell Moore find an organization the views, positions, and actions of which do not seriously collide with his own.
Finally, Raabe calls on those who question whether Moore represents the views of Southern Baptists to find a theological issue with Moore rather than a purely political one:
The opposition to him isn't about theology or doctrine: it's purely political and, specifically, about his opposition to Donald Trump. Claiming Moore doesn't represent the SBC is claiming voting for a Republican candidate in every instance is a fundamental aspect of faith for the SBC. Additionally, it would place distance between the SBC and the large number of SBC church members who also did not support Trump's presidency.
In response, few, if any, issues in the public square remain purely political—at least for Russell Moore. He acknowledges as much in his oft-repeated "Gospel and" approach to virtually every issue we might consider. The Gospel and Same Sex Marriage; The Gospel and Religious Liberty; The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation; "Patriotism and the gospel"; "The Gospel and Pop Culture"; "the Gospel and politics"; "interracial marriage and the Gospel"; "The Gospel and Children's Sexuality; "The Gospel and Human Sexuality." One could easily go on. But enough evidence is linked to demonstrate that so far as Russell Moore is concerned, few issues could be characterized as purely political.
But even if there are positions, views, and/or actions that may be characterized as purely political, Russell Moore has a mandate from Southern Baptists as the president of the ERLC to accurately reflect and fairly represent the convention's views not his own. If he can't do so, integrity demands he step aside and let somebody who can represent Southern Baptists in the public square.
Nor is it the case that whatever public backlash Russell Moore received from either the Louisiana Baptist Convention or individual critics like Bill Harrell was "specifically, about his opposition to Donald Trump." We agree that Russell Moore made no effort to conceal his opposition to Trump for president. And we also concede that we believe Moore should have been both equitable in his criticisms of the Democratic and Republican nominees (he was not) and more cautious in getting into personal squabbles on social media with any of the presidential candidates. More effort could have been made by the ERLC in informing Southern Baptists about the platforms and policies of each presidential candidate were he or she to be elected.
Again, Moore could have counselled and informed evangelical voters about the potential political consequences of a White House administration each candidate might bring instead of a repeated string of morally repugnant slurs primarily aimed at one of the candidates who is now the President-elect.
He did not.
However, it's still not necessarily the case that the backlash against Russell Moore is "specifically, about his opposition to Donald Trump" as Raabe claims. Rather much, if not most, of the backlash against Russell Moore comes from Southern Baptists who reluctantly but confidently concluded that, given the only viable choices for president available, a Donald Trump administration would be better for our country, our culture, our churches, our unborn, our borders, our liberties, our courts, our protection, and our military among any number of other considerations in deciding a president.
And for all this, Russell Moore carried on a personal public crusade against evangelical voters for Trump, many of whom—arguably most of whom—were Southern Baptists. He chided us; insulted us; ridiculed us with inflammatory rhetoric suggesting we've given up everything we've ever believed by voting Trump; that we'd lost our moral core; that we were hypocrites by criticizing Bill Clinton for his womanizing but not Trump for his womanizing; that we were dismissing grave moral errors in Trump's life solely for political purposes; that we were embracing moral relativism. All of these ridiculous charges among many others were repeatedly hurled at Trump voters.
At one point, Moore even denied the descriptor "evangelical" in protest of the large majority of evangelicals on whom his constant condemnation did not work. Consider: assuming Southern Baptists are evangelicals, why should a man represent us and our interests who claims he's no longer an evangelical? A man who publicly declares the descriptor "evangelical" no longer applies to him?
Russell Moore was undeniably a complete failure in representing and reflecting the interests of the Southern Baptist Convention during the entire 2015-16 primary and presidential elections, and the Louisiana Baptist Convention and others like Will Hall and William F. "Bill Harrell have every right to question the allegiance of the ERLC toward the interests of all Southern Baptists
Russell Moore works for and is paid by the Southern Baptist Convention. If he represents and fairly reflects the issues, positions, and actions of the convention in the public square there will be little to criticize. But he has absolutely no mandate to correct us, chide us, insult us, and certainly not to condemn us.
Raabe indicates that if Moore had been congenial toward Trump, "it would place distance between the SBC and the large number of SBC church members who also did not support Trump's presidency." That may be so. But in his public condemnation of both Trump and Trump voters, did not Moore also place distance between the SBC and the large number of SBC church members who supported Trump's presidency?
And, by condemning Southern Baptists who voted for Trump, Moore put distance between himself and the Southern Baptist Convention to whom he is accountable in reflecting and representing their views, positions, and actions.