The temperature neared triple digits when thousands of Southern Baptists arrived in Phoenix recently for their annual convention, a fitting desert backdrop for the first denomination-wide gathering of the Trump era.
This summer tradition is purposefully unpredictable. The Southern Baptist Convention is made up of thousands of independent churches from around the country that send leaders known as “messengers” to debate, handle business matters, commission missionaries and worship together. There is an agenda, but attendees are free to address the entire body and propose anything they want. And with the reverberations from the brutal presidential election still playing out, passions this year were high.
“It’s like watching a hockey game,” said the Rev. Gevan Spinney, a Louisiana pastor. “You never know when the fight’s going to break out.”
This is the fluid climate that Russell Moore faced when he arrived in Phoenix after months of intense speculation about his future. Moore is the 45-year-old president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the most public-facing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was also a fervent opponent of Donald Trump in 2016, an anomaly in a denomination that overwhelmingly supported the Republican nominee.
Moore didn’t back Hillary Clinton either, but his critique of Trump was especially pointed. He called him “an arrogant huckster” and directed his Twitter followers to an essay warning that Trump was “what the Founding Fathers warned us about.” Even before Trump’s campaign was rocked by the Access Hollywood tape depicting him bragging in stunningly vulgar terms about sexually assaulting women, Moore compared the GOP nominee’s views of women to that of a “Bronze Age warlord.” His criticism caught Trump’s eye, prompting him to condemn Moore by name on Twitter in May 2016.
“Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for,” Trump wrote. “A nasty guy with no heart!”
Moore kept up his criticism, blasting evangelical leaders who stood by Trump after the Access Hollywood video surfaced, calling their support a “scandal and a disgrace.”
But in the end, Trump won. And he did so with the help of white evangelicals who voted. Moore suddenly found himself alone -- and surrounded.
Like much of the country, many of Moore’s fellow Southern Baptists struggled to move past the bruising, personal rhetoric of the campaign. Some leaders pressed for Moore’s resignation, saying the election proved he was out of step with the majority of Southern Baptists. They were especially angry about his characterization of Christians who stuck with Trump even through the worst periods of the campaign.
More than 100 churches threatened to withhold donations to the fund that supports mission programs, Baptist seminaries and the ERLC, the denomination’s executive committee told The Washington Post. Others left the denomination entirely, according to pastors I interviewed.
“I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he would do some things differently. I don’t think he would change his message, but his method.”
“He really offended a lot of the guys across the convention who were supporting President Trump,” said the Rev. Fred Luter, a pastor and former convention president who supports Moore. “I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he would do some things differently. I don’t think he would change his message, but his method.”
I went to Phoenix to see how this drama combining the nation's largest Protestant denomination with the most rollicking presidential campaign in recent history would play out. I also went because Moore's trials, in a small way, reminded me of someone close to me. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist pastor named Jess Moody, found himself similarly isolated about 50 years earlier as the denomination debated the Vietnam War and struggled with questions about race relations. With the nation in turmoil, his principled opposition to the war and unvarnished chastisement of churches that had failed to integrate won him few friends at the time.
Listen to Jess Moody's 1969 speech to the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference
In studying both instances, I learned that even the deepest splits of our time can ultimately be overcome.
With US offices in Nashville, Tennessee, and Washington, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission serves multiple functions at once. The institution serves as the denomination's think tank, an advocacy arm, a public voice on hot-button issues and as an inward-facing resource for conservative Christians struggling to apply a Biblical worldview to a complex, rapidly changing world.
It is the ERLC president's job to answer the most difficult questions in both the public square and within the faith. As the leader of the group, Moore must be as comfortable speaking about controversial issues to a secular audience on national television as he is preaching to his own people from the pulpit. Topics of expertise range from reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, religious liberty, Christian persecution, racial reconciliation, and, more recently, whether a traditional Christian can support a thrice-married, celebrity real estate mogul who bragged about having sex with married women, once supported abortion rights and insists he doesn't need to ask for God's forgiveness.
Moore made his opposition to Trump clear from the very beginning. He’d actually been warning about someone like him for years. Writing prophetically in his 2014 book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Moore warned that Christians “ought to be the last people to fall for hucksters and demagogues.” He argued against the coziness that old-guard evangelical Christians had nurtured within the Republican Party in the last few decades and chastised believers who celebrated politicians in exchange for access and power.
“Some sectors of religious activism are willing to receive, as Christians, heretics and demagogues, so long as they are with us politically.”
“Some sectors of religious activism are willing to receive, as Christians, heretics and demagogues, so long as they are with us politically,” Moore wrote. “When that happens, we are demonstrating what we believe to be truly important, and we are embracing then a different gospel from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He also rejected the notion that the United States was a nation in covenant with God.
“Our end goal is not a Christian America,” he wrote. “That illusion is over, and happily so.”
This is not to say that Moore rejects or even bends traditional Christian doctrines. He is adamant in his belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. He is uncompromising on core theological principles and does not preach that Christians should change their beliefs on sexual and moral issues, even if it is out of step with the culture as a whole.
But his call to move away from the marriage of convenience between the Church and the Republican Party set him apart. It also made him a target.
“I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them,” Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate who was also a Southern Baptist pastor, fumed to the conservative Townhall Web site in December.
Just before Christmas, Moore issued an apology on his blog.
“I witnessed a handful of Christian political operatives excusing immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel. I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been. But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump,” he wrote. “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.”
In the following months, Moore went on something of a listening tour. A delegation from the Louisiana Baptist Convention, for instance, travelled to Nashville for a private meeting with Moore in January. They brought a portfolio of Moore's writings during the election -- including screenshots of his tweets -- and talked through them one by one, according to the pastors who met with him. In private, the men spent four hours discussing Moore's dismissal of Christian leaders who supported Trump, his defense of religious liberty for Muslim Americans and whether he would still be able to represent Southern Baptists in Washington with Trump in power.
The latter concern intensified when Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony in May announcing an executive order focused on religious liberty and invited a range of religious leaders to take part. Moore was noticeably absent.
“For him not to be invited to such an event is an outrage.”
“That was just crazy. He’s one of the foremost voices in America on religious liberty of all kinds,” said Barry Hankins, a historian at Baylor University who chronicles Baptist history. “For him not to be invited to such an event is an outrage. And it worries the daylights out of the older crowd.”
Moore told me that he and his team talk with administration officials regularly. The Department of Health and Human Services, whose director of faith outreach is a former ERLC staffer, consults with the group on religious liberty issues. They partner with the administration on issues concerning persecuted Christians abroad and are working to expand access for couples looking to adopt overseas.
On Capitol Hill, the organization has a four-person team meeting with lawmakers and staff who routinely consult on pressing legislation. In June, he was pictured speaking with House Speaker Paul Ryan about criminal justice reform. Vice President Mike Pence, whose addition to the GOP ticket last year helped bring many evangelical leaders to Trump's side, also has a longstanding relationship with Moore.
“I don’t have time for any more access than I have. We work with the administration literally every day.”
“I don’t have time for any more access than I have,” Moore told me during a brief interview in Phoenix. “We work with the administration literally every day.”
As winter turned to spring, Moore continued to meet with other concerned pastors and Baptist leaders. In March, after a meeting with SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page, Moore released another statement of apology and hopeful unity.
“I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions,” Moore said. “But I can -- and do -- apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”
The ERLC's executive committee -- the only entity with the power to fire him -- affirmed their support for Moore. Jack Graham, who sits on Trump's evangelical advisory board and is pastor of a Plano, Texas, church that had voted to escrow funds because of the ERLC, praised Moore's “gracious and unifying statement.” Graham's church would later commit to sending money.
“Russell Moore has demonstrated enormous respect and responsiveness to Southern Baptists during the last several months, and I think that’s been extremely well-received,” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me.
This marked a major public step toward Moore's rehabilitation.
In the months after the election, Moore has softened his tone toward Trump. He stopped tweeting much about the President and has been supportive where he can. He appeared chastened when asked about his views on Trump in a May television interview on CNN.
“I am the sort of person who’s always going to tell any politician what I think for good and for ill. ...But in terms of political leadership, we have a president now. So all of us, wherever we stand, need to be praying for the president to succeed,” Moore said. “The people who were critical ought to be hoping they are surprised and the people who are supporting ought to be hoping they’re vindicated.”
By early summer 2017, it appeared that tensions between Moore and his denomination might have simmered. But the Phoenix convention was looming and would give his dissenters a public forum in which to speak out.
Nearly 50 years ago, my grandfather found himself in a very Moore-esque situation. At the 1969 Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, he railed against racial segregation, which was still enforced at some churches.
Questions of race have long dogged the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on which the Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of history. Even well into the twentieth century, the denomination did not take a leadership role in speaking against civil rights abuses and Jim Crow.
“I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath,” Moody said in 1969. “But you listen. It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner. And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next ten years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I for one do not believe that God intended this denomination to be a humorless relic in the museum of tomorrow.”
My grandfather is 91 now. His sermon, which also excoriated fellow Christians who supported the ongoing Vietnam War, was met with faint applause.
The denomination grappled internally over racial issues throughout the twentieth century and finally issued a formal apology for its past racist policies in 1995.
But when Southern Baptists gathered in 2017, they still found themselves scratching at the scars of the past. And, in an interesting twist, Moore was on hand to help confront them.
Before this year's convention, a black pastor from Texas named the Rev. Dwight McKissic submitted a resolution to denounce the alt-right white supremacist movement that gained attention for aligning with Trump. The committee responsible for choosing which resolutions receive a formal vote rejected it. McKissic tried to appeal from the floor during the convention, but was denied. News of the rejected resolution rippled across social media, making it sound like Southern Baptists were afraid to denounce racists. With just a day left in the convention, they had to move fast.
Behind the scenes, Moore moved quickly to right the ship. Raised in southern Mississippi, Moore has been a leading voice among Southern Baptists for racial reconciliation. He speaks and writes about the topic often, and he has been direct when talking to white evangelicals about their racial blind spots. And when Southern Baptists faced this embarrassing showdown, they looked to him to shepherd them through it.
Working closely with the Rev. Steve Gaines, the convention president, Moore and his team worked through the night to craft a resolution that would speak to the concerns of minority congregations, condemn white supremacy and call for grace for those who would repent.
Before the final vote, Moore served as a chief explainer for the rest of the convention, many of whom did not initially understand what was at stake. On the convention floor, he rose to speak in support of the resolution, not as the president of the ERLC, but as a messenger from his home church. He did not mince words.
“This resolution has a number on it. It’s Resolution Number 10. The white supremacy it opposes also has a number on it. It’s 666,” he said, referring to the biblical number representing the devil. “When we stand together as a convention and speak clearly, we are saying that white supremacy and racist ideologies are dangerous because they oppress our brothers and sisters in Christ. They oppress those who are made in the vision of God. They oppress our mission field. Even above and beyond that, unrepentant racism is not just wrong, unrepentant racism sends unrepentant racists to Hell.”
Initially rejected, the resolution went on to pass nearly unanimously among the thousands present.
Thanks Dr. Russell Moore for your leadership. Without you, it would not have happened!— Dwight McKissic (@pastordmack) June 15, 2017
“Thanks Dr. Russell Moore for your leadership,” McKissic tweeted. “Without you, it would not have happened!”
Over the two-day convention, just one pastor stood up to publicly call for Moore's ouster, a motion that was quickly dismissed. Another questioned whether Moore was actually a Christian, an inquiry that was met with loud groans. Moore, of course, responded in the affirmative and happily provided his testimony of faith.
For many, Moore's swift action on the alt-right issue helped prove his worth. While Moore still has his critics, the convention all but settled the question of whether he would remain the Southern Baptist's ambassador to the outside world.
“We’re a people of grace,” said Spinney, the Louisiana pastor who had confronted Moore in Nashville earlier in the year. “We like to get it. We’ve got to give it, too.”
Video by Alexander Rosen. Illustration by Josh Cochran. Produced by CNN Digital Labs.