Theologian Russell Moore on Christian Nationalism
David Remnick: Russell Moore is a leading thinker in the evangelical Christian movement. Until recently, he held a key position in the Southern Baptist Convention. Reverend Moore left the SBC last year after taking a firm stance opposing racism in the church and criticizing its response to sexual abuse allegations. Now, although he's not a progressive or a liberal in our understanding, Moore has repeatedly denounced the politics of Christian nationalism which we were speaking about earlier in this program.
In one of his recent editorials, he referred to Christian nationalism as liberation theology for white people. Russell Moore is the editor of Christianity Today. I'd like to really begin by asking you about the church that you grew up in in Mississippi, Woolmarket Baptist Church. Tell us a little bit about that church that you were raised in.
Reverend Russell Moore: That church was the center of my identity because I was there all the time. It was the rhythm of the week. It was the rhythm of the year. It was a really strong community. I was able to see the best of what Christian community actually can be, along with some of the darker things that I saw as well. Part of that was I had a grandmother who was the widow of my grandfather who had been pastor of the church before I was born.
She would make sure that I was there constantly, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, but we would never go on the first Wednesday of every month which was congregational business meeting. I just assumed you just didn't go to that. It wasn't until I was grown that I said, "Why did we never go for a business meeting?" She said, "I didn't want you to see that. I wanted you to be a Christian." She protected me from some of the wilder aspects.
David Remnick: You mentioned the darker side of things. What do you mean?
Reverend Russell Moore: I had a spiritual crisis as a 15-year-old not because of my church but because of the Bible Belt generally, looking around and seeing some high-profile TV evangelists scandals that were going on. It was more this sense of seeing the way that religion could be used in order to fleece people along with persistent racism. I couldn't understand how the Bible Belt Christianity couldn't recognize something that is very explicit throughout the New Testament and then to see the way that politics was using the religion.
I started wondering, "Is this all just a means to an end? Is this all just politics or just racism or whatever, some form of social control?" Then you add to it, of course, there was a great deal of Bible prophecy speculation at the time, for instance, we're right on the brink of the Second Coming which is similar in many ways to the things that we're seeing now with QAnon and other conspiracy theories. They're really a secularized version of the worst forms of that.
David Remnick: Why did you pursue a life in the church rather than going in another direction?
Reverend Russell Moore: Well, because I became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact raised from the dead and did establish a church. The other thing is, being as familiar with the Bible as I was, it was hard to have the idealized picture of the church that could lead to existential disappointment, so the New Testament--
David Remnick: Did you know it's a tough bargain? In other words, it seems that you knew that you were headed for a life of opposition and difficulty.
Reverend Russell Moore: I don't know that I knew that. I think my father knew that. My father was a pastor's kid. When I told him later on that I thought I was being called into ministry, he was not happy. He said, "I'll support you. I'll never bring it up again," and he didn't, but he said, "I wish you wouldn't do it."
David Remnick: Because he thought what was going to happen?
Reverend Russell Moore: He had seen his own father-- Growing up in a parsonage right next door to a church, he had seen the backroom politics and those sorts of things up close. He didn't want to see that happen to me.
David Remnick: Evangelical Christians, as we know, have been active in politics for a long time. How have things changed since the era you grew up in with Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson, the Moral Majority, and so on? How have things shifted to where we are today?
Reverend Russell Moore: In one sense, if you just think about the language of Moral Majority, there was a sense in the 1980s and the 1990s that evangelical Christianity, if not theologically then certainly morally, really represented the country. Things that were going on in the country that were seen to be a moral decline were being imposed on the country. That's not where most people were, and so the way that you countered that was by mobilizing regular Americans, real Americans. I think what's happened since then is, right now, there's a contradictory set of impulses that will retain some of that.
We are the real America and elites are the problem, those who are in power culturally, politically in the country, and this sense of being a beleaguered minority. There's an existential threat coming, so you put both of those things together. One is the real America that the nation's a Christian nation, most people are people who agree with you, and yet, you are attacked and marginalized. That then becomes this sense of it's a unique form of threat that's experienced by some.
David Remnick: You wrote something very interesting. Before you left the Southern Baptist Convention, you wrote an internal memo which was eventually leaked. You referred to what you called the perennial temptation toward political captivity of the gospel. What were you thinking? What does that mean?
Reverend Russell Moore: I think that there are always going to be opportunists or strong men who are going to want to take religion and use it to make whatever position they have seem transcendent. I think that's as old as Pharaoh with the Egyptian gods. It's what we see now with European blood and soil ethnonationalist movements wanting to use Christianity which what they mean by Christianity is being French or being German or being Dutch and not being whatever the outsider is deemed to be. You see it in the United States of America.
David Remnick: We hear a lot about Christian nationalism now. In your view, what is Christian nationalism and does it bear any resemblance to what we used to call evangelical politics in the period that you were growing up in the '80s and '90s?
Reverend Russell Moore: No, this is a different thing and that's one of the problems with-- There are secular people who really see every engagement by evangelical Christians in the civic arena as being theocracy and so forth. They're often not able to tell the difference between that and genuine theocracy or genuine Christian nationalism. What Christian nationalism is in my view is the use of Christian doctrines or symbols for the maintenance of an ethnic or a national identity.
David Remnick: It's anti-democratic by nature, isn't it?
Reverend Russell Moore: It's anti-democratic by nature, yes.
David Remnick: Racism, I'm afraid, seems to be a deep component of this. You've been very clear in your view that racism is a sin, it violates your faith, and you feel a duty to fight it, but many in the Southern Baptist Convention and at many other churches apparently don't share your view. Tell me about that.
Reverend Russell Moore: There are very few people who will say I'm for racism, I'm against racial harmony, but they're defining it not just personally, they're defining it emotively. I'm not for people actively hating each other because of the color of their skin. When you start talking about, though, the actual implications of that, then that becomes often labeled as Marxism or a critical race theory or something along those lines.
There are many of us who would be facing, often, charges of critical race theory who are as far away from any sort of critical theory as possible. That sin and injustice, it's not just a problem for the people it hurts. It also is a problem for the people who are captive to it. Standing against racism is, in my view, not only good for the people racists oppress but for the racists themselves. This is no way to live.
David Remnick: This year, an independent investigation of sexual abuse in the church outlined how leadership refused to address very extensive allegations of sexual abuse. How has this affected Southern Baptist churches?
Reverend Russell Moore: I think there were some of us and I would be one of them surprised by how that played out because I would have predicted that there would be some apathy. The kind of apathy I typically would find would be from people who would say, that's a horrible thing, but it doesn't happen with us. That's something that happens in the Roman Catholic Church or somewhere else, but it can't happen with us, or even the people who would say it could happen somewhere but it couldn't happen in my church because we know each other and we trust each other.
When the independent third-party report came out, I was expecting having dealt with this for so long and been stonewalled and everything else with this, I expected that I would be the least surprised person in the world by what the report detailed. I was mouth open shocked by how bad it was.
David Remnick: Now, Reverend, you've written about how men and women have different roles, different responsibilities in society, and that belief is known as complementarianism. Do you think that these traditional gender roles may have enabled some of the predatory behavior by men in power in the church?
Reverend Russell Moore: I think so. The scripture speaks of men and women mostly in terms of how we are the same as human beings. There are references to our differences, but when there's an exaggeration of the distinction then that can be used in all sorts of twisted ways. I think that was the case simply because of how few women were in the room where decisions were being made.
David Remnick: It's a systemic problem, that sexual abuse grows out of a systemic problem is what you're saying?
Reverend Russell Moore: Yes.
David Remnick: It's not just the failing of some targeted individuals?
Reverend Russell Moore: No, it's not just a failing of some individuals. It comes with both this sense of the less-than status of women or of the vulnerable and then you add to it institutional self-protection. That then becomes a system that's very, very difficult to overcome.
David Remnick: Forgive me, but in your case, it makes me wonder why you don't, considering what you've been saying, drift toward a more, for want of a better word, liberal church.
Reverend Russell Moore: Because I'm not a liberal. [laughs] I actually believe what the Bible teaches. I actually believe the historic Christian faith. I was on a campus, a very secular campus last year, and an atheist student was asking me theological questions. At the end of it, he said, "Wait a minute, you're a real deal Bible-thumping, hellfire and brimstone sort of fundamentalist." I said, "Yes, I feel very seen. That's exactly what I am."
David Remnick: An enormous way today is put by conservatives on culture, war issues, gay marriage, medical treatment for trans kids, all kinds of things. It is said that these are symptoms of a vast moral crisis brought on by the left. You agree with that?
Reverend Russell Moore: I think that there are things that are symptoms of a moral crisis. I'm not sure that they're brought on only by the left. I think that moral depravity is not sorted by political constituency but is present in every person, in all people. I'm not sure how to assign blame for that. I do think there are things that are moral crises, and I do think that there are ways that Christians and others need to be speaking into those things. I think that, often, what happens is that there is a reordering of priorities where the theology becomes the second step from the politics rather than the politics being an implication of the theology. That's where I think things become very dangerous. Christianity becomes the tool that you use to get to them then it becomes something other than Christianity.
David Remnick: Reverend Moore, I can't help but ask, when you go speak on a secular campus or when you talk with public radio or secular press or The New Yorker magazine or what have you, do you feel as if you are being, as you said, seen before or heard properly, understood?
Reverend Russell Moore: I do think that there's a segment of secular America that doesn't understand what it is to be motivated religiously and who then thinks merely in cultural-political terms. I told a journalist one time, "You seem to think that evangelicals are just like cicadas that go into dormancy between Iowa caucuses. It's much more complicated than that." I think it's sometimes hard for some secular people to see that. I think it's also hard for some of my own religious people to see how they can secularize in ways that aren't in PR mimosa-drinking Sunday brunches but can be a very secularized form of Christian nationalism. You have to come in and say you've actually secularized.
David Remnick: How would Jesus Christ, in your view, have reacted to American Christian nationalism?
Reverend Russell Moore: I think it would be very dangerous to put words in Jesus's mouth there without actually becoming what I'm trying to oppose here. What I would say is you have Jesus who always refused to have His gospel used as a means to an end because he had and has a much bigger view of what's important and what the gospel actually is. People who settle for Christianity or any other religion as politics are really making a pitiful deal and settling for far too little.
David Remnick: Reverend Moore, thank you so much.
Reverend Russell Moore: Thanks for having me.
David Remnick: Russell Moore is the editor of Christianity Today.
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