Yesterday, the President of the Ethics and Religious Leadership Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Russell Moore, wrote a blog post in which he offered an apology of sorts for criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump:
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. 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.
While Moore maintained that his criticism of Trump was and is valid and right (and I agree with his criticisms), he never intended to criticize those who planned on voting for him.
This post—written as an olive branch to evangelicals and Southern Baptists who voted for Trump—gives advice on how the Christian family can get along after the heated disagreement over the past election. He clearly wrote this in response to the growing backlash against his leadership. Those who supported Trump (i.e. Jerry Fallwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress) have threatened to eliminate their giving to the Cooperative Program (the fund that effectively makes a church belong to the SBC) because they do not believe Moore represents the views of Southern Baptists. Statistics on who Southern Baptists voted for seem to suggest they are correct.
As a response to the criticism, Moore received an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hash tag #IStandWithMoore.
Since I am not a Southern Baptist and I didn’t vote for Trump (I am concerned about him and his policies), I don’t have a dog in this fight. Moore doesn’t represent me, though I do often agree with him on many things and generally appreciate his voice in the public square. Because Moore is a prominent Christian voice in the public square and because the response to Moore on both sides has clouded the real issues involved, I want to make four brief observations that I think are being overlooked.
First, Moore’s post yesterday suggests he believes voting for Donald Trump was allowable for Christians if a person’s conscience bound them to that decision while holding their nose because no other good option existed. In other words, voting for Donald Trump was morally allowable for Christians. Whether you agree or disagree, Moore seems to be changing his position. In a New York Times Op-Ed where he opposed Trump, he famously pondered “whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus.” And earlier in the campaign, Moore said that evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump for president, and “to back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” [Update: See also this and this]. What Moore said in the past and what he is saying now seems contradictory.
Second, Moore didn’t really apologize. [UPDATE 3/20/2017: Moore has now given an actual apology here.] It’s a classic “non-apology.” He said “if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.” The blame is on those who heard him say something he now says he was not ever saying. In other words, his arguments during the campaign were always at Donald Trump and not toward his Christian supporters. His “apology” didn’t acknowledge this sort of misunderstanding to be his fault. He didn’t say, “I am sorry that I wasn’t clear. That miscommunication was on me.”
Third, while Moore has received an outpouring of support on Twitter and in the press today, one cannot help but notice his supporters come primarily and overwhelming from those outside the SBC (See Jonathan Merritt’s article today, for instance). Those within the SBC that support him are relatively small compared to the denomination as a whole. For the last 5-8 years, Southern Baptists have been wrestling with an increasing theological divide between the younger and older generations. While both sides insist they can work together and remain united despite their theological differences, Moore’s polarizing leadership of the ERLC and the backlash could be the first step toward an unraveling of that union as the old guard seeks to replace denominational leaders and seminary presidents with those who align with the views of the vast majority of Southern Baptists. While most seem to lament this possible division and insist they oppose it, I see no reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing. If done with humility and peace, the two groups could break into different associations that partner in some Great Commission ventures and not others. This would allow churches aligning with the old guard and new guard, respectively, to plant churches and fund missionaries more aligned with their convictions. However, both sides seem to reject this option, and it seems to me that the reason for this boils down to their mutual desire to control all of the resources and institutions connected to the SBC. In other words, both sides fear losing the institutional power that currently belongs to the united denomination.
Finally, despite the traditional emphasis of the importance of the individual conscience in Baptist tradition, Southern Baptists continue to show a remarkable inability to handle matters of conscience. A matter of conscience refers to a moral question where there is no clear biblical command or where one cannot be inferred by good and necessary consequence. Issues such as what movies to watch, alcohol consumption, and voting are all matters of conscience, and yet Southern Baptists have for a long time tried to lay down requirements on all Christians on these matters. Both Moore and his critics have erred here.
A few months ago, I wrote:
In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes Christians are making in this election season involves dismissing, insulting, and questioning the Christian identity of those who support the other candidate. This is especially true when we seek to signal to others our virtue by expressing how appalled and outraged we are that any Christian would vote for the other person. This is happening on the conservative right (i.e. Eric Metaxas), the #NeverTrump middle (i.e. Russell Moore), and the progressive left (i.e Rachel Held Evans). This is a mistake because there are dozens of pragmatic judgments about the political process, the political system, the culture, and the leaders themselves that one must make, few of which can be clearly demonstrated from Scripture. That doesn’t mean we cannot support a candidate and seek to persuade others, but it should mean we cannot be certain we have the corner on the true Christian vote.
Leading up to the election, Christians of all varieties were casting each other out of the kingdom left and right over the election. In doing so, we actually parrot or participate in the polarizing rhetoric and behavior of the culture around us rather than pointing to and embodying an alternative kingdom reality in how we handle our disagreements. We wrongly divide the body of Christ. That was true then, and it will continue to be true going forward. There may come a time when we must oppose a political figure as a moral imperative, but it’s not at all clear we must do that now. If we continue to speak this way, we won’t be heard if that time comes.