By Will Hall
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (LBM)—Trustees and the embattled president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission issued separate comments in a joint “Seeking Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention” statement published by Baptist Press, March 20.
The combined official release, meant to sooth “tensions in our denomination over the state of American politics and the role of religion,” comes about three months after Moore issued an online article, “Election year thoughts at Christmastime,” to address criticisms; and, follows by about a month the actions taken by the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to form two committees — one from members of the Cooperative Program committee and the other composed of the trustee officers — to study actions by national entities that are causing churches to withhold support for national causes.
In the December statement issued just by Moore, he urged “after a divisive election” that readers “try to see where there are misunderstandings,” and he confessed to “one situation” when he was “pointed in my criticisms,” and described the target of his harsh words “a handful of political operatives” and apologized to “pastors and friends” who thought he was “criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump.”
“[I]f that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my question, and I apologize,” he wrote.
In the recent joint statement, ERLC trustee officers cited the “challenging political” cycle and Southern Baptists’ disagreement with Moore’s “delivery, tactics and approach” for the denominational rift which has made national headlines. They described his leadership “in this difficult context” alternately as bold and prophetic, and, saying they had encouraged him to engage in “private efforts” at reconciliation “rather than public comments,” they endorsed his leadership of the ERLC.
“He will continue to do so with the confidence of our support,” they ended.
Moore, for his part, said he was not “intending to talk about Southern Baptists” but was meaning to target “most often prosperity gospel teachers.” He did not explain whether these were the “political operatives” he previously identified or in addition to them.
Blaming himself for not separating out “categories of people well” in his personal and political attacks, he confessed “I wounded some, including close friends.” He also said he regretted his “contextless or unhelpful posts on social media,” but that he could not “go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions.”
“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,” he wrote.
WHAT CAUSED THE FLAP?
While Moore’s apology was published in Baptist Press, and also made in private with individuals, his harsh criticisms were printed as scathing editorials in such media as The Washington Post and The New York Times, and subsequently were propagated in many other outlets.
Also, while he has apologized for those times when he appeared to target a group of leaders he assures did not include Southern Baptists, some of his most vitriolic condemnations were pointed to Christians at large – if they supported then-candidate Donald Trump:
— In a September 2015 editorial, “Have evangelicals who support Trump lost their values?” printed in The New York Times, Moore called evangelicals’ support for Trump “illogical” and declared “these voters must repudiate everything they believe.”
— In a January 2016 article in Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that covers politics in the nation’s capital, Moore declared his disdain for Trump’s (and ostensibly Cruz’s) evangelical supporters, saying, “Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.”
— In a February 2016 opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Moore said “this election makes me hate the word ‘evangelical,’” asserting that self-identified evangelicals (by implication Trump supporters) “may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.” He also asked people to stop referring to him as an “evangelical.”
— He even declared the Bible Belt (a map marked in Southern Baptist red) as populated by “almost Christianity” a kind of “God-and-Country civil religion that prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity.”
SBC LEADERS RESPOND
SBC President Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis, Tenn. area, responded to the most recent ERLC press release, telling Baptist Press he was “grateful for the statement from Dr. Russell Moore and the ERLC executive committee.”
In written comments, he said the ERLC is assigned with “a very difficult task. Indeed it is impossible to please everyone regarding issues of conviction and conscience.
“I know Dr. Moore to be a very godly servant of Jesus Christ. He has preached at Bellevue Baptist Church and he did a wonderful job,” he added.
“Regarding his work at the ERLC, I have agreed with most of his statements, especially those regarding the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of heterosexual, monogamous marriage and religious liberty,” Gaines continued. “However, I have disagreed with some of the statements he made during the election and I especially disagreed with the tone with which he made some of those statements. I have discussed all of this privately with him. He has genuinely apologized for his mistakes and that is good enough for me.”
In response to the “Seeking Unity” statement, former SBC President Jack Graham tweeted, “This is a gracious and unifying statement from @drmoore.”
Graham is pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, which announced in February it had escrowed money budgeted for the Cooperative Program, specifically because of concerns with the direction of the SBC, including “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.”
David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told the Baptist Message, “I commend Dr. Moore for confessing his failings that led to the serious breach of fellowship among Southern Baptists.
“I trust we will see improved relationships with Dr. Moore marked by respect for rank and file Southern Baptists and a willingness to hear their opinions on matters of moral and social concern,” he said.
Louisiana Baptists were among the first groups to formally raise questions relating to the developing spate of controversies entangling SBC entities.
A motion asking the LBC Executive Board to “study the recent actions of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission with regard to issues of concern to Louisiana Baptists” was referred to the LBC Executive Board with a near-unanimous raise of ballots by messengers at their annual meeting in November 2016.
Only one of the two panels formed by SBC Executive Committee members has announced any details about its intentions.
Baptist Press published March 6 that the ad hoc panel formed by the Cooperative Program committee would calendar a date for its first meeting by March 18.
However, there have been no further announcements about future actions by this group.
The ad hoc panel comprising SBC Executive Committee trustee officers has not released any information about its intentions.
Meanwhile, the officers of the Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Board met April 6 to chart a path forward for their inquiry. According to state staff, the officers will bring a suggested strategy to the full Executive Board during its spring meeting May 2 at the Tall Timbers Baptist Conference Center in Forest Hill, La.