Are Southern Baptists Calling Off the Culture Wars?

Andew Sullivan thinks the Christian Right may finally be on the ropes, and cites as evidence a Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore, the man who has succeeded the culture-warhorse Richard Land as chief political affairs spox for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reading the profile, it’s clear Moore wants to turn the page rhetorically from Land’s many thunderbolts, beginning with welcome warnings of excessive church investment in political causes remote from its mission, and a more irenic attitude towards “sinners” if not sin. And he very clearly wants to dissolve the marriage of convenience between conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party.

But we’ve heard all this before, along with the same expressions of hope from liberals and secular folk (the profile features several) that these zealots are finally going back into their shell just like they did after the Scopes Monkey Trial. I’d remind everyone that a change in strategy and tactics for politically-inclined conservative evangelicals doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in goals or commitments, and also that a loudly proclaimed independence from the GOP has been a hallmark of the Tea Party Movement as well.

The best news to me in the profile was actually a reference to the Southern Baptist Convention’s declining membership numbers along with this comment from a professor at my alma mater:

“The religious right was born on the theology of numerical expansion: the belief that conservative churches grow while liberal ones die. That conceit is gone now,” says David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Part of the power of the Christian Right has always been its inflated reputation among secular observers who figure the only “real” Christians are the conservatives, who are thus the wave of the religious future. Thus conservative evangelical firebrands and Catholic hyper-traditionalists are presumed to speak for many millions of believers who don’t share their views at all. If someone in Moore’s position fears the winds are blowing in a different direction now, that could ultimately mean real change.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.