Russell Moore’s Move Away From Christian Nationalism

Like a lot of long-time observers of conservative evangelicals, I’ve been a bit skeptical of the image of Russell Moore–the public affairs spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention who succeeded the Christian Right warhorse Richard Land a couple of years ago–as a new, less politicized, kinder-gentler denominational and trans-denominational figure. Since he hasn’t really abandoned or even questioned any of the Christian Right’s specific issue stances, Moore seemed, at least to the experienced cynic, like another Rick Warren, changing the tone rather than the substance of Protestant fundamentalism and adopting a less aggressive strategy and tactics for the same old agenda, while cleaning up the Old Time Religion’s act on embarrassing tendencies like racism.

But if the semi-review of Moore’s new book, Onward, by the Atlantic‘s Emma Green is any indication, Moore might represent something more profound and even revolutionary: a recognition that the cultural conservatism of Christian Nationalism is as secular in its essence as the irreligious tendencies it purports to fight.

Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, Moore knows how to unleash some spiritual whoop-ass, though that probably wouldn’t be his preferred choice of words. The straitlaced, suit-wearing preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, included a whole passage in his book about how much he hates tattoos; he is studiously polite and clean-cut. Yet he rails against people who merely perform their Christianity, who assume that following Jesus is the same as being a “shiny, happy Republican.”

In the Bible Belt in particular, “Christianity became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that, and eternal life, too,” he writes. “Such a Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent, but rather the studied clip of a telemarketer.”

That last dig—at the faith’s “telemarketers”—is key to understanding Moore’s rage. It’s partly aimed at some of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders—the Creflo Dollars and Joel Osteens of the world, who spend $70 million on jets and preach about perfection, rather than sin. But it’s also a partial repudiation of culture warriors past.

“There was a larger mentality that came along with the last generation of evangelical political activism that assumed that we represent the real America in ways that turned out not only not to be true, but turned out to be damaging to the larger mission of the church,” Moore told me.

It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”

In other words, Moore seems to understand that the sort of reflexive identification of Jesus Christ with what I call the Church of the Day Before Yesterday is not only irrelevant but secular and perhaps even demonic. In any event, it’s not distinctively Christian; anybody can promote good old-fashioned bourgeois values, along with capitalism and a hostility to “disruptive” influences from non-white minorities to feminists to LGBT folk. And according to Green, Moore makes bigger demands on political and civic allies than embracing conservative rhetoric and signing off on a few agenda items:

This is not an assimilated, salable Christianity. If anything, it troubles the anodyne, dog-whistle-y “values” rhetoric that Moore rejects. It calls for politicians to be committed to living out Christianity beyond the breath it takes to utter “God bless America.” It goes against “a certain cultural moment in American life which sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” like the Willie Nelson concert where the singer seamlessly transitions from “Whiskey River” to “Amazing Grace.” And inevitably, it undermines Bible Belt identity, which has long depended on pairing God with guns and Republican politics. Not to worry, Moore says: “The Bible Belt was no Promised Land.”

I have no doubt that Russell Moore’s scriptural-inerrancy based understanding of the Gospel remains pretty distant from my own. But it would be nice to see some prominent conservative Christian leaders who see the spiritual peril in their own camp.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.