Is Anyone Listening to Russell Moore in Iowa?

Tonight’s a big Christian Right clambake in Iowa: the Iowa Family Leader organization’s presidential forum. Their list of confirmed candidates looks a bit out of date since Bobby Jindal is still on it, but it does seem that Carson, Cruz, Fiorina, Huck, Paul, Rubio and Santorum are going to show. The conceit of this particular event is that it held around a big table–you know, like a family Thanksgiving table–with the ubiquitous Frank Luntz posing questions.

Word going in is that Ted Cruz, who was endorsed by Steve King earlier this week, might get endorsed “personally” tonight by Family Leader majordomos Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley, a move they made (albeit a bit later) for Rick Santorum in 2012. BVP, and his most simpatico national Christian Right warhorse, Tony Perkins, have been making a lot of noise about the need for conservative evangelicals to unite behind a single candidate before Iowa. Cruz does seem to be the best positioned. It would likely be a pretty deadly blow to Santorum and Huckabee, and at least a challenge to Ben Carson, who’s been polling very well among Iowa evangelicals.

But there’s a discordant voice at the edge of these Christian Right counsels, shouting “Not so fast!”–Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Russell Moore, who thinks it would be a terrible mistakes for Christians to identify with any candidate who has been demagoguing refugees.

Moore said so in a WaPo op-ed published yesterday.

[E]vangelical Christians cannot be the people who turn our back on our mission field. We should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember the image of God and inalienable human dignity, of persecuted people whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Yazidi, especially those fleeing from genocidal Islamic terrorists.

We should remember the history of the 20th century, of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Refuseniks from the Soviet Union who were largely ignored by the world community. We can have prudential discussions and disagreements about how to maintain security. What we cannot do is to demagogue the issue.

Moore didn’t name names in the op-ed, but did upon sitting down with BuzzFeed‘s McKay Coppins for an interview:

“Donald Trump is saber-rattling about shutting down mosques in this country, which, as somebody who works every day on religious liberty, I’m astounded that we could have a presidential candidate of either party speaking in such a way,” Moore said. “Evangelicals should recognize that any president who would call for shutting down houses of worship … is the sort of political power that can ultimately shut down evangelical churches.”

Moore was also critical of candidates like Ted Cruz who are now arguing that the U.S. should only accept Christian refugees from Syria, not Muslims.

“I don’t think we ought to have a religious test for our refugee policy,” Moore said, adding that a rigorous vetting process could still make room for innocent Muslims. “We really don’t want to penalize innocent women and children who are fleeing from murderous barbarians simply because they’re not Christians,” he said, though he added that persecuted Christians in the region haven’t received enough attention from the U.S.

This is hardly the first time Moore has cut a very different figure from his predecessor, Ted Land, who was an old-school Christian Right agitator like Perkins and Vander Plaats. It’s also not clear how much if any political influence Moore has; he’s a guy who has criticized conservative evangelicals’ excessive ties to the Republican Party, and even questioned how high a priority conservative cultural issues ought to have for active Christians. Southern Baptists are not especially numerous in Iowa, but nor are they out of synch with the state’s conservative evangelicals, viz. 2008 Caucus winner Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, and Cruz himself, who is a Southern Baptist.

We’ll see if Cruz starts to lock up some visible support this weekend, and then we’ll see if Russell Moore digs in.

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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.