When I saw that Russell D. Moore had written a long piece about the so-called Evangelical “retreat” from American politics and culture wars, I was elated.
I am updating a syllabus for a course in religion and American politics, and I hoped this would be the perfect fresh take to round out our coverage of Evangelicalism. Certainly the media-savvy and next-generation Moore, the newish President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, would help my students understand the movement better than when they read speeches by his predecessor, Richard Land.
In short, I was primed for this essay.
Sadly, it is not assignable. This 4000-word feature, authored by the most prominent official of the Southern Baptists, is composed almost entirely of straw men.
Moore levels incisive critiques at myriad groups of people, both inside and outside the Evangelical fold. But the reader never finds out who they are. Is this because Moore doesn’t want to upset them, or because they don’t exist?
The most cited object of Moore’s condemnation is the nefarious, nebulous “some.”
Who are these enemies out to ruin Christianity? Only Rob Bell is singled out for mockery. In lieu of other names in the body of the text, one might have expected parenthetical citations or hyperlinks. But not one link is to be found.
Instead “some” do this; “some” say that; “some” of his Catholic friends think; “some” younger Evangelicals; “some” pastors; “some” social conservatives; “some” veterans of the Moral Majority; some “large gathering” of young Evangelicals; “some” and so on. Even sentences without the main character, Some, lack identifiers. “Pastors” do this; “church planters” don’t want that. I didn’t have a big enough winnowing fork to sort out all this straw.
Proper nouns occasionally pop up, such as Walker Percy, Al Gore, George Jones, Che Guevara, Jeremiah Wright, and “Falwell” – who goes by just one name.
But overall the essay is a litany of Russell Moore’s hunches about American Christianity.
Moore knows a lot of people and churches, so sometimes his hunches seems perfectly true and could be backed up by links to data. (Pew? David Kinnaman at Barna? Andy Crouch? Anyone? ) For example, I think these assessments of young Evangelicals hit the mark:
Some young Evangelicals shrug off concerns about religious liberty because they believe this sort of rights talk doesn’t match up with Jesus’ ethic of self-sacrifice. Other young Evangelicals insist that “engaging the culture” is more important than public action, that politics changes nothing.
What has changed for younger Evangelicals is the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt and the notion of “Christian America.” The newer generations often see in the Bible Belt experiment a Christianity that sought to affix Jesus onto the American Dream. Christianity had become a totem by which people became “normal” citizens, and Jesus became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that and eternal life too. This Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent but the studied clip of a telemarketer.
Moore here captures some of the main differences between young Evangelicals and their parents’ generation. I’ll name some names, if he won’t: Gabe Lyons; Rebekah Lyons; Jonathan Merritt; Rachel Held Evans; Sarah Pulliam Bailey; Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. (But wait, some of these attend the “gatherings” that Moore says make “some” Evangelicals suspicious, such as Q and Catalyst and Christianity 21….)
More often, though, Moore makes claims like this: “When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.” Who says this? Since I follow religion news closely, I assume Moore means this Mother Jones piece, written by Kathryn Joyce, whose methods in her book have already received a thorough take-down by Jonathan Merritt. In fact, very few people have ever made the claim that Moore attaches to the “secularist Left” bogeyman, and the person that made it famous has found little traction.
Moore also taps in to the apocalyptic fervor of American Evangelicalism, a key component of maintaining a modicum of support for culture war. Evangelicals ought to be afraid as “the state gives the sword of Caesar to protect the orthodoxies of the sexual revolution.” Any “retreat” from political engagement only makes sense out of anticipation of the Rapture. Even if Evangelicals are “left behind by Wall Street or Capitol Hill,” even if “our sawdust trail leads again to the prison cell,” it’s important to keep looking “to something—Someone—we expect to see exploding forth in the eastern skies, maybe any moment now.”
Inspiring stuff. But I am quite sure Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse is not applicable to remote material cooperation through fungible insurance premium support toward the pooling of risk which enables some people, if they so choose, to use birth control. “Woe to those who are pregnant and nursing in those days!” he even said (Mark 13:17).
To be serious, though, American Christians are the most powerful group of people in history to have convinced themselves they are oppressed. The religious liberty case against the HHS mandate raises a crucial public policy question in a democratic, pluralistic republic. But however it’s decided—with 6 of 9 Christians on the Supreme Court!—it’s decidedly not the apocalypse.
On these culture war issues, Moore seems not to have given in to one of the most salient facts of the past decade. Three times in the essay he pairs abortion and same-sex marriage, but to continue to do so is disastrous as a model for Christians engaging politics and culture. To most people in America—including church-going Christians—these are unfathomably different issues, and they have only been firmly united in American consciousness for one segment of the population and only for one decade (roughly the 2000’s, cresting in 2004, when we hit peak Rove in Ohio).
All of the evidence (e.g.. Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace, but really, just choose any poll) has shown a steady, dramatic increase in support among Americans for same-sex relationships while simultaneously showing a flat graph of support for abortion rights. When I teach on religion and American politics, we spend a good bit of time studying the longitudinal graphs and crosstabs on the morality of these issues. American college students are mostly pro-choice but very conflicted and uneasy about the moral complexities of abortion. It's even happened that students change their minds (!) on this issue. That really does happen.
But on the other issue, young people are in support of same-sex marriage equality to a degree that is so thorough that students are nonchalant about it. This is not because they are secular hedonists, I would argue, but because of their personal experiences. Their experiences with out gay couples have led them simply not to fear that change. Their experiences with abortion or proximity to it have convinced them that, on the contrary, abortion is not innocuous. They may not want it criminalized, but they view it as arrestingly complicated and morally serious, even solemn.
Russell Moore might wish these data were full of straw, but they’re not. And yes, he’s right that the supposed “rise of the religious left” has been overblown, but the media’s reporting on attitudes toward homosexuality have not been exaggerated. If one wants to address “young” Christians, the consistent juxtaposition of abortion and homosexuality simply won’t make any sense.
Let’s return to some of the essay’s more benign straw men. Moore ridicules, for example, “the pop-left of Evangelicalism,” which “usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness.” Who is this pop-left? I’m trying to figure out who that means – Cameron Strang at Relevant? I sincerely don’t know.
Then again, Strang is a “convictional Evangelical” of the kind Moore likes, I would think, and not one of “the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic.” Who are these professional dissidents? (And what a job description!) Moore's subsequent sentence attempts to clarify: “As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.”
Uh-oh. Now you’ve done it. This brings me to my final point: Moore’s light sprinkling of anti-Catholicism in the piece. He approves neither of Pope Francis, who is supposedly “going wobbly where John Paul II stood strong,” nor of American nuns, whose steadfast work on behalf of the poor has the apparently execrable effect of making non-Catholics respect the Catholic Church.
His critiques of Pope Francis are not new, but it's unbecoming, isn't it, for the leader of a region where it is still common to acquire anti-Papist evangelism tracts in the pamphlet section of roadside stops -- or even at church? I wonder, would Father Neuhaus have published an inaccurate cheapshot at American nuns?
Moore does in the end evince begrudging respect for the Catholic Church because at least they won’t give in to cultural shifts on sexual ethics, i.e., “the ruins of Woodstock.” At least Rome can be a reminder to Evangelicals, a magnetic north for America’s wobbly moral compass.
In return for this staunch witness, Moore promises that Evangelicals “will push Catholics to see that the universe is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10) and that losing our living sense of the ultimate telos leads to an unsustainable teleology.” I hadn’t realized Catholics needed reminding of the centrality of Christ. And this from someone who in 4000 words doesn’t allow Christ to speak in his own words.
I could go on describing the field of straw men in Moore’s view of American Christianity; most paragraphs are evidence-free. In the end, I can’t assign Moore’s essay because, as we say to students, “it does not support its claims.” The anti-Catholic hue didn’t help either.
Congratulations, Richard Land: you’re going to stay in my lectures.
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