Admittedly, it was strange to see Dr. Russell Moore on the University of Chicago’s campus.
At a time when “evangelical” is a dirty, politicized word in liberal America, Dr. Moore is a Bible-believing, socially conservative, evangelical Christian, born so far south that his Mississippi hometown is on the Gulf of Mexico. For eight years, he helmed the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm in Washington, D.C., where he affirmed a pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-religious liberty agenda - a far cry from the general political consensus at UChicago.
Nonetheless, Moore has become an outspoken critic of some startling trends in American evangelicalism over the past several years. He has challenged the opposition to racial justice in the church. He advocates for immigration reform. He has sought justice for sexual abuse survivors in the church. His antipathy towards Christian nationalism has put him at odds with some portions of the religious right - including many in his own denomination.
Then, mere months after his break from the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Moore found himself at UChicago’s Institute of Politics in the fall of 2021, teaching both religious and atheist students about basic issues in American evangelicalism. Through these talks and his new role as Director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today, Moore juggles multifaceted objectives: he critiques the ills of the modern religious right, informs non-believers how to better engage with religious communities, advances the Christian gospel, and encourages both believers and non-believers alike to pursue a holistic, pluralist politics.
I sat down with Dr. Moore in hopes of better understanding his aspirations for faith and public life, and he offered thoughts on the state of the church, tools for those inside and outside of evangelicalism to better engage with each other, and an optimistic vision for improved Christian political engagement.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Tyler Ashman: In many of your recent interviews, you’ve been asked to evaluate the negative sides of evangelicalism in the public square: Christian nationalism, resistance to racial justice, sexual abuse in the church, et cetera. But I’d love to begin on a lighter note. In your view, what should Christian engagement in the political sphere look like?
Russell Moore: There’s a long Christian tradition of a kind of “engaged alienation” - of people who are not defined by ideologies or by the cultures around them. They, as the New Testament puts it, are “seeking a different city.” Yet, out of love of neighbor, they remain engaged in their communities, which also has a long Biblical tradition.
One of the reasons that people see mostly the bad news when it comes to evangelical Christianity is because controversy is what is reported. Most of the people doing the writing are concerned with politics - which is perfectly legitimate - but that means you’re not addressing the people who are gathered together, loving each other, spreading the gospel in local churches.
I was just talking to a liberal Muslim friend this morning who said to a group of people, “If a natural disaster hits you, the people who are going to show up first to your door will be the Southern Baptists. Not the Red Cross.” And that’s true. That’s a part of it that people don’t see.
Ashman: There are some Christians who think that this political ethic must be fundamentally progressive, and others who think it should be conservative. Do you think that the progressive-conservative axis matters in this conversation, or is “engaged alienation” beyond political binaries?
Moore: Well, it’s usually an artificial division. What counts as conservative and what counts as progressive changes, not only from historical epic to historical epic, but sometimes from personality to personality.
Ultimately, being a Christian is following Jesus: someone who is neither identifying with the Sadducees nor the Pharisees, neither with the Zealots nor the Roman collaborators, but someone who has an entirely different mission. That sometimes intersects with various other people. So, if what’s driving us is an ideology, that means that we’re always going to fit into a predictable pattern and change with where those ideologies are going. But if we have consciences that are shaped and formed by the gospel, we’re going to often be in a situation where we don’t fit into the usual categories.
Ashman: Recently, you’ve taken a new step in your career where you’re doing some of this work as the Director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. What is public theology? Who is its intended audience? Why does it matter?
Moore: It is an application of theology to life, which means that it’s a two-way conversation: addressing the outside world on what Christianity is and how Christianity speaks to various issues, and then speaking to those inside the church about how to engage with outsiders. How to have consciences that are shaped and formed, and then also how to engage with people who don’t agree - which every person has to do.
Ashman: I’ve been focusing on mostly intra-Christian discussions thus far, but we both know that these conversations are often overheard by the general public. You’ve talked a lot about a broad cultural illiteracy on evangelicalism, and religion writ large, in the United States. In an interview with David French after the 2020 election, you said, “There’s a sense in the outside world that evangelicalism is primarily a political reality. It drives me crazy when I’m talking to journalists who think that evangelicals are like cicadas who go into dormancy between Iowa Caucuses.”
Obviously, that’s not the case. So, are there ways that non-Christians can improve their engagement with Christian communities, and particularly conservative evangelical communities, even if they don’t understand their internal logics?
Moore: Yes. The ideological and cultural sorting of America results in populations who don’t even know the people they’re opposing. So, when I’m speaking to people inside the church, I’m often asking them to understand the best arguments of the people who are opposing them. That’s the way to actually speak to those people, rather than to speak about them to one’s own tribe. When I’m talking to those on the outside, I usually say, “It’s okay for you to disagree with evangelical Christianity, but you need to know what you’re opposing.”
I think that a biblical illiteracy within the church leads to a cultural Christianity that’s ideologically defined. Biblical illiteracy in the outside world often means a caricature of, and condescension to, people who are motivated by religion. In order to accurately even describe them, you have to spend some time saying, “How do they see the world?”
What I often say to people inside the church - and it applies to those on the outside - is to say, “No one sees himself or herself sitting in a lair like a supervillain. Everyone sees himself or herself as the protagonist in the narrative. What you have to know is why. What’s the story that that person is telling himself or herself? You have to understand that before you can speak to that person. Otherwise, when you’re speaking to someone in terms of a caricature, that person knows, “You don’t even know who I am, so why should I take seriously what you’re saying?”
Ashman: Are there norms of political engagement that non-Christians can demand of evangelicals in the public sphere?
Moore: Secular America should expect an evangelical Christianity that understands the pluralistic nature of American society and is not lamenting the loss of a Christian America. In an evangelical understanding of what it means to be a Christian - a new birth - there never was a Christian America. At best, we have a pre-Christian America.
And the outside world should expect that we would live up to our own beliefs. For all the rhetoric about evangelicals imposing their beliefs upon others, that almost never happens. What we do see, though, is evangelicals who are compromising their own convictions for some political reality or the other.
Even when the outside world disagrees with evangelical Christians, they ought to disagree with us because we hold to gospel conviction and love of neighbor, not because we’re Machiavellian political actors.
Ashman: To pivot to something that’s a little more relevant for myself personally: you recently wrote a book called The Courage to Stand, where you talk about what it looks like to honor God faithfully in this culture. Some people saw that as an allegory for your response to the Trump presidency, but you’ve been adamant to say that it came from an investigation into college campus ministries.
As someone who’s been very involved in college ministry myself, where we were really wrestling with questions of race, gender, politics, and being faithful to Christ through those conversations, I’m interested to hear how younger Christians can help renegotiate a better public theology of these issues.
Moore: I often quote Wendell Berry these days, who, in speaking to an entirely different issue, said that there are no large-scale solutions to these large-scale problems. He was talking about environmental issues particularly, but I think it applies here as well. Berry said, “What we need is not a large-scale solution, but many small solutions.”
I think the answer is not winning a battle for the soul of evangelical America. The answer would be a Christian loving Christ, being shaped and formed by the church, and giving his or her life in service to Christ. That’s often going to be lonely at first, but that’s the way God builds community. The irony is similar to the one who would save his life and thus lose it. The one who longs for community sometimes must lose it in the short run, in order to have it in the long run.
I think that the way to move forward will sound like a Sunday school answer, but it’s because Sunday school was right. What’s important is being shaped by the biblical storyline and by giving oneself over to the ordinary means of grace. The ordinary aspects of discipleship. That’s what really changes things.
Ashman: One last question for you. For those people who are interested in learning more, there is no shortage of people, think tanks, and organizations who are addressing them right now. Are there any people you think are talking about these issues in a really good way?
Moore: Oh, I think there are a lot of people who are talking about it in a really good way! I think that the work of Tim Keller is really important right now. The work of an older missiologist by the name of Lesslie Newbigin is amazingly relevant to the present moment. And, outside of the church, I give away copies of Jonathan Heidt’s The Righteous Mindalmost every week, because I think his analysis of the way people operate out of intuition is accurate. If people understood the central point he is making, we would be able to have more genuine conversations and better disagreements.
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