Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Analysis: Moore Replaces Land as ERLC President

I wasn't going to write anything during Holy Week, but there is big news in the Southern Baptist world right now.  The Reverend Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, has been selected to succeed the Reverend Dr. Richard Land as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Committee.  As Land before him, Moore will be an even more public face of Southern Baptists than the SBC presidents who come and go every two years.

The Reverend Dr. Russell Moore

We've seen a lot of news (see here, here, here, here, and here), but not much analysis. I'll attempt to provide some here.

During the 1980s, Fundamentalist Takeover architects and footsoldiers spread the hilarious lie that the SBC's Christian Life Commission --- along with other institutions such as the Sunday School Board, seminaries, and missions agencies --- was overflowing with liberals.  The newly-constituted post-Takeover public policy arm of the SBC was called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.  Around the time of the ERLC's founding in 1988, the SBC began withdrawing its support for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.  (The BJC, a highly-respected advocate for religious liberty and the separation of church and state, now receives support from every major Baptist body except SBC-affiliated ones.)

The ERLC strives for "an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority."  Its mission is "to awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the Biblically-based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation."  Whereas the SBC was initially supportive of the Roe v. Wade decision and left the issue of abortion to individual believers' consciences, it eventually made pro-life advocacy its top public policy priority.  In the past 15 years, the ERLC has also advocated extensively for traditional marriage.

Since its inception, the Rev. Dr. Richard Land has led the ERLC.  Under Land's leadership, the ERLC moved the SBC's policy advocacy from its previously non-partisan posture.  While opposition to abortion and gay marriage have been the most prominent and well-known issues, the ERLC eventually provided theological justification (however flimsy) for almost all of the Republican Party platform by the 2000s.  In a sharp departure from almost every faith community, Land was a leading advocate of Operation Iraqi Freedom on "just war" grounds.  He also lent credibility as more and more white evangelicals began to oppose things like progressive taxation and government spending on health and welfare programs.  As the Christian Right became institutionalized in Washington, Land was at least as influential as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson.  He occasionally attempted a kingmaker role in Republican presidential politics, successfully in 2000 but unsuccessfully in 2008 (Fred Thompson) and 2012 (Rick Perry).

To Land's great credit, the ERLC has been an important voice for international religious freedom and human rights.  In the U.S., however, Baptists are divided on whether to adopt the persecution complex that evangelical cultural and political leaders love to proclaim -- the idea that the majority religion in the freest nation on earth is somehow a persecuted minority whose liberties are constantly threatened.

There were no shortage of controversies during Land's long tenure at the ERLC.  But as other evangelicals (white, black, and Latino) became less enamored with one-party politics and moved their advocacy into areas such as the environment, poverty, income inequality, and immigration, the ERLC has proceeded much more slowly can cautiously into those areas.  I don't know if "token support" is a fair characterization for the ERLC's advocacy on issues that challenge the GOP platform, but that is how it has been perceived by many in the faith-based advocacy community.

Last spring, Land made some remarks about the slaying of Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed black man who was gunned down in Florida by a white neighborhood watch volunteer.  Land accused the Obama Administration of using the tragedy to stir up racial tension and "gin up the black vote" in the 2012 election.  A Baptist blogger presented evidence that Land had plagiarized some of his material.  Eventually, he announced his retirement following an internal ERLC investigation.

Land relishes his role as a culture warrior and has stated his intention to continue this work in other ways.  Louisiana College, in the throes of its own fundamentalist takeover, believes Land's name and energy will help save its fledgling planned law school.  As ERLC president emeritus, he will still have a platform if he wants one.

In a chapel sermon at OBU in 2001, the Princeton-, Oxford-, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary-educated Land told OBU students, "People will tell you we can't legislate morality.  But we can.  And we must!"  After the sermon, one OBU professor remarked to me, "Richard Land doesn't speak for me!"

But alas, the ERLC does speak for the Southern Baptist Convention.  Perhaps, at long last, the ERLC's era as a de facto arm of the Republican Party is ending.  This seems to be the consensus emerging in the wake of the announcement that Russell Moore will head the ERLC.  One SBC insider predicted to me that, under Moore, we can expect common ground abortion work on issues like adoption, more attention to the environment and global warming, and more nuanced fiscal thought.  Perhaps the ERLC will join the National Association of Evangelicals and other faith-based policy organizations and take a more authentically biblical and less stridently partisan posture in Washington.

Moore is being unanimously lauded as the ideal candidate for this position at this time, not only by conservatives but also by the moderates who remain in the SBC (both of them! -- I kid.)  Moore will still have to answer to hard-right forces within the SBC.  While no one should be totally surprised if Moore's ERLC is merely more of the same, many Baptists eagerly expect some positive changes.  Of course, the ERLC will remain strongly focused on criminalizing abortion and preserving traditional mariage.  Yet many seem to expect a stronger emphasis on adoption and reducing the number of unwanted and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, rather than merely supporting ever more restrictions on abortion.  On homosexuality, Moore will have his work cut out for him, as a recent poll indicates that a majority of young white evangelicals (18-34) believe gay marriage should be legal.

No one expects Moore to be quite the sharp-tongued GOP insider that Land was.  Interestingly, more than one press clipping described Moore as "winsome" -- apparently in contrast to Land.  I'm sure Land's grand retirement banquet is coming, when an entire generation of post-Takeover SBC luminaries will pay their tribute.  But it's significant that no one is saying they're sad to see Land leave.

Please indulge one point of personal privilege here.  In my "real" work, I'm a political science Ph.D. student who researches, among other things, evangelicals' attitudes toward birth control.  While the issue is pretty much settled among evangelicals, I am curious to see whether white evangelical elites attempt to move toward a more Catholic position, as they have done on abortion.  In a wide-ranging book on the subject, Allan C. Carlson points out that Protestants opposed birth control from the Reformation until the 20th century (the 1930s for mainline Protestants and the 1960s for evangelicals).  Moore wrote a surprisingly positive review for the book, entitled Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973.  Moore said,
"This provocative volume by one of the world's foremost family-issues scholars suggests that perhaps American Evanglicalism unwittingly traded the Blessed Virgin Mary for Margaret Sanger.  The arguments are hard-hitting and unrelenting.  Reading this book is like seeing an unwelcome reflection a mirror. But it might just start a conversation that is well worth having."
So, does Moore believe that looking at evangelicals' acceptance of birth control is "unwelcome" or that we should be having a conversation about the morality of birth control?  I, for one, look forward to hearing more of what Dr. Moore has to say on this issue.

In any event, we here at Save OBU congratulate Dr. Russell Moore on his election to the ERLC presidency and wish him well in this very important position.  We are uninterested in worldly politics and endorse no outside causes or organizations, but have from time to time commented on how the post-Takeover SBC institutions have embodied (or failed to embody) historic Baptist distinctives.  I suspect many of us have strong opinions about the SBC's de-funding of the Baptist Joint Committee, the Takeover henchmen and their unethical actions surrounding the Christian Life Commission in the 1980s, and some of the ERLC's positions under Richard Land.

But let's all hope for a better future for evangelical advocacy and pray for Dr. Moore as he transitions to this new ministry.  A few were surprised that Al Mohler didn't get the position.  I asked them why they would have expected Mohler to go to the ERLC.  They responded that he writes and talks so much more about politics and the culture wars than he does about theology.  But I reminded them that Mohler already has his dream job.  My (amateur) first thought was that the difference between Land, 65, and Moore, 41, would be like the difference between Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee -- a friendlier face on the same hard-line positions.  But everyone I've talked to expects something substantively different.

Significantly, Moore leaves vacant a very prestigious post in Southern Baptist academica -- the deanship in Theology at the SBTS.  Let me be the first to nominate OBU Provost Stan Norman for the position!

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