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Evangelicals' New Chief Says Days Of Moral Majority Over


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you tell us more - editor Ammad Omar and I are going to dig in to the listener inbox to hear what you had to say about stories we've covered this week.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters, that's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we have a newsmaker interview with one of the most influential religious leaders in this country, whose name you might not know - at least not yet. He's taken on one of the most prominent posts among American Evangelicals as leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Now Southern Baptists represent nearly 40,000 churches and missions, claiming nearly 16 million members in the country. As the leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where he succeeds the very influential and prominent Richard Land, Mr. Moore will be at the forefront of some of the most contentious issues of our time. From abortion to immigration to civil rights. And we caught up with him at a studio in Nashville. Welcome to the program. Congratulations on the new post or is it condolences? I'm not sure.

RUSSELL MOORE: I'm not sure which but thanks so much. It's good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Now, obviously, we could have a whole conversation just on this topic but I did want to mention that you are an ordained minister. Recently, you've been serving as dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I just wanted to ask how you felt or decided that the religious life would be your calling.

MOORE: You know, it was one of those things I struggled with quite a bit because I sensed the Lord calling me to ministry as a 12-year-old. But then moved into a political life and thought I wanted to be in politics. I was serving in a variety of roles for a United States congressman from Mississippi. And while I was working for him, I went to - I was in Washington for a while and went - the Library of Congress had some discarded books that congressional staffers could take that they were going to throw away. And I picked up several books, but one of them was a little pastor's manual with weddings and funerals and those sorts of things.

And when I got home, I started looking through the books and I thought why did I want this? And the Lord kind of used that to start the conversation again in my mind. And I thought this really is the direction I think I should go.

MARTIN: What do you think your called to do in this job?

MOORE: I think I'm called to do two things - the first thing is to help start conversations and equip our churches to think through ethical issues.

And then the second is to speak for our churches to the larger culture about the things that we're concerned about and the sort of mission that we have. And so that means helping churches and pastors to think through issues ranging - pastors and church leaders have to deal with pressing ethical issues every single day. The question of what do I tell the infertile couple who come in and say we don't know what to do and does this mean God is mad at us? To questions of how do we create churches where different ethnic groups are reconciled and showing the unity of the body of Christ - to all sorts of questions. Ranging from the very, very significant and important to very relatively mundane things that we have to make decisions about - how do we live and how do we follow Christ?

MARTIN: We're speaking just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. At the original March, faith leaders were very much a part of the leadership of the movement. But we're also reminded that Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous letter from Birmingham jail was directed at white clergy in the South who he felt - or not just in the south but white clergy in general - he felt they were standing on the sidelines on one of the most momentous issues of our time. And I wondered what, if anything, this week's commemorations brought up for you? As part of your charge.

MOORE: It brought up a lot of convictions inside of me. Thinking through how far we've come and how far we need to go. I remember being a very young boy in South Mississippi in Sunday school and there was a substitute Sunday school teacher that day who said to me - I was picking up a quarter, I remember, and I put it in my mouth while I was doing something - and she said don't put a quarter in your mouth - a black man may have held that. And then she gathered everybody up and said let's sing Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. And I remember, even as a 4-year-old, thinking those two things don't go together.

And as I've kind of reflected on that over the rest of my life, I've concluded this woman wasn't self-consciously trying to destroy the Gospel. She instead had just absorbed something from her culture, from the things that she had been taught, that was contrary to what the scripture tells us about the unity of the human race. Everyone's created in the image of God. And she couldn't see how what she was singing about and what she believed conflicted.

And I think that's what Martin Luther King did preeminently, was to speak to the conscience and to say, you're not living up to what you say you believe. So he could speak to the conscience of Americans and say, you don't really believe the words of the Declaration of Independence as long as you stand with Jim Crow. And then he spoke to Christians and said, you cannot claim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the anti-Gospel of Jim Crow, one of them has to go. And I think the message that he was speaking - the reason it was so powerful, is because he was right and he addressed the conscience in a way that revealed evil.

But more than that, I think the power of Martin Luther King is that he did not simply reveal injustice. He also painted a picture, an imaginative picture of what justice could look like - the day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slave holders would join hands. One of the most powerful experiences for me, as a Christian, was as a Southern Baptist standing in our denominational meeting. A denomination that was formed in order to defend the rights of slave holders, or the so-called rights of slave holders, a very evil and wicked thing by Southerners right before the Civil War, electing our first African-American president, Dr. Fred Luter, and realizing the - you know, the power of the Gospel is greater than all of these carnal captivities that we come across culturally.

MARTIN: If you're just going us, I'm speaking with Russell Moore. He is the new leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. That is a group that often is very prominent in addressing important issues in this country, such as immigration and other issues that are in the public square.

You know, conservative Christians of which the Southern Baptist Convention is, you know, believed to be - have been very vocal on issues like abortion rights, have been very vocal on issues like protecting life, for example, the sanctity of life. Being outspoken on issues that they deem undermining of the sanctity of life like, you know, stem cell research and things of that sort.

For other people, something like the Trayvon Martin killing, is an issue around the sanctity of life and we don't necessarily hear conservative Christians speaking out on this issue - on an issue like that. We also see that there seems to be a fairly wide racial divide on this. On an issue like this where a lot of African-Americans see this as a great tragedy and other - according to the polls at least - a lot of white Americans not quite understanding why it's seen that way or in some cases saying, you know, what's your issue?

MOORE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what your thoughts are about that.

MOORE: Well, I think what happened after the Trayvon Martin - not only the killing but also then after the trial - is there was the emerging of a lot of conversations among black and white Christians, because I think what was happening is that many white Christians were looking at this microscopically. Just in terms of the legal aspects of this particular trial and that was the argument that many of them were having. African-American Christians were seeing this macroscopically. They were seeing the big picture of what's happening and what hasn't happened in this country when it comes to racial justice.

And so I think that lead to many conversations in churches, in communities, that I think can lead to some very good things. In order to say - I had an African-American pastor who called me right after the Zimmerman trial and he said, you know, I'm working through college applications for my son right now and there are certain places in the country that I just - I pray won't accept my son. I pray he'll be accepted somewhere else because I'm afraid that he will be in danger in those places.

And I realize that's the sort of situation that I've never had. I've never had to think through places in the country where I wouldn't want my son to be. Those are two very different life experiences that I think these sorts of moments can cause people to have conversations in order to empathize and then to say, how do we work?

MARTIN: Well, what kinds of conversations? You know, I'm mindful of the fact that President Obama is often called upon to address issues of personal responsibility in the black community. But I don't know any prominent white politicians or political figures who are addressing issues of personal responsibility among white people.

And when I think about, like, racist comments that are made, even by public officials. I mean, there was a member of Congress, a sitting member of Congress, who made disparaging comments about the first lady's figure in a public place. You know, and yet, you know, who is the figure who is called upon to, you know, prophetically witness and call these people to account? Who is that person?

MOORE: Well, I think you have seen that. I think that - for instance, think of Steve King's comments about immigrants...

MARTIN: ...Yeah.

MOORE: ...About the children of immigrants. I think there were many of us who denounced that and said that sort of rhetoric just cannot take place in this country. It's not right. It's not morally right. Jim Daly, the President of Focus on the Family, and Samuel Rodriguez, a Hispanic Evangelical leader, and I spoke a couple of years ago about the kind of rhetoric, veiled racist rhetoric that often happens in our public discourse, as being a kind of a rhetorical pornography that happens, and did call on people to be held accountable for that sort of language.

So I do think that happens and is happening with more regularity, which is one of the reasons why - sometimes we do need to call and to recognize how far we have to go but I do think we also need to step back and say, look at how far we have come. The fact that we don't see this sort of vicious rhetoric as commonplace as we did in say the George Wallace era. That is something to be celebrated even as we recognize we do have a long way to go.

MARTIN: What will be your priorities in this new role? And how will you know that you have succeeded? I mean, many people will remember the Richard Land because he was so visible a force. I mean, most recently I think many people will credit him with having become an important player in the immigration conversation. What will your priorities be? And how will you know that you've succeeded?

MOORE: My top priority is to prepare Evangelical Christian churches to live as faithful witnesses in a post-Bible Belt America. I think that we're living in a time when the traditional structures of the Bible belt - the day in which Evangelical Christians can assume that we are a moral majority in this country, those days are over. And so we have to learn how to be a prophetic minority in this country, and how to be faithful in a culture without simply being absorbed into that culture.

And also to learn how to speak with convictional kindness in a way that holds fast to those things that we have been given in the gospel and those things that we believe are fundamentally true.

But also to recognize that the people who disagree with us aren't our enemies, they're not our opponents. And so we treat them with civility made in the image of God and to treat them with the kind of integrity and kindness that Jesus himself emulated.

MARTIN: That was Russell Moore. He is the new lead of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. We caught up with him in Nashville. Mr. Moore, I do hope we'll speak again. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MOORE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.