On March 26, the board of trustees for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission approved Dr. Russell Moore as its next president.
Moore, a native of Biloxi, Miss., currently serves as dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As the eighth president of ERLC, he will be charged by Southern Baptists with addressing moral and religious freedom issues.
Dr. Moore graciously agreed to respond to some questions we sent to him on behalf of our readers here at The Layman.
The Layman: What are the primary issues you believe Christians need to be equipped to intelligently engage in the culture today?
Dr. Moore: The primary issues Christians must be equipped to engage intelligently fall into the categories of religious liberty, human dignity, family stability and civil society. Religious liberty is necessary because, without it, there is an eclipsing of the gospel and the mission of the church. As Christians, we believe the new birth comes by the spirit of God and not by the point of the sword. We also believe that the church flourishes when free to carry out its mission. My Baptist forbears were persistent irritants to the powers that be in the pre-revolutionary era for 1st Amendment guarantees for freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. All of us in the Christian community must be irritants of that sort for these natural rights, and not just for ourselves but for all people. Human dignity is important because of the range of ways human persons are dehumanized and marginalized in the culture around us. These issues would include abortion, human cloning, torture, the mistreatment of immigrants, the global orphan crisis, and the persistent ravages of hunger and disease around the world, which would include the AIDS crisis. As Christians, we must be the ones insisting that a person’s worth is not found in his or her “usefulness” but in the intrinsic image of God. Family stability, because human beings are designed to flourish as part of faithful cohesive families. The family is under strain, not only from the “culture war” matters, such as redefinition of marriage, but also by factors the church has seemingly given up on, such as the ravaging divorce culture and matters that overwhelm us culturally, such as the very real strains of a hyper-mobile and ruthless American culture. Civil society is critical because, as Christians, we understand that we are not created to be individuals, but to be embedded in communities. We stand for public justice in the civic arena, and we also must seek to encourage those voluntary institutions that stand between the individual and the state and the market. Without a sense of community, all we are left with is the idolatry of the self, usually projected out onto the state or the market.
The Layman: It seems that many Christians are insufficiently equipped to engage those issues effectively. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Moore: Christians are often insufficiently equipped to engage issues because we tend to address only those matters that seem most obvious to us at the time. In reality, the most dangerous ethical questions are often not those that are being discussed all around us, but those that have come to seem “normal” to us. For instance, in our churches we rarely talk about divorce except in therapeutic terms, as ways to equip people to recover from divorce. That’s important, but it betrays the ways in which divorce has come to be a sad, but expected aspect of our lives. The first step of ethical engagement is to reframe what “normal” is. This means cultivating church cultures where we, as Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God.” This is a question of priority, but it is also a question of identity. If I see myself first as identified by the kingdom of God, this upends my moral imagination – how I view myself in relation to my neighbors, my governing authorities and the universe itself.
The Layman: How do you hope to change that (in your new position at the ERLC)?
Dr. Moore: I do not take this position thinking that I can somehow change the world. As a country music fan, I know that if I were actually successful in eradicating all the social ills my organization stands against, I would no longer have any music to listen to. Seriously though, we must come at this with a Biblically-formed pessimism and a Biblically-formed optimism. We are pessimistic enough to understand that ethics and religious liberty are not about programs and willpower. They are about a cosmic skirmish against accusing principalities and powers. This means that in every era we must recognize that we are living in the wreckage of Eden and we will not be able to overcome this simply with better policies. On the other hand, we come with a triumphant optimism. We are not the losers in the sweep of history. We are instead the future kings and queens of the universe. Since that is the case, we are able to speak with kindness and gentleness to those who disagree with us. They are not our opponents or our enemies. In many cases we can learn from those who disagree with us and be in on-going dialogue. We are not scared, we are calmly confident in the coming rule of Jesus Christ. That ought to make us kinder and gentler with our neighbors, and more scrappy with demonic beings.
The Layman: In terms of helping Christians cultivate a Biblical worldview and their ability to winsomely speak faithfully today, what are some “go to” resources that you recommend?
Dr. Moore: There are many ministries and organizations that are doing good work when it comes to equipping Christians. I very much admire the work of the Witherspoon Institute led by my friend and Princeton Professor Robert George. I also admire the wide and comprehensive scope of the resources put together by Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine and their team at Family Life. I admire the work of my friend Jedd Medefind at the Christian Alliance for Orphans and various other ministries with whom I work often to call Christians to the priority of caring for widows and orphans.
The Layman: Do you see a growing willingness among Southern Baptists to work with like-minded Christians from a spectrum of denominations as together we confront the culture? If so, how do you envision that cooperation taking shape?
Dr. Moore: Definitely yes. As a committed Baptist, I believe that my heritage brings a distinctive witness to issues such as religious liberty and the relationship between the church and the state, a witness that is needed in times like these. At the same time, we all must understand that the Kingdom of God is broad and wide and marches onward as the Bible puts it like an army with banners. I think Southern Baptists are ready to link arms with Christians from a variety of communions as we stand together for the things of Christ. This will only grow in the years to come, as we find ourselves further and further away from the Bible-belt mirage of an American civil religion or the illusion of a “moral majority.” I envision that cooperation taking place by building one another up with the distinctive strengths of each communion. We need one another, and informal networks all over the world are forming and will continue to form to further that kind of dialogue and united action.
The Layman: Recognizing that our audience is comprised primarily of Presbyterians, is there a message you would like to send them?
Dr. Moore: I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters and am thankful for the witness that you all have maintained for the Gospel and for the mission of Christ. I remember attending a Presbyterian Lay Committee event several years ago when the PCUSA General Assembly met in Louisville. Across the hall was a gathering celebrating the Voices of Sophia, a feminist revisionist group. Even in the elevator on the way to the event I sensed what a difficult thing it must be to stand for Biblical conviction in such a denomination. Living for so many years in Louisville, the headquarters of the PCUSA, and knowing so many faithful pastors and lay leaders in the various Presbyterian denominations, I am thankful for those who maintain the historic, gospel witness of the Presbyterian heroes and heroines of the faith.
Join with us at The Layman in praying for Dr. Moore in his new position at ERLC.