Sturm and Drang with Little Substance
Russell Moore is not quite an ex-vangelical, at least not yet. He has not lost his faith, he assures us, but he has lost his religion. Put another way, he has not left evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, he thinks, has left him. Given that evangelicalism initiated the divorce, it is she, not Moore, in need of repentance. An altar call, a come to Jesus moment, is overdue.
Moore’s new book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (LOR) is first and foremost autobiographical. As a species of “nonvert,” Moore’s story is a personal, emotive, experiential, internalized journey with external events providing only the occasion for expression, or post hoc justification, thereof.
The book is nearly always polemical in tone but hardly ever polemical in substance. Moore does not seem all that interested in convincing the reader of anything other than the worthiness of the author’s own cause—his personal credibility apparently meant to bear the load of otherwise rarely corroborated claims and analysis. Rather, Moore offers a cathartic experience for other not-quite-ex-vangelicals who have exited Southern Baptist institutions, or the Convention itself, over the past few years. Victimhood is the currency of choice in Moore’s story, and those who share his story—all one-time Big Eva members—are now positioning themselves as a sort of evangelical ex-pat cadre possessing a unique ability to critique their former country because of the trauma endured there.
At the outset, Moore’s insistence that 1) he hasn’t changed his “theology” (6), but that 2) it is the “religion” of evangelicalism that has morphed into a “cold, lifeless dogma or tribal belonging,” is difficult to accept (19). In 2004, Moore was expending his energies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood warring against the feminization of God, warning of the revolt against natural gender and concomitant gender roles, and cautioning against evangelical accommodation of post-Lawrence v. Texas (2003) cultural norms on marriage and family. In other words, his primary concern was leftward drift in evangelical political sensibilities and ethics.
Fast forward to today and, as editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, Moore is calling for new line drawing in the “gender wars” between egalitarians and complementarians. As Aaron Renn has expertly observed, Moore’s call for a realignment, a reset, of evangelicalism should be read as an expression and application of the late Tim Keller’s strategy to “redraw the boundaries of the movement by eliminating complementarianism and replacing it with anti-fundamentalism.”
Indeed, the last chapter (“Losing Our Stability”) of LOR, in a section labeled, “Embracing New Communities and New Friendships,” features a mea culpa for “Russell Moore, circa 2007” who criticized Beth Moore as a “gateway drug” to feminism. Presumably, the male Moore is referring to his article from the period in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society championing biblical patriarchy. Russell Moore circa 2023 describes the old, masculine Russell as “arrogant” and “mistaken.” (228). It was he, not Lady Moore, that was the real “theological lightweight.” (230). (Last year, he tweeted that, in fact, Beth Moore is a “gateway drug to sanity,” not feminism.) In this way, Moore admits his own shifts away from accepted, standard evangelical convictions, at least on this front. But the gender wars are not what really irked him.
What instigated Moore’s break with evangelicalism (often used by him interchangeably with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC))? What explains his shift, at least in terms of emphasis, on key cultural and theological issues?
Moore tells us up front: “The issues—political fusion with Trumpism, Christian nationalism, white-identity backlash, the dismissing of issues such as abuse as ‘social justice’ secularism, and several others.” In Moore’s telling, these are the “issues” dividing the church and “almost every friendship I know.” (11).
This was when the “altar call”—Moore’s euphemism for the essence of evangelicalism that also signals an unrepentant evangelicalism—the “Come to Jesus” meetings, changed. “I hadn’t changed my theology, or my behavior, at all,” he writes. In Moore’s mind, “pro-life and pro-family” stances were perfectly consistent, even in the present context, with being “pro-racial justice and pro-refugee.” “What I had done, as the president of [the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission], was refuse to endorse Donald Trump.” (6).
All his troubles began with his never-Trumpism. Moore, a self-professed adherent to the Billy Graham Rule, was simply maintaining a Biblical sexual ethic for politicians. What Moore was punished for, in his telling, is nothing but moral consistency. He is a true evangelical, a victim of reactionary evangelical tribalism.
Paradoxically, the Moore of LOR is something of a reactionary tribalist himself. It is the Christian nationalists who are “secular,” it is the Trumpsters that are cynical, it is the disaffected white middle Americans that are identitarians, and so on. Evangelicalism may be a big tent revival but not big enough for the likes of them. Moore—and all sensible people—has not changed, or at least not changed for the worse. On the contrary, he has broken free from his “Stockholm syndrome level of loyalty to my Southern Baptist identity.” (9).
The last straw was the sexual abuse report published by the Houston Chronicle (7-9). Moore claims he was chastised behind closed doors by Southern Baptist leaders for platforming Rachel Denhollander—he does not name her explicitly, as is his practice throughout the book for both friend and foe. This is anecdotal and lacks any corroboration in the book, as is the alleged resultant campaign of “psychological warfare” against him. And so, Moore’s narrative remains unassailable; the reader must accept the author’s experience and the precipitating facts cannot be debated.
What is clear is that this period of Moore’s life affected him deeply, acting as his religious crucible:
“On the other side of the reverse altar call, I started to question everything… That began a period not just of questioning all my assumptions, but also of simultaneously grieving my lost religious home and my own burdened conscience, recognizing complicity in participating for so long in something that now seemed both inane and predatory. I couldn’t help but wonder if the plot twist to the story of American conservative Christianity was that what we thought was the Shire was Mordor all along. I pretend that all of that is past me, but it lingers, in the ringing in my ears of the stress-induced tinnitus that persists to this day, and that fact that I am still waiting for one sleep without nightmares about the Southern Baptist Convention. But here I am, an accidental exile but an evangelical after all.” (10-11)
Anyway, that’s the formula, the bridge too far: Donald Trump—or rather, mass evangelical electoral support for Donald Trump—coupled with the supposed coverup of sexual abuse in SBC churches. Why could Beth Moore see the light when others—those more aligned with Russell Moore circa 2007 on the egalitarian-complementarian divide—could not? A reassessment was in order lest evangelicalism descend into a morally dubious, hyper-masculine, fundamentalist hellscape. (He calls the post-2016 era an “apocalypse.” (171)) But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
As I said, Losing Our Religion is an autobiography disguised as an indictment of evangelicalism, and not a very ecumenical one at that. Moore is not interested in convincing the reader. He does not make arguments but rather opts for emotive reflections, flippant diagnostics. It is a self-indulgent project and others of Moore’s sentiment and experience indicate the accuracy of this characterization. Karen Swallow Prior said as much, describing Moore’s book as “an explanation of nearly every horrible thing in my life over the past several years.” Beth Moore pledged to lead her staff through the book.
Moore’s apologia does, however, contain a thesis: evangelicalism has lost or ceded its credibility, authority, identity, integrity, and stability. Notice well that at least the first three of these qualities are outward facing and dependent on external opinion and cultural pathologies—all five rely on outside diagnostic metrics—even as Moore repeatedly calls evangelicals to a separatist ethic and criticizes the “Calvinist fundamentalists” for being too worldly. Each chapter is dedicated to one of these headings in that order, and each chapter contains vague aphorisms, in a sort of poor man’s Jordan Peterson style, for resistance to corrupting forces in evangelicalism.
If the reader is expecting discrete, non-Trumpian causes for the loss of each bit of evangelical social capital identified by Moore, he will be sorely disappointed. Every chapter, each of the five currencies, though accompanied by diverse anecdotes, loose exegesis, and musings, point back to a singular underlying cause. Evangelicals have traded fidelity for power.
Chapter 2 opens with an indignant January 6 lamentation, the Christian symbols and messages displayed on flags and signs there. The imagery and theme of “the January 6 insurrection” (100) runs throughout the book. Trump and January 6 live rent-free in Russell Moore’s mind (6, 11, 65-66, 100-111, 116, 122-124, 157-163, 170-179, 213, 229, 235, 243) “Donald Trump has changed my life.” (159). “I really did not know Beth Moore until two world-shaking realities came to define much of my world: Donald Trump and church sexual abuse.” (229). And so on.
The answer is that evangelicals are crazed by identity politics—but only the “Christian nationalists” or advocates of the “Great Replacement Theory” … the explicit advocates of identity politics, the woke leftists, are excluded from Moore’s analysis. The so-called post-Christian right that turns “Jesus into Thor” (113) is the problem, not just a problem.
The “secular Left” is theologically undereducated, but the religious Right is theologically disingenuous. (114). That is, those who blend religious and cultural identity in their politics—those who theorize politics in a non-pietistic, non-sentimental, under-spiritualized way on purpose rather than by accident. Secularists may be as selfish as the new religious right, but at least they have an excuse; the latter use Christianity for their own gain (190). Cultural Christianity, and anyone who tries to foster it or doesn’t sufficiently subscribe to a pietist conversionist cultural outlook, is closer to “outright paganism” than to Christ.
Christian nationalism is the embodiment of what Moore fears.
He rejects outright Yoram Hazony’s suggestion that public culture should follow the majority culture, including and especially when said majority culture is Christian. Moore summarily dubs this persuasion unchristian—he never cites any Christians who agree with Hazony, and there are many— because it allegedly confuses internal and external realities (114).
This is all unserious insofar as Moore never attempts to understand or analyze the trends and theories he critiques. “Christian nationalism is the use of Christian words, symbols, or rituals as a means to the end of shoring up an ethnic of a national identity.” (113-114). It’s as simple as that. Moore interacts with exactly none of the proponents of Christian nationalism, not even to assess their own definitions. He is thoroughly disinterested in parsing the Christian nationalist discourse, its causes and effects. From the outset, it represents a public enemy, an unwelcome intrusion into the political sanity that previously dominated, apparently.
“Christian nationalism is not a politically enthusiastic version of Christianity, nor is it a religiously informed patriotism.” It is a “prosperity gospel for nation-states, a liberation theology for white people.” (117). It is the “Great Commission in reverse,” invoking Jesus “in the name of the blood and of the soil and of their political order.” (120). Indeed, Christian nationalism just is a form of secularism, Moore says, and driven by “nostalgia and resentment,” the identity politics and victimhood of Rust Belt America (125).
All this demonstrates that Moore is a bad-faith, and remarkably out-of-touch, interlocutor. He is not sitting at the adult table, as it were, and he doesn’t want to. He makes no attempt to understand the arguments in play for a more robust political Christianity of any stripe. For example, and contra Moore, no Christian nationalist proponent is or has suggested that national membership is sufficient for or equivalent to church membership and salvation itself. Moore—again, citing no one—says otherwise (118). This is, perhaps, because no one is suggesting that genuine conversions don’t matter or that they should be forced, but Moore suggests that unnamed radicals desire just that.
Like it or love it, the Christian nationalism discourse represents an intramural discussion, a reassessment of Christian political assumptions. At its best, this reassessment is fueled by a sober reclamation of practical politics and informed by the resourcement of the Christian tradition. Chief among the questions under consideration is the extent of the relationship between law and morality (or theology), the realist acknowledgment that some kind of dominant religious commitments inform the policies of every political regime, and so on. Given the inevitability of this equation—that some establishment always and everywhere reigns—Christian nationalists, at root, are arguing that customs, norms, and laws should be informed by Christianity. Moore does not consider any of this, and he makes no indication that he cares to in the first place.
This is Moore’s practice throughout the entire book even when not invoking J6 or Christian nationalism: nameless abstractions, detached social phenomena, that trouble him are flippantly dismissed as foolhardy and “crazy.” An author can only do that if the objects of critique are organized under the umbrella of “nationalism” and “Trumpism.” Nor does Moore interact with any of the Christian tradition—for or against “Christian nationalism”— protestant or otherwise, on these points, only contemporary sociologists and journalists.
That Moore argues with no one in particular, no serious opponents, no books, no articles—even the quotation of Hazony is from a secondary source—suggests, again, that this book is meant to convince exactly no one not already in violent agreement with the author. It is intended only to satisfy Moore and his sympathizers, and appeal to the class of secular, cosmopolitan liberals—the real Court Evangelicals—who always welcome in-house critiques of the American evangelicalism of fly-over country and desire nothing more than a self-neutered political posture of the same.
LOR castigates the faceless barbarians at the gate; its author doesn’t want to know why they are here, only that he is not one of them and does not like them (God, I thank you that I am not like other men.) Nor, more importantly, does he investigate the rot in his own corner of Big Eva that has contributed to the barbaric migration.
Instead of real engagement with the new Christian right (the barbarous horde) in the vein of, for example, what Michael Anton did several years ago regarding the Nietzschean strands of the hyper-online right, we get from Moore the tired truisms of yesteryear: “Make Peace with Homelessness.” (145). That is, the pilgrim people pietism schtick—the kind of confusion of temporal and spiritual that he projects onto his enemies. Do not lament the loss of Western Christian culture, he instructs. (149). This place is not your home. You are an exile. There is no “normal” way of living if you’re perpetually transient, after all. (150). This missionary mindset will help you let go and let God: “Once you own your exile, the threat of exile is meaningless. No one can do to you what’s already been done. That can give you the freedom, then, to unclench your fists and love—even those who are threatening you with exile.” (152). It will free you from your toxic temporal loyalties, it will stave off the return of the strong gods. This perspective in view, these uninterrogated assumptions governing Moore’s outlook, the reader will see why Renn has pegged Moore as a new breed of new fundamentalist.
But it’s not just the Christian nationalists that are so summarily dismissed in LOR. Moore also has choice words for the “Calvinist fundamentalists” that have critiqued Third Way-ist or “winsome” approaches to Christian cultural engagement in the “negative world.” As the reader will by now predict, Moore lacks the courage to name these people, but he is obviously referring to James Wood in particular and who he treats unfairly. He accuses Wood, who is not a Christian nationalist or a Trumpian or a “theobro,” of “attacking a revered elder evangelical [i.e., Tim Keller], as he was in the hospital being treated for terminal cancer.” (190). Clearly, Wood is a cold, heartless, pragmatic culture warrior who, if he would “attack” a cancer patient, probably eats puppies too.
Of course, no serious—never mind charitable—reader of Wood’s “How I Evolved on Tim Keller,” could conclude thus. Wood goes out of his way to praise Keller and, for goodness’ sake, named his dog after him. No effort from Moore is made to understand Wood’s position much less the precipitating occasion for a reassessment of evangelical socio-political action in cultural conditions demonstrably distinct from those of the 1990s. The bottom line, ironically un-winsome and fundamentalist, is that Wood critiqued the wrong person and challenged the ideological priors of people like Moore. Tsk-tsk.
And at the end of the day, Christian nationalism, “Calvinist fundamentalists,” “white-identity backlash,” Trumpism, they’re all the same to Moore because they are the forces that drove him out. This insistence on misunderstanding demonstrates exactly why it is, in fact, Moore’s rather snobbish and hierarchical brand of evangelicalism that is bleeding credibility and relevance, fast. In this way, Moore embodies his own frustrations.
No evangelical leader is going to act as coalitional glue if criticism of elites is outlawed, and if the ills that beset the coalition are repeatedly laid at the feet of the conspiratorial commoners, or when the concerns of the same are met with dismissal rather than sympathy.
It is only a certain class of American evangelical, one sufficiently insulated by external, worldly approval, that can spend more time on attitude and language policing or fretting about “strongmen and authoritarians” than he does on confronting the existential threats faced by the average pew sitter.
One might call this tribalism: Moore’s inability to give any credence to the convictions, passions, and frustrations of his public enemies. And he assumes everyone else operates in the same way, never considering that maybe they are simply reacting to new, threatening material and social conditions. No it must be that they are two faced sellouts! Moore:
“The problem within the nation, the church, and the culture is not so much that people fall for crazed and irrational conspiracy theories. The problem is that too many people who don’t actually believe the things they are saying say them anyway, because they are afraid of the people who believe such things.” (86).
Moore’s evangelicalism is one embattled by the Trumpian new right who are, by and large, either suckers or liars. The courageous, sensible evangelical, like Moore, must live not by lies, he says. Don’t self-censor, tell the truth, question authority, etc. Moore’s aphorisms, however, are obviously one-directional in application. A right-winger in attitudinal agreement but outcome divergent is, in fact, the object of Moore’s critique and proscriptions.
In the end, 2023 Russell Moore fits the stereotypical ex-vangelical bill. It is the social, moral, and political, not the theological, that has moved him. It is the perceived “values” crisis instigated by evangelical support of Trump that has sent many erstwhile evangelicals over the edge. Couple that with “Christian nationalism,” sex abuse cover-ups, and a perceived misogyny of pandemic proportions as all too typical causes for evangelical exit, and Moore fits the bill. LOR is little more than a travel log of that trip.
All that said, Moore is right about one thing, there is a fracture within evangelicalism. As he put it in a recent Atlantic piece previewing LOR, evangelicalism has entered a Tower of Babel moment. Universal shared language—moral and political language—is no longer a reality. New dialects demand new communities: “Those who wish to hold on to the Old Time Religion must recognize that God is doing something new. The old alliances and coalitions are shaking apart.”
True enough. And Moore is not playing the neutral observer here, to be sure. But much of what he describes has been compounded and exposed by socio-political occurrences of the past five to seven years. Litmus tests now abound: Trump, Covid-19, the fiery but mostly peaceful summer, and so on, and evangelical elite response thereto. The only question for evangelicals is whether all this constitutes an overdue big sort, a pruning, or instead signals the urgent necessity of revival to save the soul of a wayward evangelicalism. Moore affirms the latter. If you agree with Moore, then LOR will resonate.
And if you diverge from that view even slightly, LOR remains useful, if only to give the reader a distillation of the thought and anxiety of Moore and those of his exiled class. What will become clear is that their self-deportation has come not a moment too soon; they are not fit to lead the evangelicalism they so obviously find distasteful.
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