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Evangelical Leader Under Attack For Criticizing Trump Supporters

Russell Moore (left), president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,  is under attack from some of the religious right figures he criticized during the U.S. presidential campaign.
Mark Humphrey

A prominent evangelical leader who harshly criticized Donald Trump during the presidential campaign now faces a backlash from fellow evangelicals who backed Trump.

Russell Moore, who presides over the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Trump "an awful candidate" and criticized "the old-guard religious right political establishment" for supporting him, notwithstanding Trump's "serious moral problems" and a Southern Baptist tradition of opposing politicians whose personal behavior is considered un-Christian.

"The religious right," Moore argued in an October speech, "turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about." As president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Moore is in charge of his organization's policymaking and lobbying apparatus.

Now Moore himself, as the ERLC leader, is under attack from some of the religious right figures he criticized during the campaign.

"Since Dr. Moore has taken over, there are a lot of things that are being said on various issues that the Southern Baptist people at large don't agree with," says Bill Harrell, the pastor emeritus at Abilene Baptist Church in suburban Augusta, Ga. "It's developed into a very touchy situation, and it needs to be addressed in some way."

Harrell served on the SBC committee that created the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission more than 20 years ago. He says he has heard from other Southern Baptist leaders that the convention's links with the ERLC need to be reconsidered if Moore is to continue leading the group.

"There are a number of churches that I have heard of in the SBC, fairly large churches, that are going to withhold their funds from the ERLC," Harrell says, "until this gets straightened out."

The Louisiana Baptist Convention, a state division of the Southern Baptist group, is among the organizations reconsidering its funding for Moore's commission. A resolution calling for a review of the links to the ERLC was referred to the Louisiana convention's executive board at a meeting in November.

Among the conservative leaders now going after Moore is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, himself a Southern Baptist pastor. "I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them," Huckabee says.

The controversy over Moore's leadership has even carried over into broader Christian circles. Janet Mefferd, a popular Christian radio broadcaster, thinks Moore unfairly criticized those evangelicals who stood by Trump in spite of his un-Christian tendencies.

"Most evangelicals that I've talked to became Trump voters late in the process, as their preferred candidates were not the ones who won," Mefferd told NPR. "And I think Russell Moore has made the error of saying evangelicals who supported Trump are selling out their principles."

Moore, who holds firmly to conservative Christian positions on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, is now responding to the backlash he faces over his anti-Trump comments. In a new statement on his website, Moore says he did not mean to criticize all people who voted for Trump. "If that's what you heard me say," he says, "that was not at all my intention, and I apologize."

Indeed, some of Moore's Southern Baptist supporters are now speaking out. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, applauds Moore for calling attention to Trump's alleged insensitivity to concerns about police brutality, an issue important to his African-American congregation,

"If they succeed in ousting Russell Moore, effectively we have become the Trump Baptist Convention," McKissic says, "alienating the majority of the population. This is so short-sighted of them."

Support for Moore also comes from Darrell Bock, a professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Bock worries that many evangelicals are too quick to vilify those who dare to expound a critical view, even those who share their own religious background, as Moore does.

"For some people," Bock says, "there is so much tribalism in the divisions that we have that to speak against your tribe is to be seen as defecting from your tribe."

Bock sees his fellow evangelical Christians, and U.S. society generally, as standing now on a precipice, where things could either get very bad, or where people might begin to come together — if they recognize the importance of being able to engage with those who disagree with them.

"Where we've taken ourselves in the last few decades," Bock notes, "is to the edge of this precipice, in which we are allowing this division to become so strong that our government can't even function."

Bock does not see last month's election as providing Trump a mandate. Pro- and anti-Trump evangelicals, Bock says, need to stop thinking about who won or lost and start talking to each other.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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