WASHINGTON – The ongoing collapse of the Bible Belt will help the church recover its oddness and thereby further its mission, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore told a gathering on Capitol Hill.
Moore encouraged the audience of Christians who work in congressional offices to approach the “next new reality” after the breakdown of the Bible Belt in a “gospel-centered” manner.
The nominal Christianity that marked the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest and provided social benefits in the past is giving way to a Christianity that has “a social, a cultural, a political, an economic cost,” the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) told the gathering of more than 40 people in the Capitol Sept. 13.
While the Bible Belt’s collapse “is bad news for America, because the Bible Belt hemmed in a lot of things from happening that were socially destructive,” Moore said, it “is very good news for the church. It will enable the church to reclaim the freakishness of Christianity in a way that I think is going to be helpful in moving forward with the mission.”
Such a dramatic recovery of the church’s oddness may not be far off, he said.
“Right now, it’s really not all that strange that a group of Christians who gather together in the United States Capitol have this conversation,” Moore told the mostly young audience. “In 10 years, 20 years, a group of people gathered here who believe that a dead man in the Middle East is alive again and is the rightly appointed ruler of everything might seem freakish and cult-like.
“And praise God if it does, because the power of the gospel is found in the freakishness of the gospel. When people don’t stop and say, ‘Wait a minute! What?’ that only means they don’t understand what we’re talking about.”
Only three days after his inauguration in Washington as ERLC president, Moore cited some approaches evangelicals and other Christians may adopt during this transitional time regarding public engagement and the culture that he considers unbiblical and unhelpful.
Christians who embrace “moral majoritarianism,” as he labeled it, can produce the following effects:
A focus on the American dream that results in cynicism.
A “form of perpetual outrage.”
A refusal to notice how churches are “succumbing to the outside culture.”
At its best, the moral majoritarianism of the Religious Right followed the tradition of the abolitionist and pro-life movements, Moore told the audience.
At its worst, however, it “easily could become a kind of prosperity gospel in which what we were saying is, ‘You can have the life that you’ve always wanted to have – the American Dream plus Jesus, which means that you have everything that America promises you plus heaven,’“ he said.
“That is a message that is alien to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s one of the reasons why the Religious Right often overreached in a way that bred cynicism” by such actions as producing voter guides that claimed a Christian position on a line-item veto and a balanced budget amendment, he said.
“What happened is another generation sees this use of Christianity and concludes, and sometimes rightly, that Jesus is simply a mascot for the sorts of positions that people would be holding anyway under any other circumstances,” Moore said.
Moral majoritarianism, he told the congressional staffers, “easily can be transformed into the faux outrage that plays well on talk radio and plays well on cable news networks and certainly works in terms of direct mail fundraising. Christian organizations have been just as susceptible to that.”
Another flawed approach is demonstrated especially in younger evangelicals overreacting to the mistakes of the previous generation by saying, for instance, they will give attention to evangelism and discipleship but not public ethics, Moore said.
That does not, however, deliver Christianity from “political captivity,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, some of the most politically captive Christian movements in the history of this country have been the most seemingly apolitical,” Moore said. “In the antebellum South, the language was: ‘Let’s not preach politics; let’s instead simply preach and teach the gospel.’
“Now what did that mean? That meant, let’s not address the issue of human slavery. That’s not apolitical. That’s very political, because when you’re standing in a congregation and you’re dealing as the Christian gospel does with sin and you are calling people to account for fornication and drunkenness and quarrelsomeness and dueling, but you say nothing about man-stealing and kidnapping and the atrocious evil of attempting to own another human being, it’s not that you are not speaking to slavery. You are speaking to slavery.”
As the proper approach to public engagement, Moore recommended to the audience what he calls “moral communitarianism” – the three-fold model of Kingdom, culture and mission he has promoted in less than four months as the ERLC’s president.
A proper understanding of the Kingdom of God and its implications while Christians await its fullness in the reign of Christ produces a “form of optimism to the way that we engage” the culture, he said.
Instead, many outside the church picture “angry, clinched fists” when they think about Christians in the public square, Moore said.
“One of the reasons why the outside culture tends to think of us as angry, clinched-fist sort of people is because that is what we have been for a long time…,” he said.
The Bible, however, reveals “an optimistic vision” of the direction of history “under the sovereignty of God, and the way that we ought to speak and dialogue with those who disagree with us betrays the fact that we really don’t believe that,” Moore said.
This view calls for a focus on the culture of churches, which he described as “embassies of the Kingdom of God.”
“We still work toward human flourishing in the political arena, but we do so recognizing in terms of priority local congregations display what Capitol Hill never can display,” Moore told the audience.
While it is important whom a Christian votes for in the presidential race, “[I]t is even more important the people that you as a congregation vote in to receive as members” of the church, he said.
The mission of the church in the public arena means Christians “speak not only what [Jesus] says, but we speak it the way He says it,” Moore said.
“In all of our public engagement and in all of our political engagement, we must recognize that we are, as the New Testament puts it, ministers of reconciliation,” he said. “We are not ministers of condemnation.
“It is easy for us to look at the outside culture and simply find all the ways to condemn it and to ridicule it,” he told the Hill staffers. “And that’s especially true for you, because you’re living in a political world where by necessity you are looking for all the weak flaws in the people who are on the other side of you, highlighting those weak flaws and seeking to vaporize the other person on television or in debate or in all sorts of other ways. That cannot be the way that we engage the outside world.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)