Religious liberty, pro-life concerns and gay marriage have been among the topics discussed in Russell D. Moore’s meetings with Jeb Bush and other potential 2016 presidential candidates, Southern Baptists’ lead ethicist said in an interview with Baptist Press.
“I don’t endorse candidates. I’m not going to endorse a candidate. I’ll never endorse a candidate for president,” Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), told BP. “I don’t think that’s my job. But I’m willing to meet with anyone who wants to talk about what Southern Baptists are about and what sorts of things are of concern to us.”
Also in the interview, Moore said he feels no need to apologize for comments he made in April regarding the quarrelsome tone of some Christian talk radio hosts.
Moore’s May 2 meeting in Miami with Bush – the former governor of Florida who many believe will run for president – was discussed in national media outlets after the Washington Post reported in April that the two planned to talk. Moore said the publicity was unusual because he has met with other potential presidential candidates with virtually no publicity.
He declined to identify the other possible candidates or say how many meetings have occurred, though he indicated that all have been Republicans.
Once presidential hopefuls announce their candidacy, Moore said he may be willing to reveal which ones have conversations with him. Until then, he wants to “meet with people and have frank discussions on their own terms,” he said, adding that some potential candidates prefer not to disclose the meetings.
“I think that’s fine,” Moore said of the private meetings, “because I want to be able to help people running for office get a perspective on the issues that are of concern to evangelicals, even if they don’t agree with us on those concerns.”
Moore noted that religious liberty, the protection of innocent life and the defense of marriage are topics he typically addresses with prospective candidates.
Religious liberty was an important topic in his discussion with Bush. Moore said he “can’t remember the last time” he “had a conversation with anyone currently or potentially in government when I didn’t bring up the [Obama administration’s abortion/contraceptive] mandate as an example of what happens when government seeks to overtake the conscience.”
The abortion/contraceptive mandate requires employers to carry health insurance plans covering contraceptives that can cause chemical abortions – even if doing so runs contrary to the employers’ religious convictions.
Religious liberty concerns “are mobilizing a new coalition of religious people in this country,” Moore said. He added that when voting for a candidate, it is important to know whether he or she believes only in the freedom to hold private religious convictions or also in the freedom to live out those convictions in the public square.
An unexpected topic during the conversation with Bush was Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, a topic that Bush knows much about based on his experience helping Floridians recover from hurricanes, Moore said.
In addition to talking with presidential candidates, Moore said he plans to talk with Southern Baptists during the 2016 election cycle about how to determine which candidate to vote for. He said Christians should regard the defense of innocent human life, the family and religious liberty as the three most important issues.
“There are other issues,” Moore said. “But without those three issues … everything else is in peril. So I think those issues have priority over many others.”
Voting for candidates who reflect biblical values is wise stewardship of a believer’s American citizenship, Moore said.
“Romans 13 says that God has given a sword of authority to Caesar. In a democratic republic, the ultimate accountability rests with the people, which means that the act of voting in our system is essentially the delegating of the use of the sword, which means we must have … consciences that understand our responsibility for wisdom in seeking leaders to act on our behalf,” he said.
Christian Talk Radio
Despite calls for an apology by some radio executives and hosts, Moore said no apology is needed for statements he made about Christian talk radio programs that “condemn sinners” without offering “mercy in Christ.”
“I’m not taking any course of action except to reiterate what I said, which is to say we must be the people who hold both truth and grace together. And we must be the people who speak both of repentance from sin and of the invitation to mercy found in Jesus Christ,” Moore said.
In an April 22 address at the ERLC’s Leadership Summit in Nashville, Moore spoke of the need for Christians to carry out a dual ministry of speaking prophetically against sin and offering sinners reconciliation to God through Christ. In that context, he complained of Christian talk radio personalities who rail against sin without presenting Jesus as the solution.
“I listened on the way back up here from my hometown to some Christian talk radio this week, against my doctor’s orders,” Moore, a native of Mississippi, said in his address. “And honestly, if all that I knew of Christianity was what I heard on Christian talk radio, I’d hate it too. There are some people who believe that fidelity to the Gospel simply means speaking, ‘You kids get off my lawn.’ That is not the message that has been given to us. If the call to repentance does not end with the invitation that is grounded in the bloody cross and the empty tomb of Jesus, we are speaking a different word than the Word that we have been given.”
Asked if critics seemed to misunderstand his remarks, Moore, who has hosted and appeared on Christian talk radio, replied, “No one in the room misunderstood at all what I was saying contextually. And really, as I’ve heard from people who actually listened to the message, I don’t find any misunderstanding.”
Following the comments, Richard P. Bott II, president of the Bott Radio Network, wrote a letter to Moore and copied more than 70 evangelical leaders, the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Pathway journal reported. In the letter Bott called for Moore to apologize. Christian talk show hosts Janet Mefferd and Brian Fischer also challenged Moore’s remarks, according to the Pathway.
“Assuming you spoke from ignorance,” Bott wrote, “I am eager to offer you an opportunity to apologize for this serious and inexplicable misstatement, with our BRN Christian Talk Radio platform of 95 radio stations plus multiple digital new media outlets with worldwide reach.”
Moore told BP that many of his friends in talk radio agreed with his critique. He appeared on the programs of Chris Fabry and Erick Erickson to clarify his comments during the first part of May.
On the Erick Erickson Show May 9, Moore said he was talking specifically about talk radio where “venting of the spleen” isn’t accompanied by the Good News of the Gospel. He added that “a ton of people” in Christian talk radio “are doing really good, Gospel-centered work.” He identified Jim Daly, Dennis Rainey and John Stonestreet as examples.
Critics should recognize that he wasn’t referencing every Christian talk radio program, Moore said.
“I have said in other venues, ‘If all I knew about Christianity was from television evangelism, I might suppose that Christianity is all about prosperity devoid of the cross.’ No one assumes I’m talking about Billy Graham,” Moore told BP.
Even John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets, who were known for their harsh rebukes of sinners, also spoke of the opportunity to be reconciled with God – a model that radio hosts and all other Christians should follow, Moore said.
“Every conversation is going to be different in terms of how you’re addressing a specific issue,” he said. “But the question is: Is the ultimate framework that I’m operating out of one that wants to see people come to faith in Christ and wants to see people reconciled with God? Or is my ultimate goal simply to express my anger and condemnation?”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)