Synesis was privileged and honored to recently interview Dr. Russell Moore here in Nashville. Dr. Moore has been a prominent leader and influential voice in the public arena both in the United States and nationally, meeting with presidents, politicians, and other public figures about culture, Christianity, and the role of the church in the world. He has been called “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate” by the Wall Street Journal, and is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, CNN, the New Yorker, MSNBC, and other national publications. He is also a role model for many on this Editorial Board and in our larger collective of journals as someone who is fiercely devoted to his faith, deeply respectful of others, and uncommonly thoughtful. He has spent considerable time over the years writing and speaking about a myriad of issues, among them the separation of church and state, the place of Christianity and the family in the larger culture, and the role of Christians in the international adoption movement.
Dr. Moore currently serves as the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the moral and public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that, he served as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also taught theology and ethics. He is originally from Mississippi, and he currently lives in Nashville with his wife Maria and their five children.
I want to start with a few general questions about your background: what you do here at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and more generally thinking about Christianity and the public sphere and what it means for Christians to engage in society.
You trained as a pastor and then worked at Southern Seminary in Louisville, teaching ethics and theology before later serving as Provost and Dean. You’re now President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. What led to your interest in ethics and religious liberty after starting from a pastoral beginning?
There was a tension between a call to ministry and a political vocation for me from early on. I felt a call to ministry as early as age 12, but I turned aside from that around age 15 and by the time I was in college I was on a congressional staff and working for a congressional campaign. That was my trajectory. Of course that trajectory changed and yet everything providentially came together. I find that’s common with people: you look back at things and find what seemed to be at the time cul-de-sacs in life, later on make much more sense. I think often you really do look back and say ‘I could never have seen what God was doing at that time.’ For me it was never a waste of time because there was something that was needed later on. The people who think ‘this is exactly where I’ll go’, with no deviation, tend to be very surprised.
Given your experience both as a pastor, as a congressional aid, and now as President of an organization that straddles the two worlds, what role do you think Christians have in politics?
Well Christians in the United States are citizens of a democratic republic, which means that the people are the ultimate authority. Christians cannot shirk that responsibility. When John the Baptist is approached by soldiers and tax collectors as he’s preaching in the Jordan and they ask him ‘what shall we now do after we have repented and come to faith in Christ’? He gives them direction about how to faithfully live out their lives as public officials. That doesn’t just apply to people who hold office; that applies to everyone in a system such as ours where everyone does hold office as citizens. That said, there is a tendency in American life to idolize politics and Christians must create distance from the all-consuming idolatry of politics. This means that we understand that we have overlapping interests sometimes with political parties but we’re not going to have a sort of all-encompassing comprehensive alliance that contemporary political life expects. We live in a time where politics is ultimate, and people’s entire frame of mind is affected in exuberance when their side is winning or in complete despair when they’re not. As Christians we must have a different view.
What does it mean for Christianity to be strange?
If we look at the New Testament and the era after the New Testament, Christianity went from being a tiny beleaguered sect to a massive movement. What made the difference? I agree with historian Larry Hurtado who says that one of the key elements of success was the distinctiveness of the Christian witness. It wasn’t that Christianity was avoiding the areas where it diverged from popular expectations, but Christianity spoke in a way that was clearly distinctive. That applies across the board. It has to do internally with the people of God in terms of what the expectation should be for living in the Kingdom of God. It also has to do with the Greco-Roman world and beliefs around about the resurrection of the body and so forth.
There is a credibility that comes with clarity. Sometimes we tend to think if we downplay the distinctive aspects of Christianity then we will be able to gently nudge people toward a Christian morality and then from a Christian morality into a sense of Christian worship. In reality that’s not the pattern we see in the New Testament.
The key issue is the distinction between the church and the world and the mission between the church and the world. The Scripture presents a clear difference between the church and the outside world. Jesus rules the church as an outpost of the Kingdom, but this outpost of the Kingdom bears witness to the rest of the world. Serving the outside world shapes and forms the consciences of the church. Both of those realities are true.
How do Christians practically speaking, live as members both of the kingdom of God and of earthly society where we are called to seek the welfare and good of the people around us whether they are Christians or not?
The imagery of ambassadorship that the Apostle Paul uses in 2nd Corinthians 5 is key. Think of the analogy in terms of diplomatic relations in today’s world. An ambassador is speaking on behalf of a sending authority which means the ambassador does not say more than the sending authority has authorized them to say but they also do not say less. I think in all of our various callings the main thing is priority, to see ourselves first as those who are a part of the kingdom of God so that the life of the kingdom reshapes and disrupts everything else that we do. A great example is how we view the family. In the New Testament you have two seemingly contradictory things happening. On the one hand there is a call to the family as important and crucial like when Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for not honoring mother and father. And on the other hand, you have this deconstructing of the family as ultimate like when Jesus says ‘whoever does not leave behind father and mother for my sake is not fit for the kingdom’. How do those two fit together? Family is important but not ultimate. When I see myself as first a child of God and a citizen of his kingdom then I am able to give myself to my family. I think the same thing is true in all of these natural arrangements that we have, whether they have to do with work or politics or anything else. The sense of the priority of God’s kingdom gives me the freedom to actually give myself to whatever my calling is. Someone who binds up his or her identity in a job or a career, for instance, is going to ultimately be of no service to anyone because that person is going to become disillusioned and disappointed. But someone who has a clear sense of identity and Christ who then gives himself or herself to carrying out a vocation is able to do that very effectively. I think that is the same in terms of our jobs and also in our calling as citizens.
You have written a lot on adoption and the family. Why are healthy and sacrificial families crucial to both the church and to society?
There are several reasons. One of the reasons is that family is a reminder that we are creatures and not self-sustaining gods. Everyone comes from a line of other people and everyone is connected in some way or another even if a person doesn’t know who those other people are. That is a reminder of our dependence: the world did not start with me and the world will not end with me. That is important for us to realize. Another reason is because family is more than just natural. Family points outside of itself to something else. The New Testament defines what that is when Paul says that much of creation is a mystery revealed through Jesus Christ. When it comes to the family there are several ways that that is true. The one-flesh union is a picture of the union of Christ and the church. The parent-child relationship is a picture of the fatherhood of God. This question is especially important because family can be a source of both great joy and a source of great pain. There are many people who start to question a merely materialistic view of the universe when they see their children for the first time. And there are many people who question the existence or the goodness of God because of the trauma they bear for something that happened in their family. Family is profoundly powerful in a way that can be beautiful or can be horrifying.
A large part of your job is about religious liberty and freedom. How would you define religious liberty and why should we, especially as college students, care about it?
Religious liberty is the recognition that God alone is lord of the conscience; the state has no coercive power over worship or religious belief or conviction. Sometimes I think young people assume that religious liberty is merely about whether or not we will be persecuted, so it can sound spiritually right to say that persecution builds character so let’s be persecuted. To some degree this is true. Religious liberty, though, is not simply the question of whether or not we will be persecuted, it is a question about whether or not we will be persecutors. In a system such as ours where the people are ultimately making decisions, precedents that are being set have to do with how the state is going to relate to other people and future generations as it relates to freedom of belief. That applies not just to Christians but to everyone. This is for a number of reasons but chiefly, as a Christian, I believe that the new birth cannot be engineered by social power. If the state were to attempt to endorse certain forms of faith or to restrict other forms of faith, the state has done nothing but to cause people to pretend to be whatever the state-approved religion is.
Is there a conflict between pluralism and Christianity in the United States and the West?
There is conflict if pluralism is defined as pluralism of truth. That is, there are multiple truth claims that are equally valid. This, of course, is in complete contradiction with Christianity. But pluralism as it relates to the state, in which the state does not attempt to coerce people in terms of their deepest convictions, is not only compatible with Christianity, it is demanded by Christianity. If conversion comes about by the power of the Holy Spirit, then from the perspective of the state pluralism is necessary. A policy of pluralism does not mean that conversations and arguments are shut down, but rather that they flourish. Since the state is not going to act as a god or a priest or a referee, then people are able to appeal to one another and to seek to persuade one another of those things that are most ultimate. One time I was speaking on a college campus and was on a forum with a Muslim woman. Pluralism means that she is free to try to persuade me that there is no God but Allah and that I am free to try to persuade her that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. This is crucial in a free republic like ours.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle in our politics to pursuing the common good? Is it even possible to pursue the common good in a pluralistic society?
Yes, it is possible to pursue the common good. The obstacle is that we are in a situation where, because politics has become so totalizing, we don’t really expect to persuade one another because we don’t have a contest of ideas, we simply have an ongoing contest of power and identity politics across the board. That is why almost any political conversation right now is less about what would be best and what would work and more about ‘does my side win’, or more importantly ‘does your side lose’. When that is the case it becomes very difficult to discern the common good because even the ideas flip back and forth depending upon to whom they apply. I don’t agree with [political theorist] John Rawls on much, but I do think that his veil of ignorance imagery is correct, that when we make decisions together as citizens there ought to be a sense that we do so knowing that whatever we’re deciding could work in either direction. That’s just not happening right now and that is a big obstacle.
Following up on that, what is the biggest challenge to growth in American Christianity over the next decade or so?
I think the major obstacle to Christianity right now is not secularization but cynicism. Secularization is real and the challenges of secularization are bigger than what many Christians assume. But the bigger obstacle is the same sort of experience that I had as a 15 year-old going through a spiritual crisis. I started to wonder whether the religion that I had been handed was really just politics and southern honor culture with Jesus as a mascot. Thankfully I had read The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, so I recognized C.S. Lewis’s name on the side of Mere Christianity. What was life changing to me about Mere Christianity was not so much the arguments that Lewis is making, but that there was a tone in which it was very evident to me that Lewis was not trying to sell me anything. There was not, as one scholar put it, a God above God, where religion is being used in an instrumental fashion. Lewis spoke to me, a product of the Bible Belt, by bearing witness to the much larger Christian tradition. There is a sense today in which many people are wondering whether Christianity is just useful. Jesus disrupts and destroys that entire argument. Christianity is not useful if a crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ is not at its center.
Last question: if you could have dinner with any country music artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
Merle Haggard. And I really wanted to and tried to make that happen and even talked to someone who could make that happen, but they said to me that he was nervous around preachers. Actually, it would be a tie because I love Kris Kristofferson. Lyrically, he is unmatched. He wrote songs about Voltaire’s Candide and theodicy and you just don’t see that anywhere else. Tom T. Hall would be another one. If I were still teaching, I would have assigned his Songwriter’s Handbook to my preaching class.
Read more of Dr. Moore’s work at his website.
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