This year, Russell Moore took over as head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — the huge Protestant denomination's highest-profile post, particularly on matters of politics and policy. The position, which brings the preacher and former congressional aide back to Washington, was held by Richard Land for the previous quarter-century, during which Southern Baptists — like organized religion in general — experienced a significant decline in membership in the United States.
Moore was recently interviewed at The Washington Post.
Question: You say religious liberty is under threat in the United States, and you express concern about military chaplains who disapprove of gay relationships having to counsel same-sex married couples. What's the real issue?
Answer: What happens if you have these small issues is that they then become precedent-setting. Who are chaplains? Are they simply agents of the state? Or are they there for their original purpose?
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Q: So the religious liberty discussion is about the relationship between religion and the state?
A: It's easy for the chaplaincy to become just a religious extension of the government. If that's where chaplaincy is headed, you won't have Catholic and Muslim and Orthodox Jewish chaplains. You'll just have bland, generic civil American religion. ... I'm worried about the silencing of various voices in order to have a generic civil religion we can all agree on. Which is impossible.
Q: But most people don't feel threatened in their regular lives. How will you convince Americans that religious liberty is at risk?
A: You have to look historically. ... Which is why some of us have been working at, say, when you have people in the Bible Belt who want to use zoning laws to keep mosques out, to use that as a teaching opportunity to say: "This isn't right. ... If you're able to give Caesar the power to keep a mosque out, in the fullness of time, government has power to keep a Baptist church from building in Boston."
Q: Did a lot of Southern Baptist pastors preach on the Trayvon Martin case? (Land retired from the commission several months after being reprimanded for controversial remarks about the Martin case.)
A: Most white evangelicals, white Americans, are seeing this microscopically in terms of this verdict, and most African-Americans are seeing it macroscopically. It's Trayvon Martin, it's Emmitt Till, it's Medgar Evers, it's my son, it's my neighbor's son, it's my situation that I had. ... Most white Americans say, "We don't know what happened that night," and whites are missing the point.
Q: How do you feel about the verdict?
A: Regardless of what Trayvon Martin was doing or not doing that night, you have someone who was taking upon himself some sort of vigilante justice, even by getting out of the car.
Regardless of what the legal verdict was, this was wrong. And when you add this to the larger context of racial profiling and a legal system that does seem to have systemic injustices as it relates to African-Americans with arrests and sentencing, I think that makes for a huge crisis. ... I think many people assume our racial tensions are in the past because we have a Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, an African-American president, but these sorts of situations demonstrate the raw reality that that's not the case.
Q: Many Americans are turning away from institutional religion. Why?
A: When it comes to people who say they have "no religion," in some ways that is the collapse of Bible Belt America, of this sense of Christianity as being something that is part of a normal American life. In some areas of the country, it meant someone was a good citizen by being part of a church. That is collapsing, and as an evangelical Christian, I say good riddance to that.
I don't think that sort of American dream plus Jesus represented biblical Christianity at all and in many ways hindered it and the advance of the Gospel, which is dependent upon ... the freakishness of Christianity.
We're saying some things that are extraordinary — that a dead man has come back to life! That reconciliation with God is possible through forgiveness of sins. Those things aren't just the application of moral American life. The Veggie Tales phenomenon in evangelicalism, the taking Bible characters and making cartoons out of them and teaching moral lessons from those things really represented a lot of what was happening in Bible Belt Christianity that I think was bloodless and Gospel-free in many ways. That's changing, so you don't have nominal young Christian church members who are going to church because they think this is what's good for their families or their businesses or to find a spouse or to make partner at the law firm. Those days are over.
Q: Where is the abortion debate going? Public-opinion polls show Americans want abortion available in the early stages. And yet these measures are passing in the states to limit it in the later stages.
A: One thing I try and do with our constituency on this issue is to warn against extreme triumphalism or pessimism. Because some of our people see those polls that young people are increasingly pro-life and see it as "We're winning." I'm not sure that's the case. But the fact that this is a real debate in American culture is in one sense a success of pro-life movement.
Q: Views on abortion are changing because of technology and the viability of the fetus.
A: But technology takes as well as it gives. I'm concerned as abortion becomes more chemical with the RU-486 abortion pill and less clinical that the abortion debate will then change. I use the analogy of pornography. There was a lot of effort by social conservatives to keep adult bookshops out, and those were battles worth having, but now the issue isn't whether there's a Playboy behind the counter. You have a ubiquity and an invisibility around pornography that has weaponized it. A similar thing I fear could happen with abortion as it becomes more of a pharmaceutical and chemical issue that enables people to put a distance between themselves and the personhood of the child involved.