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Evangelical Leader On Role Of Church In Moment Of Upheaval


It's not news to anybody that the last few months have been a time of massive upheaval, disorienting for many Americans and exhilarating to others. We've seen police killings of unarmed citizens, massive street protests about racial injustice, surging COVID-19 cases, crushing unemployment and, at the same time, a reconsideration of long-held beliefs.

So we've been turning to leaders and thinkers from a variety of backgrounds to hear how they're thinking about this, so now we're turning to Russell Moore. He's a prominent voice among conservative evangelicals. He's the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he's with us now from Nashville, Tenn.

Pastor Moore, thank you so much for joining us once again.

RUSSELL MOORE: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: In all the upheavals I've cited - the coronavirus crisis, all we've seen about police violence and the response to that - how have you been thinking about this period in our history? Do you have, like, a theory of everything rooted in your beliefs?

MOORE: Well, I have a lot of people who are asking me, doesn't this seem like an apocalyptic time? Usually, what they mean by that is, do you think that everything is falling apart, and this is the end? And the answer to that's probably not.

But if you mean by apocalyptic what the word literally means - an unveiling, a revelation - I think that's what we're seeing right now. I think we're seeing a lot of issues that have been underground for a long time and have emerged. And we're seeing both the horrors that are possible as well as some signs of life in terms of people doing the right thing.

MARTIN: One of the things that has been puzzling to many people, I think, is that you've seen that in some places, there has been a real resistance to taking some of the steps that public health experts have said are most helpful, like wearing masks and social distancing. And you've seen a real resistance to this in certain parts of the country.

And I guess I have to ask you, one of the things that I find most puzzling is that some of the places that have been the most resistant to these measures are also places where their leadership considers themselves to be pro-life.

MOORE: Well, that's a conversation that I've been having as well. Part of it comes down to just a breakdown of trust. And also, I think - I just had this conversation yesterday with someone who said, well, aren't we as Christians supposed to be people who are free from fear? We tell people to risk their lives for Jesus. Go onto the mission field and risk themselves.

And I said, yes, but that's not the analogy here. We're not talking about whether or not you're willing to risk your life. It's whether or not you're willing to harm other people. But I'll have to tell you, Michel, the thing that's startling to me is I haven't had to have that conversation to the degree that I thought I would.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that other crisis we've spoken about, the national reckoning with racial injustice. What would you say is the role of the church at a time like this, particularly - let's just say it - in evangelical churches, where perhaps this has not been top of the mind for them?

MOORE: I think the role of the church is, first of all, to have our own consciences shaped and formed by the Gospel and by the Bible, which, I mean, the Bible speaks to this issue repeatedly. So whenever I have someone who says, well, these issues of racism are a distraction from what we're supposed to be about with the gospel, I wonder, have you even read the Bible? The Bible is talking about this literally from the very first chapter. And then we have to demonstrate to the rest of the world what that looks like internally.

And that's not just a problem - that's a crisis. And what I have found is, there are some people who assume history will just take care of this. And as time goes on, these things will just make themselves better. I think we all have to recognize that is not the case.

MARTIN: We're talking about - as we began our conversation talking about this kind of myriad crises and challenges that are facing the country, and as I said earlier, you know, some people feel exhilarated by this moment. They feel, finally. Other people feel very sort of challenged by it. You might think that some would turn to faith at a time like this.

But, you know, Southern Baptists are the country's largest Protestant denomination. But, you know, we're seeing that the convention saw its largest single-year membership drop in a century from 2018 to 2019. And this is, like, the 13th straight year of decline, as I understand it. But why do you think that is?

MOORE: I think the primary problem is cynicism. We're living in a time where the institutions are failing, the institutions are losing trust. When I go onto a college campus, and I'm talking to someone who grew up in the church and then left the church, it's usually someone who has been hurt and who has been disappointed by things that have gone on within the church. So, as one person who left said to me, it's not that I don't believe intellectually what my church teaches. It's that I don't believe my church believes what my church teaches.

That's a crisis of faith, hope and love that requires the church itself to speak with credibility and to repair the breach there.

MARTIN: Well, you've been writing a lot in recent years about how people with your theological, you know, and faith commitments should kind of relate to society in its current form. And I know you don't want to talk about partisan politics, but the reality of it is, is that, you know, white evangelicals have been among President Trump's strongest supporters even as he has continued to demean not just people of color and women and specific groups but also anybody who disagrees with him.

And I just have to ask if you think that that's a part of the distrust? When people see the leadership embracing someone who seems to be a polar opposite of commitments that they have made - at least, the commitments that they profess - do you think that's part of it?

MOORE: Yeah, I think that's certainly something that comes up in almost every conversation that I have with people who come to the conclusion that the church itself is part of a political movement. And so that means having a church that is very clearly consistent with its own principles but also a church that is engaged with the rest of American life but not captive to whatever the current debates and up and down movements are.

MARTIN: Pastor Russell Moore is the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His latest book is "The Storm-Tossed Family."

Pastor Moore, thanks so much for talking to us today.

MOORE: Oh, thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.