Not a retreat from the culture wars, but a recalibration

Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, America’s culture wars haven’t ended. But they might be entering a cooler, calmer phase.

Russell Moore is the new face of the Southern Baptist Convention when it comes to matters of public policy — the head of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

For better than three decades, this has been the agency that has held up the Southern Baptist end in fierce political fights over abortion, gay marriage, gun rights and church-state concerns — usually on the side of a Republican Party that has become heavily dependent on evangelical voters.

Moore, 42 and an avowed political independent, represents a generational shift within a movement that began with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, matured under Ralph Reed, and now finds itself fractured into myriad splinter groups and causes.

Much like the GOP, Southern Baptists have been on the losing end of a demographic shift. While they remain the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, an under-40 generation weary of noisy conflict is draining away.

“Sometimes, some of our younger evangelicals see a false choice between a kind of perpetual outrage and isolation and disengagement,” Moore said in a telephone interview.

“One can speak insistently, and one can speak convictionally, without screaming,” the Biloxi, Miss., native said. “The screaming is often the result of people who fear they’re on the losing side of history. I don’t believe we’re on the losing side of history.”

Not in the long run, anyway. In the short term, religious conservatives have been reeling.

Yet after a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings this summer, paving the way for the legalization of gay marriage, Moore was anything but hysterical in the message he aimed at Baptist congregations. He counseled stand-your-ground conviction, leavened with a dose of empathy.

“The gay and lesbian people in your community aren’t part of some global ‘Gay Agenda’ conspiracy. They aren’t super-villains in some cartoon,” he wrote. “They are, like all of us, seeking a way that seems right to them.”

Some have characterized such sentiments as a white flag. “Pullback” was the phrase used in a Wall Street Journal headline last week. Moore disagrees. “What I’m calling evangelicals to do is not to say anything less, but to say something more,” he said.

Not a retreat, but a recalibration.

For one thing, Moore recommends that religious conservatives pay more attention to the quality of the company they keep. Young evangelicals have “grown cynical at movements that are willing to adopt allies that are Gospel heretics as long as they are politically correct,” Moore wrote in a blog post last week — singling out Glenn Beck and Donald Trump.

Moore described Trump as “a multiple-times, married-and-divorced casino magnate who is hardly representative of evangelical Christianity.”

As for Beck, a Mormon, Moore said the talk show host has attempted to blur the theological lines separating his faith from traditional Protestantism. Moore pointed to a 2010 rally at the Lincoln Memorial hosted by Beck and featuring a wide range of evangelicals. They included Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, who described Beck as a man with “Billy Graham” qualities.

I asked Moore whether his objections to Beck amounted to indirect criticism of Mitt Romney, last year’s Republican presidential candidate and also a Mormon. He said absolutely not. “The Romney campaign didn’t try to pretend that Mormonism was just another flavor of evangelical Christianity,” Moore said.

But more than truer friends, Moore said Baptists need a truer perspective of the changing world around them — in which religious conservatives are a cultural minority.

“It’s impossible to pretend as though we’re a Moral Majority in this country, who are simply fighting back a few McGovernite elites out there,” Moore said. Which brought him back to the need for lowering the volume.

“What we have to do is recognize that the culture is moving in this direction now. We have to bear witness to what we believe, and we have to be ready to persuade people,” Moore said. And the art of persuasion doesn’t include “vaporizing” the opposition on talk radio.

Moore pointed to the Southern Baptist approach to abortion. Support for constantly tougher prohibitions on the procedure, he maintained, are supplemented by attempts within his denomination to reach out to women who have undergone the procedure and an emphasis on adoption.

Gay marriage poses another test. “We have to stop assuming that this is all on the outside,” Moore said. “We have within our congregations people who are grappling with these issues. We have parents who have gay and lesbian children.”

In the end, he said, civility and mercy ought not be confused with capitulation. “The message of Gospel witness can’t be, ‘You kids get off of my lawn,’ ” Moore said.

That’s good political advice, too.

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