What Is Christianity, anyway? (Russell Moore edition)


Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I suspect it’s a topic you can shed some light on: What is Christianity, anyway?

Let me get more specific. Is it just a means of encountering God — the “just” does a lot of work there — and being transformed, even redeemed, by our encounter with the divine? Or is it just another tribe that we who are Christian (or post-Christian) belong to, an identity that marks us externally instead of internally (or eternally)? Is it political or apolitical?

Or maybe all of it? Or none of it?

I regularly come up with reasons for wanting to delve into this. My own sense is that American Christianity is largely more tribalistic than spiritual. Which — though I’m quasi-agnostic these days — makes me feel less than charitable towards a lot of people who call themselves Christian.

Here’s my latest example:

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.

Now: I’m not Southern Baptist. Russell Moore’s theology is not my own. But he’s struck me as a sincere, thoughtful guy walking in his faith — in a very public way — as best he knows how.

Let’s back up here. What did Moore say that was so controversial anyway?

Well, this for example:

We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.

This should not be surprising to social conservatives in a culture shaped by pornographic understandings of the meaning of love and sex. What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”

So Southern Baptists are angry at Moore … for a critique of Trump based on the longstanding Southern Baptist understanding of sexuality?

Now, Rebecca: I’m pretty sure the Southern Baptist sexual ethic isn’t mine, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t yours either. But it also seems pretty foundational to the Southern Baptist identity. Did I miss something?

I dunno. It bothers me when churches seem to so easily dispense with their message when earthly politics are on the line. If Russell Moore is forced from his job, it seems to me the Southern Baptist witness will be rooted in Trumpism rather than any particular understanding of the Christian faith or message. And I suspect that Trumpism, for all its faults, isn’t really rooted in the kind of eternal outlook you’d expect of a religion.

I’m still trying to make my thoughts cohere on this. I’m not Southern Baptist, but I’m offended at what I see as a wound to Southern Baptist integrity. Does that make sense? Am I weird?

And what the heck is Christianity supposed to be for, anyway?

— Joel


  1. Yup, all of the above is spot on. Was the question posed to Barrett-Fox?

    Re: SBC

    I was counseling with Emil Williams, Pastor First Baptist Church in Jonesboro and former member of the board of Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky during 1989 – 1991.

    This is when the conservatives took over the Southern Baptist convention including Southern Theological Seminary. When the conservatives took over the Seminary, The Faculty was required to pass a litmus test which included opinions over abortion homosexuality prayer in public schools at cetera.

    Those that did not pass this test regarding their opinions on these matters were fired. It ruined many people’s lives and some ended their lives with her own hand.

    Emil Williams is the man that made the phone call that split the Southern Baptist Church and formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that up holds the “moderate” views of inclusiveNess and love.

    So the purges of the Middle Ages occasionally show back up in the power plays within the denominations. A similar thing happened and the Missouri synod Lutheran Church.

    So, mr. Moore being a moral person may find himself on the outs if sufficient numbers cease to give to the SBC.

    RE: What is Christianity?

    In my honest opinion, Christianity is a way of life. That way of life is defined by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who emphasized and expanded the teachings of Torah.

    The primary teaching is to love God, self, neighbor, and enemy. To do this we have to have Divine help. Which is simply another way of saying we can’t do this on our own power, so we develop a personal relationship with the creator of the universe who provides us the means to do so. But we can’t give from an empty place, so we have to receive God’s love in order to share it with others. That love is not limited, but is directed toward all of creation. God’s love when received is life changing and transforming. as far as I am concerned, everything ease is commentary.


  2. A friend writes:

    With respect, I really don’t think your question (“What is Christianity, anyway?”) is particularly fair or helpful. Christianity is over 2,000 years old, and built “on top” of Judaism which is arguably pre-historic. Would you expect to get a productive answer to questions like, “What is Hinduism, anyway?” or “What is Judaism, anyway?” I mean, how close are we to the answer to the question, “What is Islam?” after so many years of hand-wringing on the matter?

    On the one hand, you can be very minimalist in your definition, in which case the historical “consensus document” would be the Nicene Creed. That’s probably not going to get you very far when trying to understand why the SBC’s power-brokers are going nuts on Russell Moore, of course, but it might at least ground the answer in the common beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout history. I don’t think your speculative “just a means of encountering God” is really likely to align with the confession of most Christians, though.

    At its core, Christianity (at least in its historically orthodox flavors) is not about “encountering” God so much as being reconciled to him. The whole narrative of the bible is about how God restores a broken relationship with a people who are (for lack of a better word) at war with him. But that’s not really very helpful to the SBC question, either, except in the sense that it probably indicates that the denominations elites and powerful donors have gone stunningly off-mission.

    My response:

    Quickly: I hear some of your criticisms here, Robb, and one of them was a writerly failure: In “encountering” God, I meant something like what you say by “reconciliation,” but my Christian vocabulary is a touch rusty.

    As for the question itself: Yeah, it’s a big one, but I don’t think that means it’s unproductive. The questioning and searching has meaning, I think, and that’s kind of a foundational one.

    As for this: ” But that’s not really very helpful to the SBC question, either, except in the sense that it probably indicates that the denominations elites and powerful donors have gone stunningly off-mission.” Well, yes. That’s very much


  3. […] Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s