Will Young Evangelicals End the Religious Right's Obsession with the Culture Wars and Partisan Politics?

by Dan Quinn

Evangelicals_change1The Wall Street Journal this week published a fascinating piece about how conservative evangelical Christianity is changing in America today, particularly in its approach to politics and the decades-long “culture wars” over issues like abortion and gay rights. The article focuses on Russell Moore, who has replaced Richard Land as the leading spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention:

Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members. The country’s largest Protestant denomination pushed to end abortion, open up prayer in public schools and boycott Walt Disney Co. over films deemed antifamily. Its ranks included many of the biggest names on the Christian right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines. Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

Polling clearly shows that younger evangelicals view the culture wars differently than their elders. They are far more likely than the older generation to support, for example, marriage equality for gay couples. This development seems to be driving Moore’s approach, although he certainly doesn’t share the same views of the younger generation:

Mr. Moore is in no way a liberal. He equates abortion with the evils of slavery, considers homosexuality a sin, and insists the Southern Baptist Convention will never support gay marriage. At the same time, he emphasizes reconciliation and draws a traditional doctrinal distinction between the sinner and the sin.

Land, Moore’s predecessor as head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, aligned himself with the Republican Party and praised right-wing media figures like Glenn Beck. But Moore has been critical of the lure of “populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads”:

In an essay for the conservative Christian magazine “First Things,” titled “Why Evangelicals Retreat,” he dinged the [conservative evangelical] movement for “triumphalism and hucksterism” and lampooned a time when its leaders dispatched voter guides for the Christian position on “a line-item veto, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the proper funding levels for the Department of Education.”

Moore’s approach angers many old-line leaders and activists on the religious right. One of them is David Lane, the chief organizer for a years-long movement (embodied in organizations like the Texas Restoration Project and various state “Renewal Projects” around the country) to recruit conservative pastors into politics in support of partisan candidates like Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

In an email today to supporters of his American Renewal Project, Lane criticizes Moore for allegedly raising the “white flag of surrender” in the culture wars:

“The unconditional surrender by the principal public voice for Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) — Dr. Russell Moore — is a devastating blow to those of us trying to save America, and a shot in the arm to the Left Wing liberals trying to drive Christianity from the public square. Dr. Moore has abandoned the playing field in the War for the Soul of America.”

Lane, like many religious-right leaders, has a very dark view of America:

“America has spiritually collapsed and its Christian leaders are in retreat. America today is a nation of infidels, and its Christian leaders, generally, political greenhorns.”

For people like Lane, faith and partisan politics go hand-in-hand. For them, then, political opponents are anti-God and, even worse, allied with Satan. So they apply scorched-earth tactics to partisan political battles and demonize all who oppose them. There can be no compromise for them, only total victory.

Younger evangelicals increasingly appear to have had enough of that, which is very good news indeed.

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