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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Are You Looking for Truth in Post-Election America?

  • 2020Nov 17

woman protesting holding up stop it signPhoto Credit: ©Getty Images/triocean

The following post is from my weekly newsletter Moore to the Point. You can subscribe for free to have it delivered to your inbox every Monday.

This past week, a friend told me that a pastor we know couldn’t get through his pastoral prayer last week. He was interrupted, it seems, by a woman screaming at him from the pews for something he said. That should not, on its face, surprise us that much. The gospel, after all, is supposed to be a “scandal” to the world—at odds with the wisdom and power prized by this fallen age.

So what did the pastor say that elicited this kind of reaction? Was it the exclusivity of Christ for access to God? The reality of hell and a Day of Judgment? That a virgin conceived, and that a dead man was resurrected? No. What brought such fury was his prayer that God would give wisdom and judgment to Joe Biden as he becomes the new president of the country. 

This woman—a visitor, not a member of this pastor’s church—screamed, “Biden was not elected!”

I was told this continued through the time of prayer, until she was ushered from the sanctuary while denouncing the pastor as a liberal and the church with slurs against our disabled brothers and sisters that I will not repeat here. 

In case you were wondering, this pastor is not, in fact, a “liberal.” He is not the sort of pastor who endorses or half-endorses candidates for political office (may his tribe increase). I have no idea how the members of the church voted, though if one assumed the same trends of geography and demography that we see in exit polls, it is probably safe to assume that at least 70 percent voted the same way as the outraged woman. 

The pastor was simply doing what the Bible commanded him to do: to pray for “kings and all those who are in authority” (1 Tim. 2:2).

And, by now, there is no question that on January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Is it possible that a vast conspiracy—that includes both Republican and Democratic election officials, as well as both Trump and Biden poll-watchers—could rig an election in multiple states at once, in a way that is imperceptible to everyone except for people who are posting memes on Facebook? I suppose. But this would mean that the entire constitutional order of the United States would be a fraud. To make that claim would require evidence that such has happened. 

The problem right now is not that the election is “disputed,” with some people claiming certain facts and others claiming others. The election is only “disputed” in the sense that some say it is rigged. That’s why these claims are made on cable news networks, but not really in court, where there are higher consequences for making claims of conspiracy and fraud. 

Beyond that, most people know that the election is over. They know that Joe Biden was elected president, that Republicans kept their majority in the Senate (pending how the Georgia runoff races go) and increased their numbers in the House of Representatives.

To recognize that these things are true is to neither affirm nor to reject any of them. Those realities are accepted by most people who voted for Joe Biden and by most people who voted for Donald Trump. That’s true in the outside world, and that’s true within the church.

Now, what’s interesting here is not that politics has replaced the spiritual realities—even the most controversial of our claims—as the driver of the passions in our age, which I have written about here in other weeks. The point is that the burden this good pastor faced last week is one that goes far beyond, and will long outlast, the transition period after the election. 

Increasingly, in this sort of American culture, it is not just that we are divided about what we value about the way things should be, but what we are allowed to say about the way things actually are. Now, notice, what I wrote here is not what we see about the way things are, but what we are allowed to say. In many ways, we live in a time in which to identify the truth—not about big cosmic capital “T” Truth but just about mundane, temporal “Here’s what happened” truths. 

We live in a time in which “truth” is seen as a means to tribal belonging, rather than as a reality that exists outside of us.

And that’s true even among, sometimes even especially among those who spent the last twenty years arguing about the dangers of postmodern relativistic ideas of “truth” and the “rejection of metanarratives.” 

Now, “objectivity” of truth has often been oversimplified. On many important things, we see, the Apostle Paul writes, “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Our passions and experiences and intuitions often warp the way we see things, especially the most important things, which is why we need grace. People are going to have—from now till the apocalypse—arguments about what is true and what is false, what is real and what is fake. 

Our problem now, though, is that, increasingly, we are called not just to argue about what is true, but to say things that we know to be false, just to prove that we are part of the tribe to which we belong.

As the author Marilynne Robinson put it, “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest.” 

In most cases, this is not even because most people don’t want mundane facts mentioned. Again, the screaming woman in the pew was in a, no doubt, distinct minority in thinking the pastor even praying for someone almost everyone knows has been elected president made him “a liberal.” But that’s just the point. 

I dealt not long ago with a small organization troubled by a community member who was a moon-landing denier. Years ago, a friend of mine had shown me a tract—covered in dust—in a rack in his church about “Why Man Will Never Walk on the Moon” (copyright 1967). But I didn’t know that such people still existed. They do. In this organization, this view was not shared by almost anyone.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred people believed that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. But the people who believed this saw it as what it in fact is—just a mundane fact. The moon-landing denier, though, organized his whole life around it.

That’s enough to cause that organization just to avoid any comment on metaphors of a “moonshot” or maybe even about how people “all over the globe” need the gospel. That’s not because this person has convinced them but rather has exhausted them. 

This pull is more important than our little upheavals over politics and culture—which are always raging but fast-moving from one thing to the other.

The pull can tell us something about a temptation common to us all. 

I noticed this past week an article by philosopher Jennifer Frey about why she was drawn to her discipline, and about how hard it is to have integrity in her field. She said, “One thing that is a constant to let your ambitions get to be more important than the truth. And tying your pursuit of the truth to your ambitions and your political ends, so that what you are willing to think about and write about is determined by your ambitions within the academy.”

“That’s something that I’ve had to fight my entire life,” she confessed. “If I wanted to have a fancy job I wouldn’t be writing about the things I care about. So you have to ask yourself ‘Why am I even doing this?’”

Frey said this is about more than just academic freedom or the intellectual life, but pointed to the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which “what a person thought about the necessity of masks or the wisdom of lockdowns was often a function of their partisan affiliation.” 

“I guess one of my most basic commitments,” she says, “is that, you know, the human is always trying to escape reality. I mean, me too, right? And really the goal of the moral life is to stay in contact with it as best as you can, and to be faithful to it. This is what Plato thought, this is what Aristotle thought, this is what Thomas thought, this is what Iris Murdoch thought.”

The end result, though, of truth as a vehicle for belonging or as a means to some end is not that we end up with more solidarity and belonging, but with less. We end up in cynicism and nihilism, and with tribes in which a person has to prove how loyal one is by being willing to say that he wants to belong more than he wants to say what is obviously true, not just about the big matters, but about the small, ordinary matters that will be gone like a vapor in time. 

The Holy Spirit breathing out, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” in the days when “Quirinius was governor of Syria” is neither an affirmation nor a rejection of those office-holders. Nor do these words mean that these office-holders are the most important things about what was going on in Bethlehem at the time (far from it). Those words tell us that these things were true. 

Donald Trump has been president of the United States for the past four years, elected by the American people. Joe Biden will be president, come January 20. These things are important, in their context, but they are not ultimate. That’s why we can say that things are the way they are without receiving them as ultimate victory nor as ultimate threat. 

Saying it is raining outside does not mean that we like it, nor that we dislike it. We might disagree about whether our greatest problem is threat of drought or threat of flood. But to say the sun is shining while wiping the raindrops from our eyes, just to prove we are loyal to the Thunderstorm Society or to the Sunshine Marching Club, that’s no way to plan for one’s day, and it is certainly no way to be credible when one really does see a storm on the way. 

I’m glad people have interrupted my preaching. 

Speaking of the pastor above, whose prayer was interrupted, I couldn’t help but think about how many times that has happened to me—and about how, looking back on it, I am glad for every time. 

In one of the first churches I ever served—and probably the best ministry experience of my life—an elderly woman attended who had some form of dementia that prompted her to yell out answers to any rhetorical question. Most of the time these exclamations were innocent enough—“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” to some point I was making, for instance. But, as her dementia progressed, she became more and more shockingly explicit, sometimes even profane, in what she would say. Every time, I would cringe internally—and apparently would blush. And, though I wouldn’t say this out loud, I started to resent her. What would people who were visiting think if they heard someone screaming out curses in the sanctuary? 

After one such service, a group of older women in our church met me at the side door. “We get the feeling, Bro. Russ, that you’re kind of embarrassed by Miss (I’ll change her name here) Susie. Is that right?” 

I thought I had a sympathetic ear, and I said, “Yes! Isn’t this challenging?” They looked at one another and said, “We love you, Brother Russ, but you need to repent of that. Miss Susie is our sister, and she can’t help it. One day any one of us, including you, might be in that situation. Let’s love her and help carry her burdens for her. Besides, ‘Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” or ‘&*%$# yes!’ is just her way of saying ‘Amen.’” 

When I protested that I didn’t mind being interrupted, but that I was afraid of what guests would think about our church, or about the gospel, these women said, “Well, what they will think is that we aren’t embarrassed by people who need us. And maybe that’s what they need to hear.” 

They were right. 

In the years that followed, I would be interrupted many other times. In one church I served, a young man with a developmental and mental illness would sit on the front row. I learned that he would identify himself so strongly with whatever narrative that I was communicating that he would smile broadly if I talked about the love of Jesus, and he would become angry and exercised if I talked about any biblical account that had any sort of fighting or violence even implied in it. In those cases, he would tackle someone near him and even, on one occasion, start throwing hymnals at me. Hymnals sound sweet and lovely, but they hurt when thrown at full force from six feet away. 

I will admit that I became reluctant to start a new series in 1 and 2 Samuel or Judges, much less Revelation, but I was, again, awed by a congregation that never once displayed any sort of awkwardness about this young man. When needed, a couple of them would come stand with him, and sometimes restrain him from fighting or throwing, but never made a scene about it. No one ever suggested he shouldn’t be on the front row, much less that he shouldn’t be there.

And I came to wish that all of us could be just as embedded in the biblical story as he was. 

In that same church, a woman went into a panic attack one time when I was preaching on, I think, Noah’s flood, or maybe it was Jonah in the sea creature. She was extremely fearful of drowning, it turns out, and she stood up and yelled, “Dr. Moore, I can’t breathe!” Nobody was irritated. People took her into the hall—including some nurses in the congregation—and helped her through that panic attack. She was alright, and I was reminded that I was not speaking abstractions to abstractions, but speaking an old, old story to real, live people—all of us with hurts and fears and needs. 

The church has many problems, of course. It always does. But, sometimes, if you pay attention, you can see in those small, ordinary patterns of life together something of the glory of the Jesus who loves us and dwells among us. Looking back, I can see that I found such moments less in the sermons in which my words flowed just the way I wanted, and more in the sermons I couldn’t really finish at all.

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to become a free subscriber to Moore to the Point, you can do so here.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Christians, Let’s Pray for President-Elect Joe Biden

  • 2020Nov 10

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/rudall30

After a long week of vote-counting across the country, the Associated Press and most major media networks have called the 2020 presidential election for former Vice-President Joe Biden, soon to be the 46th president of the United States. No matter how you voted, now is the time to pray for the country and for our newly elected leaders in both the White House and the Congress. 

The Bible calls on Christians to offer prayers and thanksgivings for “all people,” including “kings and all those who are in authority” (1 Tim. 2:2).

In our constitutional system, of course, we have no kings—the ultimate authority rests with the people—but the Scripture calls for honor and prayers for all of those who hold authority, not just, in the first-century context, for the emperor but for all. As Christians, even our prayers can help re-center us away from the pull to conform to the pattern of the world. 

In this sort of politically polarized era, it is easy to hope for total victory for “one’s side” (whatever that is) and for total defeat for one’s “enemies” (whoever those turn out to be). This sort of mindset is not for those of us who belong to Christ. That’s because the gospel reframes for us both what’s at stake—and what’s not—in civic government. 

For many in our time, government has become simply one more expression of cultural hostility or self-expression or cultural wrestling. The Bible affirms, though, that government serves a good purpose in approximating justice and maintaining order (Rom. 13). We are called to love our neighbors and to pray for their thriving. That means that we cannot pray for whatever “our side” is to succeed in injustice or for the “other side” (whoever that is) to fail in doing what is good. Government matters. 

But we also pray for our leaders because government is not of ultimate importance.

The Apostle Paul commanded us to pray for a specific purpose—“that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). What’s of most significance here is what that word “we” means. Paul, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, writes of “we” as the church of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, the One who is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5). 

If government or ideology is an idol for us then the stakes are always apocalyptic and existential. If we seek first the kingdom of God, then we can ask God to bring about good from our leaders—to hold them accountable when they don’t and to commend them when they do, without checking first with whether praying for such is to the advantage or disadvantage of whatever our temporal “tribe” might be. 

So, all Christians should be praying right now.

For President Trump as he continues to lead over the next few months, for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as they plan to take office in January, for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for the party leaders and committee chairs and ranking members of both parties in Congress, and for the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary. We should also pray for the Trump, Biden, Pence, and Harris families and for the outgoing and incoming administration officials, diplomats, and public servants.

What we should pray for regarding government leaders, for all of them, is wisdom and discernment, that they might do what is right. And having prayed so, we should hope that what is just and right will be done, by all of them. We should also pray for ourselves, that we will all know how to pray in the months and years to come. 

The voters, it appears, have given us a divided government—the White House in one party, the Senate in another, and the House more closely divided than before between the two. This could be an opportunity for all to work on the pressing issues facing the country—including this awful pandemic and the resulting economic agony. Or, of course, it could result in just more of the same polarization. We should pray for the first of those options. 

And we can start that process by praying for our new and continuing government leaders, while reminding ourselves that, while we pledge allegiance to all these temporal authorities where we can and where we must, our ultimate allegiance is elsewhere. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and from there we wait not for a president or a prime minister, but for “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5). 

And, as always, that’s good news.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

What Romans 13 Means amidst Unknown Election Results

  • 2020Nov 05

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Alexandarilich

Usually, the day after a national presidential election, I write an article calling on Christians to pray for the newly-elected chief executive.

The titles are usually along the lines of “Christians, Let’s Pray for President Obama” or “Christians, Let’s Pray for President Trump.” 

In most cases, I have somewhere in my files, articles I’ve written but never posted, “Christians, Let’s Pray for President Romney” or “Christians, Let’s Pray for President Clinton.” But regardless of the name in the title, the message is always pretty much the same: the people have spoken; this now is our president, and whether you supported this person or not, the Bible calls you to pray for our new leader.

And yet, the day after Election Day 2020, we do not know who is elected, or when we will know. So what does the Bible require of us then?

Christians, Government, and Romans 13

Whenever the subject of Christians and government emerges, one need not wait long for the conversation to move to a discussion of Romans 13

This passage, of course, is where the Apostle Paul tells the church at Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2).

This means, Paul writes, that we should “be in subjection” to these authorities, giving “taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7).

As with almost everything else these days, our responses to these verses are often shaped by our tribal affiliations. Some would say that objecting to mass deportation orders is a violation of Romans 13, but will refuse to abide by their county’s pandemic-related mask mandate.

And, others will do the exact reverse. When Barack Obama is elected, some will point to Romans 13 to say “God chose the president” so he should be supported, and then, four years later, the exact opposite group will say the same about President Trump.

Romans 13, though, is not about totalizing power for the state, any state, no matter who is in office anywhere. Even in the text itself, the state’s authority is real but limited. The authorities exist to be a “terror to bad conduct” and to commend that which is good (Rom. 13:3).

Caesar or Pharaoh or Herod cannot make what is evil good, or what is good evil. And there are cases where believers are called to disobey laws or dictates that exceed that authority (Dan. 3:16-18; Dan. 6:1-16; Rev. 13:1-18).

Moreover, to understand Romans 13, we must recognize that, in this system of government, we are not addressed as subjects as much as rulers. The early church had no power over the decisions of the Roman Empire.

In a democratic republic, the Christian who is a citizen is essentially a holder of office, even if that office is one vote. That means that our situation is as akin to Pontius Pilate or the soldiers and tax collectors baptized by John in the Jordan than to that of the Roman-occupied house-church subjects.

The Bible does not ever give a blueprint for what a government is to look like, but does indicate that government itself is legitimate—and that those who seek to oppose government itself or to suggest that government can act in morally arbitrary ways are opposing God himself. This does not rule out legitimate dissent, but it does rule out anarchy or tyranny.

The political philosopher John Rawls famously argued that civic and economic systems should be set up as though behind an imagined “veil of ignorance,” with the rules established as though one did not know ahead of time whether one would be rich or poor, majority or minority, “winner” or “loser.”

Rawls’ philosophy is wrong-headed, and that’s an understatement; and the “veil of ignorance” is too—more of a rhetorical device than an actual governing philosophy. But, one part of the rhetorical device is something with which Christians can agree. A system of government should be, as the American framers put it, a system of laws and not of men.

A Moment of Spiritual and Civic Discipline

That means that the time between now and when we know who is actually elected president can be a moment of spiritual and civic discipline for American Christians.

We can pray for both President Trump  and, potentially, a President-elect Biden. However you voted—or if you voted at all—you can pray for the office of the president in a way that is not dictated by how you feel about either of these men. You can pray for wisdom and justice and discernment for whomever is ultimately certified as winner. And you can realize that whether you are celebrating or grieving when that happens, somewhere approaching half of the country in which you live will be doing the opposite.

That means whoever is president will need even more wisdom and prudence and discernment—and more of a sense of limits to what’s possible—than usual.

And you can pledge now—without knowing who will take the oath of office in January—to pray for success in every good thing for whoever that president will be. You can commit to give honor to whom honor is due—without even knowing yet who is owed what.

And maybe we could start seeing some maturity in our country if Biden supporters led the way in imagining their prayers for a re-elected President Trump and if Trump supports led the way in imagining their prayers for a President Biden. Romans 13 doesn’t mandate a pledge of allegiance to any leader—except Jesus—in everything. But it does mean that we, unlike maybe those around us, cannot see the government as either ultimate or irrelevant.

Christians, let’s pray for President Trump, or President Biden. Let’s pray for our country, for our leaders, and, most of all, for the kingdom to come which will need no votes, on earth as it is in heaven.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.