August 14, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Evangelical Protestantism is where it wants to be
Russell Moore says there’s a crisis. There isn’t.
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Russell Moore used to be one of the top officials of the most powerful religious organization in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention. He was pushed out for criticizing Donald Trump. Since then, Moore has rebranded himself as defender of the soul of evangelical Protestantism.
But his gambit depends on something important – that the broad public doesn’t know much about conservative religions. Moore wants us to believe that “Christianity is in crisis,” but it’s not in crisis, not for the reasons that he says. Nor is his particular sect in crisis.
It’s exactly where it wants to be.
What the broad public does not know is that the “Sermon on the Mount” does not play a central role in the evangelical Protestant community. It plays a role, of course, but mostly to the extent that “turning the other cheek” applies to those already in the community.
National Public Radio interviewed Moore about his new book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call For Evangelical America. He said he knows “Christianity is in crisis” because “multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching – ‘turn the other cheek’ – to have someone come up and say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’” He added:
“What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’ When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”
What the broad public does not know is that the “Sermon on the Mount” does not play a central role in the evangelical Protestant community. It plays a role, of course, but mostly to the extent that “turning the other cheek” applies to those already in the community. What it does not know is that the “Sermon on the Mount” is already subversive to evangelical Protestants, in that it subverts their understanding of a world divided between the saved and the damned.
God’s love is exclusive to those who are already on the inside of the evangelical community. It’s unconditional, but also conditional, on accepting that his only-begotten son, Jesus, died on the cross to redeem your sins and prevent your soul’s everlasting damnation. Once you have accepted this – once you have accepted that God’s love is conditioned on punishment – then you’re part of the community.
If you do not accept this – well, that’s the side of evangelical Protestantism that Russell Moore isn’t talking about. It’s also the side that host Scott Detrow doesn’t know about, apparently. He asked how can you fix “a crisis of Christianity” if “the central message of the gospel is something that a lot of people in the church do not seem to want?”
Moore has a silly answer about going “small and local,” but the question is important to his gambit. It’s based on an understandable but faulty assumption – that the point of evangelical Protestantism is spreading the message of God’s love and that the divisiveness that was ushered into “every aspect of American life” by Donald Trump has turned a religion premised on spreading the message of God’s love upside down.
No, it didn’t, and it never was that.
Evangelical Protestantism is a conservative sect. It concentrates on punishment. That’s the side that Detrow doesn’t know about, apparently. That’s the side that Moore is letting him misunderstand. If you do not accept God’s conditions – that his son died to redeem your sins and prevent your soul’s damnation – you get what you deserve.
Now, American Christians have always argued about this. If God’s love is equal and unconditional, how can it also be unequal and conditional? The answer is that it can’t be both. That’s why liberal and moderate Christianities, even some evangelical Protestants, have abandoned the concept of damnation or prioritized unconditional God’s love. They have taken the Sermon on the Mount to its subversive conclusion.
What is it subversive to? If God’s love is equal and unconditional, anyone can be redeemed, no matter who they are, no matter how they live their lives, even if they do not believe in a higher power. The most subversive interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount is God loves you, right now, as you are. The Kingdom of Heaven is brought to earth.
To conservative sects, that’s heresy. It also democratizes social and political hierarchies, and jeopardizes the privileges of those on top. The teachings of Jesus – “turn the other cheek” – subvert the self-interests of conservatives, who must divide the world between those who are “saved” and those who are damned. They must cling to punishment because punishment explains and rationalizes the surrounding reality.
Why are there poor people in America? Why do Black people suffer most? Why do so many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet? They must have done something to deserve their lot in life. And because they deserve it, there’s nothing to be done. It’s God’s will.
Moore sees himself as a dissenter. He’s not. He’s rehabbing the image of evangelical Protestantism by exploiting the broad public’s ignorance of conservative religions. (Not all conservative religions justify society’s status quo, but most do.) “The church,” he said, should not be as “tribalized and factionalized” as America has become. But “tribalized and factionalized” makes evangelical Protestantism what it is.
And it’s exactly where it wants to be.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.