There are few evangelical Christians who have gotten as much media coverage or criticism in the last decade as Russell Moore. He previously served as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, and became a prominent evangelical voice opposing a Trump presidency. Moore is currently the editor in chief of Christianity Today, which The Times’s Jane Coaston called “arguably the most influential Christian publication” in the United States. I asked Moore if he would speak to me about the evangelical movement and his new book, “Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America.” This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tish Harrison Warren: The subtitle of your newest book is “An Altar Call for Evangelical America.” What do you mean by evangelical America?
Russell Moore: What I mean by “evangelical” is people who believe in the personal aspect of what it means to be a follower of Christ. That includes the way that we understand the Bible, the way that we understand the need to be born again.
In your book, you discuss how increasing secularization isn’t going to end the culture wars. In fact, you say it may heighten them. Why do you think that?
I was in a session several years ago in which a researcher had done a survey about religious people’s reactions to immigrants and refugees. And she was stunned to find that the more active evangelistic work a church did, the more welcoming they were to refugees in their communities. I was not surprised at all, because evangelism presupposes the possibility of conversation and persuasion. And not the coercion of raw power.
When churches have given up on evangelism, this means they’ve given up on actually engaging with and loving their neighbors. That’s bad news for everybody. You end up in a situation where these warring groups in American life are seeking some kind of total victory, where somebody is the final, ultimate winner and somebody is the final, ultimate loser. That ratchets up the stakes of culture wars dramatically.
Your book delves into Christian nationalism as a component of the evangelical movement. How would you define Christian nationalism? And how has it affected evangelicalism in the United States?
Christian nationalism is the use of Christian symbols or teachings in order to prop up a nation-state or an ethnic identity. It’s dangerous for the nation because it’s fundamentally anti-democratic. Christian nationalism takes a political claim and seeks to make it ultimate. It says: If a person disagrees with me, that person is disagreeing with God. No democratic nation can survive that, which is why the founders of this country built in all kinds of protections from it.
Christian nationalism is also dangerous for the witness of the church, because Christian nationalism is fundamentally, at its core, anti-evangelical. If what the Gospel means is for people to come before God, person by person, not nation by nation or village by village or tribe by tribe, then Christian nationalism is heretical.
Christian nationalism assumes outward conformity enforced by social or political power. It transforms the way that we see reality with the assumption that the really important things are political and cultural, as opposed to personal and spiritual and theological.
It’s been hard for me to evaluate how widespread this is. Anecdotally, I know a lot of Christians, including a lot of evangelicals, and they would not be considered Christian nationalists. So I often wonder: Is this fringe?
It is affecting almost every sector of American Christianity in varying ways. It’s similar to the Prosperity Gospel of the last generation. Most American Christians wouldn’t identify themselves as Prosperity Gospel adherents. Yet many of them were adopting key pieces of that understanding of the world.
Studies have shown the way that Christian language is being used in Europe and in other places to prop up populist authoritarian movements. You can see this in the way that survey data show how white evangelicals in America are becoming much friendlier to outright authoritarianism — as seen in the Jan. 6 insurrection. I don’t think that it is merely fringe at all.
We can’t talk about the rise of Christian nationalism without bringing up Donald Trump. You said that he was morally unfit to be president and received intense backlash — even from Trump himself. Were you surprised by the severe criticism from certain Christians for your denunciation of Trump?
It didn’t surprise me that there would be overwhelming buy-in once Trump became the Republican nominee. One of the things I was worried about is that people would say: I’m not supporting him, I’m just voting for him because I think the alternative is worse. I feared, at the time, that the way that American politics works right now is inherently totalizing, so there would not be people after Trump was elected who would, for instance, support him on some judicial appointments and oppose him on a Muslim ban or whatever the issue is. And I think that has proved to be the case. Trump has transformed evangelicalism far more than evangelism has influenced Trump.
I was surprised by the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape. When the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, I was saying to people around me: “Don’t say ‘I told you so.’ We need to have empathy for Trump-supporting evangelicals who are really hurting at this revelation.” But what ended up happening is that white evangelicals made peace with “Access Hollywood,” if anything, quicker than the rest of America did.
I received a castigating email from a sweet Christian lady who had taught me Sunday school when I was a kid. And none of it argued: “You’re wrong about Trump’s moral character.” The argument was: “Get real. This is what we have to have in order to fight the enemy.” That was surprising to me. And disorienting.
In your book, you tell a story about how an evangelical person said to their pastor: “We’ve tried to turn the other cheek. It doesn’t work. We have to fight now.” Why do certain evangelicals feel so embattled now?
Some of it is a response to legitimate fears. There are many people in American life who assume that religion itself is oppressive and should be done away with. And there is a general sense of crisis and decline in American life, and it’s translated into religious terms. In many cases, I would not disagree with the diagnosis about some of the things that are wrong. What I would disagree with is the sense of futility and giving up on what it means to live in a pluralistic democracy.
I would also point to the decline in personal evangelism. When you have people who are trained to share the Gospel with their neighbors, they have an understanding from the very beginning that people in my community aren’t my enemies, they’re my mission field. This changes the way that you see people.
When that starts to diminish, there’s a lack of confidence and a frantic looking about for whatever tool is at hand. Ideological zealotry becomes the tool at hand.
I mentioned in the book about how many pastors talk about referencing Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek,” only to have blowback from people in their congregation because they say that that doesn’t work in times like these. The assumption is that we’re in a hostile culture as opposed to a neutral culture — as though the Sermon on the Mount is delivered in Mayberry, not ancient Rome. And the assumption also shows a lack of confidence in the means that God has given us to advance the church through proclamation and demonstration.
A moving part of your book is when you write about your father, who had a complicated relationship with the church.
He never lost his faith. But he was always very suspicious of church structures and found it hard to go to church for long periods at a time. When I was younger, I judged him for it. I thought that this was a spiritual defect. Now that I have more perspective and can see his life, I understand it.
You write about how his experience has given you compassion for folks who have left the church. And you often say that people don’t always leave the church because of what Christians believe, but instead because they don’t think Christians actually believe what they claim to believe. What do you mean by that?
When I first started in ministry, if someone came and said, “I’m losing my faith, I’m walking away from the church,” the cause was almost always one of two things. Either the person started to find the supernatural incredible. Or the person thought that the morality of the church was too strict in some way, usually having to do with sex. I almost never hear that anymore. Instead, the people that I talk to often have a sense that for the church, the Gospel is a means to an end — whether that end is politics or cultural control or cultural influence or something else. And in many cases they’re starting to question not whether the church is too strict, but whether the church actually holds to a morality at all. What is alarming to me is that some of the people I find who are despairing are actually those who are the most committed to the teachings of Christianity.
So with all this dysfunction that you are speaking about in evangelicalism, why are you still an evangelical Christian?
I think the fragmentation that’s happening to the evangelical movement right now is actually a necessary precondition for renewal.
I won’t give up on the word “evangelical.” There was a time when I did. I wrote an op-ed in 2016 in The Washington Post called “Why This Election Makes Me Hate the Word ‘Evangelical’” — but I’ve come around. I can’t find a good alternative shorthand to describe the kind of Christian that I am. But also because Tim Keller came with me to a class I was teaching at the University of Chicago, and one of the students asked why we would use the word “evangelical” when it’s become so politicized and toxic. And Tim responded, “Well, it’s because most of us evangelicals are in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the North Americans don’t get to just choose what we’re called because we’ve wrecked the brand.” The student said, “Fair enough.”
What do you think a healthy political engagement from evangelicals would look like?
It would mean a reordering of priorities. The church could see ultimate things as ultimate and other things as falling in line behind those ultimate things. That’s the fundamental shift.
I do think that we need to have the right ordering of our priorities and our loves, and also the right understanding of what it means to follow Christ. The figure of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels is not a frantic, angry culture warrior. He is remarkably tranquil about the situation around him. I think we need more of that. If our neighbors saw us loving one another and forgiving one another, even if they find our theological beliefs to be strange or even dangerous, that would be a good start.
I have some news. The past two years of writing this newsletter for The Times have been a profound joy and privilege, so it is bittersweet to announce that I will be leaving this post in early August, first for a brief sabbatical, and then to work on longer-form book projects. I am very grateful for my editors and colleagues at The Times. And for you, my readers, who have generously shared your lives, thoughts and prayers with me through thousands of weekly notes and emails. You have stuck with me through controversial pieces and lighthearted ones. You’ve walked with me as I’ve written my way through grief, doubt and joy. I cannot thank you enough. For fans of my work, I intend to keep writing. And I hope you will see my work in The Times, too, in the future.