Preaching to the choir.

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The Evangelical Civil War: An Interview With Russell Moore

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Russell Moore is not surprised. In 2015, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention warned his fellow conservative evangelical Christians about a political candidate whose entire life was devoted to egotism and materialism and whose "attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord."

Leading Christian conservatives, such as Tony Perkins and Jerry Falwell Jr., didn't steer clear of Donald Trump. They laid hands on him, eager to deploy him as their newest battering ram in the culture war. They stuck with Trump through racism, sexism, dishonesty and even the publication of his third wife's mid-1990s girl-on-girl porno shoot. They're sticking with him now, even as more sensitive Republicans flee.  

Trump's march through the nation's dark side has left destruction, seen and unseen. The raging conflict within the Republican Party is mirrored in another battle over the soul of conservative Christianity. Moore, who has made it clear he's looking for Christians to elevate church above party, Jesus above Trump, is not shrinking from the fight. I spoke with him by telephone on Friday. The transcript is lightly edited.

Q: What will evangelical conservative politics look like after November?

Russell Moore: Deeply divided. This year has illuminated the division more than anything. There's a clear generational and theological divide within religious conservatism. The engagement of the old-guard religious-right establishment is very different from that of the younger, more theologically oriented, multi-ethnic, religious conservatives of the next generation. That's a process of change that's been going on for some time.

Q: The balance of power is not yet in your favor, is it?

Moore: I think the fundamental issue is that younger, gospel-centered evangelicals tend to be much more suspicious of overt political activity. The sort of pastor who will hand over a church directory to a political candidate, or have a candidate speak in the pulpit, is very much in the old-guard line. The sort of evangelicals who are going to be at a Passion Conference or participate in a Gospel Coalition around the country would never do that. So the question is going to be how to harness genuine political engagement without losing the gospel in the process. That's something the new generation of evangelicals are working through.

Q: Some evangelicals have called for retreat from popular culture and politics. That's not what I hear from you.

Moore: No, but I do think we must have the understanding that politics is not ultimate. There's often a kind of identity that comes with politicization in various movements. I think that's harmful for the church. Being treated like another political interest group has not been good for evangelical Christianity. We need to be engaged, but as people who have our priorities right. And our top priority is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Q: What are your three biggest public policy priorities?

Moore: Abortion -- the sanctity of human life. Religious freedom -- for everyone. And racial justice and reconciliation.

Q: In the early 20th century, the Social Gospel movement tried to fuse Christianity with social and political activism. What do you make of that?

Moore: I reject the Social Gospel because the Social Gospel in the early 20th century diminished and in some cases even denied the necessity of personal faith in Jesus Christ and turned Christianity into a political program. That was wrong-headed theologically. We've seen social gospels on the left and the right that have eclipsed the genuine gospel; the necessity of personal faith in Jesus Christ is essential. There are social implications from the gospel, and we need to be very clear about them, but the implications are not the gospel itself.

Q: So you see parallels between the social gospel of the early 20th century and the religious right today?

Moore: I do in this sense: I think there is always a tendency within evangelicalism to overreact to the last bad thing. I think many Gen-X and millennial evangelicals are responding to the sort of overt political activism of the last generation in ways that aren't productive. Some want to respond with disengagement. The comparison for me would be children who went through a painful divorce of their parents. They want to avoid divorce, so they never marry.

There was a time when to be viewed as a good American, one had to at least nominally be affiliated with some house of worship or some religious tradition. That's no longer the case. So the next generation of evangelical Christianity is quite theologically defined and really clear about theological convictions. Some forms of evangelical activism have started with values, and built alliances around values in ways that often eclipsed biblical theology. The next generation has no interest in that.

Q: What you're describing sounds like a demographic transition that's very similar to what the Republican Party is facing.

Moore: There's no question about it. When I encounter under-40 evangelicals, or black or Hispanic evangelicals, or evangelical women, they typically are in a state of distress as they look at 2016 and the train wreck this election has been. And older white evangelicals are less likely to be. There are some very notable exceptions to that, but it's typically true.

Q: Were you surprised by the embrace of Donald Trump by other evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins and Jerry Falwell Jr., or did you see it coming?

Moore: I was not surprised at all.

Q: Why not?

Moore: This is the trajectory that some forms of evangelical Christianity have been on for some time. I was very critical in 2010 about the evangelicals who participated in the Glenn Beck Restoring Honor event in Washington, D.C. that purported to be a religious revival. There were some evangelicals making the case that Glenn Beck is one of us despite the fact that, while we can work with Latter-day Saints, and I do all the time, the theological divide between evangelical Protestantism and Mormon theology is vast. So there were people who, because of a common political agenda, were willing to subvert the gospel itself.

Q: Where do see the line between politics and culture? It's clear from survey data -- and it's the thesis of Robert Jones's book -- that many conservative white evangelicals feel they have lost their dominant position in American culture and they're having trouble understanding where they fit in.

Moore: I think there's a good bit of that going on. There is also, though, a sense of many evangelicals who see their choices as binary. So the only option they have is to choose between these two candidates, and they're trying to make do with that. I do think that's a significant portion of American evangelicalism right now. I don't agree with that, but I understand it.

Q: Why don't you agree? Our two-party system is binary.

Moore: Well, I don’t think it is, because we have had protest movements and challenges to the duopoly many times in American history. Abraham Lincoln was part of a third-party movement that rejected the choice between the Democrats and the Whigs.

Q: Are you expecting the divide among evangelicals to linger for a long time?

Moore: To some degree it's a pre-existing condition. In that respect, the divide will continue. I think this election across the board has been incredibly divisive and hurtful to probably most Americans.

I'm looking beyond this election to recovering the witness of the church, when it comes to the important questions. The most important being: What is the gospel?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net