Do Southern Baptists Need a Pope of Public Policy?

What could possibly go wrong? A communion appoints an officer to represent members’ views within the corridors of the most powerful nation on God’s glowing earth. And all the members — who are Protestants, mind you and not used to submitting to church hierarchy — are going to agree with all that the officer says or the agency he leads? Heck, even in the little old OPC where the stakes are considerably lower than the Southern Baptist Convention, you cannot get church members to agree with the editor of New Horizons magazine.

So why are so many people concerned and surprised that Southern Baptists are challenging Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission? Funny the way president-elect Trump winds people up.

I (all about me) have nothing against what Dr. Moore seems to be doing. I do suspect sometimes that he’s trying to soften the edge of the religious right in a way that Tim Keller tries to make Christianity less objectionable. Maybe Aaron Sorkin and David Simon have poisoned me to suspect that public statements always come through spinners and handlers who are looking at polls and access to power or gatekeepers. But some of Dr. Moore’s recent statements do seem to have more the fingerprints of building coalitions than those of “thus, saith the Lord” or even, “this is what Southern Baptists believe, gosh darn it.”

Here’s the problem. Moore heads an agency whose mission more Kuyperian than Williamsian (think Roger Williams):

The ERLC exists to articulate every priority and every agenda item in terms of where it fits in seeking the kingdom of God in this era, in order to equip churches to stand before the watching world with the sort of quiet confidence that characterized Jesus.

The kingdom is an “already” present reality (within the life of the church) but also a “not yet” future hope (as we await the coming of Jesus). This kingdom come includes not just worship, but righteousness (ethics), freedom (religious liberty), communion (society), authority (politics), and “the glory and honor of the nations” (culture). Seeking first the kingdom of God should not dampen our concern for ethics but should instead heighten it. After all, the priorities of the King must become the priorities of his kingdom colony, the church. Therefore, the kingdom of God sets both the content of our concern and the tone with which we speak.

That’s pretty broad. Southern Baptists might want to take note that Kuyperians and 2kers disagree about the nature of the kingdom (or kingdoms), so Christ as king is hardly a consensus building affirmation. Worse, hardly clear is the understanding that such a view of God’s kingdom emerges organically from Baptist theology and experience. As dissenters for a long time in England and low on the list of Anglo-American Protestants, some might be surprised to see Southern Baptists doing their impersonation of Puritans or their descendants, the United Church of Christ. Once up a time, Southern Baptists (I’ve heard) saved string so they could send foreign missionaries to India.

So this presence in the capitol of the world’s most powerful nation seems out of character for those little old Southern Baptists.

But if you are going to enter that environment as an ambassador of the Southern Baptist Convention, please don’t tell us you are doing so in a non-partisan way:

There is no more effective evangelical leader than Moore. Under his leadership the ERLC has grown in reach and influence, hosting numerous seminars on a variety of issues with policy-making attendees from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, the ERLC plays a vital role in a number of conservative coalitions. I have witnessed House and Senate leadership offices ask for Moore to personally participate in various events to lend legitimacy and gravitas.

Too often evangelical leaders get pigeonholed into partisan identities. This is not the case with Moore. Both parties see him as a leader transcending partisan divide and stereotypes. This is because Moore and his team balance speaking truth to power while achieving real policy victories.

Being Southern Baptist is non-partisan? This is the affliction that haunts American Protestantism. We somewhere along the line — think the Second Glorious Awakening (if the Brits can have a Glorious Revolution . . . ) — believed that Protestantism is a public faith. It is the religion of the United States. That didn’t work out real well for Roman Catholics or Jews or Mormons. But it had its moments and gave the United States a measure of national identity and spiritual overtones to reasons for fighting tyranny and authoritarianism. That conviction also hollowed out the gospel from the mainline churches. Access to power became something to protect lest the offense of the gospel and calls to repentance offend. The irony is that this mainline Protestant agenda for a Christian nation left the mainline churches without a voice once they questioned America for being too white, male, anti-Communist, Christian, and hetero. The mainline lost both the nation (it was never Christian but sexist and racist) and their place at the table (do mainline pastors even have access to the boards of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?).

The solution to Dr. Moore’s woes is to close down ERLC and let the Southern Baptist Convention be a church that is fully Baptist (whether particular or general). We have public policy agencies for matters like religious liberty, marriage, civil society, and human dignity. Sometimes even the Democrats and Republicans consider those matters. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church has a far greater reach than Southern Baptists.

Let the church not be non-partisan, earnest, well-meaning, tolerant, or humanitarian. Let Southern Baptists be Southern and Baptist. (Or be really Kuyperian and form an Anti-Secularist Political Party.)