What Do Pope Francis and Russell Moore Have in Common?

With all the discussion of the piece on Russell Moore, few have seemed to notice the parallels between Moore, the newly installed director of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Pope Francis, compared to Richard Land, his predecessor at the Commission, and Benedict XVI. Moore and Francis, at least as journalists portray them, are backing away from the strictness and scolding of their predecessors, Land and Benedict. Granted, as Keith Miller observes, the problem could simply be with the journalists. They have a narrative and they are sticking to it — the old guy was mean, the new guy is nice.

Even so, journalists are not stupid and the parallels are striking. Consider the following with Francis and Benedict in mind:

“When Richard Land spoke to most issues, he was certain that Southern Baptists were behind him and he was their mouthpiece,” Mr. Mohler says. “Russ will need a deft touch to make sure that Southern Baptists stay behind him.” [me – okay, U.S. Roman Catholics have never lined up behind the Vatican, but please keep reading]

Mr. Moore is in no way a liberal. He equates abortion with the evils of slavery, considers homosexuality a sin, and insists the Southern Baptist Convention will never support gay marriage. At the same time, he emphasizes reconciliation and draws a traditional doctrinal distinction between the sinner and the sin. . . .

Mr. Moore would like the Southern Baptists to be able to hold on to people such as Sarah Parr. The 31-year-old social worker grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist family in southern Virginia. She graduated from Liberty University, founded in 1971 by the Falwell family. But she says she found herself increasingly less at home in the church, and left it altogether in her 20s.

She now attends a nondenominational church that meets in an old theater on Washington’s Capitol Hill. Politically, she describes herself “as a moderate at best, if I’m anything. But I don’t find myself in either party.”

When Mr. Moore took over in June as the Southern Baptists’ top public-policy advocate, he startled some in the church by declaring as dead and gone the entire concept of the Bible Belt as a potent mix of Jesus and American boosterism. “Good riddance,” he told thousands of the faithful at the group’s annual convention in Houston in June. “Let’s not seek to resuscitate it.”

In an essay for the conservative Christian magazine “First Things,” titled “Why Evangelicals Retreat,” he dinged the movement for “triumphalism and hucksterism” and lampooned a time when its leaders dispatched voter guides for the Christian position on “a line-item veto, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the proper funding levels for the Department of Education.”

Mr. Moore says there is no doctrinal daylight between him and his church, and he insists he isn’t seeking to return the Southern Baptists to a past in which it shunned politics entirely.

He travels almost weekly from his home in Nashville to Washington to meet with members of the Obama administration and with congressional leaders. He has allied with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups to make the case that overhauling the U.S. immigration system is a Christian goal. He is pushing the Pentagon to give religious chaplains in the military freer rein to preach, and has helped build a new coalition to fight a federal requirement that insurers provide contraception coverage.

His approach, however, is strikingly different from that of his predecessor Mr. Land, who for a quarter century served as the leading voice of the Southern Baptists. Like many evangelical leaders of his generation, Mr. Land, a Princeton-educated Texan, openly aligned himself with the Republican Party and popped up frequently in the Oval Office during the George W. Bush years.

Long before their divergent approaches on the gay-marriage issue, Messrs. Moore and Land split over the huge rally held by conservative talk-radio host Glenn Beck in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 2010. Mr. Land attended the rally as Mr. Beck’s guest, and later compared Mr. Beck to Billy Graham, calling him “a person in spiritual motion.”

Mr. Moore, in an essay posted after the rally, said the event illustrated how far astray many conservative Christians had wandered in pursuit of “populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads.”

In an interview, Mr. Land said the Southern Baptist leadership is divided into those who think the culture war is lost; those who are weary and want it over; and those who think they are losing the war but feel victory is still possible. He declined to say where he puts Mr. Moore, but said he counts himself among the latter. “We are like where Britain was in 1940, under heavy attack but still not defeated,” he said.

Asked to respond, Mr. Beck in a written statement applauded Mr. Land and said, “In times like these, we need to find common ground.”

At the very least, readers might reasonably conclude that Francis and Moore are saying they each need to reconsider their predecessor’s approach to the culture wars.

But one important difference does exist. While Francis, whose pay grade is to interpret the church’s teaching, relies on a bevy of interpreters to make sense of his quips to the press, Russell Moore does actually interpret what he means.

The recent profile in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a generational change in terms of the way evangelicals approach cultural and political engagement: toward a gospel-centered approach that doesn’t back down on issues of importance, but sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the blood of Christ to the questions of the day.

The headline, as is often the case with headlines, is awfully misleading. I am not calling, at all, for a “pullback” from politics or engagement.

If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on. It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.

What I’m calling for in our approach to political engagement is what we’re already doing in one area: the pro-life movement. Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who’ve been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion. . . .

We teach our people that their vote for President of the United States is crucially important. They’ll be held accountable at Judgment for whomever they hand the Romans 13 sword to. But we teach them that their vote on the membership of their churches is even more important. A church that loses the gospel is a losing church, no matter how many political victories it wins. A church that is right on public convictions but wrong on the gospel is a powerless church, no matter how powerful it seems.

That does sound like the old Christian Right, an elevation of matters temporal to the level of things eternal — voting having redemptive consequences. Even so, whether Moore did this simply to silence critics, or to avoid showing disrespect to Richard Land, at least he did respond. Francis still hasn’t. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you.)