This week, in a Washington Post editorial, Russell Moore, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, explained why the current election cycle has led him to reject the label of “evangelical.” Given the way in which the term has been co-opted for political expediency, Moore has opted to distance himself from the term altogether, instead referring to himself as a “Gospel Christian.” While I appreciate what Moore is saying, and that is something I can rarely say, I also find myself somewhat frustrated.If you read my recent BNG article on evangelicals and their role in the rise of Donald Trump, you’ve got a bit of an idea of why Moore is upset. The term “evangelical” loses meaning in the context of a presidential race like this. For polling purposes, anyone who thinks they are a born-again Christian is counted in that number as an evangelical, whether they truly are one or not. There is also a fair amount of room for criticism in the fact that born-again Christians are the only faith group surveyed in most exit polls. There are Christians beyond born-again/evangelical Christians. There are also religious people beyond born-again/evangelical Christians. But, this is beside the point I’m going for.
Russell Moore is speaking out now, when everything is spiraling out of control. This is not a new phenomenon, though. This is not the first time the evangelical voting bloc has been used by the GOP through their Southern Strategem to gain votes. This is not the first time a candidate lacking conviction has risen to the forefront as a product of great coaching (ala Ronald Reagan having to be taught how to speak the born-again language). This is just the first time that the majority of evangelicals polled are supporting a candidate who is blatantly off the charts ludicrous in the form of Donald Trump, which has terrified most of the country, including Russell Moore.
For decades, the majority of the SBC and other evangelicals were completely comfortable in their state of protestant privilege. While there was some debate over the evangelical moniker, for the most part it was accepted and worn as a badge of pride. The term “evangelical” was not simply “co-opted by heretics and lunatics;” rather, sincere evangelical Christians took up the banner willingly and eagerly in response to the call of the New Religious Political Right. All the while, the fact that the GOP simply used evangelicals as a means to an end was ignored time and again.
I’m glad to see Russell Moore taking this stand, but I think it is too little too late from a Baptist group which has continually shown no reservations regarding political involvement. His predecessor, Richard Land, did a great deal of damage in his time at the helm of the ERLC. I wish that, instead of relenting and calling himself a “Gospel Christian,” he would attempt to reclaim the title as a symbol of born-again identity, rather than the mark of a voter group. However, to do this, he would need to go beyond merely this election cycle. In order to remove all the baggage that’s been applied to evangelicals over the years, one would have to do a lot of work to reverse great deal of history. I think we’ll see that, unless a sea change takes place, the traditional understanding of “evangelical” may be completely lost. As long as politicians view them as a voting bloc, and those voters do nothing to disabuse them of that notion, nothing will change.