The past few years have not been an easy time to be God’s lobbyist. A lot of folks claiming to represent the Almighty have been jostling for space in the corridors of Washington, with a lot of conflicting agendas. Their methods often seem mutually exclusive with the Christian tenet that one should love one’s neighbor. So perhaps it’s not surprising that shortly after the events of Jan. 6, the guy whose actual paid job it is to try to get those in power to think about a higher power got about as ticked off as a polite Southern gentleman of faith is allowed to get.
“If you can defend this, you can defend anything,” wrote Russell Moore, a theologian who is also the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), in an excoriating editorial to his fellow evangelicals about the breach of the Capitol. The intruders displayed Jesus Saves signs next to those calling for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence and, once in the building, thanked God for the opportunity “to get rid of the communists, the globalists and the traitors” within the U.S. government. “If you can wave this away with ‘Well, what about …'” added Moore, “then where, at long last, is your limit?”
Many Christian leaders and thinkers decried the attack on the Capitol, but few went as far as Moore; he laid the blame squarely at the feet of a man many evangelicals believe to be their hero: President Trump. “This week we watched an insurrection of domestic terrorists,” Moore wrote, “incited and fomented by the President of the United States.” When asked about that statement during an interview from his book-lined Brentwood, Tenn., home office a week later, he doubles down. “He called them to the rally. He told them that the future of our country was at stake, that the election had been stolen from him and that weakness could not be an answer,” Moore says. “And after the attack took place with our Vice President under siege, with people calling for him to be executed, the President continued to attack the Vice President on Twitter. It’s indefensible.”
In criticizing President Trump, Moore has diverged from such influential evangelicals as Franklin Graham, who compared Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment to Judas Iscariot; Jerry Falwell Jr., who said he’d give Trump a third honorary degree if he were still head of Liberty University; and author Eric Metaxas, who devoted almost his entire Twitter feed after the election to increasingly bizarre and implausible conspiracy theories on the method by which it was stolen. Moore’s position differs even from that of the guy tipped to be the next head of the SBC, the Rev. Albert Mohler, who voted for Trump in 2020 and said–even after the events at the Capitol–that he’d do it again.
“It’s–it’s been lonely,” says Moore of his stance. “But I think many people have experienced that sort of loneliness over the past four or five years. I don’t know a single family that’s not been divided over President Trump, and politics generally. I don’t know a single church that hasn’t been.” Moore’s opinions are not new. He has been a Never Trumper since at least 2015 and scoffs at the notion put forward by many evangelical leaders that Trump converted to Christianity just before being elected. “It is not a position that I find rational,” he says. “Especially when Mr. Trump has been very clear about his own spiritual journey, or lack thereof.”
The usually mild-mannered author’s stance has come at a cost. He says both he and his family have been the subject of threats and that people have tried to dig up information that would prove he is a liberal. (Heaven forfend!) In February 2020, the executive committee of the SBC formed a task force to look into whether the ERLC was fulfilling its “ministry assignment” after reports that churches were withholding their giving, citing Moore’s political positions.
Moore’s loneliness is of a particular sort, however, since unlike most of Trump’s most vocal critics, he is a dyed-in-the-wool social conservative, staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and premarital sex, and he has worked to limit the spread of the first two. (He acknowledges he’s walking into a cold breeze on the third.) In a way, he is a weather vane for the cold front much of the evangelical church is now facing. What is the future for a group that preaches truth, peace and moral living, after it gambles all its chips on a man who embodies none of those but will play along–and loses?
The pushback against Moore is surprising. Born in Biloxi, Miss., and ordained at 23, he checks dozens of typical conservative boxes, from his gentle demeanor, to his five sons, two of whom are adopted from Russia, to the family photos he posts of the entire clan clad in khaki pants and navy sport coats. He publicly supported the right of a Colorado baker to decline to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. He would love to see Roe v. Wade overturned. He believes gay Christians should remain celibate. He has also championed protection for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, undocumented immigrants and refugees. He helps guide church thinking on living wills and end-of-life decisions, weighing in on the role of doctrine if people are in terrible pain.
In many ways, Moore’s job is to pull his fellow Baptists into the future. In others, it is to try to prevent the culture from abandoning convictions that are several millennia old, some of which–like celibacy outside marriage–no longer seem to make sense to most people. “I think the problem with evangelical Christianity in America is not that we are too strange but that we are not strange enough,” says Moore. “We should be countercultural in loving God and loving our neighbors in ways that ought not to make sense except for the grace of God.”
Often Moore has to tap-dance around the gap between his church’s beliefs and its behavior. He dismisses as a “manufactured controversy” the criticism of six SBC seminary presidents who in November released a public condemnation of critical race theory. “I don’t find any postmodern theory motivating those who are concerned for racial reconciliation and justice,” says Moore. “I find that what motivates such things is the Bible.” And while Moore has set himself apart from those who support the President, he declines to condemn those who opted to vote for Trump because they believed in the platform, not the man.
Moore thinks reports of the death of American Christianity are overblown. But as increasing numbers of Americans tell pollsters that they are not affiliated with any kind of religion, and in the wake of Trump, he wants the church to take a harder look at its priorities. “The biggest threat facing the American church right now is not secularism but cynicism. That’s why we have to recover the credibility of our witness,” he says. It’s one thing to dismiss the teachings of his faith as strange and unlikely, he notes, but “if people walk away from the church because they don’t believe that we really believe what we say, then that’s a crisis.” This is what he fears will be the legacy of an era in which people of faith put so much faith in a President. “There is an entire generation of people who are growing cynical that religion is just a means to some other end.”
Correction, Jan. 22
The original version of this story misstated the circumstances around an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2020. It occurred after reports that churches withheld donations, but the number of churches that may have withheld donations remains unclear.
This appears in the February 01, 2021 issue of TIME.