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Russell Moore on 'an altar call' for Evangelical America

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For years, Russell Moore was one of the top officials in the Southern Baptist Convention. Then Donald Trump came on the scene. Moore criticized him publicly and found himself ostracized by many other evangelical leaders who embraced Trump. Then Moore criticized the Southern Baptist Convention's response to a sexual abuse crisis, as well as what he viewed as an increased tolerance for white nationalism within the church. And suddenly, Moore found himself resigning from his post and on the outside of a denomination that had, up until that point, defined his life.

RUSSELL MOORE: My personal faith has become stronger, and I know that's surprising to many people given the - given some of the awful things that I've seen. But I've also seen some remarkable signs of life and signs of grace as well.

DETROW: Moore's new book, "Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call For Evangelical America," is an attempt at finding a path forward for the religion he loves. When we talk this week, Moore told me why he thinks Christianity is in crisis today in America.

MOORE: Well, it was the result of having multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching - turn the other cheek - to have someone come up after and to say, where did you get those liberal talking points? And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, I'm literally quoting Jesus Christ, the response would not be, I apologize. The response would be, yes, but that doesn't work anymore. That's weak. And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we're in a crisis.

DETROW: I mean, how do you even begin to fix that problem, though, when the central message of the gospel is something that a lot of people in the church do not seem to want to fully embrace?

MOORE: I don't think we fix it by fighting a war for the soul of evangelicalism. I really don't think we can fix it at the movement level. And that's one of the reasons why, when I'm talking to Christians who are concerned about this, my counsel is always small and local. I think we have to do something different and show a different way. And I see in history every time that something renewing and reviving has happened, it's happened that way. It's happened at a small level with people simply refusing to go with the stream of the church culture at the time. And I think that's where we need to be now.

DETROW: How much is politics part of the problem here? Are there big issues that have led to these problems that aren't politics? - because I think the politics and the culture war aspects of it certainly take up the most attention and certainly play out the most in public.

MOORE: I think that the roots of the political problem really come down to disconnection, loneliness, sense of alienation. Even in churches that are still healthy and functioning, regular churchgoing is not what it was a generation ago, in which the entire structure of the week was defined by the community. And I think there's a great deal of fear that comes from that. And then when you look around at legitimate concerns, often, that Christians have about the society around them, but when that's packaged in terms of existential threat - which I don't think is unique to the church right now - I think that that almost every sector of American life is seeing this with what Amanda Ripley calls conflict entrepreneurs, people who are willing to come in and say, everything is about to be lost, and desperate times call for desperate measures.

DETROW: Yeah. To that end, a lot in this book is about what is going wrong. And I wanted to ask you about somebody that you see as the right direction. And I noticed that you repeatedly, throughout the book, returned to C.S. Lewis as somebody who has been very important in your own life, very important in personal crises of faith that you faced. And one of the things that you mention right away is his welcome and encouraging tone in his writing. What was it about his words that helped you so much?

MOORE: I think what helped me - as a 15-year-old, I was looking around at Bible Belt Christianity and wondering, is this all really just politics or social control or something else, some means to an end? And because I had read "The Chronicles Of Narnia" so many times as a young child, I recognized Lewis's name and - on the spine of the book - and was able to read it. What struck me was the fact that he very clearly wasn't trying to market to me or to mobilize me for anything. He was simply bearing witness to what he had seen and what he knew to be true.

And I really think that often, in the history of the church, the people who can do that are people who seem to come out of nowhere. Lewis was an atheist literature professor, very antagonistic to Christianity until he became a Christian. We've seen that so often. So I often tell people when they ask, well, who's the next Billy Graham? The next Billy Graham may not even be a Christian yet, and might, as a matter of fact, be a person very hostile to Christianity. We've seen that before.

DETROW: I think you refer to your personal situation as almost accidental exile at points in the book.

MOORE: Yeah.

DETROW: Are you glad that happened?

MOORE: I am not someone who thinks of myself as a dissenter, and I don't like the role of dissenter. I like belonging. I love my community. And so it's a very unnatural sense of exile for me. But one of the things I've noticed is that since I've gone through that, I've talked to thousands of people who have experienced a very similar thing. They feel homeless. They feel as though there's not one particular niche into which they fit in all of these warring tribes in American life right now. And again, I think that can be a good thing.

DETROW: That's not just an evangelical problem, though, right?

MOORE: No.

DETROW: I feel like cultural tribalism and political us versus them over everything else is a defining part of American life right now, Do you think - and there's a lot to talk about when it comes to that - but do you think there is any hope for the changes you want to see in the evangelical church if this all-or-nothing political-cultural warfare moment continues across the country beyond its community?

MOORE: Well, I don't think the all-or-nothing cultural warfare is sustainable. I...

DETROW: I think a lot of people agree with you on that, and yet here we are.

MOORE: Yeah. We are here. But I really do think that it's not sustainable in terms of there's a passage in the scripture that says, beware, if you bite and scratch at one another, that you do not devour one another. And I think in American life right now, we're starting to realize we're devouring one another.

DETROW: Yeah.

MOORE: And, yeah, you're right. Every - almost every part of American life is tribalized and factionalized. But it shouldn't be that way in the church. The very existence of the church is to mean a group of people who are reconciled to God and to each other and, from the very beginning, was standing apart from those sorts of factions. And so I think if we're going to get past the blood and soil sorts of nationalism or all of the other kinds of kinds of totalizing cultural identities, it's going to require rethinking what the church is. And I don't think that's something new. I think it's very old. I think it's recovering a first-century understanding of what it means to be the church.

DETROW: Russell Moore - his new book is "Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call For Evangelical America." Thank you so much.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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