A recent post by Russell Moore in 'The Atlantic' reveals the standard-issue advice that evangelicals keep giving each other about how to reverse their decades-long decline.
It's not that it's terrible advice. It's that almost nobody will do it. Any evangelicals still sticking around this dysfunctional flavor of Christianity are there for a reason. And this advice conflicts with that reason.
A couple of years ago, Russell Moore made a name for himself as the earnest leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Eventually, his fellow SBC leaders got sick of him taking his job seriously and drove him out of not just the job, but the entire denomination.
He found a soft landing, though. And now he’s written an opinion piece for The Atlantic about how evangelicals can totally reverse their ongoing decline. Let’s review that advice—and see why it won’t work in the increasingly toxic and dysfunctional culture of evangelicalism.
Russell Moore: A Southern Baptist without a denominational country
The ERLC is an interesting office. The SBC’s Cooperative Program finances it with a budget set by the top-ranked Executive Committee. It or something like it has existed in the SBC for over a century, but a huge reorganization in 1997 gave it its current name and mission:
The ERLC is dedicated to engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ and speaking to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing.“About the ERLC,” ERLC.com
In practical terms, the ERLC encourages evangelicals to vote (Republican), wages the evangelical culture wars in the media, and convinces evangelicals to toe the party line on those culture wars. In essence, the ERLC is supposed to help evangelicals regain their lost dominance over America—and other Americans’ lives.
From 1988-2013, Richard Land led the ERLC. He turned out to be quite a handful. After saying some shockingly racist things about the Trayvon Martin case, the SBC allowed him to quit-before-he-was-fired. Now, Land had been a quintessential SBC good ol’ boy—plugged into their crony network at the hip. He’d understood what his position required and involved. Under him, the ERLC operated as a freewheeling, rollicking display of casual dominance.
But the SBC needed to make a major statement about Land’s gaffes. They chose to make it by hiring Russell Moore as his replacement.
Out of every other officer the SBC has ever had in the past 20 years, Moore might just be one of the only ones who really wanted to do the actual job he’d accepted. By that, I don’t mean he’s a wonderful—or even good—person. But he always demonstrated a certain charming sincerity about the ERLC.
It’s quite clear that the very last thing the SBC’s top leaders wanted was someone who genuinely wanted to help evangelicals win their war for lost dominance. But that is precisely what they got.
Russell Moore declares that ‘there is only one way out’ for American evangelicals
On July 25, Russell Moore penned quite a dramatic post for The Atlantic. Its title and subtitle say it all:
The American Evangelical Church Is in Crisis. There’s Only One Way Out.The Atlantic
Evangelicals can have revival or nostalgia—but not both.
Indeed, The Atlantic has provided a home for posts just like this for years now. From almost the start of Russell Moore’s time at the ERLC, The Atlantic liked the cut of his jib. In 2015, a writer for the site praised his attempts to end Southern Baptist structural racism. In 2019, another praised his opposition to Donald Trump as a political candidate. Evangelicals might be a noxious bunch, but Moore at least seemed to want to steer them in a slightly more wholesome direction.
And now, he wants to try to do that again. His post concerns evangelicals’ ongoing decline. It is, as Moore puts it, a “crisis.” He perceives only one way to reverse that decline and end that crisis:
Evangelicals must step up their Jesusing.
In other words, they must stop pining for their glory days, whatever that phrase might mean to them. Instead, they must seek revival. And not just any kind of revival, but the real-deal revival.
Revivals are very important to evangelicals
Evangelicals love the idea of revival. Revival is a Christianese word. It means a period of great zeal and rowdiness that leads to tons of new conversions and generally increased piety for years to come. Often, lots of miracle claims multiply during the initial outbreak of revival.
In evangelical reckoning, their god personally sends revivals to his followers—after, of course, they demonstrate their worthiness for it. They love to claim that revivals couldn’t possibly happen on their own.
Many evangelicals pray at least sometimes for small-scale revivals in their churches—and larger-scale ones across their countries. Earlier this year, they hoped that that recent shindig in Kentucky would become such a large-scale revival, but it petered out before it could get that far. It also sparked vanishingly few new converts, which is a requirement for the label of revival.
(That’s why the Toronto Blessing is called a blessing and not a revival. As spectacularly important as it was for evangelicals, most normies at the time barely even knew it was happening.)
So when evangelicals talk about revivals, they’re talking about an unmistakable show of power from their god. And that show of power always leads directly to them gaining both lots of new converts and more cultural power.
What a real-deal revival means to Russell Moore
In his post, Russell Moore also wants a large-scale revival. But he frets that evangelicals might be yearning for the wrong kind of revival.
If you’re wondering what that even looks like, you’re in luck:
The Christian Church still needs an organic movement of people reminding the rest of us that there’s hope for personal transformation, for the kind of crisis that leads to grace. [. . .]
Churches must stop the frantic rhetoric and desperate lack of confidence that seek to hold on to the Bible Belt of the past. Instead, those worthy of the word evangelical should nurture the joyous and tranquil fullness of faith that prays for something new, rooted in something very old—namely a commitment to personal faith and to the authority of the Bible.
That starts not with manifestos and strategic road maps, but with small-scale decisions to reawaken the awe of the God evangelicals proclaim. We must refocus our attention on conversion rather than culture wars and actually read the Bible rather than mine it for passages to win arguments.The Atlantic
Still confused? I wouldn’t blame you if you were.
Yes yes, but what did that even mean?
Evangelicals have this maddening habit of writing tons of words, words, words that don’t mean much in concrete terms. When they’re done, we don’t know what they actually mean, or what their suggestions look like in the real world, or how we’d know if someone were enacting their suggestions correctly or incorrectly. I’ve even caught evangelical ministers lamenting this unfortunate tendency. So I will translate:
Russell Moore thinks many evangelicals want a huge revival, but they want the wrong kind of revival. They want a revival that will result in them returning to their former dominance over America. For some evangelicals, that means a return to 2015:
Many mainstream evangelicals assumed that we were all just waiting out a moment of disorder: If we can just get through the 2016 presidential election, the pandemic, the racial-reckoning protests and backlashes, the 2020 presidential election, and the seemingly constant evangelical-leadership sex-and-abuse scandals, we’ll end up safely back in 2015. That’s clearly not happening.The Atlantic
That date is specific and very important. You see, 2015 was the last year evangelicals could still delude themselves into thinking that they were not, in fact, years into an unending decline of members and cultural power. That was the year that Pew Research released their 2015 Religious Landscape Study. This study revealed what some observers had been saying for years: People were leaving Christian churches by the truckload, and they were not coming back.
Other evangelicals, Moore asserts, want a revival will land them back in the 1950s:
Some evangelical Christians have confused “revival” with a return to a mythical golden age. A generation ago, one evangelical leader said that the goal of the religious right should be 1950s America, just without the sexism and racism.The Atlantic
I couldn’t figure out which evangelical leader he means in that quote, but it doesn’t surprise me. Even when I was Pentecostal in the 1980s-1990s, everyone I knew idolized that decade as the last great period of evangelical dominance. Looking back, it was like they all wanted to LARP a Jesus-themed Mad Men TV show.
But those are the wrong kind of revivals
However, the 1950s were far from the gauzy idealized decade that evangelicals crave. Sure, evangelicals got in bed with Republicans around then. That strategic alliance gave them a huge amount of cultural power—which they immediately began using to the hilt. For years, it was unsafe to vocally oppose evangelicals’ control-grabs or to express a lack of belief in their god. In some areas of America still dominated by evangelicals, it still is.
However, Christian leaders in the 1950s sure didn’t feel that way about their time. They lamented what they saw as a rising tide of secularism and disobedience to Christian demands. Back then, those leaders wanted a revival that would get them back to the Victorian Age. They were certain that Victorian-era evangelicals knew exactly how to Jesus correctly, and that nobody had dared refuse them anything they wanted. And as with the 1950s, the Victorian Age was far from that ideal as well.
No, Moore tells us, evangelicals should not crave a revival that ends with a return to dominance:
The idea of revival as a return to some real or imagined moment of greatness is not just illusory but dangerous. In the supposedly idyllic Christian America of the post–World War II era, the evangelical preacher A. W. Tozer wrote: “It is my considered opinion that under the present circumstances we do not want revival at all. A widespread revival of the kind of Christianity we know today in America might prove to be a moral tragedy from which we would not recover in a hundred years.” Tozer knew that the confusion of revival with nostalgia could amount to exactly what contemporary psychologists tell us about trauma: What is not repaired is repeated.The Atlantic
Instead, Moore wants a revival that ends with evangelicals Jesusing like they’ve never Jesused before.
Russell Moore wants the right kind of revival here
Here’s what the right kind of revival looks like, according to Russell Moore:
The answer to the crisis of credibility facing evangelical America is not fighting a battle for the “soul of evangelicalism,” with one group winning and exiling the losers. [. . .]
The answer is instead what it has always been: Those who wish to hold on to the Old Time Religion must recognize that God is doing something new. The old alliances and coalitions are shaking apart. And the sense of disorientation, disillusionment, and political and religious “homelessness” that many Christians feel is not a problem to be overcome but a key part of the process. [. . .]
The Christian Church still needs an organic movement of people reminding the rest of us that there’s hope for personal transformation, for the kind of crisis that leads to grace.The Atlantic
Oh, okay. So evangelicals need “an organic movement” that focuses on “personal transformation.” That will, in turn, result in showers of divine grace upon them and the entire nation.
And how, you might be wondering now, shall evangelicals do that?
Out with the old, in with the new (again), sort of
To accomplish this miraculous change of priorities, evangelicals must stop doing all the stuff that Russell Moore doesn’t like and start doing the stuff he prefers. He doesn’t like social media fights, so evangelicals must stop doing that. Nor does he like “manifestos and strategic road maps,” so those must stop as well. Instead, evangelicals must talk up how awe-inspiring their god is, which will inevitably lead to conversions and increased piety.
He even, shockingly, appears to suggest that evangelicals exit the culture wars to focus like lasers on recruitment instead. Here it is again:
We must refocus our attention on conversion rather than culture wars and actually read the Bible rather than mine it for passages to win arguments.The Atlantic
Oh, that was such a sly, devious little bit. Bravo, Russell Moore!
The first time I read his post, I completely missed it. A friend had linked it to me and mentioned the culture wars line specifically, and I seriously thought they’d linked the wrong URL. What culture wars? He didn’t talk about culture wars. When I reread it (since that person’s not prone to such mistakes), I finally caught it. It’s just buried in there.
What the culture wars encompasses and what its warriors want
Right now, evangelicals fight culture wars on three main fronts:
- Anti-trans legislation
- Anti-LGBT efforts, generally
- Complete opposition to elective abortion
But those aren’t their only culture wars. Here are some others:
- Blocking gun control efforts
- Sneaking indoctrination in front of non-evangelical children without their parents’ knowledge or approval
- Destroying the social safety net
- Enshrining Christian—particularly extremist evangelical—privilege into law at all levels of government and throughout its three branches
- Rejecting climate change efforts and denying the science behind those efforts
(Related: The 2008 documentary that mostly-correctly predicted events in a world one degree warmer.)
As well as these culture wars, evangelicals also have begun to perceive some looming schisms over racism, sex abuse, and women pastors.
None of this stuff is coincidental, either. For the most part, all of their wars and schisms boil down to sheer, blithering authoritarian panic over lost power. And they’re losing that power thanks to increasing regard for and awareness of human rights and civil liberties. Abortion care, in particular, draws upon an impressive number of recognized human rights. When it is restricted and criminalized, human rights in that society erode for everyone who isn’t in power, not just women. It cannot be restricted or criminalized without jeopardizing human rights generally.
Their other culture wars run along similar lines. They all attack human rights and civil liberties at some level. These attacks seek to weaken America’s dedication to protecting both. After all, a society that robustly protects rights and liberties certainly won’t allow evangelicals to graciously appoint themselves everyone’s Designated Adult and start unilaterally making big sweeping personal decisions for others.
And authoritarian evangelicals fall apart if they stop feeling like they own everything around themselves—or are at least in the process of seizing that ownership.
Did Russell Moore seriously suggest that evangelicals stop fighting their culture wars?
I shall not be breaking Betteridge’s Law of Headlines today: No, he did not. The guy who once led the ERLC with rock-solid conviction is not about to drop evangelicals’ ongoing war for dominion over America.
He just wants it done more nicely.
If evangelicals stop pursuing the culture wars, they will implode on themselves like a star collapsing into a black hole. The entire thrust of their end of Christianity is like America’s so-called Manifest Destiny: A sense of permission to take control of something that did not actually belong to them. As it was then, their permission slip happens to be totally signed by Jesus himself.
That’s why evangelicals keep coalescing into totalitarian, theocratic political-takeover movements. From Biblical Patriarchy to Christian Reconstructionism to Dominionism to the John Birch Society and all the way to the Seven Mountains Mandate currently festering in Republican hearts, evangelicals just can’t stop sprouting these groups. As one right-wing evangelical site admits:
The church is an environment of extremes. The trouble with extremes is that they always contain a seed of truth, making them look and sound plausible to the careless bystander. By virtue of this fact, the church is also often full of susceptible bystanders ready to lap-up the latest and greatest fad.Reformation 21
It’s always nice to hear evangelicals concede that as a group, they have absolutely no way to discern dangerous lies from divine demands.
As outraged authoritarians suffering a group-wide narcissistic injury, evangelicals can no more abandon the culture wars than they could stop breathing.
The only moral culture wars are Russell Moore’s culture wars
Russell Moore has always wanted authoritarian evangelicalism, just without the sexism and racism. In his post, he may gently criticize an unnamed previous evangelical leader for using that exact phrase, but it’s his own heart’s desire as well. It always has been.
He thinks he can have dysfunctional authoritarian evangelicalism, but somehow strip away all the bad stuff that always happens with systems like this. That never works. Dysfunctional authoritarian systems absolutely depend on everyone in power acting only in good faith. But groups created under these systems have absolutely no way to ensure that—much less to prevent bad-faith actors from achieving power, much less to remove such bad-faith actors when they become aware of ’em.
So Moore’s always been perfectly happy to wade into the culture wars himself. He still is. In just the past year or so, he’s written a slew of anti-abortion articles for Christianity Today alone. In fact, at no point have I seen him suggesting that evangelicals should back off from their attempts to restrict and criminalize this care.
Instead, he just wants evangelicals to adopt a more simpering paternalistic tone while they trample human rights in America. You know, explain things to death. That way, women in evangelical-controlled states will completely understand why they no longer have access to the same human rights that men enjoy without even thinking about it. That’s always worked before.
Though Russell Moore also wants a strengthening of the social safety net, this is pure wishful thinking. Evangelicals despise helping the poor and disadvantaged, and always have. Worse, that desire takes second place to maintaining abortion as a heavily-restricted, criminalized form of health care. It’d be nice if the social safety net thing happens, he implies, but that legal stuff is staying regardless. That legal stuff is mandatory. The rest is just him begging evangelicals to at least pretend that they care about something besides power, dominance, and control of others’ lives. And they won’t, because nobody is making them.
Dude’s as much a culture warrior as the evangelicals he’s begging to leave the culture wars behind. It sounds a lot like he just wants the faction warfare to die down. And that ain’t gonna happen for the exact same reasons that evangelicals will continue to refuse to strengthen the social safety net.
He just wants other evangelicals to adopt his priorities instead of caring about their own.
Why Russell Moore’s suggestions will not become the new face of evangelicalism
I’ve mentioned already that I had to reread the post to find his buried reference to ending the culture wars (that he doesn’t like). Well, I also had to double-check the date of the post because this exact suggestion crops up constantly in evangelical writing. I’ve double-double-checked it a couple of times already because I keep thinking I might have misread the date and it really came out in 2021 or something.
Here’s how perennial this advice is:
- Joe Battaglia recommended Jesusing harder to fix America itself.
- Jesusing harder will totally fix dying churches, too, did you know?
- It’ll also fix racism.
- Jesusing harder also substitutes for real self-improvement.
- But it’ll totally fix membership declines.
- And every other thing evangelicals are doing wrong.
- It’ll impress churchless believers so much that they’ll return to church!
- It’ll also keep evangelicals from “transactional” faith and behavior!
- Even more progressive Christians think Jesusing harder will satisfy every human yearning and need.
- Jesusing harder will especially make evangelicals less gullible and prone to conspiracy theorizing.
Evangelicals constantly exhort each other to Jesus harder as a way to fix any problem they perceive anywhere. This advice has been a constant since well before I began writing. When Ronald Sider published his famous book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience in 2005, he suggested that Jesusing harder would make evangelicals finally stop being such hypocrites. Since then, any number of evangelicals have made this exact same suggestion.
But they didn’t take this advice then, and they’re not about to start now for Russell Moore.
The sad truth about Jesusing harder
Anyone loudly involved in right-wing evangelicalism right now is there because they like how things work right now. They’re not there to Jesus harder. They’re there to climb the power ladder of a dysfunctional authoritarian political movement that claims to derive its mandate to rule from nothing less than the god of the entire universe.
This exact combination of factors makes evangelicalism extremely dangerous to the rest of us. Jesusing harder should theoretically keep evangelicals so busy they wouldn’t possibly have time to grab for temporal power. But evangelicals imagine that it would do the opposite by bestowing upon them all the power in the world. And since Russell Moore has a demonstrated affection for C.S. Lewis, let me offer a word of advice from the man himself about what would happen then:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.C.S. Lewis
If they were thinking straight about this thing, even evangelicals would not want a world where super-hard-Jesusing evangelicals rule over everyone.
But we’re all in luck, because it won’t ever happen. If some evangelical leader ever somehow did manage to force this fractious, restive tribe to Jesus harder, they’d leave immediately to remake this current version of evangelicalism elsewhere. This is the only version that suits their needs and seems likely to fulfill their dreams of rulership.
And since it requires only lip service to Jesusing harder, then that is all they shall give it.