Lately, we’ve been looking at Russell Moore and the now two leaked letters he wrote to leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I don’t think these letters were leaked by accident. Instead, I think each letter had its own goal and may have been written with the idea of leaks in mind. Today, let me show you a bit about the letters’ provenance, what they cover, and who they name — and then, let’s talk about why Russell Moore wrote them like he did.
(Related posts about Russell Moore: Refusing to Play Ball; Don’t Ever Believe the Hype; How Russell Moore Got His ERLC Job; Yes But Was He Hateful Enough; How to Fool a Monster; Russell Moore Reveals the SBC’s ‘Abuse of Faith’ Strategy; The SBC Just Drove Out Another Dissenter. Also see: The SBC Still Doesn’t Get Why People Don’t Like Them Anymore; Frank Page’s Very Clean Cup.)
(Abbreviations: SBC = Southern Baptist Convention. ERLC = Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. EC = Executive Committee. CP = Cooperative Program. See this post for a discussion of the SBC’s two emerging factions, which I’ve come to call the Old Guard and the Pretend Progressives.)
The First of the Leaked Letters: February 24, 2020
Russell Moore dated the first letter February 24, 2020 (archive link). He mailed it to the Executive Committee (EC) Board of Trustees. He opens with “Dear Brothers and Sisters.” And he utilizes very veiled language expressing his unhappiness with the SBC’s top-level hypocrisy in a number of areas.
In this first letter, Moore never names names or completely describes incidents. That said, he does specifically exonerate a couple of top-level people (J.D. Greear and, strangely, Ronnie Floyd). In addition, he hints very broadly at various disgraced SBC leaders, among them Paige Patterson. Moore describes Patterson thusly:
. . . a man who was dismissed, for very serious cause, by a Southern Baptist entity, over issues including the treatment of vulnerable women. . .
And then, Moore complains that some church awarded this man a “Defender of the Faith” title. Only one guy I can think of fits that bill, and that’s Paige Patterson — who talked on Twitter about receiving this award in January 2020.
Moore also complains about a previous president of the EC who was, while secretly investigating Moore, “using his pastoral authority to sexually sin.” That’s probably going to be Frank Page. He’s the previous EC president, and indeed, he had to quit-before-he-could-be-fired over that scandal.
Overall, this letter represents Russell Moore’s defense of himself and his department amid a secret investigation into his Party loyalties. He’s not ready to quit the job yet, so he’s being very circumspect and careful in tone.
The Second Letter: May 31, 2021
In every way, the second letter differs from the first. Russell Moore dates this one May 31, 2021 (archive link). So he wrote it shortly after leaving his job and the SBC as a whole. He addresses it specifically to J.D. Greear, the president of the SBC for a few more days, and uses Greear’s address at Summit Church (the megachurch Greear pastors).
Having already left, Moore clearly feels no need at all to hold back. He names names, describes incidents, and offers specific quotes. Make no mistakes. This is damning stuff. If an Atlantic writer considered the first letter an “earthquake,” what kind of metalocalypse should we consider this second as being? It surely qualifies as the Baptist equivalent of a Roland Emmerich disaster film like 2012.
We’ll get into specific names and situations in a minute here. For now, I’ll just say that Moore clearly perceives himself as belonging to J.D. Greear’s general faction in the upcoming SBC elections, which I’ve dubbed the Pretend Progressives. He also clearly perceives as enemies the leaders of the opposing faction, which I’ve called the Old Guard, as well as the hardliner outliers in that faction who almost constitute a third Tea-Party-style faction by now.
This second letter reeks of Cover Your Ass (CYA). It feels to me like Moore wrote it anticipating future stabs in his back as he left. Such attacks would definitely be in keeping with the infamous passive-aggression and cruelty of Southern Baptists in general.
I suspect that SBC leaders would want to be very sure that Moore’s idealism had left along with him, so they could continue their cronyism unmolested by demands for reform.
Who Leaked These Letters?
First, let me say that I don’t know who leaked these letters. Nobody seems to know for sure.
Of the first letter, all we know is that a trustee of the ERLC leaked it. There’s even a possibility that the ERLC itself, which Moore addresses in the letter, never even saw it. A right-wing hardliner claims to have an ERLC trustee whistleblower saying so — and even offering a short list of potential leaker candidates.
(Take that claim with all the salt you like; that blog’s oh-so-angry writer also snarled that Moore was totally a “lifelong Democrat.” LOL surejan.gif. Sorry, we don’t want him. He’s all yours.)
We know even less about the second letter. J.D. Greear himself has said via Twitter:
“I received a letter on Dr. Moore’s last day at the ERLC. It came to me as private correspondence and I have treated it as such.”
So he’s claiming he didn’t leak it. He also offered a sorta assurance that the SBC would be discussing it at their big Annual Meeting next week. I’ve got another surejan.gif for him.
Someone in Greear’s Twitter responses said the second letter “was posted on Ben Cole’s website and file system,” implying that Greear’s apparent long-time friend (also Conservative Resurgence helper and onetime racist) Benjamin Cole had something to do with the leak. Cole used to be a fanboy of Paige Patterson’s, that link says, before becoming deeply disillusioned with his idol’s hypocrisy. It’s an interesting little wrinkle.
But really, we don’t know yet who leaked either letter. I suspect different people leaked each one. Nor do I know if Russell Moore knew from the start that they’d be leaked, though the letters do feel strongly like they were written with leaking in mind.
Are the Leaked Letters Accurate?
You can see a lot of the current firestorm at the Twitter tag “SBC21” (link). Hooboy, Southern Baptists are big mad over there. People are calling for Mike Stone to remove his name from the upcoming election, for the SBC to finally take real action against racism and sex abuse, and more.
I only saw a couple of people using the tag to praise the people Russell Moore named-and-shamed. The actual organizers of the 2021 Annual Meeting, which is what the tag is supposed to be advertising, only used it a few times in the past week that I saw.
Overall, it looks like a lot of Southern Baptists think both letters are true and accurate depictions of the Old Guard and its behavior. They also seem to think Russell Moore’s descriptions of his own actions (and those of his faction) are accurate.
Naturally, the people Moore accused of wrongdoing have hotly contested the second letter’s contents. In particular, Mike Stone has lashed out hard. He called the leaked letters’ accusations “absolutely slanderous” as well as “inflammatory,” “fallacious,” and “laughable.” Ronnie Floyd, also named and shamed in the second letter, has claimed that his own memories of described events don’t line up with Moore’s retelling of them.
However, Washington Post tells us that at least some of the events and accusations within the second letter have been corroborated by three employees who work for relevant institutions, as well as “a former employee, an abuse survivor, and a prominent abuse advocate.”
And every word @drmoore wrote to @jdgreear was accurate. [Source]
So there is all that to speak for the leaked letters’ accuracy.
Naming Some Perceived Villains in the SBC
In the second letter, Russell Moore documents the hypocrisy of some astonishing (but not unexpected) names:
- Ronnie Floyd, Chief Executive Officer/President of the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC) and previous president of the SBC itself (2014-2016). Moore cut him slack in the first letter, then complained about him in the second. Floyd apparently acted like the EC was bein’ all mean to him for wanting to institute reforms. But he refused to release accurate information about why Frank Page left his EC position. He also allowed the EC to form secret Star Chamber-style tribunals to investigate Moore’s actions.
- Frank Page, the former president/CEO of the EC. Unnamed but alluded to as “this former president.” He was allowed to retire over a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
- Mike Stone, the aforementioned darling of the Calvinist-addled hardliner wing of the SBC. Behind the EC-organized secret tribunals.
- Paige Patterson. Greear and Moore objected to Patterson’s being awarded a “Defender of the Faith” accolade post-scandal, which got both men into trouble. Moore links Patterson to the secret tribunals as well and makes some fascinating allusions to embezzlement and legal action.
- Paula White, a politicized prosperity-gospel “huckster.” She’s named mostly as a symptom of the SBC’s overall illness.
- Augie Boto, an Executive Vice-President at the EC who “stonewalled” Moore’s reform attempts. He completely opposed the idea of an abuse database for the SBC and was an early architect of the Conservative Resurgence. Biiiiig friends with Ronnie Floyd. Retired in 2019.
- Rod Martin: Calvinist guy and determined racist, deeply embedded in Mike Stone’s hardline Calvinist faction. Link goes to Wartburg Watch’s comments. He’s a nightmare of secret influence, identified as such in the 2nd letter. In the wake of the leaks, he’s gone on the offensive on his Twitter.
Whew. It’s a real rogue’s gallery for sure!
Naming the Apparent Good Guys
Of course, Russell Moore also praises some people in the upcoming SBC schism. Here’s a brief rundown:
- J.D. Greear, current president of the SBC. Portrayed consistently as a leader who really totally wants to reform stuff, but gosh darn it, he just keeps getting blocked and stymied by SBC politics. It’s just striking, considering how truly little Greear’s actually done in terms of real reform.
- Amy Whitfield. Staff member of the Executive Committee (EC). Ronnie Floyd hired her in September 2019 to be the “associate vice president for convention communications.” When Moore warned her that Rachael Denhollander would be addressing sex abuse at the ERLC National Conference in October 2019, she was fine with it.
- Jonathan Howe. Another EC staffer. Floyd likewise got him hired in September 2019 as the “vice president of communications.” Moore warned him as well about the October 2019 convention topic, and he was also fine with it. That’s about all he had to say about either Howe or Whitfield.
- Rolland Slade. A year ago, he became the chair of the EC as a whole. Before that, he served the EC as its vice chairman. Moore praises him for supported an unnamed abuse survivor who wanted to talk in secret with the EC just to share her story, to help that abuse not happen to someone else. But, Moore tells us in the letter, the EC ultimately denied her request.
That’s about it for the good guys.
Sidebar: A Potential Provocation for the Writing of the Letters
That second letter gives us an interesting hint about exactly why Russell Moore chose to quit the SBC and ERLC — and write and send that second letter.
And it turns out to be a potentially very deeply personal one. He writes:
This past February’s Executive Committee meeting was clarifying for me. My fifteen year-old son—hearing just the hubbub about “investigations” of me—asked whether or not I had had a moral failure.
And Moore was absolutely livid over this questioning. His own son was getting teased about the secret investigation of their dad.
As I told you the other night, I am usually resilient and calm about such things, but I was filled with anger, especially because not only had I not had a moral failure but I knew of the immorality of some of the very people initiating and carrying out the “investigations” meant to cast aspersions on my character.
And he handled it in a new way.
I did what I had never done before and asked him to attend the Executive Committee meeting with me, so that he could see and hear for himself. I’m glad I did. But as I watched his face in that meeting, I concluded that I would never have to answer that question to him again as a result of intimidation by these figures. [Source]
Interestingly, the first letter contains very nearly the same accusation, this time coming from his children (as in more than just his son):
My children asked my wife the other day if their Dad had had a moral failing. They had heard from their friends that their Dad was under investigation, and, as anyone would, they wondered if this meant that I had a character flaw. Maria [his wife] cannot live with that, and neither can I. [Source]
It’s an interesting vignette in both cases, but it’s intriguing that Moore specifically mentions being angry the second time around. Anyway, I’m mentioning it here because it’s clearly a real sore sticking point for Russell Moore.
The Overarching Justification for the Leaked Letters
I suspect that Russell Moore wants to influence the next Annual Meeting, in addition to painting himself and his faction as heroes fighting their enemies’ perfidy, collusion, and hypocrisy. The fact that he specifically and constantly singles out Mike Stone (like ten times), who will be running for the president position next week, speaks volumes.
The SBC’s 2021 Annual Meeting is shaping up to be a big honking deal. Not only will its attendees, called messengers, be electing a new president for the first time in three years (an unprecedented length of time for J.D. Greear to reign), but they’ll also be hashing out a whole bunch of very painful friction points developing in the denomination.
Over the past few years, the SBC’s conflicts have come to a very serious head. Its biggest-name leaders all seem to think that the denomination faces an actual, bona-fide crisis. Here are the arguments I’m seeing in their ranks:
- Entrenched racism
- Sex abuse
- Women in leadership roles
- More Calvinism and control, everywhere and forever
Ultimately, the denomination’s Old Guard is very worried that the denomination is leaning just a tiny bit more toward progress. They think seizing more control over Southern Baptists will fix all of the SBC’s problems.
Meanwhile, Pretend Progressive leaders cater to what they sure hope are a sizeable number of pew-warmers infuriated at SBC leaders’ lack of action regarding its scandals.
This election and the resolutions that get discussed at the Annual Meeting could potentially steer the denomination firmly in one direction or the other. And it really could go either way at this point. Whoever wins will not be kind to their enemies.
And as usual, the only people who’ll be completely ignored in this looming slapfight are the Southern Baptists who actually want real progress on any of these issues.