it's time to play ball!
Reading Time: 8 minutes It's time to play ball! (Still from Johnny Dangerously (1984 movie))
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! The other day, we talked about how Russell Moore ended up as the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Mostly, we talked about the absolute state of the ERLC in 2012 — and why the masters of the SBC needed Russell Moore to lead it after the previous president’s string of scandals. Russell Moore rehabbed the ERLC’s tattered image nicely for a while, yes. Alas for them both, something went very wrong afterward. So much for their happy ending, eh? Today, let’s look at his leaked email — and see why it’s such a screaming big deal in the evangelical world. Dude refused to play ball with the denomination, and he paid for his refusal.

it's time to play ball!
It’s time to play ball! (Still from Johnny Dangerously (1984 movie))

(Related posts about Russell Moore: Don’t Ever Believe the Hype; How Russell Moore Got His ERLC JobYes 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.)

(We’ll be talking a bit more about the provenance of the letters soon. That matter, and their specific names named, merit their own separate examination.)

The ‘Earthquake’ of Russell Moore’s Leaked Letter(s).

I loved this Atlantic story about Russell Moore’s leaked letter. The writer, Peter Wehner, describes the letter’s contents in an interesting way:

“This is an earthquake,” a prominent Christian writer told me.

The publication of an extraordinary February 24, 2020, letter by Russell Moore, one of the most influential and respected evangelicals in America (and a friend), has shaken the Christian world.

“Earthquake” describes the sheer impact the letter has been having on evangelicals as a whole.

In fact, we now have a second letter leak from Russell Moore. Check it out! It’s dated May 31, 2021, and it went to J.D. Greear (the current and soon-to-be-leaving president of the SBC). If anything, it represents an even bigger “earthquake.”

In it, Moore describes the SBC’s absolutely inept handling of sex abuse. He names names and describes specific meetings and situations. So to me, this letter is way more powerful.

One line in the second letter stands out:

The tactic of “We gave you $250,000, why did you allow our dirty laundry to be aired?” can then be morphed into, “We control your CP budget; why don’t you play ball?”

I’d already written that exact phrase “play ball” to describe what the SBC really wanted out of Russell Moore. So, you can bet it made me holler!

Aww, Why Cain’t You Just Play Ball With Us?

The SBC consistently reveals itself as a poorly-run business meant to enrich its leaders at the expense of its followers. If its leaders thought actually behaving in line with their stated goals would enrich themselves, they would be doing it. Instead, they think they can talk the talk without walking the walk — and enrich themselves anyway.

What I describe here represents one of the most powerful lessons that authoritarians ever learn. It’s so important that I’m gonna set it off like a quote, even though it’s just me talking:

Authoritarians learn that if you can only get what you want expending effort, then sure, fine, they’ll expend effort. Whatever. But in the broken systems that authoritarians favor, you can almost always get what you want without expending effort. You can get all the rewards while also doing exactly what makes you happiest.

And what makes authoritarians happiest is getting stuff they don’t deserve at other people’s expense.

The person who gets the most of that undeserved stuff wins. The person who expends the effort to get that stuff might not actually get it, but even if they do, they don’t win. They had to expend effort, after all. That makes them chumps.

Don’t be a chump.

And the big reason why authoritarian leaders can break all the rules that they do is that they play ball with the other leaders of their tribe.

They play ball. And the rest of the people in leadership shower them with rewards — while expecting the same rewards themselves because they also play ball.

What It Means to Play Ball in Authoritarian Groups.

We can see one of the best representations of what it means to play ball in, ironically, the 1984 comedy Johnny Dangerously. In this mobster-movie spoof, Michael Keaton plays Johnny Kelly, a good-hearted man who gets sucked into the world of organized crime to pay for medical care for his mother (a downright effervescent Maureen Stapleton). With the wealth he earns as Johnny Dangerously, Johnny also sends his his little brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) to law school.

Afterward, Tommy becomes an assistant to the District Attorney (DA). His stated mission involves ending the mob’s stranglehold on his city, even though he doesn’t know Johnny is the leader of the mob.

To use the terms of recent posts, Tommy has 100% bought into the hype of his town’s corrupt justice system.

At one point in the movie, Tommy visits the home of the DA, Burr (Danny DeVito). The DA is secretly on the take, meaning that the mob has brought him to heel through bribery. He and his masters are all alarmed by Tommy’s progress in his investigation against organized crime. So, Burr wants to get Tommy on the take like he is.

YouTube video

This should be queued up to the beginning of the correct scene at about 43 minutes in.

In this scene, Tommy visits Burr’s home. There, Burr launches an extensive bribery attempt:

Come here, Tom. Let me show you something.

It’s time to play ball!

Let’s see what’s in store for Tommy Kelly if he plays ball! In a hurry, Sally [Tommy’s fiancee]? Pop it into this time-saving microflame oven. Cook a whole turkey in just under a day! In a rut, Tom? Get away from it all. Take a trip around the world… on us! Twice! Aboard the S.S. Kelly!

And when you return, move into your own cozy, little love nest [the White House]. Plenty of extra closet space. Perfect for entertaining. And on those chilly winter nights… Sally can wrap herself up in this number. And on those hot summer nights, she can wrap herself up in ice!

It’s all yours, Tommy, if you play ball! [Source]

It’s a truly dizzying amount of wealth and power on the table. It is all dependent on Tommy’s affirmation that he will play ball with Burr and the mob.

So: To play ball means to do stuff you know is wrong. Instead of doing right, you all act like everything’s on the level and you’re all totally for realsies following the rules. But — surprise, surprise! — nobody actually is.

The SBC’s leaders asked, in effect: Aww, why don’t you play ball with us, Russell Moore?

But Russell Moore Refused to Play Ball.

As I said earlier, I don’t think Russell Moore actually qualifies as a genuinely good person. He’s an authoritarian culture warrior who’s completely bought into his tribe’s made-up talking points about pretty much everything (especially as touching human rights for women).

However, he’s not really a hypocrite, or at least I don’t think he reads like one. Instead, he has always seemed more like a true believer in his tribe’s hype. He really believes that his tribe should care deeply about racism and sex abuse in its own ranks, and therefore that they should do everything in its power to lessen both. Moreover, he really seems to believe that church and denominational leaders should model the tribe’s talking points at all times.

So he must have been quite shocked to realize exactly what his overlords and fellow leaders wanted out of him. They wanted him to pretend that the SBC was totally and for realsies intent on lessening sex abuse in its own ranks, while its top leaders actually did everything they could to stymie real progress.

They wanted Moore to support his fellow leaders to the hilt, and they’d support him in turn. In their dream scenario, everybody pretends, the truth never gets out, nothing ever changes, and the group never actually reaches its own stated goals, but the leaders get rich anyway.

And Russell Moore was clearly not okay with that pretense.

Here’s What Happens to Those Who Refuse to Play Ball.

When Tommy Kelly refuses to play ball, a high-ranking mobster asks Burr to end him. This attempt almost succeeds.

When Russell Moore similarly refused, his denomination’s leaders decided, likewise, that he had to go. No, they didn’t put out a hit on him. Instead, they dialed up the pressure on him to either quit trying to change their gravy train or at least shut up about it.

But he refused all the same. He did go mighty quiet after a huge kerfluffle over Donald Trump. Moore opposed Trumpism and was very alarmed by Southern Baptists’ generally-high level of support for this horrible man. That led to a big come-to-Jesus meeting with Frank Page, and ended with Moore cooling it on the anti-Trump stuff for a good long while.

Now, thanks to the leaked letters, we know what might have happened there:

The EC allegedly decided to convene secret tribunals to investigate Moore’s loyalty to the Party. For a while, Moore didn’t even know this investigation was happening, it sounds like. (“They went into a secret session, without ever talking to [Greear] or to me, to form yet another secret task force.”) And their goal was simple: to emotionally weaken and “drain” Russell Moore and his few like-minded reformers. As he put it:

But [their] strategy is clear—an endless psychological warfare aimed at silencing through intimidation.

They didn’t silence Moore, but they did at least drive him out of the SBC.

Play Ball or Go Home.

Russell Moore learned the same lesson that all potential reformists learn in broken systems:

A broken system resists change. Change can’t come from the outside, nor from the inside.

Even a reformist big-name leader can’t change a broken system. To do the job, a reformist leader needs a majority of reform-minded fellow leaders on hand.

However, the masters of these broken systems got into power through systems that were not designed well enough to keep out bad-faith actors. That’s exactly what the Conservative Resurgence did. Its architects capitalized on poorly-written SBC rules and bylaws to get hardline conservatives into positions of power.

And then, those bad-faith actors honed the SBC’s inadequacies to protect their newly-won power.

So broken systems resist reform attempts, just as they’re designed to do.

Even if someone does accidentally manage to get something done in that direction, the group’s non-reform-minded leaders will spring into action to protect their power and income. And many of the group’s rank-and-file members will support these leaders’ self-interested protection.

The SBC’s Hype Isn’t True.

Russell Moore might be the closest thing the SBC had to a genuinely reform-minded leader. It’s a lead-pipe cinch he doesn’t realize why the SBC talks the talk in the first place.

I can easily believe that he wanted to reform the SBC’s tendency to accept abusers into leadership and then reward them as long as they played ball. As well, I believe that the people already playing ball didn’t like that, and so they worked together to get rid of him. Makes perfect sense. Almost exactly the same thing happened on an online game I played years ago, and it resulted in the same thing: driving out the reformist and then gloating about having done so.

I just hope the few remaining compassionate Southern Baptists are listening. They need to know that their denomination’s hype isn’t true.

The SBC is a good ole boy network of white racist cronies protecting each other, growing their power, and playing ball their entire careers…

… And very little more.

Because of its nature, a broken system cannot be reformed or fixed, or even made safe for its own members’ children.

NEXT UP: The breakup continues between Russell Moore and the SBC, as we look at the letters’ provenance and check out who got named — and how they responded to being named. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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