Dr. Russell Moore (Ph.D.) joins the podcast to speak with Tim and Rick on issues and scandals in our cultural moment that erode trust in Christian leaders and instill cynicism toward the Church and the claims of the Christian faith. Trends toward image maintenance, conspiracy theorizing, and loyalty to the group over loyalty to the truth also undermine faithful witness to the world about the good news of Jesus. They round out the conversation considering concern for the witness of the Church and the need for wisdom and a prophetic voice.
This conversation with Dr. Moore is also part of a forthcoming issue (Spring 2022) in Christian Scholar’s Review on the topic of civility.
Russell Moore: We actually don't expect to persuade people. We don't expect the Holy Spirit to be able to transform people. And so, we simply operate as though our so-called enemies right now will always be our enemies, when that's not the way that the Gospel works.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and co-host of the Winsome Conviction podcast. We're so glad that you've joined us. It's a very special episode, with one of the leading evangelical voices today. I think you're going to greatly enjoy it. Rick, who do we have?
Rick Langer: Yeah, well, one of the privileges of co-hosting the podcast, and also doing the Winsome Conviction Project with Tim, is we get to work on all kinds of interesting projects. And one of the things that we've been doing in this past year is helping to edit a special edition of the Christian Scholars Review, which is a wonderful journal that is geared largely towards the Christian academy. But I would love to point out to our listeners, there's also a great website they have at christianscholars.com, and Tim has frequently written for that blog, and there just is a lot of great information there.
Well, we had the privilege of working on this special edition issue, and one of the highlights of that was interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, the author of several books, including The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, and The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. He was also named to the 2017 Political Magazine Top 50 Influencers in Washington list, and has been profiled in publications, such as the Washington Post and The New Yorker. Personally, I love the Wall Street Journal's description of Russell Moore. He's a vigorous, cheerful and fiercely articulate person.
Well, Dr. Moore, thank you so much for joining us today. One of the things that we wanted to talk about is just the way the Christian faith is being communicating and perceived in the broader public square, and also the kind of tensions within the church. So that'll be kind of the twofold focus of our discussion. It seems the past several years have not only been polarizing within the American public square, but also within the church. Do you see the church tribalizing into progressive and conservative camps in a broadly parallel way to secular society? Or would you characterize it in a different way?
Russell Moore: I don't think that the church is polarizing along conservative, progressive lines. I do agree that the church is polarizing, as much as or more, than the outside culture, but in a different way than the two-party paradigm that I think many people expected for years. Instead, it seems to me that what we're seeing is a divide over what J. Gresham Machen defined as liberalism back in the 1920s, which of course wasn't necessarily anyway progressivism or even modernism. It was the idea of Christianity or religion as a means to an end. And so, Machen would use the example, not only of the sort of social Gospel notion of Christianity as a means to establishing social harmony and justice, but also the idea of Christianity as something that would bring about a moral order. He used the example of combating communism, and Machen, of course, was all for combating communism. But, once Christianity is embraced because of the way that it could fight communism, then it is, in his view, no longer Christianity.
And it seems to me that that's really where the divide tends to be, is whether Christianity is a means to an end. So I am not seeing... 15 years ago or so, I think many people assumed that younger evangelicals would move on the same trajectory as the progressive political left and liberalize in those ways. I'm not seeing that happen at all. As a matter of fact, most of what I'm hearing from younger evangelicals is a kind of lament for the fact that they don't really believe that their elders hold to biblical Orthodoxy in the way that they thought they did. And so, that's where I think the real divide is right now, not neatly packaged in conservative and progressive categories.
Rick Langer: Now, that's really interesting. Unpack a little bit more for us the notion that you just described of younger evangelicals being anxious about their elders not holding to biblical truth, partly because I think our common perception would be the opposite concern, that the older people are worried that about the younger people. So talk to us a little bit more about that.
Russell Moore: Well, I was talking, a couple of years ago, to a Roman Catholic man, who is a faithful, committed, mass-going Catholic, who told me that he didn't think that he was going to go to mass anymore. And he said, "It's not because I no longer believe what my church teaches. It's that I fear that my church doesn't believe what my church teaches." In his case, it was a disillusionment about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church, and the sorts of revelations that came out about leaders in the church, empowering or neglecting or covering up those scandals.
And I see the exact same phenomenon taking place within evangelical Christianity, of people alarmed when they start to wonder if Christianity really isn't a transcendent claim, but is a mascot for some political or cultural agenda. And, I resonate with that, as someone who went through a deep spiritual crisis as a 15 year old in the Bible belt, wondering if perhaps Christianity really just was a useful way to prop up Southern culture. And that sent me into a near panic over the idea of a universe that would then be red in tooth and claw.
Thankfully, I had read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times as a child, that I recognized the name C.S. Lewis on the spine of Mere Christianity and picked it up. And, what I often tell people is, what Lewis did for me is not so much to provide arguments for the Christian faith. I didn't have a problem with intellectual credibility as it applied to Christianity. What he did was to speak with a tone that so obviously was not trying to sell anything or trying to manipulate me or trying to mobilize me as a voter, but simply bearing witness to Christ. And so I think that is what often is the longing of younger evangelicals.
And so, I'm seeing every day people leaving the church, because they have come to the conclusion that Christians really aren't a religious body, but a political body, and they can indulge their political activism, whatever it is, in other ways, or people who have not gotten to quite that point of cynicism, but who are deeply conflicted. And, one sees that often on college campuses and so forth. What one does not see very much of, though, are younger Christians in the church who are wanting to toss aside the supernatural. And part of that is not because of necessarily the effectiveness of our discipleship, as much as it is the realities of this cultural moment. There is no social advantage for an 18 year old or a 25 year old to embrace historic Christianity. So those who do, have already made a decision to walk in a different direction, sometimes, than all of their peers around them, and sometimes even of their family members.
The other dynamic that's different is... 15 years ago, I would hear from many parents who were worried about their children following something other than Christianity. Now, every day, as recently as five minutes before I came on this podcast, I'm hearing from younger evangelicals who are worried about their parents having embraced conspiracy theories on Facebook or something along these lines. And the other part of it is, there was a time in American life where the assumption was, that rural America was the heartland for faith, and the urban areas were the places that were perilous for faith. So, someone would worry about their children leaving rural Iowa to go to Chicago, or rural Mississippi to go to New York City.
Right now, we see vibrant and vital Christian churches and movements in the major urban areas, in the university and college towns. And we see many of the rural areas, decimated by opioid usage and economic despair and these other problems, which come to the church just as much as they do to the community. So it's almost an inversion of what I think many of us were trained to expect.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, coming from a communication standpoint, we talk about ethos, this credibility that is incredibly important and the virtuous aspect of it. So when younger evangelicals look up to, what you were saying, their elders, boy, there's been so much going on today that has been eroding that confidence, the Me Too Movement peeling back abuses that are happening to women. And then, you have, which shocked and saddened so many of us, was the Ravi Zacharias scandal. And, we experienced college students just kind of throwing their hands up and saying, "Is there anyone you can trust, that doesn't have a dark secret in the back that's going to come out over time just like...?" Dr. Zacharias couldn't hold it together, I mean, though he did for years. Can you speak to the deep skepticism of young evangelicals today? It's just a matter of time before our leaders, those we look up to, some scandal's going to come out, and it is just so discouraging.
Russell Moore: Yes. Part of it, I think, represents something that is happening across global Western culture right now, with a shaking of institutions and a loss of faith in institutions. There have been institutional scandals, of course, in virtually every era. What seems to be unique is that we're in a time where there's almost no institution that is not vulnerable to cynicism. So, if one looks, for instance, at the issues raised by the Me Too Movement, at the beginning of some of these concerns, I think there were some people who would think that one could find refuge from that sort of predation in some ideological or theological movement. So, one might say, "Look at Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. This is what happens with a kind of secularizing sexual ethic." But, one cannot say that, because one then turns around and looks and sees what's happening with a Ravi Zacharias and many, many, many more issues within the Christian Church.
So then, if you step on into the Christian world, there's a sense in which what Christians often want to do is to say, my particular brand of theology or missiology will protect us from this. It's very clearly revealed that that's not the case either. Complementarianism on the gender issue does not protect from the sort of predation, obviously, with looking at the scandals from Bill Gothard, all the way over to Ravi Zacharias. And, egalitarianism doesn't protect from these either, as seen by the scandals at Willow Creek and other egalitarian places. So there seems to be an almost universal apocalypse of revelations that has thrown almost every institution into crisis in the Western world.
And then, it's also not unusual to see scandals emerging within Christianity that will, as the Apostle Paul put it, "Give reason for the Gentiles to blast me." So, one thinks of the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, and one can work backward from that. The caricature of Elmer Gantry in the early 20th century, that has always been with us. What's very different now is that, there is, what you mentioned, this expectation that there's always another shoe to drop, and that the question is, "Is there anyone that I can trust?"
And, when Christians say, "Well, you shouldn't put your confidence in people. You should put your confidence in Jesus," of course, that's true. But, the question then comes down to, "Does the new birth exist?" And that's... One younger Christian said to me, "I take on faith, the things that are invisible to me, the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus." But, when Jesus says the wind blows where it wills, and you don't see the wind but you see the movement of the wind, part of the movement that we ought to expect is the transforming power of regeneration. And, when there is a skepticism that regeneration actually exists, and discipleship actually exists, and that everything is about marketing or image maintenance, that's when we're thrown into the kind of crisis that we face now.
Rick Langer: And I'm intrigued with your observation about truth. We do have, certainly, this general cultural malaise and kind of despair of finding truth. It also strikes me that another current of this has been a current trend towards conspiracy theories and things like that.
Russell Moore: Often what's happening with conspiracy theorizing is not at the level of intellectual gullibility, as much as it is with a longing for membership. And, a conspiracy theory turns out to be the price of membership in some particular tribe. And usually these days, these are digital tribes, and usually cultural political tribes. But, of course, that leads to a breakdown, not only for those who are seeing the unbelievable things that are being said. So when a 17 year old sees the people that he or she trusted for discipleship and guidance, believing something that's obviously not true, that there's a pedophile ring being run out of the basement of Comet Pizza, Washington, DC, something along those lines, they start to wonder, "Can I trust you on the much more important things that you always taught me?"
I mean, Jesus said, "If you cannot believe me in Earthly things, how can you hear me in spiritual things?" Well, there are many people asking that very question, "If you are adopting viewpoints that are verifiably untrue, but they are completely unfalsifiable to you, then, how do I hear you when you're attempting to bear witness to something that's going to make claims and strike at the very heart of the meaning of life in the cosmos?"
Tim Muehlhoff: This brings up an interesting point about something we've tried to take a look at is groupthink, is our belonging to a group and getting our sense of fellowship needs met. But also that group think is fidelity to the group. There was a 2015 study from Brigham Young University that found that being disconnected from a group or community was as detrimental to our overall health as obesity or smoking. So, we want to stay part of these groups. So when we start to hear things that don't feel right, that don't sound right, what we're finding is, is that a lot of Christians just keep quiet about it, because, "This is my group. My kids are friends with their kids, and I do not want to be pushed out of this group. So I'm silent, when I start to listen to an uncharitable take of a political party or an uncharitable take of the transgendered community or conspiracy theories." So, what would you say to a person in a group? How do I proceed in challenging some of these ideas?
Russell Moore: Well, what I would say is that the... Marilynne Robinson, the novelist, said at one point, and I think this is completely right, "When loyalty to the truth becomes disloyalty to the tribe, something, we have moved into very dangerous territory." And that's true. It's not only dangerous, in terms of the implications and ramifications of that for the outside world. It's also dangerous for the person, because, every human life is going to be met with crises. And those crises are going to ask essentially what Jesus is asking of Simon Peter, "Who do you say that I am? And more that, who do you say that you are?" And a kind of adoption of a group think set of ideas, as a means of membership, will not get one safely through those moments of crisis. Because in that, one really has to rely on a reality that is not self-constructed and cannot be characterized as self-constructed. So that's really dangerous for the person.
There was the sociologists, kind of popular sociologists that do Freakonomics books and podcasts, talked several years ago about why email scams are all so similar, the Nigerian prince who needs your credit card number to get to back to his throne or what have you. And many people will say, "Well, why don't they come up with more sophisticated sorts of pitches than one that everybody has heard and laughs at?" And, their argument was, that's strategic. They want to filter out the people who have the sorts of resources to know or to discover that they're being scammed. And so if they can find someone who hasn't heard the Nigerian prince story, then they know that they've already filtered out the people that they would lose later on. It's-
Rick Langer: They found their perfect mark.
Russell Moore: Yes. Yes. And it seems that, much of what's going on right now is partly that, and it's partly what George Orwell warned about, that the party demands that you not believe your own eyes and ears, and that's the first and most important command. So, believing things that are outrageously unbelievable then becomes a way to prove one's loyalty to the tribe. That doesn't last through the, as the hymn would put it, the dangers, toils and snares of a human mind.
Tim Muehlhoff: In your book, The Courage To Stand, you say that standing sometimes will require facing the fear that we might lose our belonging in whatever `tribe we find safety, if you start to give a counter narrative. So we'd like to ask two questions. One, you have opposed President Trump in both 2016, 2020. And in doing so, you have faced opposition that was often harsh and even more than harsh. In a CNN article, it was mentioned that you have even received death threats.
Russell Moore: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that people have investigated you to see if you have leaned liberal. So, can we ask you this question? Why do it? Why put yourself out there and face those kind of threats, both emotional and even physical threats? Why do that?
Russell Moore: Because I have a 15 year old son, and I'm worried about the 15 year olds out there, who might be in the same situation that I was in, in the 1980s, of wondering whether Christianity is actually a claim to one's life, or whether Christianity is just a way to articulate one's political loyalties. And, that's what I fear when I see... I don't care about who's up, who's down, partisan politics. I'm not interested in that, not interested in the sorts of divisions and arguments that come with that. What I am worried about is the witness of the church, when the church is identified with a figure, to such a degree that the church is willing to reverse or deemphasize what we have been saying about character, about a variety of other issues. So that's what has concerned me about this particular moment.
Rick Langer: Are there any lessons you have learned, or recommendations you would give to people who are feeling like, "Hey, wait, I have perhaps not the same platform that you would," but they have their platform, and they do have a set of people to talk to, but they're not sure of what the consequences of speaking up about this would be? Any wisdom to share for the kind of the how-to of this?
Russell Moore: I don't think that every person needs to feel a moral obligation to speak to everything. There's often a time to step back and consider and wonder how God would have me to speak, or not to speak, to some particular issue. What I would say is, there are going to be issues in every Christian life that are going to require a willingness to break with one's tribe in order to be faithful to Christ. So, the Apostle Paul says, in Galatians 1 and 2, talking about the Judaizing teachers within the Galatian church, "I did not yield to them for a moment, and why? So that the Gospel would be preserved for you." I mean, we can see... One of the reasons that I think I was so alarmed by the political moment is because I lived right over the state line from Louisiana, during the emergence of David Duke, who, of course, was a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and American Nazi party member who ran for United States Senate, and then for governor.
And, I, at the time, would never have believed that evangelical Christians would ever support something like that. And I saw many who did and who were able to justify it with these lesser of two evils sorts of arguments, which I reject. But even if I didn't reject them, they never held as lesser of two evils. They always ended up with hearty approval. And that's the trajectory that I found and find to be dangerous. We're in a moment, and it's not just on the illiberal right, but also on the illiberal left, where there's an increasing number of demands for one's loyalty and for one's conscience. I think that's really dangerous.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Dr. Moore, what would you say to the crowd that is just shaking their head right now, thinking, "A, I cannot believe David Duke was brought up in the same general segment as President Trump was brought up, but that we're being blind to all the challenges that we're going to be facing under a Biden administration, starting with the Equality Act." What do you say to both camps?
Russell Moore: Well, what I would say is, first of all, the issue is not whether or not David Duke is emblematic of any current moment. The problem is what the trajectory is, in terms of the cultural pressures that we have toward loyalty, to things that we may previously have morally rejected. I mean, that's where the danger is. And, David Duke was an extreme example, but the extremity of it was precisely why it was so impressive. Because I would never have imagined, I would have thought Nazi Party affiliation would be an automatic disqualifier for anybody. And it turned out not to be. And the arguments that were given, often, were taking Christian concepts and notions, and weaponizing them for political ends, the grace of God. David Duke, at the time, "I'm born again. I'm a new man." It's obvious in listening to the sorts of dog whistles and louder than dog whistles that he was giving that, that was not the case, but that was the language that could shield him from those sorts of questions at the moment. So that's what I think the larger problem is.
Rick Langer: Now that brings me to an interesting question. I feel like I hear a lot of people talking about our cultural moment here as if we're having a crisis of leadership. We didn't like Hillary Clinton for president, and many people didn't like Donald Trump for president. People felt the same with Biden and Trump. We tend to point our fingers at leadership. I'm suspicious, I guess, of two things. Number one is that leadership is often appointed by God as a judgment on followership. And secondly, that just even bracketing the big leadership follower connection, we aren't being good followers relative to one another. In other words, peers sitting beside each other in a Bible study group, when one person starts to go off in conspiracy-like direction, do they get any feedback from their peers sitting beside them? Or do we quietly say nothing, while people go off in directions that are deeply problematic? And I don't think we can blame that on bad leadership. That's actually just failing to be a faithful disciple, isn't it?
Russell Moore: It is. And I think the reason that people, as you say, allow this to silently go by, the reason for that is not anything malicious or even cowardly. The reason for that is that I think many people assume this is temporary. It will evaporate. And there's a very good biblical intuition or instinct toward persevering, being patient, not wanting to be confrontational in the wrong way, to have what Paul described to Timothy as an unhealthy craving for controversy. So I think some of those instincts and intuitions are right and good, but many people are wondering where's the... The end point that they thought would come isn't coming.
And, I think you're exactly right about the leader follower dynamic. One example of that is, there was a governor who called me one time and said, "Why can't you get these pastors to actually show leadership, because all of these craziness is destroying our country, and these insane pastors are responsible?" And I said, "Well, I hate to tell you this, but despite the maybe cartoonish figures that you've seen on TV, the pastors are actually the same ones. And they're often encountering all sorts of conspiracy theories and conflicts within their congregations that they're trying to navigate." And he said, "Well, why don't they call this out and have the courage to do this?" And I said, "Well, they haven't been training to do this for all of their lives. They did not expect to have to be, not only biblical scholars and organizational leaders and pastoral counselors, but also epidemiologists and political scientists and snopes.com."
That's not what anyone signed up for, that the pastors are doing, in my experience anyway, the very best that they can against some really challenging circumstances. And many of them are discouraged and believe themselves to be failures when they're not. And some of that has to do with these dynamics. I can't tell you how many pastors will tell me that, when they look on Facebook and see the sorts of things that their church members are saying to one another, and how they're saying those things, the pastor concludes, "What have I been doing? Has my discipling all been in vain?" That's the crisis that many leaders are facing right now.
Tim Muehlhoff: Dr. Russell, let me ask you, let's close with two questions. One question is the question, isn't it too late for winsomeness? When we take a look at the cultural ground that's being lost, what we need is a strong prophetic voice to speak God's truth and to the culture. So, my question is in two part. What do you think they mean when they say we need a prophetic voice? And second, what's your take on some feeling like it's just too late for winsomeness?
Russell Moore: Well, I find that there often is a tendency for Christians to unintentionally adopt a kind of theistic social Darwinism, that can easily conclude that the way of Jesus is not realistic for times like these. And, in that sense, they exaggerate the challenges that we are facing in our moment. Jesus was facing an overwhelming Roman empire, with a polytheistic cult and sexual hedonism across the Greco-Roman world, and still announced a kingdom that comes through a cross and through the way of the cross. And so, losing confidence in that, I think, means losing confidence in Him.
And there's also, I think, a sense of identifying a prophetic voice as being a theatrically outraged voice, which is not what the prophets were doing. The prophets were often speaking very directly and, sometimes, confrontationally. The primary thing, though, that the prophets are doing is pointing to, this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. So I think there has to be a message that is going to the world that is rooted in the confidence that the Holy Spirit actually is alive. And so, much of the frantic hostility and perpetual outrage that we see really is a loss of confidence.
We actually don't expect to persuade people, and we don't expect the Holy Spirit to be able to transform people. And so, we simply operate as though our so-called enemies right now will always be our enemies. And that's not the way that the Gospel works. Many of the people who are our opponents right now are our future brothers and sisters in Christ.
Rick Langer: That's wonderful. My co-host, Tim, was jumping up and down. I would've thought I'd suddenly walked into a football stadium for the Super Bowl for these last five minutes. We really do thank you so much, both for the time, but I really do want to say I so appreciate your ministry in this moment, and I appreciate both your courage, but also the consistent grace you've shown.
Russell Moore: Well, that's encouraging. Thank you. And thanks for taking time to do this. It's been fun to talk with you both.
Rick Langer: Thank you all for joining us for this episode of the Winsome Conviction podcast. We'd love to have you be a regular listener. You could subscribe at Spotify or Apple Podcast or wherever you like to get your podcast. And we also encourage you to check out the winsomeconviction.com website for more resources, articles and information on cultivating convictions, holding them deeply, but conversing with others in ways that honor our differences without dividing communities. That's really what it's all about, and that's why we're here. So thanks again for joining us.