Russell Moore on “Cultural Christianity” and Right-Wing Politics

In the latest episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, posted earlier today, Jane Coaston interviewed the excellent new editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, Russell Moore. Moore has spent his career in various leadership positions within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Evangelical denomination in the nation, and has recently generated controversy in the Evangelical world for his refusal to support Donald Trump. He is widely disliked among conservative Evangelicals for his calm, non-alarmist approach to social issues and “the culture wars.”

In the interview with Coaston, Moore addressed the changing face of Evangelical Christianity and the challenges facing Evangelical identity and practice after the Dobbs ruling. I really recommend that you listen to the interview, in part because Moore is thoughtful and in part because Coaston is such a great, sensitive interviewer. You can tell how seriously she takes Christianity in America, which is probably due in part to her own history with Christian faith and practice (she calls herself a “lapsed Catholic,” but she clearly maintains a strong Christian, or at least Christianity-informed, spiritual practice).

Throughout the interview, Moore addresses issues that I raised in my recent blog post about Christian Nationalism. In that post, I noted how many so-called “Christian Nationalist” seem detached from Christian practice. Many supporters of Trump and the Republican Party’s populist turn are extremely vocal about their Christian faith but don’t engage much in Christian practice (i.e., they don’t go to church). I’ve frequently used the term “cultural Christianity” to describe the worldview of these non-active Christians, so I felt vindicated when I heard Moore use the same term (below). I wanted to share Moore’s comments about this phenomenon, in case you don’t get a chance to listen to the interview.

Coaston posed the following question:

“It seems like at least part of this crisis has been caused by the way that evangelicalism has shifted from a primarily religious identity to a political identity. I think it’s really interesting that increasing numbers of white Trump supporters started identifying as evangelicals during his presidency even though many of them didn’t actually attend church. So how and when did that shift happen in your view?”

Moore responded:

“And I think that what has happened is that we’ve had a morphing of cultural Christianity. There’s always been a kind of nominal cultural Christianity, including within evangelicalism, because it was strange in many places in the Bible Belt to not belong to a church. It was a very unusual person who would say I’m an atheist or I’m an agnostic or I’m no religious affiliation. Someone had to really walk outside of the stream of the culture to do that.

“And I’ve talked about in [my book talking to a friend in college who was saying to me after we’d been arguing about the existence of God over and over and over again. And he just says one day over coffee, can you recommend a good Southern Baptist church for me to join but one that’s not too Southern Baptist-y? And I stopped and said, well, when did you become a Christian? And he said, oh, I don’t believe any of that stuff, but I want to run for office. And I can’t run for office if I’m not a part of a church, and there are more Southern Baptists in my area than anything else. So help me find one to join.

“That was kind of especially self-consciously transactional, but the idea behind it is not altogether unusual. That was the kind of nominal Christianity we had before. Now we have a kind of nominal cultural Christianity that often does not — a person is not part of a church community at all. It’s someone who simply says I identify with this group of people often defined culturally or politically. And so I can see people on Facebook who haven’t been to church since the first Bush administration but who are posting Bible verses, and what they mean by that is I’m standing against the bad people, as they define it, and that must mean that I’m an evangelical Christian.

“So that’s in my view a very lamentable state of affairs, but you’re right. It certainly has been because there was a time when the frustration for me was with secular people on the outside mostly defining evangelical Christianity in political terms. I would have political journalists and others where I would have to say evangelical Christians aren’t like cicadas that just emerge at Iowa caucus time. There really is much more to this group of people than their voting patterns. But as time has gone on, there is a significant group of evangelicals who themselves are embracing an identity that is like that, cultural and political rather than theological or even congregational. That’s a change.”

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