December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

A recent news report suggested that the highly partisan Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may seek to withdraw from the so-called “culture war,” but critics are skeptical that the denomination will actually tone down its extreme rhetoric.

Longtime SBC lobbyist Richard Land, who for years pushed the denomination into a close alliance with the Republican Party and the Religious Right, retired from the organization this year. Now his successor, Russell Moore, is, according to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, interested in stepping back from the culture war.

The Journal reported that Moore believes it is time to dial down the rhetoric and pull back from partisan politics. He cites a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to heavy handed church-based politicking.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Moore said. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

Despite those comments, Americans United is skeptical that much will change at the SBC, which is the largest Protestant denomination in America. AU Communications Director Rob Boston noted in a “Wall of Separation” blog post that “[T]he use of less strident language is nice, but it doesn’t mean that the SBC’s policy positions are going to change.”

In fact, the Journal article makes it clear that the SBC has no plans to soften any of its far-right stands on issues like religion in public education, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, etc.

Instead, Boston concluded, this appears to be a public relations stunt.

“The leaders of the SBC know they have a problem with younger people, so they are toning down the rhetoric in the hopes that more congregants won’t jump ship. This may fool some people, but again, it’s not a change of policy,” he wrote.

Some Religious Right groups were quick to criticize Moore’s remarks. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, noted for his over-the-top rhetoric on just about every subject imaginable, asserted that Moore is leading the SBC into a position of surrender.

“Since one man’s ‘pullback’ is another’s ‘full-scale retreat,’ social conservatives have a right to raise questions about the new course Moore is setting for the SBC,” Fischer bemoaned.

Elsewhere he added, “Moore seems to have forgotten that Christ has not called us to be nice but to be good. Nice people never confront evil, but good people do.”

With controversy swirling around him, Moore quickly denied that he is calling for less political engagement.

“If anything, I’m calling for more en­­­gagement in the worlds of politics, cul­ture, art, labor and so on,” Moore wrote in a statement. “It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.”