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Freedom in an Age of Secularism: An Interview with Russell D. Moore

Russell D. Moore serves as the eighth president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Prior to his election to this role in 2013, Moore served as provost and dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also taught as professor of theology and ethics. A widely-sought cultural commentator, Moore has been recognized by a number of influential organizations. The Wall Street Journal has called him "vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate" while The Gospel Coalition has referred to him "one of the most astute ethicists in contemporary evangelicalism."An ordained minister, Dr. Moore has served as a pastor for a number of Southern Baptist churches—most recently serving as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. from 2008-2012. A native Mississippian, he and his wife Maria are the parents of five boys. He recently spoke with managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: As secularism and threats to religious liberty increase, do you feel like greater persecution against Christians is inevitable in this country?

Russell Moore: I do think that Christianity is going to become more marginalized in this country. That's not something that I am panicked about, but it's something that I'm concerned about. I think we can already see that with the way that the Christian sexual ethic, for instance, is seen as a threat to American democracy for a large segment of the population.

Baptists were often on the receiving end of religious persecution in early American history. What can we learn from that experience and why is it relevant today?

One of the contributions that the Baptists have made to the larger body of Christ and to the larger civil society is the affirmation of soul freedom, meaning the deeper kind of responsible freedom that grows from unity with God, and religious liberty. And I think there are several lessons that we can draw from Baptist persecution in England and in the American Colonies and their advocacy for religious liberty. One of those things is that government would often want to say to the Baptists, "What we're insisting is not that big of a deal." So, for instance, in the state of Virginia, licensing preachers to preach the gospel, the government would say, "This isn't that much money. It isn't that much bureaucracy to apply for a license to preach." But the Baptists said, "This isn't simply a matter of how much money is required or how much paperwork is required. It's a matter of who has the authority to demand that." And the government doesn't have the authority to demand a license to preach the gospel. And so early Baptists, like John Leland and Isaac Backus and Jeremiah Moore and others were insistent that the issue isn't simply the penalty itself. It's the right to hand down the penalty.

I think the other lesson we can learn is the fact that the early Baptists were not willing to trust the politicians. Even in the formation of the Constitution, the politicians were saying, "Of course, we're going to protect religious liberty. That's implicit in the text of the Constitution." And John Leland and others said, "We won't support ratification of the Constitution if it's not written down." Some of the politicians that the early American Baptists were dealing with are literally of Mount Rushmore stature. And they still were not willing simply to trust the word of the politicians.

I think that's something that we have seen in recent days, all the strands of this taking place with, for instance, the HHS mandate. The Obama Administration says, "This isn't that much of a burden for you to simply pay for these contraceptives or abortifacients." And the government turns around at the outset and says, "You ought to just trust us that we're going to protect your religious liberty and freedom of conscience," which, of course, they don't do. But I think there are various lessons we can learn even now.

And one of the things that is so important is, the early Baptists were insistent that this is religious liberty not just for themselves, but for everyone, because there's a theological grounding for that. The early Baptists were saying, "Because there won't be a government bureaucrat standing with a soul at the Judgment Seat - that means that there shouldn't be a government bureaucrat between God and the soul and the conscience." And so they were insistent that religious liberty isn't about carving protections for just us, it's about maintaining liberty for everyone. And that's one of the reasons why one of the burdens that I have is to make sure that we have guaranteed freedom for everyone, not simply for evangelicals, not simply for Christians, but for all people.

People protest National Healthcare Law.

With documents like the Manhattan Declaration and, of course, ecumenical organizations such as the Acton Institute, what is the necessity of ecumenical cooperation for engaging the broader culture?

It is necessary for us to stand together. We disagree often on all sorts of issues, but as we work together, often we find that we have more in common than we previously thought. In reading 20th Century Baptist documents on religious liberty, they're almost always written with the assumption that the great threat to religious liberty would be the Roman Catholic Church. We now find ourselves in a time where I'm working literally every day with Roman Catholic bishops and others in protecting religious liberty. And the threat that we face is not from Rome or from any authoritarian church government, real or perceived, but against a secularizing culture armed with state power. And so I think we have to work together, and we have to, as we're doing that, recognize those points of commonality that we all have. And I think the pro-life movement has done a great deal in preparing evangelicals and Catholics and others to stand together, because we've had to work together for so long to protect the sanctity of human life. And we became accustomed to knowing one another and working in that way.

What are a few of the greatest cultural problems that are hampering the economic health and stability of families in America?

I think there are several cultural problems. One of those is a broad view of generational connectedness. It is easy for people to see the present moment as the only real moment, which moves us away from a Biblical understanding of inheritance. Of course, in the Biblical world, an inheritance wasn't typically a pile of money. It was a vocation, a calling. So a father might work to build up a fishing business or a carpentry business and then hand that to the next generation, knowing that the next generation would cultivate that even more. So a person is always thinking about what's been given to him by his ancestors and also what he plans to cultivate and then hand over to the generations to come. I think that is very easy to be lost in a world in which we typically think of vocation simply in terms of individual self-fulfillment and the immediate moment.

And I think, of course, the breakdown of the family has tremendous economic consequences as well. When one is in the formative years of earning and vocation and that person has no sense of the future because the person isn't thinking about marriage and isn't thinking about children. Not just that the person hasn't married yet, but the person isn't even thinking about that with any depth. I think that has economic consequences as well.

People read in the news about Christians refusing to bake cakes or offer other work services for homosexual weddings. Many people see this as discrimination. Why is that a religious liberty issue?

Christians can argue back and forth, as Christians have been doing, via social media over the last several weeks, about whether or not Jesus would bake a cake for a homosexual ceremony or a same-sex wedding. That's really a less important issue than the issue at hand. The issue at hand is whether or not the state has the power to coerce someone to participate using his or her creative gifts to celebrate something that that person believes to be deeply sinful. That is a government powerful enough to coerce and to force; this is a government that is too powerful and has set itself up as a god of the conscience. And I think there are tremendous implications from that not only for Christians, but for everyone. And I'm very frustrated by those Christians who would say, we ought to give the state the power to coerce people to either comply with participating in this ceremony or to lose their livelihoods. What about a Christian web-designer? Should he or she be forced to design a website for a pornographic company? It's legal. So should that person's conscience simply be run over in the process? I think that if the answer to that is yes, we have a society that is less free, and we have lost. We have eclipsed an understanding of the importance of the freedom of conscience in this country.

It has been suggested by some that your election to the ERLC recognizes a shift in how Southern Baptists engage cultural war issues. Is this an accurate assessment and if not, why?

I think that we must be cultural warriors, if what we mean by culture warriors is an engagement with the outside culture about what we believe and why that's important. I think we must be Christshaped culture warriors, meaning that we don't back down on the issues. We speak with truth. But we speak with a truth that is consistent with the mission that we have to see people reconciled to God. So I believe that the sort of cowardice that would not apply the Gospel to issues that are destroying people and destroying families and destroying communities is not consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I believe that our message cannot be simply one of condemnation, but of seeking to persuade people to be reconciled to God through the Gospel. So I think we have to be the sorts of cultural warriors who speak with a Galilean accent of both truth and grace.

Two of your sons are adopted. What theological lessons can we learn about Christ and the Church from adopting children?

We adopted our first two sons after a long period of infertility and several miscarriages. And we were told that my wife and I would never be able to bear children. And so my wife said that she believed the Lord might be leading us to adopt. My response, I'm ashamed to say, initially was, I would love to adopt later on, but I would like for us to have our own children first. And that experience showed me what an impoverished view of the Gospel I had at the time. Through the process, the Lord changed my heart. And through the process of adopting our first two sons, I realized that through adoption, a real family is actually formed, so that family isn't simply the protection of selfish genes, but it's something more than that. And the Scripture speaks and says, "We have been adopted into the family of God."

I was familiar, prior to adopting our sons, of course, with Romans 8, with Galatians 4, with Ephesians 1, but it hit me in a new way, because I found myself dealing with frustrating questions from people. Well, are they really brothers? Have you ever met their real mom? We received a lot of questions like that. And of course, I was having to say, this is their real mom. They are really brothers because they're part of the same family.

And it was through that I realized that's exactly the question that's being addressed in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there is no such thing as an adopted child of God, with adopted used as an adjective. There aren't the children and then the adoptive children. There are the children of God, who come into the family through adoption in Jesus Christ. Adoption tells us how we come into the family of God, but it doesn't give us some secondary status once we do. And so adopted, I came to realize, is not an adjective; it's a past tense verb. And that changed for me much about what I understood about my relationship with God, about God's commitment to us for the future, after having adopted us in Christ. It totally reworked the way that I understood who I am in Christ.

We hear a lot about a 'silent war' on religious liberty, but what about the silence of many churches across America? This seems to be a topic too often neglected in many churches. Do you find that assessment accurate?

You're right that many churches are silent, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that churches have become accustomed to the American constitutional guarantee of religious liberty, such that they do not perceive an immediate threat. Congregations don't recognize that most threats to religious liberty do not come suddenly with the shock and awe of a gun barrel. Most violations of religious liberty come first with the insidious slowness of a bureaucrat's pen. Secondly, I think many congregations have become burned over by hysterical claims of anti-Christian bias in every arena of life by political activists. This has the same effect that 'act now or Miami will be under water' fundraising appeals have on the environmental movement. When genuine religious liberty threats emerge, as we are facing now in a way I believe unprecedented since the founding era, many Christians see this as simply the same thing they were hearing before with the 'war on Christmas' and so forth. We must do a better job educating pastors and church leaders on how religious liberty is not simply a matter for constitutional scholars and Washington activists but a birthright granted by God which must be guarded by all of us.