I’m writing this the day after the ERLC Study Task Force released its unanimous report of its work and findings. The Task Force was charged with reviewing the “past and present activities of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” to determine whether its actions are proving to be detrimental to Cooperative Program giving. Their conclusion is that the ERLC and its president Russell Moore have indeed negatively affected the Cooperative Program bottom line.
First, the report goes to great lengths to prove that the actions of Moore and the ERLC have caused some to stop giving to the Cooperative Program or in some other way to defer their giving. Stone assures us that the report “is not based on anecdotes or third-hand reports. It is based, almost exclusively, on documented facts.” However, these documented facts are based solely on anonymous comments from some state executive directors and reported third-hand through the Task Force. We are also told that only 15 of the 41 state conventions responded to the questions, and not all of those 15 provided negative assessments. This seems to be a case of selectively choosing which data to put forth.
Moreover, we are given numerous anecdotes about churches removing funds over concerns about a supposed “leftward or liberal drift” in our convention. Unfortunately, this is not clarified or substantiated. Is the Task Force suggesting that Dr. Moore or the ERLC (or the SBC) is becoming theologically liberal? If so, where is the evidence? It seems to me that any pastor who expresses such concern with his state executive could easily be assured by that executive that nothing could be farther from the truth. All the executive would need to do is avail himself of the readily available materials and provide any relevant information to the concerned parties. This would not be hard. It would be unifying leadership. To suggest even a hint of theological liberalism in the ERLC is easily demonstrably false.
On the other hand, one is led to believe that many are not so much concerned with theological fidelity at all. Rather, funds are being threatened because Dr. Moore did not toe the preferred political line of the concerned parties. The report mentions opposition to a presidential candidate (we can wonder if such concerns were voiced over Dr. Land’s opposition to Bill Clinton) and the appearance of a former ERLC staffer at a Joe Biden event. I have two questions about this.
First, is the Task Force suggesting that the mission of the ERLC is to support the Republican Party? If so, then what would this mean to all the African-American, Latino, and other minority pastors and congregations who vote overwhelmingly Democratic? What about all the younger adults who lean left politically but are theologically conservative? Are we really prepared to alienate them by aligning with only one party? Is the concern only with the loss of Republican money?
Second, do we want to muzzle our ethical and public policy entity unless the target of criticism is the Democratic Party? Dr. Moore demonstrated consistency in speaking about the moral failings of Donald Trump. On June 1, 1998, Southern Baptists passed a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials,” encouraging all Americans “to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.” Those are words to live by. They were then. They are now. One of the recommendations of the Task Force is that the ERLC speak “where the Southern Baptist Convention has already spoken through resolutions.” Nevertheless, we are told that people are pulling funds because Moore has done exactly that. And all of this comes within a week of a member of the Executive Committee calling the Vice President of the United States “Jezebel.” The inconsistency is staggering. The concern of politics over theology is even more so.
To summarize, the Task Force finds that Cooperative Program giving is suffering at least in part due to an easily disproved misperception that the ERLC is drifting politically leftward. This seems to be because Dr. Moore has spoken consistently with the expressed convictions of Southern Baptists. However, because of national political loyalties, some churches are withholding or threatening to withhold funds. I pray that we are not prepared to align ourselves so closely with any candidate or party that our very own Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is only allowed to speak truth to power when that power is in the unfavored party. I also pray that we will not have the very vocal conscience of our convention of churches—our ethical voice—constrained by people writing checks.
Friends of the Court
The second major issue addressed in the Task Force report has to do with an amicus brief submitted by ERLC that contains admittedly troubling language. And lest anyone think I’m watering it down, the language is poorly worded and seriously problematic. This is a legitimate concern. The ERLC has acknowledged the error, publicly. They have issued an apology, publicly. They have rectified the problem, publicly. I understand that the ERLC did not respond as quickly as the Task Force would have liked, but as far as I am concerned, this one can be put to bed. It is over. Even convention lawyers seem to be happy with the end result. Let’s move on.
In addition to what seem to be biggest concerns—liberal drift leading to decreased giving and the amicus brief in question—several other concerns were listed. Since little detail is given, I’ll not spend a lot of time on them:
- Some kind of ties to George Soros. I’m sorry, but I’m embarrassed that this was even included in the list. I suppose what is most embarrassing is that these kinds of accusations are apparently coming from pastors.
- That the ERLC is not available or responsive. I can’t speak to this because I’ve never experience it or heard it.
- ERLC stance on immigration. I admit that I have not read everything the ERLC has published on immigration, but I have read a lot. Literally everything I’ve seen is in full agreement with the 2011 SBC resolution “On Immigration and the Gospel” and the 2018 SBC resolution “On Immigration.” Rather than a blanket “ERLC stance on immigration,” someone could provide some evidence of inconsistency.
- Silence on religious issues for California churches during the pandemic. ERLC was not silent. However, it would seem that their consistent position was simply not favorable to some. In July 2020, an ERLC Explainer was published after California Governor Newsom imposed new restrictions on churches. The article is a cogent explanation as to why this executive order was not a violation of the constitution because it did not unfairly target religious groups. On the other hand, the ERLC did file an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in November because the state of New York singled out religious groups, thus imposing “a substantial and disparate burden” on religious liberty. Yet again, we see the ERLC being entirely consistent and fulfilling their mandate.
- The amicus brief the ERLC filed in support of a New Jersey mosque as well Dr. Moore’s response to a messenger who questioned him about this at the 2016 meeting. To begin with, in this court filing, the ERLC demonstrated consistency with Baptist history and the Baptist Faith and Message. Baptists are borne out of religious persecution and have been stalwart defenders of religious liberty for everyone. Frankly, this is not even a gray area for us. If the government can prohibit Muslims from building a mosque in New Jersey, then other governments can prohibit the building of Baptist churches in their communities. And as for Moore’s “disrespectful and condescending” response to the messenger who asked the question, the reader will have to decide for himself. I was there that day. The questioner was rude and condescending to Moore, and I saw Moore show great restraint in answering the question honestly and decisively. I was part of the rousing ovation that followed his answer. This is one reason I love being a Baptist.
- Moore’s support for attending homosexual wedding showers and receptions. I’ve personally heard Moore speak to this issue. Without question, it’s a hard one. He stated that he could not attend the actual wedding ceremony, but that he might attend a shower or reception. He also stated that this was his approach and that everyone would have to decide for themselves. You can read his comments here. Maybe you disagree with his approach. Is this a reason to fire the man or defund the organization? To be clear, Moore has been clear on his opposition to gay marriage. He also fully affirms the position of the Baptist Faith and Message when it comes to marriage, gender, and sexuality.
I see more problems with the report of the Task Force. However, I hope I’ve given you enough to see the primary issues. I believe it to be unfair, inconsistent, and needlessly divisive. My opinion is that Russell Moore has led the ERLC well and has represented Southern Baptists on Capitol Hill and in the media with clarity and grace. You might disagree. That’s ok. We’re Baptists. But this report has not solved any problems. It has only revealed an unfortunate drift in our ranks. It isn’t a drift leftward (or rightward, for that matter). It is a drift of political allegiance over theological agreement. This make me sad. My prayer is that this summer we will rally behind Russell Moore and the ERLC, affirming the outstanding work they do. And in doing so, I pray that we send a message loud and clear that we will not be governed by worldly politics.
Mike Miller is the Pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville, TX and a former professor of preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and Terri have 3 grown kids and 4 grandkids. He enjoys teaching, preaching, flying airplanes, and hanging out with family.