Religion

After Trump’s election, NC’s Southern Baptists are left to do some soul-searching

The Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptists Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, leads a discussion during the group's national conference in 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.
The Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptists Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, leads a discussion during the group's national conference in 2014 in Nashville, Tenn. AP

To understand how deeply divided Southern Baptists are on their role in politics, look no further than Russell Moore’s Twitter account.

The same day The Washington Post published a now-infamous “Access Hollywood” video of Donald Trump, who is married, bragging about touching and having sex with women, Moore tweeted, “Some ‘evangelicals’ defending or waving this away. Some are putting the ‘silent’ in ‘silent majority.’ Morally repugnant.”

Online responses to Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which acts as the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, offer a glimpse of the debate that Trump’s rise to power has triggered among evangelical Protestants across the United States and in North Carolina.

“As a Christian who struggles with voting (for) Trump I keep thinking about Supreme Court nominees and the struggle becomes less,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Moore, a Mississippi native who lives in Tennessee.

Another called Moore a Pharisee, in reference to a religious party that Jesus engaged in conflicts with in the Bible. “Trump is Godsent,” someone else wrote, arguing that Trump has garnered the support of many pastors.

“Voting for values is not on the ballot,” another Twitter user opined.

Should they wholeheartedly support a politician, though flawed, who promises to advocate for their general anti-abortion and traditional marriage values? Should they vocally condemn his seemingly sinful words and actions? Or should they stay out of politics to focus solely on spreading the news of the gospel?

The questions have been more elevated in the Baptist community, where some pastors have considered pulling financial support from the Southern Baptist Convention because of Moore’s takes on Trump. It’s possible that the debate will only get louder in the Christian community, given that Trump last week promised to scrap an IRS rule that prohibits pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

The political divisiveness is newfound territory for Baptists, according to Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.

“In recent history, many of the values that Southern Baptists hold have lined up most closely with the Republican party’s platform,” Akin wrote in an email. “For that reason, we often see a correlation between the two.”

‘Difficult situation’

During the election, Akin was a vocal critic of both Trump and Clinton and said he did not vote for either candidate.

“This was certainly a difficult situation, and one that I never foresaw in my adult life,” he said.

North Carolina has the highest number of Southern Baptist churches and members in the United States after Texas, according to a 2015 annual church profile report compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources. But in 2015, the Southern Baptist Convention lost more than 200,000 members, and baptisms fell by more than 10,000.

In 2005, membership totaled about 16.6 million; 10 years later, it had declined to about 15.3 million.

The desire by some evangelical Christians to marry Christianity to an endorsement of Donald Trump is toxic and repugnant.

Manny Prieto, a pastor at Imago Dei church in Raleigh

Manny Prieto, a pastor at Imago Dei church in Raleigh and a Southeastern graduate, believes that evangelical Christians should be involved in politics. But in the months leading up to Trump’s victory, he became increasingly disappointed with the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The desire by some evangelical Christians to marry Christianity to an endorsement of Donald Trump is toxic and repugnant,” Prieto said. “According to some people, you have to support Trump, or hate Hillary and Obama, or you’re not a Christian.”

One of Moore’s pleas to Christian evangelicals was to abandon the concept of a “moral majority,” a term that typically refers to a movement and organization launched by Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell in the 1970s. The movement’s goal was to “lead the nation back to the moral stance that made America great” by influencing public policy to reflect Christian, conservative ideals.

Because of this movement, among other reasons, Christian evangelicalism quickly became “enmeshed with the religious right” in a way that other conservative religious groups were not, according to Moore. Sixty-four percent of Southern Baptists are Republican or lean Republican, in contrast to 26 percent who are or lean Democrat, according to Pew Research.

In op-eds and speeches, Moore berated “the old-guard religious right political establishment” for supporting Trump, despite the Republican candidate’s “serious moral problems” and actions that Moore deemed inconsistent with Biblical teachings and Christian values.

“The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about,” Moore said in an October speech.

But some members of the Baptist community say the ends are worth the means.

I think maybe God has allowed Donald Trump to win this election to protect this nation for the next few years by giving maybe an opportunity to have some good judges.

Franklin Graham, North Carolina-based evangelist

“I think maybe God has allowed Donald Trump to win this election to protect this nation for the next few years by giving maybe an opportunity to have some good judges,” North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham told Religion News Service in an interview.

‘A better nation’

Graham did not endorse a candidate during the presidential campaign, but he has expressed support for some of Trump’s decisions on social media, including Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Graham also used his “Decision America Tours” to encourage evangelicals to vote, and he read a Bible passage at Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

“If he is only able to accomplish half of what he has said he would like to, we will be a better nation,” Graham wrote in a Facebook post referring to Trump.

Even as some Christian evangelicals, like Graham, are hopeful about Trump’s presidency and the influence they could have on the White House, others think it’s too late for sweeping change.

“Christians are used to being in the moral majority. But as culture has shifted on many of the moral and ethical points of society, we have to navigate how to make this shift from a majority to a minority,” said Clint Darst, a 35-year-old pastor at Freedom Church in Lincolnton.

Casting a vote for Trump was difficult for many Christian evangelicals to stomach, Darst said. Some voted for “the lesser of two evils,” or chose one candidate because a vote for one represented a vote against another.

“We grew up hearing from our elders that Bill Clinton was not qualified to be president,” Darst said. “Now that it’s our candidate that’s morally failing, we’re in an awkward position. We can’t act like he doesn’t have massive moral flaws.”

Some Southern Baptists have chosen to focus less on advancing or decrying certain laws and more on the message and growth of their church.

“The right approach isn’t withdrawing from society and focusing on the church, but it’s also not speaking out on everything,” said J.D. Greear, pastor of the 10,000-member Summit Church with several locations in the Triangle area. “We need to ask: What is the Biblical view of these things, and what prominence should they have? The Gospel has a power that politics doesn’t have.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler

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