“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” – Isaiah 5:20
Russell Moore, SBC cuck pastor and chairman of the idolatrous Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written one of the most wrongheaded and ignorant articles I’ve read in a long time, and there has been a good amount of material for comparison. Russell Moore is responding to an article by Nate Cohn published in the New York Times which notes the sharp decline in self-identified Christians in America over the past decade. In his response, “Is Christianity Dying?” Moore suggests that the decline in self-professed Christians in America is simply due to professed “almost Christians” leaving the Christian label behind and being more honest about their rejection of Christ. There is certainly a good deal of truth to this claim, but Moore’s conclusions are simply astounding.
Moore suggests that the decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christians is “perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church.” Moore notes that this decline is not isolated to a particular region, but includes areas known for their tenacious adherence to Christianity such as the “Bible Belt,” covering the South and the Midwest. Moore congratulates himself by suggesting that he and others like him “have been saying for years” that “Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering.” Moore believes that this is actually cause for celebration. The reason being that Moore believes that the Bible Belt and cultural Christianity in America are actually a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel.
Moore writes, “For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be ‘normal.’ During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization.”
Moore inexplicably links this kind of nominal Christianity with Mayberry, the fictional community in North Carolina that was the setting of The Andy Griffith Show. Mayberry stands as a metaphor for the old America of traditional morality and pleasant, high-trust communities. Many Americans long for a return to the days of Mayberry, and this nostalgia is rooted, even if only implicitly, in Christian consensus, ethnic and racial homogeneity, and a shared traditional culture. For Russell Moore—strange as this might seem—Mayberry cannot die fast enough.
This is because Moore associates Mayberry with mere cultural Christianity that is insincere in its convictions. Moore jubilantly exclaims that “those days are over—and good riddance to them.” Moore’s argument is essentially that a culture can become so culturally saturated with Christianity that many people may simply profess the Christian faith as a matter of convenience. Russell Moore believes that an environment that is hostile to Christianity is preferable, if not essential, for the flourishing of genuine Christian commitment.
Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).
We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news. The gospel comes to sinners, not to the righteous. It is easier to speak a gospel to the lost than it is to speak a gospel to the kind-of-saved. And what those honest atheists grapple with, is what every sinner grapples with, burdened consciences that point to judgment. Our calling is to bear witness.1
I understand the point that Moore is trying to make. Many Americans nominally practiced and professed Christianity because it is was normal and expected. It is only a matter of time before nominal Christianity gives way to outright apostasy. Moore is right to call “almost Christianity” a different religion from Christianity, and J. Gresham Machen correctly identified the “almost Christianity” of the early twentieth century as liberalism.2 Many people have left and are leaving apostate mainline Protestant denominations because the agendas that they hoped to achieve in the social gospel are being or have already been achieved.
The irony is that Russell Moore doesn’t acknowledge that the underlying thrust of the social gospel is equality, and equality of every imaginable kind has become the sole foundational moral principle for our postmodern secular society. As the egalitarian agenda is realized, it becomes less and less necessary for there to be churches dedicated to promoting this particular agenda. Many who have left liberal churches haven’t done so because they are offended by the political correctness of mainline liberal denominations, but because they have essentially become the social club of their liberal grandparents.
Moore is correct that a mere outward conformity to God’s commandments does not achieve salvation. Moore is dead wrong to suggest that outright rebellion against God is preferable to external conformity to the demands of God’s Law. Moore writes, “In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their ‘traditional family values’ were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being ‘put out of the synagogue.’”
My first observation is that Russell Moore has no objective foundation upon which he bases his claim that “many” in the old Bible Belt were not motivated by fidelity to Christ’s commandments. Undoubtedly there were at least some that were mere outward professors of Christianity. As Moore pointed out, this consensus was sometimes fairly superficial in that some behaved in external congruity with Christian teachings because of a desire to “fit in” to mainstream society rather than out of a sincere Christian devotion. There will always be tares among the wheat, but the idea that many, if not the majority, of people in the old Bible Belt were hypocrites who obeyed Christian morality only because it was normal to do so is something that Russell Moore has pulled out of thin air. It is impossible to maintain Christian morality under circumstances in which there is not a broad and genuine consensus that Christian morality is true. The wholesale abandonment of Christian morality has been continuing apace since the 1960s and corresponds to the apostasy of America. The “almost Christianity” described by Moore only lasts as a brief and transient intermediate condition on the road to full-fledged apostasy.
Russell Moore assures us that “evangelical churches remain remarkably steady” while liberal mainline Protestant denominations and modernist Catholics have been hemorrhaging members, but this optimism is misplaced. The very same Pew Research data in the article that Moore cites indicates that evangelicals are also declining, albeit at a slower rate than liberals. Non-Christian religions, in addition to the religiously unaffiliated, are on the rise. Russell Moore’s own Southern Baptist Convention has lost one million members over the past ten years. This is because ostensibly conservative evangelicals are not resisting the liberalism of the mainline, but only adopting it at a slower rate. One wonders how “almost Christianity” was so able to maintain Christian morality in the cultural mainstream for so long when Moore’s own supposedly orthodox SBC is declining in membership and professed evangelicals are changing their attitudes on important moral issues. Things are becoming worse, and this trend shows no sign of reversal any time soon. Only a complete rejection of the liberal zeitgeist can reverse the present trends.
Moore’s stupefying argument that explicit rebellion is superior to outward conformity to Christian morality has no basis whatsoever. Traditionally, theologians have identified three distinct uses for the Law. The first use, which Moore implicitly denies, is to restrain evil and promote righteousness through the threat of punishment. It is this use of the Law of which Paul speaks when he says that the Law is for sinners rather than the righteous (1 Tim. 1:8-10). This can take the form of the sword used by legitimate civil authority as well as in the social stigmas of a mature Christian society, of which Mayberry is a representation. There are several reasons why conformity to God’s Law, even if only to avoid the negative consequences of disobedience, is superior to defiance.
The example of someone staying in an unhappy marriage serves as a good illustration of this principle. Suppose a woman3 in the 1940s Bible Belt wants to divorce her husband, leave her family, and be freed of the encumbrance of married life. She is unable to do this because the laws of her state do not allow it (except perhaps if adultery can be proven) and her friends, neighbors, and family members would all be scandalized by her divorce. This woman does not have the opportunity to divorce her husband even though this is what she wants. Is this a good thing? Moore seems to think not, but there are several reasons why the restraint upon this woman’s ability to divorce her husband is good for her and her family.
First, there are very well-documented detriments to children of divorced parents. To be fair to Moore, he does grudgingly concede this point when he writes, “Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families.” The expression “stay together for the kids” arose out of a genuine concern for the welfare of children. Parents in Christian societies were expected to remain married even if they were not happy for the benefit of their children. These benefits alone ought to be enough to motivate Christians to remain married if it is at all possible.
Second, many marriages have been saved when the couple is willing to persevere through difficult times and emerge victorious through trials. Moore complains that this benefit of keeping marriages intact, even if the couple does so out of social obligation rather than Christian faithfulness, is “hardly revival.” To which I respond: to hell with Moore’s “revival.” Revivalism has plagued American Protestantism for much of her history. Many revivals produce shallow, emotionally-driven false conversions that dissipate with time. This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that Moore’s objection is rooted in the purported insincerity of this couple or spouse.
There are additional benefits of couples staying together in an unhappy marriage, even if this is rooted in social pressure. Couples who stay together during a period of unhappiness often emerge happier in the long run. By contrast, divorce seldom leads to happiness and can often lead to additional problems for the divorced couple. Couples who stay together during periods of unhappiness, even if due only to societal pressure, also benefit in ways they likely did not anticipate. The result of this is happier and healthier families, which maintain a more stable and functional society. This perfectly illustrates the benefit of the first use of the Law to restrain evil in society at large.
But Russell Moore has also failed to consider another even more important advantage of these social stigmas in preserving moral decency. In a situation in which a family remains intact due to the social stigma against divorce, there is a decent chance that an unbelieving spouse would grow to understand the purpose of the divine commandment against divorce and convert as a result of this understanding. The same is true of someone who attends church for many years because of social pressure from friends, family members, and the community in general. I’ve personally heard many stories in which someone sat through church services for decades only to have their consciences awakened after a long period of hardness. In these cases, overt rebellion against God’s commandments would have been a barrier to conversion.
God can convert sinners under even the worst circumstances, but God has also revealed that He often uses means in accomplishing this conversion. God uses the Law to demonstrate His righteous wisdom to rebellious sinners and nations, so that they will come to understand their own inadequacy and seek salvation (Deut. 4:5-7; Gal. 3:24-25). God can certainly bring about salvation under the worst conditions, but throughout history God has used faithful covenant families who keep His Law as a means of propagating the faith. There is no evidence that the decline of Christian values and the progressive slide into apostasy is actually producing a more sincere devotion to Christianity or “revival.”
Moore ultimately concludes, “We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire.” What is particularly astounding is Moore’s implicit claim that liberal “almost Christianity” is what created Mayberry. It didn’t, and this error speaks volumes for how Moore views “genuine” Christianity and history. Mayberry is the product of a sincere commitment to Christianity that once defined America’s culture and values. What destroyed Mayberry is the progressive slide into liberalism and apostasy. The values that sustained Mayberry for so long were maintained only insofar as there was a general consensus in the traditional moral teachings of Christianity.
Christianity destroyed the pagan ethos of the Roman Empire and built countless Mayberrys in its place. And yet somehow Moore pines for the days of the pagan Roman Empire. Moore would do well to consult Jesus’s own teachings about the growth of the Kingdom. In the parables of the mustard seed and leaven, Christ teaches that the Kingdom will continue to grow until it becomes all-encompassing (Matt. 13:31-33; Mk. 4:30-32; Lk. 13:18-21). Christianity did indeed flourish in the Roman Empire, and that ought to encourage Christians today as a vivid example of how the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. Contrary to Moore, Christians also ought to rejoice in the conquest of Christendom over pagan Rome, and the growth of genuine Christian culture throughout the world, of which Mayberry is an emblematic American manifestation. American Christians are right to desire and pray for the restoration of Mayberry, and rest assured: Christ will one day rebuild Mayberry as He has promised to make all things new (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5).
- As an aside, I want to correct Moore’s assertion that most “almost Christians” for many years were actually atheists. Most all of those who cease to profess the Christian faith don’t become atheists, but rather identify as being “spiritual, but not religious.” This is essentially functional atheism in which a person “has a form of godliness, but denies the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). It’s a relatively minor disagreement, but it’s not accurate to suggest that those who don’t profess Christianity anymore would identify as atheists. ↩
- Incidentally, J. Gresham Machen’s views on race are vastly different from the liberal views of Russell Moore. ↩
- I use a woman in this example because well-established research indicates that women initiate divorce more frequently than men (69%). This is the result in the decline of Christian patriarchalism over the past several decades, which decline has brought about circumstances in which women are more likely to pursue divorce when this would have been impossible before this paradigm shift took place. We now live in the world of Eat, Pray, Love. ↩