(RNS) Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf and Merle Haggard on his iPod.
His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.
The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.
In between, he’s been meeting with pastors and politicians about immigration reform, all while keeping up a lively feed on Twitter. Moore, a native of Biloxi, Miss., and former seminary dean, is having the time of his life.
“A friend of mine called me ‘giddy,’” Moore said. “I don’t think I am giddy. But I am happy.”
In recent years, Moore’s been a rising star among evangelicals as a blogger, preacher, adoption advocate and, until recently, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is a new face for evangelical Christian activists.
He’s conservative but not angry, is skeptical about politics, and believes that kindness is not a weakness. He’s also critical of Bible Belt faith, which he says sees Christianity as a normal part of American life.
“I think that is a misreading of what evangelical Christianity is all about,” he said. “And that often leads us to confuse American civil religion with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Moore sees the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the federal ban on same-sex marriage as a sign that American culture and evangelical Christianity are parting ways. And that may be a good thing, he said, as it will make churches take their faith more seriously.
He also hopes the change will help church members learn how to love their neighbors, especially those with whom they disagree. That’s a lesson Moore had to learn the hard way.
In 2000, while a graduate student at Southern Seminary, Moore attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, made up of moderate Baptists who clashed with conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s over control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
He wrote a series of critical stories about the meeting for Baptist Press, the convention’s official news service. Cooperative Baptists called his reporting unethical and inaccurate. Moore said what he wrote was true, but his attitude toward Cooperative Baptists was unchristian.
“I was all too eager to fight like the devil to please the Lord,” he said. “I had this motivation to be proven right — in a way that I don’t think was the way of Christ.”
Some years later, Moore became friends with the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. Highland Baptist left the Southern Baptist Convention about 10 years ago and is known as a liberal congregation with openly gay members.
Phelps and Moore are fans of Wendell Berry, a farmer and author known for his critiques of modern American culture. They met several times to discuss Berry’s work and have coffee.
“What I appreciate about Russell is that he seems to have an open heart to other groups,” Phelps said. “I find him to be shaped by love and his understanding of the gospel.”
After he took office, Moore promised to work with other Baptist groups on issues such as religious liberty. Phelps said that was a good first step.
“We are not going to reunite, but we don’t need to be adversaries,” Phelps said.
Randy Davis, executive director and treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, is a fan of Moore. Davis, who is conservative, said Moore comes across as level-headed and congenial.
“I think he is one of the sharper young men in our convention,” he said.
One of the issues closest to Moore’s heart is adoption and orphan care. He and his wife, Maria, who have been married for 19 years, have five boys. The oldest two, both 12, were adopted from Russia.
Moore said that before adopting his sons, he had been concerned about issues such as poverty and the plight of orphaned children in an abstract way. Visiting his boys in a run-down orphanage made those issues personal.
Adoption also led to spiritual changes. He and his wife dealt with infertility for years and had several miscarriages before eventually having three biological children.
The infertility caused great heartache, he said, and forced them to rely on their faith.
“There was a sense of desperation in that — it was something we could not fix,” he said. “All we could do is cry out to God.”
One of the next big issues on Moore’s agenda is immigration.
Recently, Moore has been meeting with Hispanic Baptist pastors, whose congregations are affected by immigration.
“These are our church members,” he said.
Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, was part of a group called Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of faith-based groups that supports immigration reform. Moore plans to continue that involvement.
He said his interest in immigration is connected to a bigger question of human dignity. He opposes abortion because he believes all human beings are created in God’s image. His support for immigration reform also is tied to that belief.
“There is a way of dehumanizing unborn children by calling them embryos and fetuses, and there is a way of dehumanizing our immigration neighbors by calling them illegal aliens and anchor babies,” he said. “That’s not right.”
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