The Stakes Are High for Religious Institutions to Develop Community

A Conversation with Russell Moore, Director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today

From damaging scandals to religious liberty being used as a lever for political gain, organized religion faces a loss of trust on a global scale.  How can churches regain people's faith?

A family at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York at the first public Mass since after the pandemic stopped large gatherings. (Lev Radin / Shutterstock)

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today, where he directs the Public Theology Project and writes frequently about the intersection of religion and culture. The Mississippi native previously served as President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that, he was Provost and Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his doctorate. 

Dr. Moore explains to Holly Kuzmich, the Bush Institute’s Executive Director, and William McKenzie, the Bush Institute’s Senior Editorial Advisor, some reasons for declining trust in institutions, including religious institutions. He also reports how religious institutions can avoid the politicization of their faith. The video of their conversation is included here along with the text of their interview that has been edited for length and clarity.

We obviously are living at a time of declining trust in our institutions, whether they be social, religious, political, educational, or so many others. To what extent do you think the decline is due to a lack of leadership in our institutions, particularly ethical leadership?

That’s a key part of it. There’s a sense of disappointment on the part of many people in leaders that they respected. I see that quite a bit in religious communities. A fraying happens after a series of institutional failures or personal scandals.  

When I was a teenager, the national news was covering a series of TV evangelists’ scandals. It was deeply disconcerting to me, even though I was not part of the institutions that any of those evangelists led. My local church was quite different. But it still caused a rattling. If the people in those communities couldn’t trust their leaders, then how do I know that I can trust mine?

When these things happen, it doesn’t just affect that one institution or even a constellation of institutions around it. It tends to wear down trust everywhere. And we are seeing that quite a bit in religious communities with people wondering whether religion is just a means to an end — a political end or an economic end. Obviously, I do not believe that it is or that it should be, but that’s a question that tends to erode trust.

You have written about your teen years. Can you expand on them and the disillusionment you experienced? How did it personally impact you and your journey towards becoming a leader within the church?

I was about 15-years old and living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. One thing I was seeing in Bible Belt religion was a breakdown of trust. I saw racism that was covered up sometimes by spiritual justifications. I saw scandals being covered up often with the justification that the mission is more important. And I saw a great deal of surging political emphasis that scared me even when I agreed with the political positions. 

I could see these weren’t applications from something clearly revealed in the Bible. But the Bible was being used to support these positions, because of the politicians who held to those positions.

It caused me to wonder whether Christianity simply was a hood ornament for southern culture  or some political movement. That sent me into a great spiritual crisis. It was a dark time. 

Thankfully, I had read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times as a child that I recognized the name C.S. Lewis on the spine of Mere Christianity in the bookstore. I took it home and read it, and that was a transformative experience for me in shoring up my faith. 

Not because of the arguments that Lewis was making, but because of the way he was making them. He seemed to take the reader seriously and to speak with a kind of honesty and  authenticity that I believed I could trust him. 

There was a rebuilding of trust in another voice that enabled me to work through that spiritual crisis. That’s one reason I spend most of my time now thinking about other people who are in the same place I was in as a 15-year old, wondering if everything is just about power at its core. I want to speak to people who are in that situation. 

First edition of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

Please expand on that interesting point. You have been able to maintain your faith. How has that informed your leadership when you were at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the work that you are doing now?

A big part is understanding and knowing why people are having a crisis of trust. Ten years ago if someone came to me having a spiritual crisis, I might assume that it was intellectual, that they couldn’t believe in the miraculous anymore, or I might assume that it was moral. That they believed the moral demands of the church were too much for them. 

That’s not what I’m seeing right now. What I’m seeing now is not people who are saying, “I can’t believe what the church teaches.” It’s people who are saying, “I don’t think the church believes what the church teaches.” 

The alarming thing to me is that this isn’t just a North American phenomenon. We see this all over the world. Think about the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland. There was a fascinating book written about this called Mass Exodus, talking about the effect of the revelations of sexual abuse coverups in Ireland on people’s trust in any sort of religious institution.  

In many cases, we have to understand that the lack of trust is well earned by many institutions. That’s especially true when we look at sexual abuse coverups that seem to transcend every other kind of religious divider. This is a horrific crisis in multiple religious institutions.  

Then we see the ways that religions are used for political purposes. Tobias Cremer has written about the way that Christianity is used in Europe where someone may be holding a giant cross at a rally or, in France, a statue of Joan of Arc. When one talks to those people, you will find out they really don’t believe. They are agnostics or atheists in many cases, but these religious symbols are a stand-in for what they want to happen culturally or politically.

That’s always been a temptation. Any political movement wants to co-opt a religious movement, because then that political movement can be made transcendent and beyond question. But we see that happening now in ways that shaken people.

If people start to assume that religion is just a means to an end, sooner or later they start to ask what that end is, and they simply can pursue it if they want, without giving up a Sunday morning. When the sense of transcendence is removed from any religious community in fact or in reputation, it leads not only great harm to society, but great harm to that institution.

When the sense of transcendence is removed from any religious community in fact or in reputation, it leads not only great harm to society, but great harm to that institution.

You’ve written about some of the ways that religious liberty has come up during the COVID-19 pandemic with mask and vaccine mandates. For example, you wrote, “If we call religious liberty what is not religious liberty, we jeopardize religious liberty.” How do you define religious liberty?

I define religious liberty as the ability for religious communities and individuals to carry out the beliefs and practices of their religion without coercion from the state or from the culture.  

What concerned me in the era of COVID-19 was that one would see some legitimate religious liberty concerns. There were state governments and city councils that would restrict religious communities in ways that they did not restrict other people. You would see a liquor store or a casino as being essential, but not a gathering of people in a church or synagogue or any other religious gathering.

There were state governments and city councils that would restrict religious communities in ways that they did not restrict other people. You would see a liquor store or a casino as being essential, but not a gathering of people in a church or synagogue.

Those are real challenges. But then there would be other times where people would claim that religious liberty means there aren’t any competing interests for public health or some other reason, which has never been what religious liberty is about. 

Sometimes people say, if you believe in religious liberty that means that people can do anything if their religion demands it. They can sacrifice children, or they can steal and defraud. No. Religious liberty is in continuity with any other kind of freedom. The state has to prove that it has a compelling interest. 

In the case of public health, there is a compelling interest. But, as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act put it, the state should pursue the least restrictive means toward that end. That’s where we had some problems during the era of COVID-19. With religious liberty already so misunderstood because religion is often misunderstood, it is really damaging to religious liberty for us to claim or to act as though religious liberty means anarchy. It doesn’t and never has.

You talked a moment ago about churches not acting like they believe what they teach. How might that be impacting churches in general? What might be done to change that? 

Whenever there is some sort of coverup of any kind of scandal, almost always someone is justifying that with the mission. We really don’t want to bring this out into the light, because it will jeopardize the mission, and it will give Jesus a bad reputation if it’s a Christian institution. 

That is completely opposite to the approach that we should take of accountability and openness and having religious institutions being the places that can be the most trusted. That starts to erode the trust externally and internally. Also, the same pressures that we see in almost every institution and every aspect of American life is now showing up in churches. 

Every day, I talk to pastors who are demoralized and exhausted because they have people within their congregations who expect them to take certain political stands or certain public health stands or to be in the middle of whatever is being debated on Facebook right now. That also  is happening.

Every day, I talk to pastors who are demoralized and exhausted because they have people within their congregations who expect them to take certain political stands or certain public health stands or to be in the middle of whatever is being debated on Facebook right now.

There’s no island of refuge in American life right now. Apart from the military, it’s hard for me to think of any other institution that’s not facing these pressures.

How do you think religious institutions can avoid the politicization of religion while also taking seriously the biblical charges for justice, mercy, and righteousness?

One way is to have an engagement but a distance from political activity. That means seeing the role of the religious institution in shaping and forming peoples’ consciousnesses so they are able to recognize justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness, but not as an extension of any government or any political party or political movement. 

The good news is generationally I see that happening. There are very few evangelical churches in my tradition that are made up of young people who want anything to do with that sort of politicization. As a matter of fact, when I’m dealing with evangelicals under 30, I’m often having to persuade them away from the other extreme, which is to be completely unconcerned with social and political engagement. That’s because of the ways that they’ve seen that go awry.  So that’s good news.  

When I’m dealing with evangelicals under 30, I’m often having to persuade them away from the other extreme, which is to be completely unconcerned with social and political engagement. That’s because of the ways that they’ve seen that go awry.

Their reasons are usually rooted in a sense of religion as transcendent. They see it as not just being a means to an end. They didn’t grow up in a culture where they are expected to be a member of a church in order to be a good person. Younger evangelicals really do see the religious institution as being more than just another institution.

Related to this is the rise of the “nones” — people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. There is ample data showing how this phenomenon is one of the largest, fastest-growing movements when it comes to religion. We are also seeing at the same time a decline in church membership. To what extent do you think these two realities are a function of religious leadership, or the lack thereof? Or might it just be the function of a personal crisis of faith?

There’s a both-and there. Some data suggests the loss of identification or membership within religious communities can be traced back to politicization. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s work has suggested that, and others have as well.   

But also, I think we are facing some cultural changes that I don’t know whether they are resulting in secularization as much as they are in an honesty that perhaps would not have been true before. For someone in the 20th century to identify himself or herself as having no religious affiliation would have been stepping out into very unknown territory. At least in some parts of the 20th century, you could be, suspected of being on the other side of the Cold War against atheistic Soviet Union. 

That has changed. The cultural Christianity that expects people to be part of a church in order to find a spouse or be in business and so forth, that’s gone. It has been replaced in some aspects with a different sort of cultural Christianity, which is one that is social and political, but doesn’t mean you go to church.  

I see this quite often with people that I’ve known for years posting Christian memes on Facebook. I know they haven’t been to church since the first Bush administration. And it’s not hypocrisy. They are not hiding that. They don’t see how the one has anything to do with the other. So that’s a reality that has changed.

You see two things happening at once in at least some of the survey research that we have now. You see some people reacting to the politicization of some religious communities by walking away from them. I see that all of the time on college campuses, where campus ministries don’t want to use the word “evangelical” because the other students will assume that’s a political claim.  

You also see people claiming the name “evangelical” because their politics lines up with what they see as being evangelical politics. That’s an alarming trend — both aspects of that are alarming. It calls for a renewed leadership and witness that really takes seriously the transcendent claims of the gospel, and what it means to form genuine communities. When we see loneliness all around us, and we see the way that loneliness is resulting often in fear and anger, the stakes are all the higher for church communities to actually be communities.

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