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Evangelical Leader Not Waving White Flag On Gay Marriage

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President Barack Obama talks to Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Suzii Paynter, of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, during a meeting with faith leaders in the Oval Office in April 2014. (YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images) | YURI GRIPAS via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Since becoming the political point man a year ago for the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore has more than once been interpreted as sounding a political and cultural retreat.

The Wall Street Journal last fall put Moore on its front page, under the headline, "Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback from Politics, Culture Wars." More recently, Moore attracted attention when he called the idea of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman "a politically ridiculous thing to talk about right now."

Such comments by Moore, who last year replaced Richard Land as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have been seen by some as one of many signs that conservative Christians will stop talking about gay marriage and perhaps focus instead on less divisive issues such as human trafficking and immigration reform.

In a recent interview, Moore, 42, was eager to push back against that notion, as well as against the idea that he is advising anyone to stop advocating for traditional marriage. He also rejected the idea that conservative Christians should focus only on preserving rights of conscience and religious liberty, while ceding ground on the question of traditional marriage versus gay marriage.

"When the prevailing cultural narrative is that people who believe that marriage is a man-woman union are the equivalent of white supremacists or segregationists, then -- that's not true, first of all," Moore said. "Second of all, we can't simply say, 'Well, let's just assume that we are and let's protect our religious liberty.'

"I think we have to work to protect our religious liberty while at the same time we are articulating why this is a reasonable view to have," Moore said.

Below is a partial transcript of Moore's interview with The Huffington Post, edited for brevity and clarity.

What were some of the fundamental errors that you think led evangelicals to take a head-in-the-sand approach to [gay marriage]?

For a long time, evangelicals assumed that American culture was with us on the values question here, and that same-sex marriage was simply isolated, something that some elites on the coast held to. The argument we would often use is that any time it came to a vote in a state, the state always approved traditional marriage. It was only when a court has imposed it that we had same-sex marriage. And for a long time that was true, but it was ignoring the cultural efforts that same-sex marriage proponents were giving their energy to, and ignoring some of the legal undercurrents. Many evangelicals assumed that this was something that would be relatively easily fixed by electing a Republican president or Senate or House, and not understanding the cultural current and not understanding the legal current, thinking of this simply as a short-term political issue, rather than a much, much bigger cultural issue with a political component.

So you've talked to many evangelicals who thought the momentum would change and go their direction depending on elections? You've talked to lots of people who think that?

Yeah. Because, for instance, when it comes to the issue of a constitutional amendment, I support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman. I think that would be a very good thing to have. But a constitutional amendment is a very difficult thing to actually get passed. One has to ask, suppose we do have a constitutional amendment ever pass: What's between now and then? It reminds me sometimes of the sort of language I've heard before as it relates to the budget deficit, when we say, 'What should we do about the deficit and debt?' and the answer is, 'A balanced budget amendment.' And then one responds, 'Well yes, but there's not the votes in the Senate.' It becomes a way to avoid the question, rather than a way to answer the question. We need to take on the posture of the pro-life movement, but the pro-life movement as it exists in 2014 in the equivalent of 1973, rather than having an evangelical movement and a social conservative movement that was -- apart from the Roman Catholics -- really taken by off guard by Roe v Wade, and it took several years for a multi-pronged pro-life movement to emerge. We need to have the same thing happening as it relates to marriage and sexuality, which means addressing these issues theologically, culturally, legally, and across the whole gamut, and equipping people to be able to articulate why we believe the things we believe about marriage, when those concepts seem very strange to the outside culture.

When they showed the Michael Sam footage when he got drafted, Colt McCoy's younger brother, who I think is a quarterback at Texas, tweeted something like, 'Really, ESPN, are you serious right now?' Is that the type of perspective you're talking about?

Yeah, what I often tell people in churches and at Christian conferences is about a conversation I had with a lesbian activist, a secularist, about a Christian view of sexuality. She said, 'I don't know anybody who believes the sorts of things that you people believe about marriage and sex and it sounds incredibly strange to me.' And my response was to say, 'Yes, and we believe even stranger things than that. We believe a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky on a horse.' In order to try to say to our people, 'You know, Christianity didn't emerge in Mayberry. Christianity emerged in a Greco-Roman environment that found the Christian sexual ethic just as shocking and strange as American culture increasingly does now.' So what do we do? We don't run from strangeness. We instead learn to articulate it with clarity and with mission. And also to say you can't find a shelter to keep you from having to engage these issues.

You're embracing the idea of strangeness now, but as people learn to articulate more persuasively and winsomely, do you think that strangeness is still sort of an ideal, or is it to transition from strangeness to reasonableness, or however you would characterize it?

No, I don't think we should ever transition from strangeness. I think we should have a strangeness with clarity. What I see happening in the New Testament is very different from the sort of dime store prosperity gospel that we often see in evangelicalism, which wants to say that Jesus is a means to living a normal Christian life, with all of that and heaven too, which doesn't make sense of what the New Testament model is. Every time that Jesus is preaching the gospel, and people are starting to respond to his message, Jesus always turns around and clarifies, not clarifying in order to remove the strangeness of his message, but clarifying in order to reveal the strangeness of his message. He says, 'I don't think you understand what I'm talking about. I'm talking about taking up a cross and following me.' I think that's what has to happen, where we're not quarrelsome, we're not seeking to demonize our opponents, we're seeking to be persuasive and we're seeking to articulate the gospel, but we're articulating that gospel without trying to evacuate it of its strange otherworldly message, which is what we believe is the power to save. That's how people are transformed. coming into contact with something that is radically different from what they've otherwise experienced.

It seems there's been a question of audience here. You've been talking to reporters, and they seem to be interpreting your message as aimed at a secular audience, when in fact a lot of it is aimed at the church trying to get people to realize the reality of the situation?

Yep. And I think it's the case that some journalists see Christianity only in terms of one or two activists from the past, who were dealing in a very different time, rather than seeing the way that evangelicals are living and operating. Evangelicals are a missionary people who hold to a very deep biblical conviction. They're not going to give those things up and they want to see people come to know Christ. They're wanting to be engaged with their neighbors without surrendering the gospel. So I really have a two-pronged battle going on, on one hand with professional dissidents who want to suggest that the way we're going to win the future is by abandoning a Christian sexual ethic -- sort of your Rachel Held Evans type of figure. And that's a failed project. You can't build a Christian church with sub-Christian theology. We must hold to a Christian sexual ethic. And there are some in the secular media, again, who don't know many evangelicals who assume all of your young people are embracing same-sex marriage. That's really not even the case. It's not even true, once one looks at actual conservative evangelicals who actually go to church. If anything, I find that they're even more committed to a robustly Christian sexual ethic because they've spent their entire lives articulating a Christian vision of reality over and against the world views of their peers. So that's the one front. And the other is that if we somehow just talk to ourselves this is all going to pass and we can get right back to where we were in American culture. I think that's the sort of short-sighted view that is itself a surrender to the sexual revolution.

And who is your primary audience?

I see my primary mission as preparing the next generation of evangelical leaders to exist in a very different American culture than the one their parents and grandparents did, and to live in that culture as faithful Christians who are holding to the ancient truths of Chrisitanity, including a bold presentation of the Christian sexual ethic.

What's your take on Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch? Are they your allies in some of this?

Well, I wouldn't say they're my allies. But they have been speaking about the horrible overreach that's going on on the part of the sexual revolution to silence dissent and to violate religious liberty. They're one of the few voices out there on the other side of the equation publicly saying those things. They would not be my allies at all when it comes to -- we would of course completely disagree on the morality of homosexuality, on same-sex marriage, on all of those issues. But Sullivan and Rauch have been willing to say that their own side is overreaching in a way that is disastrous for religious liberty.

But I guess for the same reason that you say a constitutional amendment is foolishness --

No, I don't say a constitutional amendment is foolishness. I just say -- I think a constitutional amendment is ideal. But I recognize that we can't simply just say, oh well let's just pass a constitutional amendment when we don't have 60 votes. We don't even have 60 votes in the Senate right now on that. That's going to be something that is a much longer-term project, and we need to know what can we do between now and then. … It would be ideal if we had a constitutional amendment, if we were able to get that passed tomorrow to be able to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. I think that would be in the best interest of American society. But the votes right now are not there. And I would say the same thing: There are some people, very fringe people, who were critical when we supported the pain capable legislation on abortion in the House, and the response was, 'We don't need to be passing this type of legislation. We need a human life amendment that's going to protect all children at every stage of development. ' I'm for a human life amendment. I think that's an ideal thing. We don't have the votes to pass a human life amendment right now. So does that mean that we abandon every measure to protect, to restrict the advance of a culture of death? No. I think we work long term and we work short term.

It does sound like you are backpedaling, to be frank with you.

The word foolishness without context sounds like it's a foolish thing to have a constitutional amendment. I don't think that. Ideally it would be a very good thing. ... I can't just assemble the votes to pass it when the votes are not there.

I think the question on Rauch and Sullivan is sort of a window into a perspective, because if you call those guys allies it's basically a perspective of, the cultural battle for the moment is completely gone, and the only question is whether there's a preservation of religious liberty.

See, I do not agree with that. That's the sort of argument that Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher would want to make, both of whom I admire a great deal. But I don't think we can say, let's just stop the conversation about what marriage ought to be and focus simply on the question of religious liberty, because I think the religious liberty argument itself entails an articulation of why we believe these things are significant and important in terms of the public good. When the prevailing cultural narrative is that people who believe that marriage is a man-woman union are the equivalent of white supremacists or segregationists, then -- that's not true, first of all. Second of all, we can't simply say, 'Well, let's just assume that we are and let's protect our religious liberty.' I think we have to work to protect our religious liberty while at the same time we are articulating why this is a reasonable view to have. Not everybody agrees with us, but we do have reasons for this, and it's not ancillary to the larger questions of what we believe as Christians. It's summed up in those things.

Some younger evangelicals say, 'Lets cut a deal with the other side of the culture war,' and they'll just say, 'You can have same-sex marriage in the civil arena, and just protect our religious liberty.' I think that's an incredibly naive way to approach this, because look at what's been happening over the past several months with even some of the mildest religious liberty protections. Mississippi for instance, has RIFRA, signed by Bill Clinton. And that's being branded as Jim Crow segregation. So I don't think we can cut that sort of a –- to use Douthat's term, a negotiated settlement -– I don't think we can do that. But I do think Douthat's right that we have to recognize just how far gone the culture is on this conversation, before we can adequately address them.

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