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A Conversation with Russell Moore about Religous Liberty*

Dr. Allen: It is a real joy to have in the Spurgeon Room today Dr. Russell Moore. Dr. Moore serves as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention—a leading, prominent, and strategic role in the Kingdom and for Southern Baptists, of whom he speaks to and for. Dr. Moore, it is just a personal joy to have you here with me as well. You are a friend and a colleague. I watch you with great admiration and appreciation for what you are doing. Thank you for joining me today in the Spurgeon Room.

Dr. Moore: It is great to be here.

Dr. Allen: I want to talk with you today about the topic of religious liberty. I know you are speaking to this on a daily basis. You write on it with great frequency. You have to rally attention to it and you have to give proportionality to it so that we are not over-torqueing the case, over-torqueing the urgency, and not creating drama in little contexts and sub-scenarios where it should not be. At the same time, you are crying, “wolf,” because there is a wolf there at times. You are trying to bring balance to that. I have to tell you, it is a daunting task to me as I watch you, because it is a big-picture, principial issue that is perennial and needed. The different applications of it, the different potentialities of, and the apparent occurrences of it are often deeply nuanced. Then, you get the talking voices coming into the social media. Sifting through what is a legitimate religious liberty concern and what is just someone trying to drum up attention to their cause can be very difficult to watch in the world. You have to do that on an hour-by-hour basis, so this is a timely conversation for us. Let’s hop in here. Tell us, at the broad level, what are some principles our listeners and readers participating in this conversation should have in mind under the topic of religious liberty?

Dr. Moore: Religious liberty is simply an application of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s,” which is saying there are some things that belong to God that do not belong to the government; they do not belong to Caesar. One of those things is the simple fact that the gospel is addressing every person personally, saying, “You will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account.” If the government cannot come in and stand for you, then that means you have an allegiance that is higher than the government when it comes to your soul and your conscience. So, when we are saying we are standing for religious liberty, we are not just standing for religious liberty for ourselves. It is not as though we are saying, “Let’s try to get enough votes so that conservative evangelicals have liberty or Southern Baptists have liberty, and we take that away from everyone else.” We are saying, “No, no, if we are gospel people, then that means you cannot impose your religion on anyone else, because religion is not something you can have issued to you by the state; it has to happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.” So, we do not want Muslims pretending to be Christians; we do not want secularists pretending to be Christians; we do not want Hindus pretending to be Christians. We want Muslims, Hindus, everyone else, who are genuinely expressing what they believe, so that we can seek to persuade them, through the power of the Spirit, to come to Christ. In the American Constitution, sometimes people will talk about the establishment clause that says the government cannot set up a church or religion, and the free exercise clause that the government cannot restrict the free exercise of religion. Really, those are not two separate clauses; they are the same thing. Whenever the government comes in and says, “You cannot freely practice and exercise your religion,” the government is setting up a religion of some sort or another. They are saying, “This is what the religion is that we are giving you from the government.” So, we are standing for religious liberty for everybody precisely because we do believe the gospel.

Dr. Allen: As you unpack that a bit more, let’s say you are in your office, the phone rings, and your attention is drawn to a skirmish in South Dakota. You are having to process the facts, ask certain questions, and make a pretty quick decision if this should have Russell Moore’s attention, evangelicals’ attention, and the broader community concern about religious liberty or not? What type of questions are you asking yourself about “skirmish X” to determine if it is really a legitimate concern or a person looking for a little news media coverage.

Dr. Moore: The first thing is, is it true? That is the first question. Sometimes there will be people that are claiming, “I have a religious liberty violation,” who do not have a religious liberty violation. They are just someone in the military who says, “I am not allowed to express my religious beliefs,” but it is because they are trying to coerce their religious beliefs on a subordinate. I need to find out what the situation is. Is this really a factual rendering of the case? You need to have people on the ground who are able to give you intelligence on that. Secondly, is this something that has implications for the rest of the community in some way or another, and what are those implications? Then, thirdly, is this an opportunity—even if it is a very isolated case—is it an opportunity to teach and remind ourselves of why we value religious liberty? That is one of the reasons why I am not simply involved in religious liberty cases as they apply to Christians. We are, for instance, working on situations in the prison system in Alabama where you have people who belong to a Native American religion—non-Christian—who, because of their belief system, have to wear their beards a certain length. We ought to find ways to accommodate that within the prison system as long as it is not a danger to safety and security. Why is that important? It is important because the government always comes in restricting the rights of unpopular religious minorities in order to then take over the ground of religion. That is one of the reasons why sometimes there will be Christians who, when a mosque starts to be built in their community, they immediately think, let’s go and try to get the board of supervisors of the city council to zone that mosque out of existence. There are a bunch of problems with that. One of them is, if you are going to be winning the Muslims in your community to Christ, the way you start is not by seeking to zone them out of existence.

Dr. Allen: Yes, declaring your own version of Jihad on them.

Dr. Moore: That is right. Then, secondly, a government that can say, “This mosque is not coming here because it is Muslim,” is a government that is establishing a religion, and it is the very same government that, in due time, is going to turn around and say, “This evangelical church cannot be here because it is too close to an abortion clinic and that is going to be bothering people who are going into the abortion clinic.” The state does not need that power, should not have that power, and we should not try to take Caesar’s sword for convenience’s sake. It always turns back against us, and even if it didn’t, it would be wrong.

Dr. Allen: That one phrase you said is especially pointed—“We should not take Caesar’s sword for convenience’s sake” or for the sake of our convenience. The times are changing quickly, and again, it is years, not decades, before we are so counter-cultural that those of us who hold to a biblical sexual ethic and gender roles are going to be in a very public and obvious minority position. As we sense, we will sense all the more, the ire.

Dr. Moore: That is right, and that is why we have to, for instance, be paying attention to what happens around the world, and we need to stand up for religious minorities even when we do not agree with them. For instance, there is an increasing move in Germany, of all places, to seek to regulate out of existence, or to outlaw, circumcision. Of course, the case that is made is, this is inhumane, it is not a good thing to do. The problem is, if you outlaw circumcision, you have outlawed Judaism—it is out of existence.

Dr. Allen: …and you can outlaw baptism.

Dr. Moore: Of course you could. You could do any number of things. So, we have to be the people who are saying, “You are not going to outlaw Judaism;” at least, not without our witness saying this is wrong.

Dr. Allen: That is very helpful. When you think about this, oftentimes it is thought of in the terms of, “We do not want our religious liberty violated” because of the impunity or the recordations that may come to us-either through fines, losing tax exempt status, or other ways it brings discomfort to us. We will acknowledge that is a part of it, but my greater concern as a gospel communicator—one who is seeking to be faithful to the Great Commission of the Gospel of Christ—is that I do not want, in any way, the proclamation of the gospel to be stymied. That is my ultimate concern because we have a message that we actually believe people need to hear.

Dr. Moore: Here is the problem when it comes to this issue. Sometimes I will hear young evangelicals—and old evangelicals for that matter—say, “Let’s just shrug off these religious liberties concerns. We should not worry about it in the same way that Jesus went to Pilate and did not seek to try to have those charges dropped against him.” The problem is, you are assuming that we are in the role of Jesus here only. In a democratic republic, we are also in the role of Pilate; we are the ultimate authority in this country. You are going to give an account for the way that you, as a citizen of this country—the ultimate emperor—are dealing with the sole freedoms and liberties of the people. Secondly, if you are not concerned about religious liberty, there is a lack of gratitude for the people who gave their lives in order to say the government does not have this power. We see that all the way back to the Apostle Paul dealing with this in the Roman Empire. In the United States of America and in England, we see this with great Baptist leaders especially who gave to the broader body of Christ this understanding. Many of them were drowned; many of them were whipped; many of them were driven out. Thirdly, you have a lack of love of neighbor and love for the gospel. To be able to say, “Why does Paul say we pray for kings and those who are in authority so that we can live quiet lives in all dignity?” Who is the “we?” The church of Jesus Christ. When you refuse to stand for religious liberty in your generation, you are constricting the freedoms of future generations to be able to preach the gospel, or to be able to hear the gospel. That is an active, spiritual violence being done to that Hindu, Muslim, or atheist—even if that person never comes to Christ—to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a horribly callous and anti-gospel thing to say we should not worry about that religious liberty.

Dr. Allen: That is so well put. Let me just ask you another question, shifting gears here a bit. In your best estimation, what does this look like in 10 years? Give us an optimistic assessment and then a more realistic, or perhaps even pessimistic, assessment.

Dr. Moore: I do not think what some people assume. That is that churches are going to be outlawed or somehow pastors are going to be forced to perform same-sex weddings or to ordain people to ministry who are not qualified for ministry. I really do not think that is where we are headed. We do have a First Amendment that gives us a certain amount of guarantees that I think it is going to take much longer to erode down than that. I think concentrating on that actually keeps us from looking at where the problems really are going to be. Where the problems are going to be from here on out, as far as I can see, are a couple of things. One of them is a government that is increasingly defining religion in very interior, individualistic terms. It is not “free exercise of religion;” it is “the free holding of religious opinions.” “We do not care what you believe, as long as you do not practice,” or, as the current administration has been doing so often lately, speaking in terms of freedom of worship: “We believe in freedom of worship.”

Dr. Allen: There is a huge difference.

Dr. Moore: There is a big difference between freedom of worship and free exercise of religion. We see this, for instance, in the HHS mandate as many of my Roman Catholic co-laborers have pointed out, in term of the things they are being restricted to do in their ministries. There are several things that the government is saying are not religious. These things would apply to the ministry of Jesus himself. A very small sliver of Jesus’ earthly ministry would be defined as religious according to the government and the rest of it would not be. That is happening. You are going to see a restriction of liberty at the individual level—how are people living out their convictions in public, also, in the marketplace? You see that happening right now with what is happening with this ridiculous controversy over Arizona laws on religious freedom where you have even professing Christians going in and saying, “Jesus would bake the cake for a same-sex couple.” It is really an irrelevant question whether or not Jesus himself would bake the cake. The question is, “Does the government, with the power of the sword, have the right to force someone whose conscience says that he should not bake this cake, to bake the cake?” That is the question. Those issues are going to become more pronounced. Then, that middle level between the church defined as the worship service and the individual—those Christian ministries are going to become increasingly under assault; I think at several different levels. We see that already with, for instance, adoption agencies and children’s homes, or the Catholic Diocese of Massachusetts, are out of business when it comes to adoption placement. Not because they are trying to reduce anyone else’s freedom, but because they are saying, “We believe that we ought to place children in a home with both a mom and a dad.” They can no longer get a license. I think that is going to increasingly happen. Then, with educational institutions and with ministries of various sorts that is going to become increasingly difficult.

Dr. Allen: Very well said. You think back to the cake baking issue. Some would scoff and say, “That sounds so trite, cake baking.” But the ramifications of that are huge. If a government can make someone bake a cake, as trite as the sounds, the government can make someone do anything.

Dr. Moore: I cannot believe it when I hear people. There is a certain sort of elitist disdain for people who say, “I have freedom to arrange words together the way I want to arrange words together, but people who are baking a cake are just baking a cake; people who are arranging flowers and just arranging flowers.” What an elitist disdain of what is happening. I am the son of a mother who was a cake decorator, worked for weddings. I think there is a range of different things that happen. Sometimes you have people who bake wedding cakes—“Here is our wedding cake; come have the wedding cake. You come in, and you do not need to say what this wedding if for.” Then there are other people who, what they are doing, are actually coming in and participating in this service. My mother used to sit down with the couple and would say, “We are going to make a groom’s cake that is indicative of his interests and what he is doing. We are going to make a wedding cake that seeks to tell the story of this wedding.” Photographers do the same thing; they are not just coming in and taking photos.

Dr. Allen: It is not just a transactional relationship.

Dr. Moore: No, they are coming in and saying, “You stand here and you stand there because we are wanting to tell the story of this wedding.” So, those people who say, “My conscience is implicated in this,” the Scripture tells us that to sin against conscience is to sin against God. If someone comes in and says, “Should I come in and photograph this same-sex wedding?” that is an entirely different question than whether or not I would say, the government ought to force you to photograph this same-sex wedding, or so say, as the state of New Mexico said, “When you come into the marketplace, it is the price of citizenship to give up that conscience and those convictions.” The problem with that is that now restricts everybody’s liberty and everybody’s freedom. We have in the news this week, a gay hair stylist who says, “I do not want to do hair for Suzanna Martinez of New Mexico because she is anti-same-sex marriage.” This person says, “I do not want to be involved in making her look good to stand up and give speeches against same-sex marriage.” Well, why should that not be outlawed for somebody who is in the marketplace? What ultimately happens is we wind up with a situation where we are saying—and this goes not only with those situations, but also with what is happening with the HHS mandate—where we say, “If you are in business, we do not want you to have moral convictions.” You and I are sitting here with Starbucks cups in front of us. Starbucks puts little sayings on the cup, and they are not going to put sayings on the cup that conflict with their values. Nor should we want them to.

Dr. Allen: Even if I were not a believer and did not have the gospels concerns, it is just a chilling scenario to think of a state that can wield that sort of power and authority on a daily basis. You do not want to be an alarmist; you do not want to develop a sense of fear that is not realized, but the ramifications really are huge. When it comes to these things, there is no one out there that is better to look to than the ERLC and your leadership there. Thank you for what you are doing and the input that you are giving. God bless you as you serve Southern Baptists and the broader community of believers at large. Thank you so much.

Dr. Moore: Thank you so much.

*Recorded 5 March 2014 in the Spurgeon Room

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