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Losing Our Religion:
An Altar Call For Evangelical America

by russell d. moore
penguin, 272 pages, $29

Southerners have a way of burying their actual thoughts under a welter of pleasantries. So it is perhaps worth asking what lies beneath this apparently straightforward morality tale by Russell Moore, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. As Moore presents it, Losing Our Religion is a guidebook for Christians in troubled times. Drawing on his own disillusioning experience, Moore encourages his readers to put the gospel before the false pursuit of credibility, authority, identity, integrity, and stability. “This book will consider all the ways evangelical America has sought these things in the wrong way,” he writes. “Along the way, I will suggest little choices you can make, not just to survive this dispiriting time, but in order to envision a different future.” The chapters are structured with self-help-style subheadings such as “Prioritize Long-Term Integrity Over Short-Term Success” or “Pay Attention to Means, Not Just to Ends.”

There is much truth in what Moore says. I, too, worry about our overly partisan society and the loss of a vibrant center. I, too, see Christians becoming consumed with the burning issues of the day and losing sight of God’s grace and providence. I share Moore’s dismay at Pentecostal preachers and certain Christian leaders who misrepresent the faith or use it in a cynical fashion. But the book also contains a rather sharp-edged polemic. Moore castigates “culture warriors”; he contrasts Christians who follow the gospel with those who would tie the church “to forms of power.” And he portrays the evangelical church as under assault from all directions by wolves and “hucksters.”

The book therefore sits easily alongside the genre of anti–Christian nationalist, exvangelical memoir, which has arisen in the last couple of years (though Moore himself does not claim such a label). There are clearly many readers who wish to see the sins of evangelicals repeated over and over again. Whatever else these books do, they make Democrats feel better about their disdain for conservative Christians. Or, to put it more generously, they meet the need of liberals for interpreters of the scary world that exists outside of the coasts and major urban areas.

Moore presents himself as a prophetic outsider, but there is a paradox here. Anybody who remembers the evangelical politics of the pre-Trump era will recall that Moore was at the pinnacle of the movement. For many years he held a very influential position within the Southern Baptist Convention, as leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore wants his audience to denounce and reject the culture and group that he for so many years reigned over and shaped. We are not to think of Moore as the political Christian he has been the past couple of decades. We are not to think of Moore as an operator. No, those epithets are for all those Christian nationalists, theobros, cynical Baptist churchmen, pagans, Trumpists, fake Christians, and everyone else who would array themselves against Moore and the true Christians whom he claims to represent.

But Moore is inescapably political, not least because of the context that has shaped his career. Though I am not a Southern Baptist, nor a native Southerner, I currently live in the Baptist kingdom of the Southern United States. To those outside this world, the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention are hard to comprehend. Baptists need to air their grievances because corralling majority support on questions of doctrine and policy is necessary to the functioning of their church. This imperative, combined with a Southern penchant for high drama, gives Southern Baptist culture an energy that can appear distasteful and brutal to church denominations that keep their disagreements more private. Thus Southern Baptist ministers become very effective politicians. Moore rose to prominence in this world largely because of his political skill and his calm, confident style.

Given this background, Losing Our Religion would be more persuasive if—instead of affecting to be a simple piece of pastoral counseling—it straightforwardly acknowledged its own agenda. Moore has an argument to make, and he wants to advance his project and defeat his opponents. But his book frames the gospel as some pure, otherworldly abstraction that has little to do with power or politics. Moore calls on Christians to lose respectability and authority; this may seem a little strange from the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and a former fellow of the prestigious Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

The leitmotif of the book is one of conversion: the altar call. Moore tells us evangelicals are in need of one. At root, the problem is that those who claim to believe the gospel actually don’t. “We see now young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe in what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.” Those who leave the church, in Moore’s view, do so because the church itself “would disapprove of Jesus” if he were among them. Many evangelicals are more concerned about the culture and power than about the gospel; they shout down faithful preachers and leaders. Their own leaders are “narcissists and psychopaths and Machiavellian power seekers,” to be contrasted with the real Christians, who exhibit “winsomeness,” “persuasion,” and “gentleness.”

This would all be more plausible were Moore not so one-sided in his treatment of his opponents. At one point, he holds up for our disapproval a supposed “fundamentalist Calvinist,” who appears to be the theology professor James Wood. In 2022 Wood, of course, wrote a thoughtful article for First Things praising Tim Keller, while also gently criticizing the limitations of Keller’s ministry, its “winsomeness” and emphasis on “public witness.” In Wood’s words: “‘Public witness’ most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” Moreover, Wood wrote, “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem.”

Whatever one makes of Wood’s much-debated argument, can one really think that Moore’s summary is fair?

The point was that “winsomeness” doesn’t work in these times. Now, the argument goes, the only effective measure is a gloves-off “fighting” evangelicalism, of the sarcastic and condemnatory sort. The idea is that this figure—and those who similarly seek to treat outsiders with respect and gentleness—does so because it “works.” Almost no consideration is given to the fact that perhaps what is being sought is not “winsomeness” as a strategy but the following of Christ.

Moore goes on this way for a little while, contrasting Wood’s “culture warrior” stance with Christlike winsomeness. Well, I know Wood personally, and the last word most people would use of him is “culture warrior”—or, for that matter, “fundamentalist.”

What the book never contemplates is the possibility that those who are the object of Moore’s polemics may have anything to say in their own defense. Evangelicals are portrayed as having made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. Many of them would respond that the bargain was not at all Faustian: It was a reasonable transaction that included overturning Roe v. Wade and striking a blow against the vile wickedness of the abortion regime. Moore says he disagrees with that analysis—but he never really argues against it. He is content to say that voting for Trump represented “the sort of moral relativism and situational ethics” that evangelicals accuse leftists and secularists of employing. The implication is that evangelicals didn’t choose the lesser of two evils; they chose evil.

What is perhaps most disappointing about Moore’s book is that it appears basically incurious about the new Christian right. As he senses, his vision of political evangelicalism has been decisively rejected in the Trump era, as the old evangelical bulwark of the 1980s through the 2000s falls apart. The genteel, spiritualized, classically liberal postwar consensus is no more—for reasons deeper and of longer standing than the emergence of Donald Trump. Rather than face this transformation and dig deeper into the resources of history, political thought, and Christian tradition to place it in context, Moore can only lament. To him the new Christian right is merely a bunch of angry authoritarian Christian nationalists motivated by base desires and political fanaticism. There is nothing redeemable about it.

Moore counsels his readers to share this purely negative attitude, to wash their hands of everything about the new Christian right. “Only when something is lost can it be found,” he writes. “Only when something dies can it be born again.” These strike me as the words of a leader who is insulated from the culture and policies against which so many Christians are reacting. They see their communities coming apart. They need a constructive way forward, a plan, and a sense of their immediate priorities. Instead we get highly spiritualized pronouncements about “integrity” and “character” that seem to float above the very real problems that an increasingly debauched culture heaps upon Christians in the pews.

Moore simply does not take seriously the causes of the great upheaval in American politics since 2015. Trump’s message on trade and manufacturing resonated with the despair of the American working class, who have not benefited from the new economy and feel ignored or ridiculed by the media, coastal elites, and the Democratic Party. Many of Trump’s voters in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states had also voted for Obama: They are certainly not the Baptist Bible-thumpers from Mississippi whom Moore dismisses as nominal Christians. But they are transforming the Republican Party’s ethos, from the genteel country-club atmosphere of the 1990s to the kind of blue-collar, no-nonsense attitude that Joe Biden made his trademark over many decades.

One need not be a Trump supporter to take an interest in this remarkable transformation of political culture; centrist commentators like David Brooks have written astutely on the subject. Moralizing and spiritualizing every political trend does not always clarify those trends.

Moore laments that charlatans and hucksters are running riot within evangelical Christianity. But he does not demonstrate that this problem is any worse than it has ever been. Health and wealth preachers, culture warriors, self-help gurus, premillennial dispensationalist doomsayers, libertarian God-and-country bikers, and more have always been a part of the rather chaotic and crude cultural mixture of evangelical Protestantism, especially in the nondenominational world. This was the case before Moore rose to prominence in the SBC and will be the case for some time hence. His disdain is telling, though. He wants a more faithful church; but it is precisely in these groups, which are viewed with such contempt in sophisticated society, that redemption, discipleship, and love of neighbor are often nurtured.

What is unique about the new crop of perpetual evangelical critics—Moore, David French, Beth Moore—is that they hail from the conservative Baptist subculture of the South. Their origins exhibit a marked contrast with the hipster Christianity of the emergent church of the 2000s. Figures like Rob Bell wanted to chart a new Christianity, challenging old dogmas and embracing progressive politics. These new critics, by contrast, are former insiders, and their writing seems to yearn for the old days, back when things were clearer. Their project is less groundbreaking than the emergent church, and more reactive.

They are also Southerners who take the cultural milieu of the South as a stand-in for the whole United States. This is to confuse the issue. When I talk with Southern Christian friends about their experiences in the Baptist kingdoms of the South, I am transported into a world that is really quite foreign to the rest of American Protestantism. Even if Southern evangelists dominate the airwaves of popular Christian culture, and a certain low-church Protestantism has become the norm, the actual ecosystem and church culture of the South is unique and regional. People like me, raised in the Lutheran culture of the upper Midwest, had a completely different set of problems. The Episcopalian elites of New England reconciled their churches and theology to a soft liberalism decades ago. Now these mainline churches are liquefying before our eyes, whereas evangelicals and Southern Baptists are holding steady.

One need not dispute Moore’s experiences to notice how parochial his critique is. In most regions across America and the West, the real crisis is not cultural Christianity or culture warring. It is more fundamental and more frightening. On college campuses and corporate boardrooms, the meaning of “woman” is disputed, while a retrograde racial ideology that divides the world between “whites” and “people of color” is embraced. The excesses of evangelicalism are not above critique, but the recent evangelical reaction is a sign of spiritual health. Their willingness to stand for the natural family and against the toxic ideologies of our elites—even if at times obnoxiously—is evidence that they are holding firm to the faith.

Daniel Strand is a professor of ethics at the Air War College in Alabama.

Image by Library of Congress on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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