Russell Moore still thinks the religious right will win the battle against same-sex marriage. Oh, not at the Supreme Court later this month -- like nearly everyone else, Moore is almost positive the right will lose there. But the long game... that, he says, could be a different story.
Earlier this week, about 5,000 evangelicals gathered in Ohio for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where they adopted a resolution to resist the legalization of same-sex marriage, “no matter how the Supreme Court rules.” On Friday, Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, spoke with The Huffington Post by phone about why the same-sex marriage battle isn’t over and why he thinks that religious conservatives' concerns could be at the forefront of the next presidential election.
We’re on the verge of a major ruling from the Supreme Court that many anticipate will legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. What are you predicting for this ruling?
Well, I’ve been predicting for years that the court is hell-bent on imposing same-sex marriage on all 50 states. So that's what I’m expecting the court to do. I've been surprised before, and I hope I’m surprised again, but I doubt it.
When did you first start predicting that?
Well, I’ve been saying that for years to our people, just seeing the way that things were moving both judicially and culturally -- that same-sex marriage was coming to every part of the country. Because I didn’t want evangelicals caught flat-footed the way that evangelicals were by Roe v. Wade, not anticipating that any such thing could happen, and also because there are many evangelicals who wrongly believed that this was simply a blue-state phenomenon that they would remain isolated from in their communities.
I wanted people to be ready and equipped. So I’ve been saying that for years -- especially, though, after [United States v. Windsor]. When that decision came down, my immediate reaction that I tweeted out was, this is the Roe v. Wade of marriage. Then I thought for a minute and decided, no, this is Griswold v. Connecticut. Just as Griswold set the framework, I think Windsor set the framework of a court wanting to move in the direction of same-sex marriage everywhere.
During the Southern Baptist Convention this week, members adopted a resolution stating that “no matter how the Supreme Court rules, the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirms its unwavering commitment to its doctrinal and public beliefs concerning marriage." Can you talk about what this means in practical terms?
Well, if the court rules as I anticipate, evangelicals will still stand where we’ve always stood on marriage -- as a union of one man and one woman. We have no option to capitulate on that, because marriage in a Christian vision of reality isn’t just a social contract. Marriage points to something beyond the natural order -- the union of Christ and his church. We didn’t make up a Christian sexual ethic and we can’t undo a Christian sexual ethic.
What it will mean is that we will have to articulate things that we previously could assume. For a long time, especially in the Bible Belt, pastors could assume that most people understood what we meant by marriage, so we could speak about healthy marriages in shorthand. Now we have to define what we believe about marriage, why we believe about marriage. That's not a new situation for Christians -- that's what's happening in the context of the New Testament, defining Christian marriage over and against a Greco-Roman sexual culture. But it's a new situation for American evangelicals.
I think that the pro-life movement provides the model for the future. The pro-life movement is a long-term movement that is also multipronged, and that will be the case for the pro-marriage, pro-family movement as well -- to recognize that this isn’t simply about a presidential election or two. It's about working in the political arena, but also working in the cultural arena.
I believe the sexual revolution can’t keep its promises. I’m preparing our churches to receive the refugees from the sexual revolution. For those who ask 'What is there other than this?' I said this week at the meeting, there are two kinds of people who won't be able to minister to those refugees. One is the kind of person who has been screaming in anger at those who disagree with us. The other kind is the person who has given up the Gospel and the biblical view about marriage. So we have to stand with conviction and with kindness at the same time.
Over the past decade, public opinion has swung sharply on same-sex marriage. In Pew Research polling in 2001, for example, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin. Today, a majority of Americans -- 57 percent -- support same-sex marriage, compared with 39 percent who oppose it. Do you think that advocates who opposed same-sex marriage made tactical errors that led to this shift?
Yes, I think that that's part of it. I think the largest part of it is an overwhelming movement in American culture of separating the individual from the larger community and of defining the individual in terms of the sum of his or her desires. I think that's the largest part of it. But I do think that there were errors made on our side. For one thing, I think that many pro-marriage people assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion, and so the argument was always made in majoritarian terms -- that the same-sex marriage movement only represented elite judges and blue states. For a while, that was true. But we needed to be prepared to argue for something that is right regardless of whether or not the majority of Americans agree with us. I think that was a key error.
I think the other error was, there were some people speaking to this issue from my side who were angry and presented a public face of outrage in a way that I don’t think was helpful. Evangelicals don’t dislike our gay and lesbian neighbors, and we don’t mean them harm. We don’t think that what they want -- same-sex marriage -- is going to give them what they want. So we need to constantly balance conviction and kindness, truth and grace at the same time. And I think that evangelicals at the local church level are doing a much better job of this than most people know.
I wonder if supporters of traditional marriage were too slow to tell the American people that they were not anti-gay. If, for
example, those who opposed same-sex marriage had spent significant time early on in this debate clarifying the difference between opposition to changing the legal definition of marriage and a perceived hostility toward gay people, might the American public feel differently about these issues?
I’m not sure. I think there are cultural factors unleashed in the 1960s that have been working their way out over the past 40 or 50 years in a way that I’m not sure what would have made things different.
I think having an explanation of our theology from the very beginning, in rich, robust terms, would have been the right way to go. Many people are just ignorant of what Christians and Mormons and Orthodox Jews and Muslims believe about marriage. So for instance, when someone would say 'Well, Christians are just going to have to get over this' -- Christians can’t get over this. It was the same argument used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about miracles. 'Well, in order to reach contemporary people, Christians will just have to get over virgin births and empty tombs.' But Christians can’t just get rid of the miraculous without getting rid of Christianity. And the same thing is true of sexual ethics.
Two recent studies suggest that the influence of religious social conservatives is waning dramatically. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show both that the number of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped and that the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated has grown over the last five years. Meanwhile, the Public Religion Research Institute released a study showing that nearly one-third of millennials who left the faith they grew up with did so because of “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” related to gays and lesbians. Do you see any way to reverse these trends?
Well, I don’t think that the trends are the way that they’re being reported. If one looks at the Pew study, for instance, what one finds is evangelicalism remaining remarkably steady in American life. What is disappearing is mainline Protestantism. If the key for growth for Christianity is to accommodate the sexual revolution, we would expect to see a booming Episcopal Church USA and a growing Universal Life Church. But that's not the case. The Presbyterian Church USA, which has adapted to the same-sex marriage revolution, is almost gone now. So I don’t think that's an accurate reading of the way that Christianity ought to go forward. Christianity thrives best when we’re distinct from the culture around us, not when we’re a mirror image of it.
Do you think religious conservatives have lost the culture wars, at least on the issue of marriage?
In the short term, yes. I think that's true. And that's why I say we need to take a long-term strategy, because I simply believe that this is not the endpoint of the conversation. As we see already, the conversation is going even beyond the definition of what is marriage, to the question of what is a man and what is a woman? And beyond that we’re beginning to see questions about dispensing with monogamy and so forth. So we have to be the people who are holding fast the way to the old paths on these things, because I really believe that this endless redefinition of marriage and sexuality will not be sustainable. So I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.
Would you say the religious faction of the Republican Party has lost some of its influence? Do people of faith have less political influence than they did 20 years ago? If so, to what would you attribute that?
I don’t think that's the case, I just think it's different. I think we’re having a generational changing of the guard when it comes to religious conservatism right now that has a different tone, a different center of gravity. I think that's where things are. I don't think there’s any diminishing of religious conservatism, but I do think that some people in secular America still tend to be looking for the TV evangelists of the 1980s as their model of what religious conservatism looks like, and that's not the case.
We want not just to talk about people who disagree with us, but to speak to people who disagree with us. I think that's what's changing. And there’s an entire army of new leaders, those of us who are coming onto the scene now, who hold to the old doctrines and the old convictions and also recognize that we have to explain those things in a new context.
Do you think the partisan alignment of religious groups -- their affiliation with the Republican Party -- has narrowed its appeal?
I think what some people assumed for a long time is that the religious conservatives, the younger generation of us, would become divided out between the Democrat and Republican Parties, and that didn’t happen. And the reason it didn’t happen is not because evangelicals are so attached to the Republican Party, but because the Democratic Party has become so hostile to religious conservatives of every kind. The younger evangelicals I know who voted for Obama in 2008 were very quickly disappointed and disillusioned, because they bought into the rhetoric he was using of, 'Well, let's work together to reduce abortions, we’re not red states and blue states, we’re the United States.' And then we have six years of the most aggressive abortion advocacy of any administration, and the most egregious religious liberty violations from any administration since the American Revolution.
It's also the case, if one looks at the Republican field this year, that there really are no major candidates that are hostile to religious conservatives ideologically or in any other way, in a way that has not been true in the past. Jon Huntsman was pro-same-sex marriage in 2012. Rudy Giuliani supported abortion in 2008. So that's not the case this year, which is one of the reasons I know of religious conservatives supporting just about every candidate in the field -- with the exception of Donald Trump. I don’t know any evangelical who is supporting Donald Trump.
It's early to tell, but do you think issues that are important to people of faith have received more or less attention than in previous elections?
Well, it's so early, it's hard to tell. I just know in my conversations with presidential candidates, most of them really do understand the issues facing the country and what conservative evangelicals care about. I think one of the things I think is different is there's not one candidate this year who is anointed by the media as the evangelical candidate -- which means that the candidates are all speaking to and concerned about evangelical voters, or, almost all. Which I think is a good thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.