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Is the Religious Right dead?

That question was the subject of numerous opinion pieces during the 2016 campaign, when many religious conservative leaders cast their lot with a man I have described as personifying most of the seven deadly sins.

In a piece in the January issue of the interreligious journal First Things, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, asks the same question, in a slightly different way: Can the Religious Right be saved?

His conclusion: not in its current form.

That’s not to say Moore doesn’t see a role for Christian conservatives in the public square — far from it. But he says Religious Right leaders have lost much of their moral credibility and thus their influence by becoming just another interest group to be courted for votes when needed then ditched after the election.

Moore’s piece is adapted from the 2016 Erasmus lecture he gave just before the election. That speech got some media attention when it was delivered in October. But it deserves more consideration now, in the wake of President-elect Trump’s stunning victory.

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s and ’80s, Moore said he first experienced a crisis of faith witnessing the overt racism and shameless self-promotion of many Southern Baptist leaders. He also noticed how the Republican Party would hand out voter guides at local churches that left voters with the idea that the Christian position on every issue just happened to also be the position of the Republican National Committee.

“With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position — on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?”

This bred cynicism in Moore, and the sense that for many Christian conservatives, Christianity was just a means to a political end.

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Moore later regained his faith, and is adamant that the country needs a strong religious conservative movement, if for no other reason than to “focus on a vulnerable minority that easily becomes invisible to those with power: unborn children.” But that’s not the only issue that matters, or should matter, to people of strong faith.

Trump brought many of the issues that divide the Republican Party to the surface, including its double standard on the issue of character. Moore doesn’t blame religious conservatives who voted for Trump as the lesser of two evils, so long as they acknowledged that Trump had major problems in the areas of judgment, character and integrity.

But Moore says the lesser-of-two-evils argument was not one many “old-guard religious right’s political activists” made. The reason the religious right is in crisis, he says, is that many religious conservatives “ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character, and, for instance, issues of torture and war crimes, an embrace of an ‘alt-right’ movement of white identity ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with serious matters of sexual degradation towards women.”

This is a point Washington Examiner columnist Noemie Emery has made on several occasions. The Religious Right lambasted feminists for giving Bill Clinton a free pass on his mistreatment of women because he supported abortion. But now many of those same leaders are giving Trump a pass because he has pledged to nominate pro-life judges.

In the Trump era, and according to some of these prominent Christian activists, the idea that objective moral, transcendent standards should be put ahead of practical considerations seems quaint. Moore writes: “The people who warned us to avoid moral relativism now tell us that we should compare our choices not to an objective standard but to the alternative, as if an election transcends moral principle.”

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Evangelicals, whom Moore largely blames for these problems (as opposed to conservative Catholics), need to be more connected to the Gospel and Gospel-centered witness, he writes. This exists in some areas. The pro-life movement, for example, sees itself as tending to the spiritually wounded on a mission field. But it is sorely lacking in others.

Moore says religious conservatives should take up racial and social reconciliation, including criminal justice reform. Meanwhile he urges non-white religious conservatives, who often vote Democratic, to reconsider their opposition to the right to life and religious freedom.

“The religious right can be saved, but not by tinkering around the edges,” Moore writes. Religious conservatives must decide what’s worth conserving. It’ll mean thinking outside the ideological lines a little bit and bringing together coalitions of Republicans and Democrats, depending on the issue.

“It will mean institutions that have the vision, and the financial resources, to play a long game of cultural renewal, rather than allowing themselves to be driven by the populist passions of the moment. More than that, it will mean a religious conservatism that sees the Church as more important than the state, the conscience as more important than the culture, and one that knows the difference between the temporal and the eternal. We will make mistakes. We will need course corrections. We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries, that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.”

There’s so much more in Moore’s essay/speech that’s worth reading and reflecting on. I encourage everyone to read it here.

Daniel Allott is deputy commentary editor for the Washington Examiner

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