Russell Moore: Extending John Leland’s religious liberty legacy for Southern Baptists — and everyone else

Communications Staff — December 11, 2014

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following profile first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine, “Religious Liberty Imperiled.” Included in the issue are essays by R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Erotic liberty v. religious liberty: How the sexual revolution is eclipsing the First Freedom”; Gregory A. Wills, “The colonial ‘spirit of Massachusetts’ stirring anew in America”; David Platt, “Religious liberty and persecution: A global perspective”; J. Scott Bridger, “Islam and religious liberty”; and Greg Cochran, “From bombings to bobblehead income: The diversity of persecution in New Testament perspective.”

WASHINGTON — Separated by more than 200 years of history but in lockstep with the same convictions and commitments, Russell Moore is extending the legacy of American colonial Baptist preacher John Leland as he vigorously defends and seeks to advance religious freedom.

“Without religious liberty there is no other freedom,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “That’s because religious liberty is not simply a political issue or simply a cultural issue. But at its foundation, it is a gospel issue.

“If you really believe that the gospel comes through the new birth, then no state can compel belief and no state can restrict belief,” Moore said, summarizing Leland’s argument. “If we really believe that every person stands before the judgment seat of Christ, then we cannot outsource that accountability to bureaucrats or to tyrants.”

In a September interview with Southern Seminary Magazine in his modest office in Leland House — the ERLC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters named for the Baptist great — Moore reflected on the imperilment of religious freedom, the biblical and historical basis of the first freedom, and how the ERLC is working to defend the freedom of conscience.

The ERLC is the SBC agency charged with educating Southern Baptists about moral and religious liberty issues and advocating to policymakers the SBC’s convictions. Moore was elected ERLC president in 2013 after serving at Southern Seminary since 2004 as School of Theology dean, senior vice president of academic administration, and professor of Christian theology and ethics. Today, he is distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Southern.

The presence of Leland is unmistakable in Leland House, a three-story building on Capitol Hill, just a few blocks from the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings. The colonial preacher is present from artwork depicting his pivotal 1788 encounter with Founding Father James Madison to The Writings of John Leland prominently displayed on Moore’s desk.

But more than the name on the building, office décor, and reading material, the legacy of John Leland continues through the work of Moore — a modern-day champion of religious liberty facing challenges similar to those of his colonial Baptist ancestor.

On the first anniversary of his inauguration as the ERLC’s eighth president, Moore spoke passionately about religious freedom, calling it the ERLC’s “number one priority.” He noted how his doctoral studies at Southern Seminary prepared him to voice concerns for religious liberty on behalf of Southern Baptists by being immersed in the writings of Leland and other Baptist advocates of freedom of conscience.

“Religious freedom is imperiled in America right now, and I think the situation is much worse than what the church knows or recognizes,” he said. “I think we face the greatest challenge to religious liberty now that we have seen since the adoption of the First Amendment.”

In light of that challenge, almost every other issue he addresses has a “religious freedom component,” Moore said, citing as examples: marriage and family, human dignity and the right to life, and helping the poor and vulnerable.

Russell Moore in his office at the Leland House, the ERLC's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Russell Moore in his office at the Leland House, the ERLC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters

Leland as model

“John Leland was significant because he was a fiery gospel preacher who believed the Bible and sought to see people won to Christ, but he didn’t want the government paying for it and he didn’t want the government restricting it,” Moore said.

Leland was a Baptist leader in colonial Orange County, Virginia, when states were considering the United States Constitution. Concerned that the charter failed to explicitly protect religious freedom — among other rights — Leland threatened to oppose James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, in his bid to represent Orange County to the Virginia Constitutional Convention.

In exchange for Leland’s support of his candidacy, Madison promised to offer what became the First Amendment during the inaugural session of Congress, to which Madison was later elected. Madison fulfilled his promise, and the amendment was adopted as part of the Bill of Rights.

The Leland-Madison Memorial Park today is located in Orange County near the place of the historic “interview” in 1788 in which the agreement was secured, memorializing just one of Leland’s most noteworthy actions advancing religious freedom.

“Leland never acted simply as a union rep for Baptists. He was advocating for religious liberty across the board for everybody,” Moore said.

Such was Leland’s universal commitment to religious liberty, Moore noted, that he insisted it applied to “Turks” — as Muslims were known — even though there were virtually none in colonial America.

“We have to start getting in the mindset right now that we are not the people in this country who are dispensing out favors of conscience and religious liberty. Religious liberty is not a favor; it’s a right given by God. It’s not dispensed by the state, and it’s not dispensed by whoever happens to have the most people in their church pews.”

While Leland was willing to “make alliances” for the common good, he was “never willing to turn the church into a political action committee,” Moore said.

As he advocates for religious freedom in modern American society, Moore often cites Leland in debates with Obama administration officials about its abortion/contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Although making common cause with others for the sake of good public policy is important, Moore said Leland is also a model to believers today because he never “spiritualized those alliances.”

“I think that there’s been a tendency in evangelical life in the 20th century to ask who our allies are and then to baptize them as spiritual heroes,” even when their theological beliefs are unbiblical, he said.

The challenges to religious freedom faced by American evangelicals today are similar to those of Leland and his contemporaries, Moore said, but they may be more like those faced by Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon. Both the Hebrew patriarch and prophet lived in pagan societies and worked closely for their rulers over long periods of time before persecution began.

“I think we’re somewhere between Daniel advising the king and the fiery furnace,” Moore said. “I don’t think we have the historical perspective yet to know exactly where we are in that timeline.”

But for Christians and other religious minorities around the world, the state of religious freedom is “dire,” he said.

“Global persecution and marginalization of Christians and religious minorities all over the world is such an enormous reality,” he said, noting that it has received more attention, both by government officials and believers, especially in the wake of the atrocities of the so-called Islamic State.

“The church is starting to recognize what’s happening around the world, prompting more Christians in America to do what the book of Hebrews tells us to do: to pray for our brothers and sisters in chains around the world,” Moore said.

Jail time duty

Moore said he has “two seemingly contradictory jobs” as ERLC president: keeping Baptists out of jail and preparing them to go to jail. “There’s one thing worse than believers going to jail and that’s believers staying out of jail because they’ve negotiated away the gospel,” he said.

As important as the public policy battles are, Moore said the greater urgency is educating Christians today to “live as the people of Christ in a culture that doesn’t understand them. … We have to be prepared to bear witness and to give testimony to Christ in a world where we seem strange. My primary burden is that we embrace the strangeness. I want us to be strange but not crazy.”

The job of the ERLC staff, Moore said, is to be the “Paul Reveres of religious freedom, which means not only educating Southern Baptists about threats that are happening right now, but preparing them for threats that don’t yet exist. And that means helping churches to shape consciences to understand why religious liberty matters.”

Moore is concerned that most Southern Baptists fail to appreciate the seriousness of the threat to religious liberty in America. While many pastors may fear being required to perform a gay marriage, Moore said the more likely current threats come in a “whole host of other issues” like school accreditation, charitable organizations, and workplace discrimination.

Meanwhile, many Christians have a “very superficial understanding of what it will take to turn it around,” believing elections are the primary fix, Moore said. “But there’s a much bigger cultural and political tide that’s happening right now that I don’t think most Christians see.”

While the New Testament clearly teaches Christians should expect to be persecuted, Moore said American believers need to understand their silence may collaborate in persecution.

“The sword of Caesar is given in our system of government ultimately to the people as a whole,” he said. “So if we’re not advocating for religious liberty, it’s not simply that we’re willing to be persecuted, we’re turning the sword of persecution on other people.”

Further, American evangelicals should be careful not to equate mere opposition to the Christian message with persecution, Moore said.

“Hostility often carries itself over into persecution, but we can trivialize persecution with theatrical outrage that tends to burn over the ground. And I think that’s one of the big problems we have right now with religious liberty.”

Second draft of dissertation

In 2002, Moore wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Southern Seminary on the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the social witness of the church. “In some ways, I think my life right now is a second draft of my dissertation,” he said.

“Seeking first of the Kingdom of God doesn’t mean withdrawal and isolation,” he said. “It means seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and his justice. Those two things are held together.”

Moore said his time at Southern Seminary as a student, faculty member, and senior administrator is “significant and important to me,” especially his early Baptist studies under historian Tom Nettles. “I wouldn’t be able to do this job if it hadn’t been for that.”

Known at the seminary and beyond for his love of country music legend Johnny Cash, Moore was asked how one of Cash’s late-in-life songs, “The Man Comes Around,” may inform a Christian understanding of religious liberty.

The title track of a 2002 album, released a year before Cash’s death, “is a lyrical representation of the Book of Revelation in which God is saying to every human authority, ‘You do not have the final authority,’” Moore said.

“I think that song is a word of hope for those in Christ — that there’s a greater Kingdom on the cusp of history. And it’s also a word of warning to those who would seek to hold it back.”

James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor and chief spokesman for Southern Seminary. He served as the first ERLC Washington, D.C., staffer in Leland House, 1989-1995. Photography by Emil Handke.

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