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The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest non-Catholic denomination, with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide.
The new president of its Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — the division tasked with addressing moral and religious freedom issues — is Russell Moore, a theologian from Louisville, Kentucky.
The Southern Baptist Convention has been criticized for its strictly conservative views.
The church lobbies government to push for its views on issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration and birth control.
On his comment that the “Bible Belt is collapsing”
“We can no longer assume that we live in some nominally Christian culture,” Moore told Here & Now. “Christianity is becoming more and more counter-cultural — which I think is good news for the church. It’s bad news in some ways for American culture, because the Bible Belt held some bad things back in some ways. But it’s very good for a church to live up to what the Bible has called us to be all along, which is a counter-cultural reality that points to the kingdom of God — not just to societal values around us.”
On misconceptions about Southern Baptists
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Southern Baptists in this country is the idea that we are primarily against whatever is happening outside in American culture,” he said. “Our primary objective is to speak with love and with compassion to those around out, recognizing that no one is any different than we are.”
On the definition of marriage
“We cannot assume that we hold to a particular vision of marriage because most people have voted that view of marriage into reality,” Moore said. “Instead we are saying that marriage isn’t defined by public vote, much less by the Supreme Court or the United States Congress. We’re saying that marriage isn’t something that the state defines at all. It’s something that exists and the state recognizes.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, Congress returns to Washington in a couple weeks, and a potential immigration overhaul will be one of the first orders of business. We've been hearing from a variety of voices on this issue, and today we're going to hear from one of the largest religious organizations in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention. It's the biggest non-Catholic Christian denomination in this country, 15.8 million members in over 46,000 congregations nationwide.
And Southern Baptists have never shied away from complex social issues. We're going to speak now with the convention's newly installed ethicist about immigration reform and much more. His name is Russell Moore. He is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he's with us from Nashville. Russell Moore, welcome.
RUSSELL MOORE: Good to be with you.
HOBSON: Well, I want to start with something you said in the Wall Street Journal. You said the Bible Belt is collapsing. What did you mean by that?
MOORE: Well, what I meant by that is that we can no longer assume that we live in some sort of nominally Christian culture. There was a day in which being a member of a church, part of some religious movement was actually culturally helpful to people, at least in some parts of the country. And I think that that is collapsing all around us, where Christianity is becoming more and more counter-cultural, which I think is good news for the church.
It's bad news in some ways for American culture because the Bible Belt held some bad things back in some ways. But it's very good for a church to live up to what the Bible has called us to be all along, which is a counter-cultural reality that points to the kingdom of God, not just to societal values around us.
HOBSON: When you say the Bible Belt held some bad things back, what are you talking about?
MOORE: Well, just the sense of family stability, the sense of encouraging some good, moral standards in some ways. Now increasingly that's up for debate even at the most basic level.
HOBSON: Well so you've still got 15.8 million members in more than 46,000 churches nationwide. Are you having trouble attracting new members of the church?
MOORE: No, we're not having trouble attracting new members of the churches, but what we are doing is no longer living with the illusion that the rest of American culture agrees with us at the most basic level. If you think about previous ways that religious people have engaged American culture, sometimes there was this sense of we're part of the moral majority, most Americans agree with us, and we're just taking what most Americans already agree with and adding the gospel and adding Jesus to that. I don't think that was ever really the case in American culture, but it certainly is not the case now.
HOBSON: So if you are no longer the moral majority, do you have to change your positions or just the way that you approach them?
MOORE: No, I don't think we change our positions because our positions, at least at the basic theological level, are positions that we can't change because we're not in charge of them. We believe that we received these things from Jesus and his apostles, and so we don't have the authority to change them.
What we do, though, is to recognize that we have to speak prophetically to the outside culture and also to ourselves within our congregations to say what are the ways that the ambient culture around us is changing us. So for instance as we talk about marriage, we have to recognize that many of our own congregations have capitulated to a divorce culture and to say how have we, how have we changed when it comes to the issue of divorce, not that there's any congregation that would say that divorce is a good thing, but we have congregations that increasingly have seen divorce as something normal and something to be expected though lamentable. That's not the picture that we see in the Old and New Testaments, and so we have to be asking ourselves how have we been shaped.
The way the New Testament puts it is to say having our minds conformed to the pattern of this age. I think that takes a great deal more discernment, and it also takes a great deal more conversation with our neighbors about things at the very basic level.
HOBSON: Well, what about an issue like gay marriage? A lot of people would look and say you're losing that battle, there's just state after state that is making gay marriage legal. Is the church going to accept that, or are you going to continue to fight that?
MOORE: Well, I think what it means is that we cannot assume that we hold to a particular vision of marriage because most people have voted that view of marriage into reality. Instead we are saying that marriage isn't defined by public vote, much less by the Supreme Court or the United States Congress. We're saying that marriage isn't something that the state defines at all. It's something that exists and that the state recognizes.
So we're talking with our neighbors about why we believe that marriage is a conjugal, permanent union between a man and a woman not because we hate our gay and lesbian neighbors but because we believe there's something unique about marriage and something that is for the good of all society to define marriage in the way that every human civilization always has because ultimate as an Evangelical Christian, I believe because at the root of marriage there's a gospel, Christ and church in union with one another.
And so we don't have the authority to alter that or to change that.
HOBSON: So you're not trying to alter policy.
MOORE: We are seeking to alter policy in some instances because we're saying the state has a reason to recognize marriage in the way that it always has. We all recognize that the state doesn't recognize everything. The state doesn't have any business involved in friendships or other relationships. There's a particular reason why the state is interested in deciding who is married to whom, and that's because, ideally in a marriage union, children are a byproduct of that union, and the state has an interest in seeking the stability and welfare of children.
So we do seek to speak to that and to say changing the definition of marriage isn't going to achieve what our friends on the other side think it will achieve, and we think it will actually do some harmful things to society at large. So we do speak to that, yes.
HOBSON: When you say our friends on the other side, who are you talking about?
MOORE: I'm talking about those who would say let's alter the definition of marriage.
HOBSON: What about an issue like immigration reform? You've been out front on this. You've been meeting with Hispanic Baptist pastors. How do you plan to take on that issue?
MOORE: Well, we've been for the last several years calling on our people to pray for the immigration system. We've been working with those in government to say we're concerned about this. And we're concerned with this not primarily at the political level but because we look around and see immigration not as an abstract issue but as a broken system that's hurting a lot of our brothers and sisters in Christ and a lot of our neighbors in our communities.
And so we're calling on our leaders to come up with a way to fix this.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. We're going to hear more from him after a break. Meanwhile, we'd love to know what you think. Is the Bible Belt collapsing, as he says? Go to hereandnow.org or Facebook.com/hereandnowradio.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Right, some other stories that we're following today, Bradley Manning learned his fate. A military judge sentenced him to 35 years for handing over classified documents to WikiLeaks. Also depending on who you ask in Israel, new politician Ruth Calderon is seen as a symbol of a new Jewish renaissance or a threat to the Jewish state. They're going to take that up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute with more of Jeremy's conversation with one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation with Russell Moore. He is the newly installed president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The group has been trying to change the tone of the debate around some complicated social issues. And Mr. Moore, before the break we were talking about immigration. What are fellow Baptists telling you about immigration reform?
MOORE: What I'm struck by is there really is a lot of consensus in this country. I don't meet very many people who would say the immigration system works just fine just the way it is. Most people recognize we have a broken system, something's not working, the law isn't being enforced, and so what do we do?
Well, I really don't meet very many people who think we ought to deport 11 or 12 million people in this country, break up families. Frankly, to do that would take a government so big it would be nearly a police state and would have very bad economic consequences as well as, I would argue, moral and family consequences.
So what do we do then with those 11 to 12 million people who are in this country right now and who are in the shadows, who are invisible? How do we come up with a system that's just, that maintains the rule of law, but is also compassionate to those who are already here? And I think we can do that.
HOBSON: Do you think that the Senate bill does that?
MOORE: I'm not taking a position on any specific piece of legislation. What we're talking about are principles. We want a secure border, and we want a path toward citizenship for those who are already in this country who can earn that, who are law-abiding citizens who are willing to go through the process of making things right in terms of the way that they have broken the law in the past.
The specifics of that, though, I think there are many different ways that the Congress could get to that same point.
HOBSON: What about Obamacare? This is going to be another big issue on your docket. How are you going to take on that issue?
MOORE: Well, the piece of Obamacare that is of concern to us has to do with questions of religious liberty. And so we've been working with others of similar concern about, for instance, the HHS mandate. The Catholic bishops and we joined forces together with a coalition of people, very, very broad and diverse group of religious people that extends everywhere from the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholics all the way over to the Hare Krishnas.
And we don't even - we don't agree on theological questions, and we don't even all agree on contraception and abortion. What we do agree on is the fact that the government shouldn't pave over the consciences of people who object to this mandate, and we think that religious liberty is of vital importance in this country and of vital importance to everybody, not just to religious people but to have a government that recognizes that our consciences are answerable to something more than just the government is a good thing for civil society.
So we're continuing to ask the administration to relent on this mandate, and if not we're asking the Congress to find a legislative fix to it.
HOBSON: But I would think that the Southern Baptist Convention would be more concerned with getting people insured and making sure that the poor have health insurance than worried about the mandate.
MOORE: We are concerned about people getting insured, and we are concerned about the poor having insurance. I think that's one thing that most Americans are concerned about regardless of whether or not they think Obamacare is the way to do it. But we don't think that you sacrifice the First Amendment and religious liberty in order to achieve any legislative goal.
HOBSON: So when I hear you say all of these things, it sounds like a very different tack than the one that, for example, the new Catholic pope is taking, which is to stay away from some of these red meat issues and focus more on the poor around the world and things that are not quite as divisive in society.
MOORE: Well, I don't think that - I don't think, first of all, that that's exactly what the pope is doing. I'm not sure exactly what the pope is doing. The pope is answering the questions that he is given. And we're concerned about the full range of issues, from poverty and trafficking and orphan care all the way over to concern for our unborn neighbors with abortion, to maintaining family stability, including the definition of marriage.
We don't think that you choose between those issues. You address all of the issues that are in front of you.
HOBSON: Where do you see the Southern Baptist Convention's future coming from? Is it going to be Hispanics? Is it going to be people in all parts of the country? What do you think?
MOORE: Well, we already have congregations in all 50 states, and the fastest growing segments of our denomination are among Latino-Americans and African-Americans. And so I think you're going to see a Southern Baptist Convention that over the next 25, 30 years looks increasingly more like global Christianity.
I've often said that if we don't have in the year 2035 Southern Baptist Convention addresses being delivered in Spanish with English subtitles underneath them, then we're not going to be ready for the 21st century. But I think we will. I think that's where, I think that's where our movement is headed.
HOBSON: What about millennials? Are you having trouble attracting them?
MOORE: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, we have six seminaries that are filled to more than capacity with young people who are being called to ministry. We have church plants filled with young millennial Christians all over this country, in urban and in rural and in suburban areas that are thriving and doing very well.
And what we found is that millennials are looking for authentic Christianity with an authentic gospel that demands much of the person, that demands a sacrifice of self in order to follow Christ. So we found that millennials are looking for old-time religion that's even older than the religion of their parents and grandparents, which so often was accommodated to American culture.
HOBSON: What's your biggest challenge, do you think, in this job?
MOORE: Well, I think the biggest challenge that we have is living in a very polarized American culture and speaking with love and with compassion, recognizing that we don't hate one another, and our enemies aren't one another, but also speaking convictionally and speaking truthfully. That's something that's very rare and very difficult in an American culture that is surrounded by people on talk radio screaming at one another.
HOBSON: Finally, President Moore, what do you think is the biggest misconception about Southern Baptists in this country?
MOORE: Well, I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Southern Baptists in this country is the idea that we are primarily against whatever is happening outside in American culture. Those are the questions we're typically asked about. But Southern Baptists are primarily motivated by the gospel, by the understanding that we're all sinners, we're all cut off from the life of God, left to ourselves.
And so our primary objective is to speak with love and with compassion to those around us, recognizing that no one is any different than we are, we don't have anything that we didn't receive, and seeking to persuade people to embrace the life that is offered in Jesus Christ.
HOBSON: Russell Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. President Moore, thanks so much for joining us.
MOORE: Good to be with you.
YOUNG: And Jeremy, I have to say, we're getting a lot of comments on hereandnow.org, people asking about some of the things they just heard but also why are you featuring someone who represents a church. And you know, this is a church that wields a lot of power in different ways, and that's one reason why. So we want to hear from people, their different thoughts about this.
HOBSON: Absolutely, let us know at hereandnow.org. And just to that point, I would say we want to make sure we're hearing from all different points of view on this program. I think that's important. The latest news is coming up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.