Discover more from The Globoscope (Carl Raschke)
Russell Moore's "Losing Our Religion" gets it half right
But there's much more to what Moore thinks is the crisis of contemporary Christianity
Besides Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change, the other hotly discussed book I’ve been reading this summer is Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America.
Just as Regime Change would probably have not received all the scrutiny it has acquired were it not for Barack Obama’s famous endorsement of Deneen’s earlier book, so Moore’s offering would not have made waves had he not resigned in 2021 from his position as president of the policy arm Southern Baptist convention largely over its conservative politics and support of Trump.
Both books ironically have captured outsize public attention not because they have anything new and earthshaking to say (they don’t), but because each feeds unfortunately into at least one of the respective hyperpartisan political narratives that have brought America currently to the brink.
We’ll let Deneen go for now, as I’ve already analyzed extensively his work. Moore has made himself the center of attention ever since told a PBS interviewer in 2021 that Christianity is in “crisis” today, and that is where I think he is really on to something, but not necessarily for the reasons he enunciates.
Moore told PBS that the crisis is “the result of having multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — ‘turn the other cheek’ — [and] to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’”
In his book Moore tries very hard to avoid saying anything resembling “liberal talking points”, that is, those associated with the sort of liberal Protestant theology the famous American theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr once described as having “a God without wrath [that] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Moore talks about importance of the cross repeatedly and even swears by the age-old, bedrock Christian confession that we are saved by the “blood of Jesus”. However, he makes it crystal-clear that he is disgusted with what he terms, perhaps in an overdetermined manner, the “blood-and-soil mythology” of what he claims are the “racists” and “Christian nationalist” predilections feeding into the unstinting pro-Trump mania of so many Southern Baptists.
Yet neither has Moore clearly flipped over like so many “deconstructed”, callow, ex-evangelicals into mouthing contemporary left-wing political bromides as if the hustle of conflating the Republican party platform with “true Christianity” could be somehow be countermanded by reciting the familiar Democratic Party talking points.
Moore, it seems, wants to rid Christianity in general – and evangelical Christianity in particular – of all its past and present ethno-nationalist and clerical authoritarian affiliations while retaining somehow the “old time religion” that was good enough for Grandma and himself while he was growing up.
Moore tries to separate this good “old time religion” from the bad “Southern honor culture” with which it all along had been supposedly laced up. That is why, as the subtitle of his book implies, he is summoned once again to make an “altar call” to cleanse his venerable, but dated Southern Baptist piety of all its embarrassing folk-cultural superfluities and its prideful pockets of political toxicity. He writes:
And that’s why, if you happen to be at my funeral whenever in the future it happens, you’ll notice that what the people gathered there are singing is the same invitation hymn I heard so many years ago—“Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou biddest me come to Thee—O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” And when you hear it, you can know that I would walk that aisle all over again.
But what appears more important for Moore than the overt (populist) politicization of his faith is its lack of “civility” that seems to be really gnawing at his conscience. The bitter fruit of such politicization is that “civility…is surrender” and that what distinguishes Christian authenticity is the “willingness to brawl and to transgress norms”.
Political memory is short and rarely carries over from one generation to another. But a truism shared by most academic historians of American Christianity is that “brawling” and political pugnacity has been a brand label of certain Protestant religious activists ever since Carrie Nation around the turn of the century went around smashing up taverns with her hatchet. Contemporaries described Nation as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like".
In the 1960s many denominations such as the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA made alliances with the radical activist and community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in the prologue to his 1971 book Rules for Radicals reminded his acolytes that “we are talking about revolution, not revelation”.
Everything the religious right knows today they learned from the religious left of the Vietnam era. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were heavily influenced in their early thinking by Alinsky. “Civility” was not in their vocabulary in those days early days either.
What the evangelical revival in America during the 1970s and 1980s did accomplish was to save mainline American Christianity, at least for a time, from extinction because of its obsession with progressive politics.
The so-called “fundamentalists”, who as late as 1975 remained diligently apolitical, began to amass a following among disaffected and disaffiliated middle class youth by exchanging electric guitars for pipe organs and taking the simple message “Jesus loves you” to the beaches and the beer gardens, as the recent movie The Jesus Revolution dramatizes.
According to 1993 Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert William Fogel, the Jesus movement was one major harbinger of a Fourth Great Awakening that shattered both the class and denominational hierarchies of American Christianity and, like the previous three “awakenings”, rode in on a tide of religious enthusiasm and an ethos of egalitarianism.
The “Fourth Great Awakening”, an assumption that remains nevertheless controversial among historians, supposedly over several decades was also responsible for the eventual realignment of American party politics with the educated, urban elites who had dominated the mainstream churches up through the 1970s switching to the Democrats and the working class with its erstwhile attracting to fundamentalist Christian defecting to the Republicans.
As much of the data shows, the Southern Baptists in America were the principal beneficiaries of the Fourth Great Awakening. Writers like Moore routinely lament it is their churches have changed, but the historical evidence suggests the opposite is the case. Moore’s reported youthful “dread deep within me that Christianity might just be southern culture of politics, with Jesus affixed as a hood ornament” is not exactly an eschatological disclosure, but rather a staple of sociological analysis for generations.
What has happened is that since the 1990s younger evangelicals, and cadres of the evangelical leadership, have been exposed effectively for the first time to well-honed academic critiques of dogmatic evangelical theology that have been both relentless and withering since the late nineteenth century.
Michael L. Brown, an evangelical talk show host and advocate for messianic Judaism who famously has held an ambivalent view of Donald Trump’s presidency, in a book with the similar title of Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith, accounts for the rapid demise of religious commitment in America as follows.
…kids who are middle school age and younger are getting exposed to college-level objections, objections most of them are not ready to process in an emotionally mature and intellectually sophisticated manner. So at an impressionable age they’re getting hit with anti-God memes and anti-Bible themes, all of which sow seeds of doubt and skepticism into their hearts.
And social media, of course, has a lot to do with the ubiquity of the “memes” and “themes” bombarding impressionable youth in a way that was impossible when their parents and grandparents were growing up.
If one bothers to go back and peruse the scholarly literature of the Sixties and early Seventies, the same kind of hypersecularization that conservative pundits bemoan had advanced at that time almost as far as it has today.
What suddenly reversed the trend, and postponed it for a half century, was the psychological trauma for young Baby Boomers of the Vietnam debacle, opening the flood gates for proliferating drug use and promiscuous sex, which in turn generated widespread social and family breakdown culminating in that generation’s own collective “come to Jesus” moment.
In many ways we have simply swung full circle and are back to the year 1966 when Time magazine itself on its cover posed the question in a rather blasé manner “is God dead?” The extreme politicization of Christianity has always been a symptom, not a cause, of the secularization juggernaut that has made it inevitable that we would “lose our religion”.
Living happily, however, in what Sixties pop theologian Harvey Cox called “the secular city” has never been a serious Christian option.
If the old-fashioned, Mayberry-style, folksy, family-focused evangelical church life Moore fondly remembers from his childhood has never been a option for serious Christians, neither is the smarmy idolatry of the überhip, politically progressive, social-justice minded ex-evangelical who simply reproduces the same cultural type that took the ship of mainline Protestantism down with it a half century earlier.
Neither the “old-time religion” of previous “great awakenings” nor the newfangled, understated narcissism of our latter day “Great Awokening” among x-vangelicals is going to save us from ourselves. When it comes to religion there is more of a “generation gap” than there ever was when the word was coined by Look magazine editor John Poppy in the 1960s.
What’s the response? The American community church has muddled along for decades with a “business model” emphasizing inspirational Sunday services embellished with captivating stage performances by worship bands, charismatic preacher-orators, along with as much “Biblical” content as to convey evangelical authority without driving its audience into the weeds of Scriptural conundra and sectarian squabbles that characterized the real “old-time religion” that was social class-infested Christian denominationalism.
The model was the genius behind the Fourth Great Awakening. But like shopping malls and CD-players its time has come and gone. It’s not working any more for young people.
Statistics show that mental health and suicide rates among adolescents and young adults is the highest it has ever been. Various studies also indicate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the impact of widespread social media use or the lingering effects of Covid lockdowns are relatively inconsequential.
What federal government research has started to uncover is that the main culprit appears to be a loss of connection with others. As the New York Times reported last year,
Teenagers as a group are also getting less sleep and exercise and spending less in-person time with friends — all crucial for healthy development — at a period in life when it is typical to test boundaries and explore one’s identity. The combined result for some adolescents is a kind of cognitive implosion: anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, self-harm and even suicide.
As I have emphasized in many of my writings over the years, both the “revolutionary” and “revelational” dimensions of Christianity are to be found in its “radical relationality”. Jesus often did put on a show for the crowds, but the heartbeat of his ministry was going out of his way to touch the lonely and lost, to expend all resources to find and bring back into the fold “the one lost sheep”.
And the truth of the Resurrection he manifested to his followers was not by staging a political rally but by appearing precipitously and mysteriously to those who had loved him profoundly and were grieving the loss of him.
Today’s “lost sheep” need that deep and lasting connection that can only be secured through a kind of “supernatural” revivification of all our basic human relationships in such a manner that our God is truly Emmanuel, “God with us”. If the core of Christian doctrine is what we call divine “incarnation,” then we need to make sure this incarnational reality does not escape our gaze in any given human relationship, no matter how conflicted or confused it may be.
Jesus did not command us to love not just our neighbor, but even our enemies, out of some extreme moral scrupulosity, but to make us realize there is as much of the divine “image” in them as there is in him, as well as in each of us. That is the real “revelation” of Christian Scripture, and it is what we mean by radical relationality.
At the conclusion of Losing Our Religion Moore opines: “as long as there’s a church, there will be people within reminding everyone else that the Spirit blows where he wills, and that there’s hope, no matter how far gone a person goes, to be born again.”
But to be “born again” in the twenty-first century also means something radically different than what it has meant up until now. It means the advent of a genuine and powerful “apocalyptic” (in the Greek sense of apocalypsis, or “unveiling”) insight that the Spirit of the living God of history is tearing down all the walls that divide us and opening up a staggering new space of discernment of the resurrected Christ who in the most intimate way is with us, for us, and shining in the face of the other who stands before us.
That’s not old time religion. That’s the “Behold, I make all things new” pronounced by God at the close of the Revelation of John, the last book of the Bible. And it’s time for the Spirit to force us in that direction.