Review: Losing Our Religion

Losing Our Religion is an autobiography disguised as an indictment of evangelicalism, and not a very ecumenical one at that. Moore is not interested in convincing the reader. He does not make arguments but rather opts for emotive reflections, flippant diagnostics. It is a self-indulgent project and others of Moore’s sentiment and experience indicate the accuracy of this characterization. 

Russell Moore is not quite an ex-vangelical, at least not yet. He has not lost his faith, he assures us, but he has lost his religion. Put another way, he has not left evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, he thinks, has left him. Given that evangelicalism initiated the divorce, it is she, not Moore, in need of repentance. An altar call, a come to Jesus moment, is overdue.  

Moore’s new book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (LOR) is first and foremost autobiographical. As a species of “nonvert,” Moore’s story is a personal, emotive, experiential, internalized journey with external events providing only the occasion for expression, or post hoc justification, thereof.

The book is nearly always polemical in tone but hardly ever polemical in substance. Moore does not seem all that interested in convincing the reader of anything other than the worthiness of the author’s own cause—his personal credibility apparently meant to bear the load of otherwise rarely corroborated claims and analysis. Rather, Moore offers a cathartic experience for other not-quite-ex-vangelicals who have exited Southern Baptist institutions, or the Convention itself, over the past few years. Victimhood is the currency of choice in Moore’s story, and those who share his story—all one-time Big Eva members—are now positioning themselves as a sort of evangelical ex-pat cadre possessing a unique ability to critique their former country because of the trauma endured there.

At the outset, Moore’s insistence that 1) he hasn’t changed his “theology” (6), but that 2) it is the “religion” of evangelicalism that has morphed into a “cold, lifeless dogma or tribal belonging,” is difficult to accept (19). In 2004, Moore was expending his energies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood warring against the feminization of God, warning of the revolt against natural gender and concomitant gender roles, and cautioning against evangelical accommodation of post-Lawrence v. Texas (2003) cultural norms on marriage and family. In other words, his primary concern was leftward drift in evangelical political sensibilities and ethics.

Fast forward to today and, as editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, Moore is calling for new line drawing in the “gender wars” between egalitarians and complementarians. As Aaron Renn has expertly observed, Moore’s call for a realignment, a reset, of evangelicalism should be read as an expression and application of the late Tim Keller’s strategy to “redraw the boundaries of the movement by eliminating complementarianism and replacing it with anti-fundamentalism.”

Indeed, the last chapter (“Losing Our Stability”) of LOR, in a section labeled, “Embracing New Communities and New Friendships,” features a mea culpa for “Russell Moore, circa 2007” who criticized Beth Moore as a “gateway drug” to feminism. Presumably, the male Moore is referring to his article from the period in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society championing biblical patriarchy. Russell Moore circa 2023 describes the old, masculine Russell as “arrogant” and “mistaken.” (228). It was he, not Lady Moore, that was the real “theological lightweight.” (230). (Last year, he tweeted that, in fact, Beth Moore is a “gateway drug to sanity,” not feminism.) In this way, Moore admits his own shifts away from accepted, standard evangelical convictions, at least on this front. But the gender wars are not what really irked him.

What instigated Moore’s break with evangelicalism (often used by him interchangeably with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC))? What explains his shift, at least in terms of emphasis, on key cultural and theological issues?

Moore tells us up front: “The issues—political fusion with Trumpism, Christian nationalism, white-identity backlash, the dismissing of issues such as abuse as ‘social justice’ secularism, and several others.” In Moore’s telling, these are the “issues” dividing the church and “almost every friendship I know.” (11).

This was when the “altar call”—Moore’s euphemism for the essence of evangelicalism that also signals an unrepentant evangelicalism—the “Come to Jesus” meetings, changed. “I hadn’t changed my theology, or my behavior, at all,” he writes. In Moore’s mind, “pro-life and pro-family” stances were perfectly consistent, even in the present context, with being “pro-racial justice and pro-refugee.” “What I had done, as the president of [the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission], was refuse to endorse Donald Trump.” (6).  

All his troubles began with his never-Trumpism. Moore, a self-professed adherent to the Billy Graham Rule, was simply maintaining a Biblical sexual ethic for politicians. What Moore was punished for, in his telling, is nothing but moral consistency. He is a true evangelical, a victim of reactionary evangelical tribalism.

Paradoxically, the Moore of LOR is something of a reactionary tribalist himself. It is the Christian nationalists who are “secular,” it is the Trumpsters that are cynical, it is the disaffected white middle Americans that are identitarians, and so on. Evangelicalism may be a big tent revival but not big enough for the likes of them. Moore—and all sensible people—has not changed, or at least not changed for the worse. On the contrary, he has broken free from his “Stockholm syndrome level of loyalty to my Southern Baptist identity.” (9).

The last straw was the sexual abuse report published by the Houston Chronicle (7-9). Moore claims he was chastised behind closed doors by Southern Baptist leaders for platforming Rachel Denhollander—he does not name her explicitly, as is his practice throughout the book for both friend and foe. This is anecdotal and lacks any corroboration in the book, as is the alleged resultant campaign of “psychological warfare” against him. And so, Moore’s narrative remains unassailable; the reader must accept the author’s experience and the precipitating facts cannot be debated.

What is clear is that this period of Moore’s life affected him deeply, acting as his religious crucible:

“On the other side of the reverse altar call, I started to question everything… That began a period not just of questioning all my assumptions, but also of simultaneously grieving my lost religious home and my own burdened conscience, recognizing complicity in participating for so long in something that now seemed both inane and predatory. I couldn’t help but wonder if the plot twist to the story of American conservative Christianity was that what we thought was the Shire was Mordor all along. I pretend that all of that is past me, but it lingers, in the ringing in my ears of the stress-induced tinnitus that persists to this day, and that fact that I am still waiting for one sleep without nightmares about the Southern Baptist Convention. But here I am, an accidental exile but an evangelical after all.” (10-11)

Anyway, that’s the formula, the bridge too far: Donald Trump—or rather, mass evangelical electoral support for Donald Trump—coupled with the supposed coverup of sexual abuse in SBC churches. Why could Beth Moore see the light when others—those more aligned with Russell Moore circa 2007 on the egalitarian-complementarian divide—could not? A reassessment was in order lest evangelicalism descend into a morally dubious, hyper-masculine, fundamentalist hellscape. (He calls the post-2016 era an “apocalypse.” (171)) But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

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