“Racial reconciliation is not something that white people do for other people,” proclaimed Russell Moore in March. Moore, a white man from Mississippi, was opening a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, with an eminently tweetable, infinitely complicated call to end racial division within the church.
As membership in the Southern Baptist church stagnates and baptisms decline, and as America’s younger generations are becoming more diverse and less religious, this kind of rhetoric could seem like a straightforward bid for survival. Millennials care deeply about race and racial justice, so the church has to care, too. Moore’s calls for reconciliation seemed heartfelt, though, as did those of many of the pastors and leaders who met at the Southern Baptists’ conference on race. And they are part of a consistent, longstanding effort. Since at least 1995, the church has been publicly repenting for its history of racial discrimination. Arguably, it has made progress; minority participation in Southern Baptist congregations has blossomed. Yet after two decades, the public-policy arm of the church is still focused almost exclusively on conservative social issues, rather than topics like poverty and mass incarceration, which have a significant impact on racial disparities in America. As the demographics of the church change, the Southern Baptists will have to reckon with these issues—or, perhaps, face future decades of division within their churches.
In 2013, Moore was elected the head of the Southern Baptists’ public-policy organization, called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC. He is full of pithy zingers; he’s a Christian leader suited for the social-media age. Moore has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform, sometimes out of keeping with the Republican Party; in July, he wrote that, “As Christians … our response ought to be, first, one of compassion for those penned up in detention centers on the border.” Many the ERLC’s policy priorities have remained the same, though, keeping a focus on conservative social issues, including opposition to pornography, gay marriage, and abortion; support for two-parent families; and a broad interpretation of “religious freedom,” defending vendors who refuse to provide services for gay weddings and businesses that won’t cover employees’ birth control under the Affordable Care Act.