“Losing Our Religion” and the Fracturing of American Evangelicalism

“Losing Our Religion” and the Fracturing of American Evangelicalism

Losing Our Religion is a complicated book, and readers will find much to agree and disagree with, as I did. It offers a fascinating, personal, raw, and at times puzzling look into our recent and ongoing struggles with faith, politics, culture, and loving—or at least co-existing with—our neighbors.

Around twenty years ago as a graduate student, I attended a gathering in Princeton organized to kick off a campaign for a federal marriage amendment. That gathering included a Who’s Who of socially conservative academics, pastors, and activists. I had just settled down in my seat at a table near the back of the conference room when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Princeton University’s Robert P. George, who whispered to me with a sly grin—channeling Jesus in Mark 14—“Friend, come up to the higher table.”

I followed Professor George to a table near the front of the conference room and sat down only to look around and see that on my right was Charles Colson and on my left was James Dobson. I don’t really remember much about the conversation, but for a starstruck young evangelical raised in the ’70s and ’80s by parents who had Dare to Discipline and Born Again on their bookshelves, this was like sitting next to evangelical royalty.

Much has changed in twenty years. Colson passed away in 2012. Dobson is still active in many ways but has understandably slowed down in his 80s, and is perhaps most known in recent years for characterizing Donald Trump as a “baby Christian” in 2016. The evangelicalism that they did so much to define in the last fifty years, following figures like Billy Graham and many others, is embattled, lively, marginalized, shrinking, or unrecognizable, depending on whom you ask.

I begin this book review in such a personal fashion in part because Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America is a very personal book. I also begin this way because if you were to ask me before 2016 who would most likely be the next Charles Colson for politically conscious and devout evangelicals, I would have said Russell Moore.

As I noted, much has changed.

Russell Moore currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the evangelical mainstay magazine Christianity Today, originally founded through the efforts of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. He hails from the Southern Baptist (SBC) stream of evangelicalism, having served in senior posts at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). He is a gifted preacher and an incisive and insightful academic.

At my first tenure-track job working among many SBC friends and colleagues at Union University, we hosted Moore twice, once to mark an anniversary of George’s Making Men Moral, and the other to speak on marriage at a conference honoring Colson after he passed. If you follow those links to the audio and video of those remarks respectively, you’ll better understand how remarkable a speaker and thinker Moore is, and how close the family resemblance is to his elder brother in the evangelical faith, Chuck Colson. While Moore was at the time a big fish in the Southern Baptist pond, he transcended those boundaries, working with Christians in other traditions and crossing over into secular venues as well.

Today, Moore is no longer part of the SBC, and Southern Baptist views on him range from mildly sympathetic to hostile to vitriolic. Losing Our Religion is in part an account of this falling out. It aligns with much of our national narrative of the epistemic and cultural fracturing that may not have started with Trump’s election in 2016, but was certainly exacerbated by it, followed by the summer of George Floyd, and the compounding stress of the Covid-19 pandemic and our governments’ (federal/state/local) medico-political responses. Add to this tumultuous mix the scandalous sexual abuse epidemic rampant in so much of evangelicalism (and elsewhere), and one has the proverbial perfect storm. Moore’s writing here then is something of a memoir and a testimony, in good evangelical fashion, taking us back to the heartfelt and fervent faith of his youth and through what can only be described as a painful and poignant break-up with the religious tradition that nurtured and raised him. Moore only occasionally names names (Jerry Falwell, Jr., for example), and often cites anonymous comments shared with him by his fellow churchgoers. But SBC insiders will recognize the specific scenes and acts—and actors—in the last few years of SBC drama.

There has been something of a cottage industry of publications on the status of evangelicalism. Some are defiant and fiery defenses of what has become the status quo. Others are more sociological or historical accounts that treat evangelicalism not as a spiritually inspired and genuine (if imperfect) movement, but a political, cultural, or even racist and sexist ideology masquerading as religious. And then there are the “ex-vangelical” accounts of many who were raised in evangelical homes, but have come to leave either that version of Christianity or Christianity itself. Fortunately, Moore’s book fits none of these categories.

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