Losing Our Religion would be more persuasive if—instead of affecting to be a simple piece of pastoral counseling—it straightforwardly acknowledged its own agenda. Moore has an argument to make, and he wants to advance his project and defeat his opponents. But his book frames the gospel as some pure, otherworldly abstraction that has little to do with power or politics.
Southerners have a way of burying their actual thoughts under a welter of pleasantries. So it is perhaps worth asking what lies beneath this apparently straightforward morality tale by Russell Moore, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. As Moore presents it, Losing Our Religion is a guidebook for Christians in troubled times. Drawing on his own disillusioning experience, Moore encourages his readers to put the gospel before the false pursuit of credibility, authority, identity, integrity, and stability. “This book will consider all the ways evangelical America has sought these things in the wrong way,” he writes. “Along the way, I will suggest little choices you can make, not just to survive this dispiriting time, but in order to envision a different future.” The chapters are structured with self-help-style subheadings such as “Prioritize Long-Term Integrity Over Short-Term Success” or “Pay Attention to Means, Not Just to Ends.”
There is much truth in what Moore says. I, too, worry about our overly partisan society and the loss of a vibrant center. I, too, see Christians becoming consumed with the burning issues of the day and losing sight of God’s grace and providence. I share Moore’s dismay at Pentecostal preachers and certain Christian leaders who misrepresent the faith or use it in a cynical fashion. But the book also contains a rather sharp-edged polemic. Moore castigates “culture warriors”; he contrasts Christians who follow the gospel with those who would tie the church “to forms of power.” And he portrays the evangelical church as under assault from all directions by wolves and “hucksters.”
The book therefore sits easily alongside the genre of anti–Christian nationalist, exvangelical memoir, which has arisen in the last couple of years (though Moore himself does not claim such a label). There are clearly many readers who wish to see the sins of evangelicals repeated over and over again. Whatever else these books do, they make Democrats feel better about their disdain for conservative Christians. Or, to put it more generously, they meet the need of liberals for interpreters of the scary world that exists outside of the coasts and major urban areas.
Moore presents himself as a prophetic outsider, but there is a paradox here. Anybody who remembers the evangelical politics of the pre-Trump era will recall that Moore was at the pinnacle of the movement. For many years he held a very influential position within the Southern Baptist Convention, as leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore wants his audience to denounce and reject the culture and group that he for so many years reigned over and shaped. We are not to think of Moore as the political Christian he has been the past couple of decades. We are not to think of Moore as an operator. No, those epithets are for all those Christian nationalists, theobros, cynical Baptist churchmen, pagans, Trumpists, fake Christians, and everyone else who would array themselves against Moore and the true Christians whom he claims to represent.
But Moore is inescapably political, not least because of the context that has shaped his career. Though I am not a Southern Baptist, nor a native Southerner, I currently live in the Baptist kingdom of the Southern United States. To those outside this world, the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention are hard to comprehend. Baptists need to air their grievances because corralling majority support on questions of doctrine and policy is necessary to the functioning of their church. This imperative, combined with a Southern penchant for high drama, gives Southern Baptist culture an energy that can appear distasteful and brutal to church denominations that keep their disagreements more private. Thus Southern Baptist ministers become very effective politicians. Moore rose to prominence in this world largely because of his political skill and his calm, confident style.
Given this background, Losing Our Religion would be more persuasive if—instead of affecting to be a simple piece of pastoral counseling—it straightforwardly acknowledged its own agenda. Moore has an argument to make, and he wants to advance his project and defeat his opponents. But his book frames the gospel as some pure, otherworldly abstraction that has little to do with power or politics. Moore calls on Christians to lose respectability and authority; this may seem a little strange from the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and a former fellow of the prestigious Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
The leitmotif of the book is one of conversion: the altar call. Moore tells us evangelicals are in need of one. At root, the problem is that those who claim to believe the gospel actually don’t. “We see now young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe in what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.” Those who leave the church, in Moore’s view, do so because the church itself “would disapprove of Jesus” if he were among them. Many evangelicals are more concerned about the culture and power than about the gospel; they shout down faithful preachers and leaders. Their own leaders are “narcissists and psychopaths and Machiavellian power seekers,” to be contrasted with the real Christians, who exhibit “winsomeness,” “persuasion,” and “gentleness.”
This would all be more plausible were Moore not so one-sided in his treatment of his opponents. At one point, he holds up for our disapproval a supposed “fundamentalist Calvinist,” who appears to be the theology professor James Wood. In 2022 Wood, of course, wrote a thoughtful article for First Things praising Tim Keller, while also gently criticizing the limitations of Keller’s ministry, its “winsomeness” and emphasis on “public witness.” In Wood’s words: “‘Public witness’ most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” Moreover, Wood wrote, “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem.”