Donald Trump attacks evangelical leader Russell Moore

DDonald Trump stepped up his fight with evangelical leaders in Washington on Monday by attacking the president of the political branch of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of evangelicals and all the good they represent. A heartless villain! Trump tweeted.

The fight between Moore and Trump has been simmering for months, and now it exposes deep fault lines in the evangelical community over the presumptive GOP nominee.

Moore is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s public policy office. He took over the post in 2013 after the long tenure of conservative hardliner Richard Land, and while Moore is committed to traditional conservative social issues like abortion and marriage, he has also pushed to broaden the platform, advocating for immigration reform and racial justice, especially in the face of poverty, police brutality and mass incarceration.

Trump’s direct attack comes three days after Moore penned an op-ed for the New York Time, “A White Church No More,” which directly called out Trump by name for a campaign that “brought to light the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry across the country.” Moore pointed out that the evangelical church in the United States is no longer the “old white Iowa precinct captains” or the “old white television evangelists.”

“The next Billy Graham will probably only speak Spanish or Arabic or Persian or Mandarin,” Moore wrote. “The man on the throne in the sky is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘outsider’ who is probably not at all impressed by the chants of ‘Make America great again’.”

Moore responded to Trump’s attack on Monday by tweeting a passage from the Old Testament, where God’s prophet Elijah stands up to the enemy King Ahab whose people followed false gods. “You forsook the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals,” Elijah says in the Bible, before the God of Israel rained fire to show his power.

Trump supporters rushed to attack Moore on social media for his leadership of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a platform for immigration reform signed by hundreds of influential evangelical leaders that includes a path to citizenship or legal status for those who qualify. Moore is a group leader with the presidents of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, and evangelical relief organizations.

For decades, the golden rule of Republican politics has been that winning over social conservative evangelicals, like Moore, is a necessary strategy for a White House win. Now that group and its leadership are split — half of white evangelicals think Trump would make a good or great president, according to the Pew Research Center. Moore came out early this cycle as a #NeverTrump voter, and he urged evangelicals not to vote for any of the candidates if he is “morally disqualified,” including Trump, for his comments on race.

Some evangelical leaders come to Moore’s defense. “An attack on Russell Moore is an attack on the entire evangelical community,” said Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and leader of the Evangelical Immigration Table. “White evangelicals alone can never and will never get Donald J. Trump elected. Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Mark DeMoss, evangelical public relations officer and former adviser to Mitt Romney, recently resigned from the board of directors of the evangelical University of Liberty over his disagreement with Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Trump.” Insults, insults and scorched-earth demagoguery don’t strike me as the way to build a winning electoral coalition,” DeMoss said. “Russell Moore thoughtfully represents the views and attitudes of millions of people of faith across the country; it is one thing to disagree with him, quite another to despise him.

Tim Blackmon, the chaplain of the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, defended Moore on Twitter: “Reminds me of Pierre Trudeau’s quip: ‘I’ve been called worse things by better people.'”

But the influence of a Trump protest from evangelical leaders like Moore remains to be seen. “I’m not sure of the actual material effect,” says Johnnie Moore (no relation to Russell Moore), board member of the National Association of Evangelicals who is pushing an initiative to bring 25 million evangelicals to ballot boxes in November. “Dr. Moore is much more influential among young evangelicals than among older ones…Young evangelicals, they don’t join the other side; they just protest by not acting.

Evangelical leaders are also far from united politically, and Southern Baptists do not vote as a bloc. Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor from the 12,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, has been very supportive of the presumptive Republican nominee. “Russell Moore has launched many vitriolic attacks not only on Trump’s policies, but also on his own character and integrity,” Jeffress said. “No one should be surprised that Trump responds to such attacks.”

“It’s unprecedented what Russell Moore has done, and I think a lot of people are not supportive of his views on Trump,” he adds. “Although Moore is a respected leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, he absolutely does not speak for all Southern Baptists, although I do not speak for all Southern Baptists. There are no Southern Baptist Popes.

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Barry F. Howard