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Moore for Your Money

Eytan Kobre

Rights under assault

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

F ormer chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore is now the Republican nominee for US senator from that state. He secured the nomination as the unofficial candidate of the state’s large evangelical community, and in particular of its Southern Baptist cohort. Baptists are the most right-wing mainstream religious group, with 60 percent of them calling themselves conservatives, and Alabama has a higher percentage of Baptists than every state except Tennessee, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

Moore is a high-visibility combatant in America’s culture wars, founding and leading something called the Foundation for Moral Law, which promotes the defense of Christian values. In the past, he has insisted that he did not take a “regular salary” from the group in order not to be a financial burden to it. But according to recent news reports, there may be less to Moore than meets the eye.

These reports allege that the group’s internal documents show he received an annual salary of $180,000 for part-time work, collecting a total of more than $1 million during his time as the group’s president. Perhaps Moore spoke the truth after all — a hundred-eighty grand is definitely not a “regular salary,” and certainly not for the dupes down in Alabama who supported his charity with donations from their meager incomes.

During his judicial tenure, Moore achieved notoriety by being removed twice from the bench. In one instance, the reason was his refusal to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed on state property. It’s said that the Alabama Supreme Court building’s floor still bears scratches from the monument’s removal, but if these latest reports are true, there apparently are significant scratches on the judge’s soul, too. This calls to mind the story told of an American industrialist who announced his intention to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he planned to ascend Mount Sinai with a flourish in order to reenact the giving of the Ten Commandments. When Mark Twain heard of the fellow’s plans, his reaction was, “Why doesn’t he just stay home and keep ’em?”

Twain’s remark, l’havdil, echoes Chazal’s description of the rasha as one who talks a lot but in actuality does very little. The perhaps-future Alabama senator, however, doesn’t seem to understand the concept that less might actually be Moore.

Given the importance of protecting the rights of religious citizens from a secularist onslaught, our community needs to make common cause with other American faith communities to insist on our constitutional right to freedom of religion. The defense of that right becomes even more crucial when other fundamental freedoms in the same First Amendment that guarantees the right to worship freely — those of speech and press — have, incredibly, come under sustained assault by the nation’s leader who is sworn to uphold them, with nary a peep of protest from his own party. (Perhaps those who regularly attack leftists for shouting down conservative speakers on campus — a critique with which I wholeheartedly concur — have a few words to spare to gently chastise the chief executive for threatening news organizations?)

But we also need to be selective and wise about whom we choose as partners in that battle. We lose much more than we gain when allow ourselves to be linked in the public’s perception with people and groups that are religious hypocrites, aggressively antagonizing others while betraying their own loudly broadcast but factually abandoned religious values.

If we’re looking for a better Moore with whom to associate, we can do no better than Russell Moore, who, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), is an influential young leader in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He opposed both candidates in the 2016 election, because he decided to simply be faithful to his movement’s own Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials, passed in 1998 during another scandal-ridden presidency.

That statement declared that “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture and spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society.” It also called upon “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”

That highly admirable view may be the stated position of America’s largest evangelical group, but it is, sadly, no longer what many of its members believe. Back in 2011 and then again just before the 2016 election, PRRI, a non-partisan Washington DC research organization, asked Americans whether a political leader who committed immoral acts in his private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill his duties in public life.

In the 2011 survey, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants answered in the affirmative, but that percentage jumped to 72 percent in 2016. PRRI’s president, Robert P. Jones, notes that “in a shocking reversal,” white evangelicals have gone from being the least likely to the most likely group — even more so than Americans who claim no religious affiliation — “to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

But Dr. Russell Moore does still hold that belief, and acted on it. And for his criticism of those who were unfaithful to their own movement’s statement of principle, a number of churches threatened to withhold contributions to the ERLC, and Moore was nearly tossed from office.

Both Moores are culture warriors, but what a difference there is between them and the battles they choose. That difference is the subject of a recent column by conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, in which he observed that

even a proud culture warrior should be able to concede that not all culture wars are created equal. A good culture war is one that, beneath all the posturing and demagogy and noise, has clear policy implications, a core legal or moral question, a place where one side can win a necessary victory or where a new consensus can be hashed out. 

A bad culture war is one in which attitudinizing, tribalism and worst-case fearmongering float around unmoored from any specific legal question, in which mutual misunderstanding reigns and a thousand grievances are stirred up without a single issue being clarified or potentially resolved. 

Unfortunately for us all, [the president] is a master, a virtuoso, of the second kind of culture war — and a master, too, of taking social and cultural debates that could be important and necessary and making them stupider and emptier and all about himself. 


That second kind of war — kneeling players and Ten Commandments monuments and many more earthshaking issues — may make us feel good about ourselves and stir righteous anger at those horrible people on the other side, but in the long run, we lose dearly by embracing it. The animosity, the chaos, the pettiness fostered by those kinds of contrived, all-heat-and-no-light controversies prevent us from getting a hearing with reasonable Americans of good will who are in the vast middle between the extremes and reaching accommodation on issues of real importance to our community.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 682. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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