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Leaked Moore letter alleges pushback from leaders

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EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the recipients of a February 2020 letter written by Russell Moore. It has been updated to show the letter was addressed to the executive committee of the ERLC’s board of trustees.

NASHVILLE (BP) – In a letter written more than a year before his departure from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, former president Russell Moore asserted that much of what he described as pushback from SBC leaders during his tenure resulted from his stances on race and sexual abuse issues.

He also claimed that some SBC leaders – though he did not name them – employed “psychological warfare” and “vicious guerilla tactics” when he attempted to lead on those issues. He described private conversations in which he was “told to be quiet” about the issues.

The letter, originally obtained by Religion News Service and published Wednesday (June 2), was addressed to the executive committee of the ERLC’s Board of Trustees and dated Feb. 24, 2020, a week after the SBC Executive Committee had voted to create a task force commissioned to “review the past and present activities” of the ERLC.

Moore announced his resignation May 18 after eight years heading the entity, which is tasked with helping churches understand the moral demands of the Gospel and public policy, as well as promoting religious liberty on behalf of Southern Baptists. He joins Christianity Today as a public theologian for what the magazine described as “a new Public Theology Project.”

On Tuesday (June 1), Moore was announced as minister in residence at Immanuel Nashville, a nondenominational congregation.

In the February 2020 letter to ERLC trustees, Moore wrote that messengers, during votes at SBC annual meetings regarding the ERLC or his leadership, had “encouraged us and affirmed us overwhelmingly, unanimously or virtually unanimously every time.” But he wrote of a “tiny minority in our denomination [that] … choose to wait until as far out from a Southern Baptist Convention meeting as possible to do what they do.” He termed the SBC EC’s move to form the task force as “just such an action.”

Moore asserted that the action was “motivated by an individual, the current chairman of the Executive Committee.” Though not mentioned by name, the reference was to Mike Stone, who was EC chairman from 2018-20. After serving the customary two terms, Stone was succeeded as chairman at an EC meeting last June by Rolland Slade.

Stone is among four candidates who have announced their intention to be nominated for SBC president at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, which is to be held June 15-16 in Nashville.

He chaired the 2020 ERLC task force, which issued a report in February 2021.

“This person,” wrote Moore in the February 2020 letter, referring to Stone, “not only drove the motion, but also saw to it that he would be a member of the ‘task force,’ chairman of it, and the one with the power to elect its membership.”

In a statement published to his website, Stone wrote that Moore’s assertions that the ERLC study task force “was a unilateral action on my part is blatantly and provably false.” Stone said the claims were “a deflection” from Moore’s leadership, which he asserted “has been an ongoing source of division and distraction for Southern Baptists.”

Stone said Moore misrepresented him and the SBC leadership, and took issue with what he said were Moore’s “mischaracterizations of who Southern Baptists are.” He called the letter’s publication “clearly an attempt to influence the upcoming presidential election in the SBC.”

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Executive Committee’s ERLC task force issued a report that included responses from state executives of 15 state conventions, all unidentified, out of the 41 contacted. While some produced anecdotal evidence of churches reducing Cooperative Program giving, several state executives also reported “little to no negative effect from the ministry of the ERLC.”

According to the report, the state executives reported the negative impact on CP giving totaled millions of dollars. One state executive director noted that “more than 250 churches are considering withholding or negatively designating funds or have already done so.” Another state convention verified “that $1,147,000 has been withheld due to the ERLC.” The task force report was received by the Executive Committee at its meeting in February 2021.

The Executive Committee created a similar task force in 2017. It reported impact on the Cooperative Program was “not as significant in fact as it is in perception.” At the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting, a motion to defund the ERLC was rejected by an overwhelming margin.

Stone closed his response lamenting Moore’s “service as president of one of our agencies has led him to such a disillusioned opinion of who we are.”

In the February 2020 letter, Moore wrote that sexual abuse in the SBC was “first and foremost” the issue underlying all other controversies, including the criticism he had received for his opposition to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Moore also wrote of being wrongly called a liberal despite, he said, his belief “in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, in the authority of Holy Scripture,” and having “spent my life defending such concepts as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. I am a ‘liberal’ in this definition not because I deny the inerrancy of Scripture but because I affirm it.” He said he had “been clear for twenty-five years on abortion, on sexual chastity and morality, and on racism.”

In the letter, Moore also wrote that he and his family had “faced constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention” while addressing “the absolutely draining and unrelenting issue … of racial reconciliation.”

Moore asserted that a prominent SBC leader “at the forefront of these behind-closed-door assaults … ripped me to shreds verbally” for suggesting that the SBC should elect an African American president. That exchange, he said, came one year before New Orleans pastor Fred Luter was elected to the office at the 2012 SBC Annual Meeting. Luter was the first Black SBC president.

“This same leader,” Moore write, “told a gathering that ‘The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.’ I walked out of that gathering, as did one of you.”

It was an apparent reference to Paul Pressler, a prominent SBC layman who is credited along with Paige Patterson as one of the primary architects of the Conservative Resurgence. In a 2004 speaking engagement at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Pressler spoke of the Conservative Resurgence and specifically the 1985 election of Charles Stanley, saying, “It was like Gettysburg, but this time the right side won.”

Moore also wrote of an interaction with “another SBC leader” who expressed concern to Moore about the hires of Dan Darling as the ERLC’s vice president for communications and Trillia Newbell as director of community outreach, “because they did not have adequate Southern Baptist backgrounds.”

Moore wrote that when he answered the concerns, the leader said, “I was really just concerned about that black girl, whether she’s an egalitarian.” When Moore noted the complementarian positions in articles she had written and asked what “could possibly lead him to think” she was an egalitarian, he wrote that the leader said: “A lot of those black girls are.”

RNS reported Thursday (June 3) that Patterson, a former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president, was the unnamed leader who allegedly made those comments. Phillip Bethancourt, pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, and former ERLC executive vice president, told RNS he and other staffers had heard about the comments. Patterson, contacted by RNS, denied the comments and called Moore “obviously wrong.”

“I don’t know who the girl is,” he said, referring to Newbell.

Newbell and Darling served for seven and six years, respectively, in their roles. Currently Newbell is acquisitions editor for Moody Publishing. Darling is senior vice president for communications at NRB (formerly National Religious Broadcasters).