Election exposes widening chasm among Southern Baptist evangelicals

by Joni B. Hannigan, Editorial Staff |
A poll worker assists voters casting their ballots in the U.S. Republican presidential primary at a polling place at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina February 20, 2016. | REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) — In a startling turn around late last month, prominent evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem —  once slammed for supporting Republican nominee Donald J. Trump for president and then dumping him over allegations of sexual impropriety —abruptly announced yet another change of heart weeks before the presidential election.

I think as Christians we should vote for the platform and not the person.

Co-founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary-based Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and general editor of the ESV Study Bible, Grudem, although not a Southern Baptist, has tremendous influence on the denomination's pastors and lay leaders through his widely recommended systematic theology and other published materials.

First arguing for Trump as a "morally good choice," then urging him to withdraw from the election, Grudem finally expressed three weeks ago he "overwhelmingly" supports Trumps policies.

In this election season, Grudem — long associated with reformed, Charismatic and Calvinistic views —stands in stark contrast with Southern Baptists like R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas; and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University.

Mohler and Moore early on declared themselves part of the #NeverTrump movement, side-stepping platform politics that have traditionally meant Southern Baptists would coalesce behind a prolife, pro-family candidate who was projected to preserve religious liberties.

Jeffress and Falwell unabashedly promoted Trump, even before the primaries, as the candidate who would "Make America Great Again."

Many Southern Baptist leaders stayed silent almost until the final weeks before the election, like Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas who had earlier lamented it's a "sad commentary on our culture" that the two candidates up for election are Trump and Clinton.

Just days ago, Young openly endorsed Trump, saying, "I think as Christians we should vote for the platform and not the person."

Richard Land, the president emeritus of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in his Christian Post piece, "The Presidential Election: An Excruciating Choice," acknowledges the "terrible dilemma" Christians are faced with this election. He suggested not voting is not a viable alternative, and votes should be cast with prayer and consideration of the consequences of each vote.

Land wrote the election is too important to throw in a "protest" or third-party vote, and suggested he cannot vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton "under any circumstances" based on her pro-abortion stance and other well-known moral failures related to finances and the foundation she and her husband run.

Land declared he will, "with sadness of heart," cast his vote for Trump and "pray that God will have mercy on him and on my beloved country."


Pointing to the election division among Southern Baptist leaders, Jack Richardson IV, a member of the Southern Seminary Foundation Board and a current student, wrote in a guest editorial in the Louisville Courier Journal that the "Never Trump" stance is wrong for religious leaders.

"[T]he opinions of those that influence the ignorant masses matter," Richardson wrote, pointing to recent statements by Mohler and Moore.

"Mohler's house is divided," Richardson continued, opining that he and other members of the board disagree with Mohler's position – and further that professors disagree, but may not be able to speak freely.

About Moore, Richardson said the Mississippi native "was always fond of reminding me that he was a Democrat. Of course he could never reconcile how his support for the positions of his party was at such odds with his Christian faith yet he continued supporting what is abjectly opposed to what donors who support his institution pay him to do."

Richardson wondered aloud in his letter "how many of the donors and those on the Seminary's Foundation Board are aware of the political positions Mohler and Moore have taken."

"How many throughout Baptist congregations would continue to support the institutions they lead?" he asked.


Land, in a column posted on the eve of the election went further in describing what he says is a "governing theology" which could explain a worldview which predisposes some to a "'Never Trump, both candidates are unacceptable, I will support neither' posture."

Pointing out that not all "Never Trump" Evangelicals are Calvinists, Land says it is possible a majority could be – including outspoken Christian leaders.

Unapologetically a Calvinist, Mohler influence as a theologian has gone largely unchecked for three decades since his election as SBTS president with an increasing number of pastors who graduate from SBTS identifying as Reformed.

Moore has called himself a "conscientious objector in the Calvinist/Arminian wars," but has largely been identified with Reformed, Calvinist pastors and leaders, and has employed staff members who write for and readily identify with The Gospel Coalition, a network of "broadly Reformed" evangelical churches.

Both Mohler and Moore may have revealed in this election season the stretched thin fabric of denominational unity challenged by soteriological underpinnings foundational in looking at social justice and moral issues confronting Southern Baptists.

Land anticipates a decision to "choose" a candidate is not really a "free decision" at all for a Calvinist.

"If you believe, as many Calvinists do, that everything has already been decreed and preordained by God, as opposed to other more, mediating theological traditions within Christendom, then it is certainly a more readily available option to believe that your decision not to choose a 'lesser evil' over a 'greater evil,' but to withdraw altogether and choose neither has itself, always been preordained," Land wrote.

Moore himself admitted he is often at odds with his own denomination.

In a Nov. 7 article in "The New Yorker," Moore was portrayed as the younger, gentler Southern Baptist and ERLC head than Land, with a somewhat similar theology – but adamantly convinced the "moral majority" was wrong and electing Trump would be more of the same in a White America he scorns.

Tracing Moore's non-political, but political rise from Southern Seminary to the ERLC post, the article, "The New Evangelical Moral Minority: If the Southern Baptist church can't be giver, Russell Moore wants it to be better," author Kelefa Sanneh paints a glowing story of a diminutive Moore – who the author indicates has embraced Calvinism, social justice and the leadership of young pastors.

The "patriarchy" – including the hugely influential and widely popular Land is described in the article as "an older man in a plaid seersucker sports coat" who "shuffled into the hall [looking] as if he had been beamed in from a different dimension, or at any rate a different denomination."

Yet, the writer admits the "Russell Moore kind of crowd" was not representative of the denomination with an average SBC worshiper who is 54 and rising. 

Noting a shrinking number of Southern Baptists, it is suggested Moore is comfortable with his role. "His promise is that the Southern Baptists can grow better, even if they are not growing bigger: he would like to the leader of a moral minority."

Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress suggests Moore's failure to lead on a number of moral issues, including Moore's lack of support for voting, should affect his future as a denominational fixture.

"Any conservative Christian who stays at home in November and allows Hillary Clinton to become the next President has forever forfeited his right to speak out about the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, or religious freedom," Jeffress said.

Falwell's support of Trump as the president of Liberty University has not been without angst either.

An Oct. 27 Politico article said Trump "profoundly split Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, and a political linchpin of American religious right."

Noting the cornerstones of Liberty to the basic tenets of Christianity and conservative politics, Falwell has been accused of shirking his responsibility to the students, the board of trustees and to the alumni by not recognizing it is "virtually impossible to voice opposition" without fear of retribution.

Following a flurry of moves related to Falwell's endorsement of Trump, student's complained the school's culture had become chilling and some faculty determined there were mixed messages about speaking openly to the media.

Still, student leaders reported no "rational fear of President Falwell doing something against them."


Writing at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter, communications specialist for the ERLC, in his article "Why Evangelicals Are Divided Over Trump," meanders through a rationale which he said puts Trump's "polarizing" character at the center of socially conservative warring camps.

Two weeks later he throws a Hail Mary suggesting evangelicals can sidestep the president and elect politicians who will reduce the size of the Supreme Court.

Carter blames the widening chasm on those seeking "witness" versus "justice" – looking at the Supreme Court as the ultimate focus.

The justice group, he says, seeks to elect a candidate who will choose Supreme Court justices that care about issues including abortion, marriage, transgenderism and religious liberty.

The witness group, Carter says, believes "the damage done to our gospel witness in choosing Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a liberal court."

In a discussion of the "lesser of two evils," Carter suggests the witness groups rejects that notion because Scripture calls for the rejection of "all evil."

"This side feels the greater concern is for the souls that may be lost because people associate the gospel with pragmatic power politics," Carter said.


Calling the divide a "temporary family spat," Carter offers several paragraphs on how these two groups can reconcile:

For the Justice side, this means deciding how to convince others that supporting Trump and downplaying character is consistent with the biblical standard of leadership, and how their choice won't impede gospel advance. For the Witness side this means figuring out what additional measures can be taken to offset the detrimental effects on justice that will result from a Clinton presidency.

And when the mudslinging is over and each tries to "find a way to work together again in the future," as Carter hopefully lectures, perhaps Southern Baptists will finally admit how much the soteriological divide has grown this election season.