LYNCHBURG, Va. (Christian Examiner) – When the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Russell Moore just a few weeks ago opined that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz represented the "Jerry Falwell" wing of evangelical voters, he couldn't have known Donald Trump would be the keynote speaker at Falwell's Southern-Baptist affiliated Liberty University Monday, January 18.
Moore didn't acknowledge his characterizations, however, in a blistering string of one-line tweets aimed at both GOP presidential frontrunner Trump and Liberty University's president Jerry Falwell Jr., who introduced Trump as similar to his late father, long considered a leader of America's moral majority.
"Absolutely unbelievable," Moore responded to a comment he re-tweeted in which Falwell said in his introduction of Trump, "By their fruits ye shall know them. Donald Trump's life has borne fruit."
As Moore has continued to openly criticize Trump's remarks at Liberty — some Southern Baptists have expressed concern about the ERLC leader's remarks.
Rick Patrick, an Alabama pastor who is a publisher of the SBC Today blog and founder of Connect 316, an organization that defines itself as "traditionalist" Southern Baptists, told Christian Examiner that Moore is inappropriate in his criticism of Trump.
"While I prefer both Cruz and Rubio to Trump, I am concerned that Dr. Moore is singling out only one party's frontrunner for 99 percent of his criticism," Patrick said.
Noting the organization Moore is employed by, the ERLC, is supported by funding given by Southern Baptists who give to the Cooperative Program – the way Southern Baptists supports missions, seminaries, and ministries – Patrick charged "Moore's anti-Trump campaign" with irregularities.
"Why are we applying a full court press against the frontrunner of the only major party whose platform is pro-life, pro-prayer and pro-marriage?" he asked rhetorically.
Ken Skelton, a Tennessee pastor, said in a Facebook post about Moore's remarks, "Our ERLC President should be Pro-Life. 60 million babies are dead (and) euthanasia is permitted in at least two states. The ERLC President should be at the front of the line leading us in the fight for life. Instead he picks on the Donald."
In an interview with Christian Examiner, Skelton added that he believes Moore picks on Trump more than any other candidate and, "I don't think of him as being the greatest evil of all candidates."
It would be more helpful if Moore, as the ERLC head, stuck to the moral issues that Southern Baptists agree on, said the Tennessee pastor.
So far, what he has seen is "name calling," Skelton said, referring to it as a "bit juvenile," for someone with Moore's stature.
"In public, I really think we ought to think it through and be careful about what we are saying," Skelton said. "We can do better than getting onto Trump."
Commenting on Moore's history of involvement in this political race, Patrick told Christian Examiner that a few months ago Moore invited both Democratic and Republican candidates to an ERLC panel – apparently on the basis of their polling numbers. Ironically, Patrick said, Moore is now in the "unenviable position of having to invite Donald Trump to join him on a panel."
At the civil forum Moore hosted in August 2015 in Nashville, Moore interviewed GOP presidential hopefuls former Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, just two days prior to the first Republican Presidential debate.
In a press conference after the interviews, Moore said he had invited all candidates polling at 10 percent or higher to the forum, including Hillary Clinton, whom he said declined.
As for Southern Baptist GOP candidates, specifically former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Gov. Rick Perry, Moore told Christian Examiner he did not invite them because that would have turned the forum "into a moment of identity politics instead of a time of conversation."
Patrick said Moore's behavior on social media has caused concern.
"Trump is rightly accused of not acting very Presidential at times, but Dr. Moore does not fare any better with his sub-tweeting barbs, the mocking tone of which gives one the impression that Dr. Moore is sitting in the balcony lobbing spit wads at the Republican Party frontrunner," said the Alabama pastor.
The criticism Moore directed at Liberty, Patrick said, is confusing.
"Liberty University has a history of inviting guest speakers from all walks of life, including a Mormon, a Jewish Socialist, and a Seventh Day Adventist. This time, apparently, they went too far by inviting a self-professed Presbyterian," he speculated.
Trump isn't the first presidential hopeful to come under fire for talking about the Christian faith at Liberty. In 2012 Republican Mitt Romney spoke of a shared "Christian conscience," leading to discussions about whether Liberty could be accused of not distinguishing the Mormon religion from that of Christianity. In response to both Romney's and Glenn Beck's appearance at Liberty, Falwell brushed aside concerns at the time, saying the university has speakers from every faith.
In a January 18 interview with CNN, Moore said he does not have an issue with Trump being invited to speak at Liberty, but said someone should have taken a "moment to say" that "one is not made right with God" by having the belief that there is nothing for which he needs forgiveness.
Moore told Yahoo senior political correspondent Jon Ward that "portraying this lost soul as a brother in Christ is not only doing wrong to Trump himself, it preaches an anti-gospel" to those who listen to what he says.
"The problem is with allowing Trump to present himself as a man of faith and character, without calling him out on both," Moore said.
MORE MOORE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
■ Moore last month blasted the real-estate mogul for his statement about closing the border to all Muslims, suggesting his idea as "reckless, demagogic rhetoric" in a column.
The ethics leader's tweets indicate, however, he has more than a passing discomfort with Trump's proposed policies.
■ As Trump pulled out ahead of the other nominees for the sixth GOP debate January 14 in North Charleston, South Carolina, Moore tweeted: "Why I will Never Vote for Donald Trump." The link is to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Wehner.
The same day Washington Post published a blog by Moore, "Sorry, the Bible doesn't promise to make America great again" — refuting a campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," used first by Ronald Reagan, and popularized again by Donald Trump who has bought the rights to use the trademarked phrase.
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■ Also on January 14, Moore tweeted: "I am here at the presidential debate. The undercard starting now." Several more tweets about Trump follow, to include: "During break, Trump and Carson chatting on stage, amiably it seems," "this crowd booing Trump," "Donald Trump seems kind of low-energy in this debate," "Trump never leaves the stage during commercial breaks," "There's a lady behind me here who must be Trump's biggest supporter. Man, does she have vocal chords."
■ Apparently leaving Charleston after the debate, Moore tweeted a photo of a closed off space which appears to be inside an airport. "This is what happens when Mr. Trump won't let you hitch a ride on his plane ..."
TRUMP AND EVANGELICALS
Another well-known religious leader, Franklin Graham, in an interview with Fox News Greta Van Susteren has pledged to not endorse any candidate for the 2016 election and instead talked about his renewed commitment to hold prayer rallies in 50 capitol cities across the nation.
"No question there are many who do like him and there are many who are still studying him, but as you know, I'm staying out of it," he told Van Susteren when she asked what evangelicals think of Trump.