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The Republican presidential candidates are appealing to evangelical voters across the South. Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Russell Moore, one of the country's most visible evangelical leaders, about the issues these voters are most concerned about and how the tone of the campaign on the Republican side is resonating with them.
On the campaign thus far
“I think this campaign gives me reason to think someone has released LSD into the water system in this country, and every single day one looks at the news and cannot even fathom that it's happening. Yet, every day there is something totally surprising, sometimes shocking and often horrifying.”
What’s horrifying to you?
“I think it’s horrifying that we have a campaign where some of the most vulnerable people in American society are being scapegoated and having some of those awful things said about them. I think of not only immigrants, but also women and African-Americans and also the disabled and others, when we have coarseness of this campaign, where people can’t even bring their small children to rallies for fear of what sort of screamed profanity will be taking place. A campaign where we are debating issues that ought to be - that we ought to have a consensus about, for instance, religious liberty and war crimes and torture and those sorts of things, that’s deeply, deeply disturbing to me that this is taking place this year.”
What are the most important issues to your members?
“I think one of the most important issues is religious liberty. The freedom of all people, not just people who agree with us, but of all people to be able to believe, worship and carry out their convictions freely without intervention from the government.”
Do they feel that they can do that right now?
“They feel as though religious liberty is under attack and has been over the last seven years in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. We’ve had several important religious liberty victories over the past several years, the Hobby Lobby case for instance, we have the Little Sisters of the Poor case come in before the court this year, but frankly who would have imagined that we would have to be in court saying that the government shouldn’t be able to coerce nuns to violate their consciences with birth control, so there are numerous religious liberty questions.”
You haven’t mentioned marriage.
“Marriage is a very important issue. Marriage and family, and after the Obergefell decision, right now the question is what happens when you take an institution that has been defined for millennia and seek to redefine it through government power? So I think the marriage decision really focuses evangelical Christians on how much is at stake with the Supreme Court, and so I’ve been saying for some time that it seems to me that both sides of the culture war are really voting for Supreme Court this year. I think that’s been upended, of sorts, because of the craziness of the election cycle so far, when we really haven’t been talking about those important foundational issues of what’s the judicial philosophy that we are going to be facing over the next 50 or 100 years. Instead we’ve been talking about issues of less seriousness.”
Issues of less seriousness such as?
“Well, the daily bread-and-circuses from the Trump campaign that seems to suck up all of the oxygen in the room, and so we are having to discuss whether or not we should ban people from the United States of America on the basis of their religion. Not only is that a blatant violation of an American principle of religious liberty, everyone knows that’s not going to happen, so we have to have these conversations rather than talking about serious matters.”
Do your members believe that the next president in some way will be able to reverse the Obergefell decision through a court appointment?
“No, I don’t think there are a very many people who think that this is just a matter of a presidential election or two, but what they do understand is that courts matter and that judicial appointments matter. So you see that, not only with Obergefell but also with Roe v. Wade and the Casey decision and other decisions that had imposed an abortion culture and an abortion regime on this country. I think people understand why court appointments matter.”
Do they think, on the issues of abortion and marriage that they will be able to go back in the other direction?
“I think we could. On the abortion issue for instance, if you were to go back into a time machine to 1973 and ask ‘what would the pro-life movement look like in 2016?’ Probably most people would say ‘by then the abortion issue will probably become normal in American life.’ It hasn’t. There’s a thriving, active pro-life movement. There’s a great deal of hope of what can be done over a long period of time, of continuing to persuade people and speaking to people’s consciences and to work through the judicial process.”
Who would give evangelicals a better Supreme Court justice? Trump? Clinton?
“Oh we have no idea what Donald Trump would do in terms of Supreme Court justices. We know what Hillary Clinton would do. She’s told us, so we have a track record, the same sort of justice that President Obama has given us and before that President Clinton has given us. Donald Trump has not told anyone what he would do in terms of a judicial philosophy, in terms of what sort of Supreme Court justice he would appoint. I think that’s the problem.”
How important is a candidate’s charitable history to you?
“Well, I think it’s something to look at, whether or not a candidate is looking outside of himself or herself toward helping the vulnerable. As a Christian, I believe what Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also,’ and I think that’s one factor to look at in a candidate’s integrity.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, has endorsed Trump. You’re not endorsing, but based on your comments it sounds like you have a difference of opinion.
“Well, I think the difference we would have there would largely be over the definition of the Gospel. My main problem here is not a leader endorsing a candidate that he believes would be a good leader. My problem is when leaders are asked ‘is this person a Christian, or reflective of Christian values?’ and the answer to that is ‘yes.’ That brings serious concern to me, not as an American and as a citizen, but as an evangelical Christian. It’s to the point this year where ‘evangelical’ has become used in ways so disconnected from the Gospel that I just said this morning, that I no longer refer to myself as an evangelical. I choose to refer to myself as a Gospel Christian right now.”
What do you think people hear when they hear ‘evangelical?’
“I think right now that evangelical is being used merely in political terms, and for instance, every Tuesday when there is an election and we have reports back about what the ‘evangelical vote’ has done, and people aren’t going in and differentiating between people who simply self-identify as evangelical, and people who actually worship and go to church. I think that’s a problem. There are all sorts of people who can identify as evangelical who may well be drunk when they’re responding to the exit poll and haven’t been to church since vacation Bible school when they were children. In that sense, evangelical has simply become meaningless, and then when you have some, not very many, but some evangelical leaders who are willing to proclaim as a Christian, someone who says they have never asked God for forgiveness or repented of a sin, that’s the very definition of the Gospel, what it means to be a Christian is to have faith in Christ and have repented of one sin. Then the word doesn’t have a meaning anymore. Evangelical is rooted in the word for Gospel, and if we don’t have commonality around the Gospel, then we just don’t have much in common.”
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