Can America’s Largest Protestant Denomination Stop Trump?

The Southern Baptist Convention takes on the GOP front-runner—and itself.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump holds a Bible while speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 19.

Brian Frank/Reuters

In his book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Southern Baptist Convention public-policy leader Russell Moore warned about the dangers of letting politics drive the Christian agenda. If the church is motivated primarily by electoral wins, he wrote, “we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts”—ahem, Glenn Beck—“and serially-monogamous casino magnates … are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do to the gospel.” Moore was writing in 2013, but by time the book was published in August, a certain serially monogamous casino magnate was the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination for president.

With more than 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is by far the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Through its policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, it has been a powerful bastion of the Christian right since the 1980s, with a predictable slate of priorities: combating abortion and pornography, promoting prayer in public schools, and recently cheering the law in Mississippi that allows businesses and government employees to deny services to LGBTQ people. But under Moore, who assumed the ERLC presidency in 2013, the denomination has taken on a new assignment. Believe it or not, Southern Baptists have become the loudest chorus of anti-Trump voices within conservative evangelicalism. And as has happened in other precincts of the right, the real estate mogul’s candidacy has forced evangelical leaders to confront the contradictions between their values and their political allegiances. “My concern is not so much about the presidential election,” Moore told me. “I’m more concerned about the witness of evangelical Christianity, which I see compromised in the apologies from some Christian leaders for Trump and his behavior.”

Moore effectively announced his new mission in September, when he published a searing op-ed in the New York Times in which he compared Trump to a “Bronze Age warlord” and concluded that evangelicals embracing him were promoting the idea that “image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.” In February, he wrote in the Washington Post that he had temporarily stopped calling himself an evangelical because the ugly election had turned the word meaningless:

I have watched as some of these who gave stem-winding speeches about “character” in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.

Meanwhile, Moore’s very active Twitter feed has maintained a rolling boil of anti-Trump sentiment for months:

And Moore is hardly the only Southern Baptist leader to speak out against Trump. The ERLC’s policy director, Andrew Walker, wrote in February in the conservative Federalist, “The Christian alliance with Trump sets the political witness of evangelicals back by several generations.” Others at the ERLC have spoken out against Trump’s immigration policy and against his “folk Marxism.”

Leaders in Southern Baptist higher education have been sounding the same alarm. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, told NPR last month that Trump’s “entire mode of life has been something that has been at odds with American evangelical conviction and character.” Denny Burk, an influential professor at the seminary’s undergraduate school, has been echoing the same concerns. The provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an SBC seminary in North Carolina, wrote an op-ed for Fox News last month on why Christians should be open to voting for a third-party candidate. That seminary’s president tweeted recently that he is “disappointed in any & all evangelicals who support @realDonaldTrump.”

These are bold statements, but they are directed at a surprisingly receptive audience. It’s true that exit polls, including those taken this week in the Northeastern states in which Trump dominated, have shown him to be doing well among white evangelicals and “born-again” Christians broadly defined. But other surveys have suggested that among self-described evangelicals, Trump does best with those who rarely or never go to church. There’s a demographic explanation for this: Evangelicals who don’t go to church—cultural evangelicals, you might call them—tend to have lower incomes and education levels than those who show up on Sunday morning. That is, they are Trump’s core voters. But it also makes intuitive sense that churchgoers place a high priority on religious values and would be offended by a man who so flagrantly rejects them.

But if Moore and his cohort are preaching to the choir, it must be said that in this case even the choir isn’t singing with one voice. The anti-Trump rhetoric has disturbed some of the denomination’s pastors who question why their leadership is tearing down the front-runner of the party that most closely aligns with their values. “The ERLC President should be at the front of the line leading us in the fight for life,” one Tennessee pastor complained on Facebook. “Instead he picks on the Donald.” Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and son of one of America’s most famous Southern Baptists, endorsed Trump in January. Robert Jeffress, a popular radio and television host and pastor of a Dallas megachurch, has all but officially done the same, calling Trump “the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”

Intra-denominational conflict is practically a sacrament for Protestants, but this is one that happens to illuminate the broader hand-wringing within evangelicalism over how to handle the general election. Even those who have spoken out against Trump are troubled by that looming dilemma. A Trump vs. Clinton matchup would “raise a host of new worldview issues with incredible urgency for confessing Christians,” Mohler said in his podcast last month. “At the very least this is going to require of conservative Christians in America a fundamental rethinking of what we believe about the purpose of government and the character of political leadership.”

Prominent Christians promoting Trump are not only inconsistent—many of them lambasted Clinton for his moral failings, Moore pointed out—they are doing damage to Christianity as a global brand. Say what you will about the current reputation of evangelicalism, but it could always get worse. As Moore sees it, Trump betrays many of his faith’s core values, not to mention the political and cultural agenda that will ensure a thriving future. “We cannot say we are for religious liberty and then be silent when we have calls for an entire group of people to be banned from the country based on their religion,” he said. “We cannot say we’re for moral realism when we say nothing when there are misogynistic and pornographic statements being made by someone lauded as a leader by a few Christian leaders. … If you don’t have white evangelicals standing up for their black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ, that’s a serious problem.”

In his writing and speaking, Moore returns over and over to the idea that conservative Christians must think of themselves not as the Moral Majority but as a “prophetic minority.” If the tide somehow turns against Trump, he will be vindicated in just a few months. If not, the wait will be longer. That’s the thing about prophets: Sometimes they preach in the desert for years before the people heed their warnings.

Read more Slate coverage of the Republican primary.