Brent Leatherwood, former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, has been tapped to replace Democrat Russell Moore as chief ethicist of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Having twice voted 80+ percent for Donald Trump, evangelicals and Southern Baptists are the largest reliably conservative voting bloc in America.
Will rank-and-file Southern Baptists find in Leatherwood an advocate who will represent their moral convictions to policymakers as Moore did for the small contingent of progressive Baptists?
As head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Moore repeatedly found Democratic talking points to incorporate into his own, from nonchalance about the open southern border to suspicion of patriotism to validation of same-sex attraction. Moore also said that evangelicals who vote for Trump have to deny everything they believe as Christians to do so.
But surely Leatherwood, four years a paid GOP operative, will give voice to the long-disenfranchised conservatives who fill Baptist churches. One would think so, but when Leatherwood introduced himself as the denomination’s new chief ethicist, he struck a different note: “I will say it’s not my role to bind anyone’s conscience in terms of how to vote.”
Bind consciences? By “bind consciences” does he mean “inform consciences”? Did Leatherwood bind or inform consciences between 2012 and 2016 in Tennessee when he encouraged candidates to make moral arguments to voters as the rationale for voting Republican rather than Democrat?
For four years, Leatherwood made partisan moral arguments free from the fear of violating consciences. But now, as moral representative and guide to more than 14 million Christians, he feels he must shield consciences from some sort of “binding” he thinks moral clarity on the policies pushed by political parties might impose?
The two stances seem irreconcilable and the more recent one absurd, and they are if one expects Leatherwood to prioritize moral rectitude no matter who pays him. But Leatherwood’s posture fits perfectly with elite SBC priorities of the last 10 or so years — one of which is the sanctification of Christian votes for Democrats.
SBC elites long ago embraced superstar New York City pastor Timothy Keller’s quest to reach blue communities — college-educated, Democrat-voting denizens of the nation’s cities and blue enclaves clustered around colleges and universities from sea to shining sea. Exquisite responsiveness to the moral sensibilities of blue communities accounts best for Leatherwood’s newfound nonpartisanship.
When Moore carried water for the Democrats for eight years and impugned the faith of evangelical Trump voters, was he attempting to bind consciences in the way Leatherwood means to avoid? Southern Baptist support for Trump held firm, so whatever conscience-binding Moore may have attempted clearly failed. But then again, Moore sought the favor of the left, not the right. So perhaps protectiveness of the freedom of conscience never entered in.
Though he left the Southern Baptist denomination and accepted an appointment as editor of the progressive periodical Christianity Today, Moore quickly endorsed Leatherwood’s appointment. No doubt Moore is aware that as a GOP operative, Leatherwood refused to endorse party nominee Donald Trump in 2016. In his bid to become chairman of the Tennessee GOP, Leatherwood offered this account for his decision: “I believe my record shows that, even in the midst of turbulent moments, I was able to keep our focus on winning the races we engaged in.”
SBC commitment to blue communities as vital to future growth has resulted in tortuous efforts by elites to thread the woke needle, constantly testing how winsome to blue communities they can be without precipitating redress by their massive conservative constituency. This treacherous balancing act accounts both for Leatherwood’s introductory words and for the warp and woof of evangelical branding and messaging over the last 15 years.
It accounts for former SBC president JD Greear’s insistence that “sexual sin is only whispered in the Bible,” and his successor Ed Litton’s plagiarizing of Greear. It accounts for Baptist luminary John Piper’s contention that the deadliness of Trump’s character flaws competes with that of abortion.
It explains why elite gatekeepers found no place for bestselling evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem’s widely hailed Townhall piece, “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” It explains why bestselling authors Voddie Baucham and Carol Swain, both un-woke Southern Baptists, have been ignored by white elites for whom only woke blacks serve the virtue-signaling needs of blue communities.
It explains why, after Old Testament scholar Russell Fuller signed the thoroughly un-woke Dallas Statement on social justice, he lost his job at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It explains why SBC elites wooed Texas celebrity pastor Matt Chandler to stay in the denomination despite his public statement that he finds conservative evangelicals and Southern Baptists to be “fools” and “morons.”
Since 2008, Timothy Keller has advanced a so-called “Third Way” for the church between and above partisan party loyalties. The Third Way depends on a rough moral equivalence between the two major political parties that did not exist when first introduced and, if anything, has only lost credibility in the intervening years.
Since then, the Democratic Party that had already accepted abortion on demand — which it said it wanted to make safe and rare — now looks to punish any who fail to celebrate a woman’s “right” to abortion. Today, the Democratic Party pushes critical race theory and graphic sex education materials down the throats of the nation’s children. Today, the Democratic Party lauds a Supreme Court justice nominee who cannot define the word “woman.”
President Joe Biden announced that transgenderism is the civil rights cause of our generation. He told the nation’s children that whoever does not support their identification as transgender does them harm. The Democratic Party now supports the teacher-facilitated, parent-uninformed administration of hormone blockers and surgical sex changes for freshly identified transgender children.
While these policies march through the nation’s institutions and the lives of 300+ million Americans, Leatherwood wants Southern Baptists to know they can count on their new chief ethicist to leave the name of the political party responsible unspoken and their tender consciences unbound.
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