Will Beth Moore Pay a Price for Defying Trump?
In leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, the prominent and charismatic evangelical leader has taken aim, not just at an ex-President, but at church leaders' willingness to tolerate corruption
Today we are talking abot the role of religion in Trumpism, a sadly and unexpectedly relevant topic because of the murders of eight women, six of the Asian, in Atlanta by a white man affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention who claimed to be eliminating sin and temptation. If you have a friend who is interested in religion and politics or who would like to join our community as a free or a paid subscriber, please forward it or:
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Since the 2020 election, conservatives have promoted competing visions for how the GOP might return to power: will it stick with Trumpism, find a populist path that is bigger than Trump, or hew back to a more traditional conservatism? But new cracks in the 2016 coalition are becoming apparent. Last week, Beth Moore, a prominent evangelical leader with a women’s ministry, left her Southern Baptist Convention church home because the denomination continues to support Trump. Although she still adheres to Baptist theology, “There comes a time when you have to say, this is not who I am,” Moore said about her decision to break with the SBC. As one prominent Black evangelical put it, it is a decision that is “tectonic in its reverberations” because of Moore’s stature among evangelicals.
This week, Neil Young, a historian of conservatism and religion who has been my guest before, sat down with me to explain why we should all be interested in Moore’s decision.
Claire Potter: Neil, could you tell us who Beth Moore is, and why she is important to the evangelical and political worlds?
Neil Young: Beth Moore is the most famous and important Southern Baptist woman and among the two or three most prominent evangelical women in the nation. She is a Christian author and speaker and runs Living Proof Ministries out of her home in Texas. She travels all over the country, leading arena events that draw thousands of women.
Moore speaks about the Christian faith, especially about being a Christian woman; she also engages in standard biblical teaching. But importantly, because she's not a man, and is in a very conservative corner of Protestant Christianity, the Southern Baptist Convention, she cannot be an ordained minister or preach from the Sunday pulpit. So Moore, like other conservative evangelical women, has carved out a separate space for herself.
CP: That's an old story for women in Christianity, right? I'm thinking of Anne Hutchinson, the seventeenth-century antinomian visionary, or antebellum African-American women who insisted on preaching for Black liberation despite restrictions placed on them by the male leadership of their churches.
NY: Yes, and women's place as preachers of the Christian message has been at the heart of Protestant schisms for centuries. Denominations have broken apart over this question, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Women's ministry has been an ongoing controversy in the SBC, which has consistently held the position that only men are to be ordained ministers, only men are to preach from the pulpit.
However, there is a huge tradition within conservative evangelicalism, especially within the SBC, of women's ministry. Finding that sweet spot in which women have authority has been an ongoing project for conservative Protestant women in these traditions. They lead the women's ministry at their church, join church staff, and become the children's minister.
But there are limits. So Beth Moore is very much part of a tradition of conservative women who have operated parallel to church and denominational structures. Women minister only to women, and in doing so, find fame, fortune, and influence.
CP: It may seem obvious that women want to hear women preach, but maybe it isn't?
NY: It would be interesting to know how many women who attend a Beth Moore event believe that she is preaching to them: they might say that she's a speaker or that she is offering spiritual mentorship or spiritual authority. There are diverse views on this, but most of these women, we can assume, ascribe to the basic evangelical theology that only men are really permitted to have preaching authority and that only men can preach to mixed audiences. And so it's not appropriate for women to preach on a Sunday morning because both men and women are in that audience.
But there is a lot of room for women to be leaders of other women. So female evangelical leaders have carved out space for themselves to talk about what it means to be a woman and a Christian and make gender part of the worship and preaching experience. That experience is very much about discussing what it means to be a faithful Christian woman, a wife, and a mother. Leaders like Moore affirm very traditional ideas of womanhood, and I think many people feel like, "Well, a woman is the best authority on these questions."
CP: So, let's cut to the chase: Beth Moore has dropped a bomb in the SBC by announcing that she can no longer affiliate with an organization that supports Donald Trump.
NY: She's been a consistent Never-Trumper since 2016. When the Access Hollywood tape came out in October 2016, this was a clarifying moment for Beth Moore, as it was for a lot of other conservative evangelicals--although not enough of them. Her position then was that this man was a sexual predator and that his character was deeply flawed. In contrast to many former Never-Trumpers who fell back into supporting Trump or even becoming outspoken advocates, Moore has been a consistent, reliable, anti-Trump voice on Twitter.
The other notable thing is that she became much more outspoken about sexism and racism in conservative Protestantism since 2016, particularly as those dynamics played out in the SBC. She has criticized a lot of the leadership, almost entirely white, heterosexual men. So she has been a thorn in the side of the SBC for the last four years.
Clearly, she reached a breaking point last week which led to a formal announcement that she was leaving the denomination.
CP: What decisions are she and her adherents going to have to make in the coming days, and what will be the effect of this on the SBC?
NY: Moore has paid a price for the position she took on Trump and these other issues. In 2016, her ministry did $15 million in revenue: my understanding is that she's been running at almost a $2 million loss for the last year or so. We can attribute some of that to the pandemic, but she's also seen conservative white women, who are probably her entire audience, breaking away from her.
In terms of the SBC, one of the things that have been interesting about this as a news event is that it's a news event at all. I should say just quickly: I was raised Southern Baptist. My entire family, both sides, are all Southern Baptist, back to when it began. And it's important to understand that the SBC is a very, very loose denomination. There's not a central power or central authority; it's more like a federated association. There's a president, but really, he’s just a figurehead. There's a denominational headquarters, but they mostly create materials that churches can use.
The whole model of being a Baptist is congregational authority. That is important here because Beth Moore is not on staff at a church. She doesn't work for the denomination. She's merely announced that she's leaving her local Southern Baptist congregation to attend another church in town, I assume a fellow evangelical congregation. And yet it's gotten so many headlines because obviously, she was very famous and prominent.
But as a news story, it is a moment of highlighting denominational identity at a time when denominationalism doesn't have much meaning in the early 21st century. On the one hand, you saw people like the current President, J.D. Greer, and other high-ranking SBC officials lamenting her departure because they loved her and they felt that she was an important voice in the denomination.
But a lot of Southern Baptist pastors are saying a version of what they've been saying for the last four years: “Good riddance, she was not the right voice in the convention.” They have been particularly vicious to her on Twitter. So you have an interesting dynamic that, in many ways, is emblematic of the way that the SBC is organized and operated. You have official voices expressing concern for what Moore’s departure means, but the local pastor, who is the most important person in the average Baptist’s life, saying, "Okay. She was on the wrong side of these questions.”
CP: It seems that there are two issues here. One is the SBC’s affiliation with Donald Trump: some evangelicals believed that he was a vehicle to bring about a Christian nation. The other is that Moore was becoming very, very powerful and influential as a woman.
NY: I think it's mostly the latter. The big controversial event Moore says generated her decision to leave was that, in 2019, she tweeted that she would be speaking at a Sunday service on Mother's Day. That erupted into a debate about whether or not women should be preaching. She was viciously attacked for that, even though she did not make a claim on preaching. She even affirmed the denomination’s policy and stance on this issue.
But Moore has also been an ongoing critic of the male leadership, rampant sexism, and sexual assault: we know this has all been happening in the SBC and conservative Protestantism. I think she had a lot of powerful men in her sights.
Obviously, a lot of those men are unwilling to face criticism from women or any threat to their power. So I think that has really been what the controversy over Beth Moore has been about, not Trump. There are other important, influential leaders in the SBC, namely Russell Moore (not related to Beth Moore), head of the policy division of the SBC, who have remained Trump critics. He has faced a ton of criticism and calls to leave. But they haven't been successful.
CP: And yet the connections between politics and religion remain. Doesn’t the elevation of patriarchy within the SBC become very complicated when the patriarch, whether it is Trump or an SBC official, is socially and sexually uncontrollable? Although Trump gave lip service to religion, sexually and socially he doesn't behave like a man of faith.
NY: You do have a small group of people who believe that Trump is a man of God, a Christian, and just like them. I think they are in the minority. The vast majority, I would say, especially in the SBC, believe that Trump is God's chosen person to bring about His ends. So Trump is a flawed character, but God has always used flawed and fallen people to move his mission forward. And yeah, he may not attend a church like mine or look like my fellow Christians, but he had the right position on abortion, on same-sex marriage, on religious freedom, and the Supreme Court.
Trump is also a perfect vehicle for the most galvanizing form of conservative sentimentality right now, particularly in Christian conservatism: a persecution complex and the grievance politics that have come out of that. He stands in for their own sense of personal persecution—by the culture, by Hollywood, by Washington. And so in that way, Trump actually seems to them all the more like God's chosen one because he too is suffering for his righteousness, or at least for their righteousness.
CP: Are there evangelical women other than Moore who are dissenting from this consensus, women we should be watching?
NY: There’s Jen Hatmaker, from Austin, Texas, who is in some ways a much more famous woman evangelical leader. She's younger, much more internet savvy, has a huge presence on Instagram--a younger generation of almost hipster women is very devoted to her.
But the difference between Hatmaker and Beth Moore is that Hatmaker is changing her theology. In the last few years, she affirmed same-sex relationships, saying that they were not sinful and were blessed by God. That has put her outside of traditional evangelical theology and drastically altered her public presence in evangelical circles.
Beth Moore hasn't stepped outside of the theological consensus of evangelicalism. But at the same time, she has made cultural and political arguments that have had deep ramifications for her. The question is: we know that one can't come back from crossing the theological line. But will Moore be able to navigate a future for herself in conservative evangelicalism if she holds to basic theology but stands outside on the cultural and political consensus of this community? And I think that's a question that is yet to be answered.
Moore is also making much closer affiliations with non-white evangelicals. There's a rich evangelicalism in Asian American, Latin American, and African American communities in the U.S. where she might find a better home for herself. And so maybe her future is to be a part of the diverse, multiracial, conservative Protestantism that operates almost entirely separately from white evangelical institutions and organizations like the SBC.
Is there a path back for Beth Moore? If Trump is less and less a central figure, perhaps. But I think what matters is not so much Trump, but Trumpism. And Trumpism is clearly here to stay. If that is the case, I think it's hard to imagine Moore having the same position and prominence that she had just a couple of years ago because the whole personality and temperament of white evangelicalism, I think, has been so radically altered.
CP: And are these other communities more fluid in their political affiliations and political principles?
NY: Absolutely. If anything, I would say that these communities lean a little more toward Democrats than Republicans, and African-Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic. The Latino and Asian-American evangelical communities are more evenly divided. But just the fact of this diversity also means that politics are not such a central theme: whether or not you support Trump is not a litmus test of character and membership, as it is in white evangelicalism.
CP: Who are the other women we should keep our eyes on in the coming months?
NY: Glennon Doyle is someone that I find really interesting, although I think that she certainly is not an evangelical figure anymore. I think it's a big question because space has been opened up by Beth Moore shifting away from the SBC. But I don't really see that next wave of white evangelical women ready to step into her place.
One can imagine a community cohering around Moore’s evangelical position here, but you could also imagine her departure creating room for hardline evangelical women to become more influential. I think we are seeing that in politics, but not so much in the church and the denominations. I think that there's an opening now for a hardliner to come forward within the SBC to really assert principles like female submission to male authority.
CP: Part of where my thinking was returning to was schism: the SBC is itself the result of a schism over slavery. And so, might we imagine another schism, as some conservatives peel themselves away from Trumpism and others cleave to it more tightly?
NY: I do not think that there is a schism emerging in the Southern Baptist Convention. What we are seeing is what we've seen for many years now: individual Southern Baptists are leaving their churches, just as Beth Moore has done. It's the largest Protestant denomination in the country, was growing every year until recently. But in the last couple of years, membership has declined, and the SBC is very much aware of that.
If anything, I think the denomination is consolidating around its theological positions and its politics. Its leadership, the individual pastors who are the power of this denomination, believe that they are consolidating around unwavering Orthodox positions. Even the decline in membership to these people speaks to their commitment to a truth that they're not going to budge on. But I don't think we see cross-factions within the denomination with enough size or scope to break away.
Individual Southern Baptist will leave, and they'll join other conservative denominations that are a bit more progressive on questions of race and gender. Others will leave and go to mainline and liberal churches. But there is not going to be a schism in the Southern Baptist Convention itself.
CP: One last question. If our readers are interested in Beth Moore, where should they go to learn more?
NY: First of all, follow her on Twitter because it’s the best way to understand her. She has an incredible voice that is just Twitter perfect. I think the book that she's probably most famous for is When Godly People Do Ungodly Things (2002).
That title expresses who Beth Moore believes she is. What she asks her fellow believers to think about is to imagine where they are falling astray and where there's sin in their lives. At its heart, that is a very traditional, very Orthodox, very conservative, evangelical message. We are all sinners. We are all fallen, and it's up to fellow believers to call each other out on that. But what Moore has done as a woman is to call out men in power, which was beyond what this conservative denomination would really stand for.
And I would also say interested people should watch her on YouTube because she's charismatic, not in terms of her theology, but little-c charismatic. She's a speaker who fills an arena. It's real down-home wisdom, which is, again, very much Southern Baptist culture, right?
It’s a strategy: you underplay your authority by being “just folks.” It's also captivating. She's a master storyteller.
CP: And now she has a new story to tell. Thank you, Neil.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (Oxford, 2015). He writes on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
For those among us who actually believed that Trump was building a functional wall on the southern border with Mexico—surprise! He built non-functional, cheaply constructed pieces of wall, and in all the wrong places! (Simon Romero and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, New York Times, March 16, 2021)
“No feminist ever said the women’s movement was about women ‘having it all:” Hope Reese interviews Susan Faludi about Backlash 30 years later. (JStor Daily, March 17, 2021)
You are invited: