Beth Moore, a Prominent Evangelical, Splits With Southern Baptists
From the outside, the marriage of convenience between white conservative Christians and Donald J. Trump looked like a devoted one: White evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump overwhelmingly in 2016 and stuck with him in 2020, brushing aside perpetual lies and sexual impropriety to support a man they saw as their protector.
However, not everyone was content.
Now, one of the most prominent white evangelical women in the United States is breaking with her longtime denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, citing the “staggering” disorientation of seeing its leaders support Mr. Trump, and the cultural and spiritual fallout from that support.
“There comes a time when you have to say, this is not who I am,” Beth Moore, told Religion News Service in an interview published on Tuesday. “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists,” she added.
Her stature in the movement poses a serious challenge for the Southern Baptist Convention, which has already been embroiled for years in debates not just about Mr. Trump, but about racism, misogyny and the handling of sexual abuse cases. Its membership is in decline.Her departure is “tectonic in its reverberations,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of a Black Christian collective called the Witness. “Beth Moore has more influence and more cachet with Southern Baptists, especially white Southern Baptist women, than the vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors or other leaders. So her leaving is not just about one individual.”
Ms. Moore is not a traditional leader for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. She does not lead a church — she is a woman, and the Southern Baptist Convention reserves the office of head pastor for men. But she arguably wields deeper loyalty and more influence than many of the men often called on as spokesmen for evangelicalism.
For most of her career as a Bible teacher, Ms. Moore, 63, avoided the culture and political battles that consumed the attention of many prominent evangelical men. She wrote extremely popular study guides focused on particular books of the Bible. And she spoke to arenas full of evangelical women about matters both spiritual and personal, mining biblical texts for lessons in purpose and encouragement.
But Ms. Moore has described the election of 2016 as a turning point. She began speaking out after the “Access Hollywood” tape, released just weeks before the election, captured Mr. Trump bragging about forcing himself on women.
Since then, she has become increasingly outspoken online and has exerted her authority and power in new ways that have challenged the male-dominated culture of evangelicalism.
In 2018, she published a letter to her “brothers in Christ” sharing her bruising experiences with sexism as a female leader in the conservative Christian world. On Twitter, where she now has more than 950,000 followers, she has denounced Christian nationalism, the “demonic stronghold” of white supremacy and “the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC.”
Ms. Moore has become a kind of lightning rod for critics of the Southern Baptist Convention from the right. In 2019, an offhand online remark from Ms. Moore about speaking at a Sunday morning service on Mother’s Day set off a sprawling evangelical debate about whether women should be allowed to preach in church. One California megachurch pastor told her to “go home.”
Within the denomination, her departure has so far been greeted largely by either silence or measured regret.
“I have loved and appreciated Beth Moore’s ministry and will continue to in the future,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said in a statement. Mr. Greear said he hoped the news of Ms. Moore’s departure would cause the denomination to “lament,” pray and rededicate itself to core values.
“It saddens me to hear from those like Beth who no longer feel at home within our convention,” Ronnie Floyd, the president and chief executive of the denomination’s executive committee, said in a statement.
An assistant to Ms. Moore at her Houston-based ministry said she had no further comment beyond her interview with Religion News Service. Ms. Moore told the news service she had recently ended her longtime publishing relationship with Lifeway Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing arm. She suggested that her writing and speaking career would continue, though she expected that her audiences might be smaller for a while.
Ms. Moore has also publicly supported others critical of conservative evangelicalism from within. This week Mr. Tisby, the president of the Black Christian collective, described on a podcast for the first time his experiences of racism in white evangelical communities. His testimony was part of a campaign called #LeaveLoud, to tell the stories of Black Christians leaving evangelical spaces. Ms. Moore replied to him on Twitter.
“Jemar, one of the most powerful podcasts I’ve ever heard,” she said, adding: “You will be a hero to your descendants. And you are one of mine."
J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, left, with Ronnie Floyd, the president and chief executive of the convention’s Executive Committee, at the annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., in 2019. Both men have publicly lamented Ms. Moore’s departure.Credit...Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press
Ms. Moore often spoke out against widespread sexual abuse in the denomination and the reluctance of churches to face it, while many men in leadership often soft-pedaled the issue.
Jenny Taylor, 40, who grew up in Southern Baptist churches, left one of the denomination’s most prominent churches, the Village, a few years ago, angered by its leaders’ treatment of a young woman who brought a sex abuse allegation against a former minister.
When she heard the news on Tuesday that Ms. Moore, someone she had long admired and respected, was also now leaving the Southern Baptists, she felt less alone.
“A lot of things that feel like core issues have come into question about my faith in the past few years,” she said. “Once that happened, it feels like everything is up for examination. It feels so destabilizing and scary. To see someone like her — who has been a model of faith through the years — take a similar route is just comforting and encouraging.”
Ms. Moore’s decision to step away from the Southern Baptist Convention quickly drew praise from other prominent Christian women who have walked away from white American evangelicalism.
“While there are a thousand ways we can robustly disagree as people of faith, there are and should be deal breakers: the defense of white supremacy, patriarchal abuse, moral bankruptcy, the crushing of human souls for proximity to power,” Jen Hatmaker, a popular podcaster and author, said.
About five years ago, Ms. Hatmaker broke with evangelicalism because of her opposition to Mr. Trump and her support of gay marriage.
Ms. Moore’s decision was “a harbinger of the future,” Ms. Hatmaker said. And though Ms. Moore was a trailblazer for the denomination, evangelical women have been defecting for years, she said.
“People have had enough, and there is no lock on the door,” she said. “God does not belong to the S.B.C.”
During the Trump era, some white evangelical women have grown more uncomfortable with their churches’ values about sex, race and politics, especially as their denominational leaders supported Mr. Trump through the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border, nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd, and the #MeToo revolution.
“Women of color were the first to see it, then men of color, and now white women are starting to wake up,” Lisa Sharon Harper, president of FreedomRoad.us, a Christian justice group, said.
“They are having to believe what they are seeing,” she said of white evangelical women. “It is hard to respond to. It literally means giving up everything, literally everything.”Ms. Moore’s decision reflects an alignment of her inner life with her outer life, Ms. Harper said, and it may prompt other white evangelical women to think about their own lives and decisions.
“We may not see the results for a few years, but I think it will cause an earthquake,” she said.
Already, Ms. Moore’s departure is showing how her denomination is changing, and purifying itself into a more unyielding form of orthodoxy.
“The fact that Beth Moore joyfully promotes herself as a woman who preaches to men is only the tip of the iceberg of her problematic positions,” Tom Buck, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lindale, Texas, said in a post online following the news.
“I sincerely wish Mrs. Moore had repented rather than left,” he wrote. “But if she refuses to repent, I am glad she is gone from the S.B.C. Sadly, leaving the S.B.C. won’t fix what is wrong with Beth Moore.”
But for some of Ms. Moore’s fans, her departure already feels liberating.
Joy Beth Smith, who said she “adores” Ms. Moore, described 2016 as a reckoning for her, too. And watching Ms. Moore leave now, she says, has validated her own evolving relationship with a religious tradition that no longer provides the solace and authority it once did. “She has given us permission to leave those broken institutions,” Ms. Smith said.
Ruth Graham is a national correspondent covering religion, faith and values. She previously reported on religion for Slate. @publicroad
Elizabeth Dias covers faith and politics from Washington. She previously covered a similar beat for Time magazine. @elizabethjdias
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