This week, Neil King of the Wall Street Journal wrote a front page feature on Russell Moore, “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” Moore has recently been installed as the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, replacing longtime leader Richard Land. The Journal reports that this generational transition marks the end of an era as the peaceable new tone of Dr. Moore replaces Dr. Land’s stridency and, thus, the Religious Right ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

The opening of the article contrasts Land’s support for a Federal Marriage Amendment with Moore’s opposit…, no, wait… Moore actually supports a Constitutional Amendment as well. King opposes Land’s position to Moore’s call to “Love your Gay and Lesbian neighbors.” I guess that it is possible that Dr. Land opposes Christians loving all of their neighbors, but I would be very surprised.

From that inauspicious beginning, Mr. King proceeds to use the story of Russell Moore’s elevation as an excuse to play the greatest hits of that timeworn genre: “Evangelicals are Surrendering the Culture Wars.”

1. Evangelicals Are Eschewing Strident Language

Mr. Moore wrote [gays and lesbians] “aren’t part of an evil conspiracy”…

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric…

Here, Dr. Moore is made to sound almost precisely like how the WSJ portrayed Jim Daly as he took the helm at Focus on the Family from James Dobson:

But, Mr. Daly said, he has no use for the sharp personal attacks on politicians employed by Mr. Dobson. “I don’t see evil behind everything,” Mr. Daly said.

Evangelical Group Seeks Broader Tent,” Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2010.

A change of tone may signal something deeper, but is Dr. Moore really advocating for any substantive changes?

2. Evangelicals Want to Avoid Being Subsumed by Politics

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,”

Actually, Evangelicals have always been worried about letting the culture wars define them. Indeed, even back when QB Eagles and Tecmo Bo walked the land, Evangelicals were registering their desire to be less triumphalist in tone.

In this major shift in strategy, these groups have taken on a new tone, less shrill and less righteous than their predecessors, less eager to sweep into politics and take over the Republican Party or the government.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

3. The GOP Establishment Wants Evangelicals to be Quiet

[Dr. Moore’s] advice meshes with those in the Republican Party who want the GOP to back off hot-button cultural issues to stress themes such as job creation and education. Party leaders earlier this year released a manifesto calling for the GOP to become more tolerant, welcoming and inclusive.

Again, this story is about as fresh as a New Kids on the Block album:

But some hostility to evangelicals lingers on within the GOP: Former Georgia Republican Chairman John Stuckey argues that “people who have the word and divine direction aren’t really well-fitted emotionally or intellectually” for politics.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

4. Young Evangelicals are Moving Left

Recent polls have found younger evangelicals drifting away from some of the conservative views of their parents and grandparents.

Wait, you’re saying that some Evangelicals support leftist positions. And there’s even a left-leaning group called Sojourners now. This is a brand new development, right?

“Something, they say, is happening among Evangelicals themselves: Evangelicalism is rising on the left. A group now exists called the Sojourners…”

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

As I pointed out in this space just two weeks ago, there were some Evangelicals who supported Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale. But this rump Evangelical caucus is not about to fundamentally transform the contours of American politics.

5. Sometimes, Evangelical Leaders Take Left-Approved Positions

[Dr. Moore] has allied with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups to make the case that overhauling the U.S. immigration system is a Christian goal.

This move by Dr. Moore would be surprising if Evangelicals were mere shills for the GOP platform. But Evangelicals have always pushed and prodded a GOP establishment that has sometimes been reluctant to adopt Biblically-supported positions. No less than the ur-Evangelical himself has ruffled feathers in this way:

Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspapers this week and discovered that Billy Graham, friend of Richard Nixon and most famous evangelist of all, was going to preach in Moscow. Imagine the further surprise on learning that the occasion of his visit was a conference on nuclear weapons, most definitely an issue of the left. What was going on here?

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

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I could go on, but it wouldn’t be sporting.

My beef is not with Russell Moore. Since the article appeared, he has explicitly disclaimed the headline as mischaracterizing his position. He is not calling for political abdication, but for Christians to maintain civility in the public discourse and thus heap burning coals on their enemies’ heads (Rom. 12:18-20). I pray that God would prosper his tenure at the ELRC and that his new tone would bear much fruit.

But the article itself is infuriating. The WSJ, like most other newspapers, has a paint-by-numbers article that they pull out every few years announcing the demise of Evangelical political influence and the rise of a kinder, gentler, and less-partisan religious political engagement. Someone wrote it in 1989 when the Moral Majority disbanded. Someone wrote it when Ralph Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997. Someone wrote it when Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas called for an end of the Culture Wars in 1999 and someone else wrote it when the late David Kuo complained of GOP hypocrisy in 2006. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It did not matter whether or not Russell Moore believes that he actually represents a sea-change in SBC political engagement compared to the Richard Land era, the template was already in place. Indeed, when Russell Moore retires from the ERLC in 2038, I’ll bet his successor’s “new tone” gets written up as well.

The question is why Evangelicals have been so keen to triangulate away from the way their forebearers did politics? Its easy to say that leaders like Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson were political rubes who earned their reputation as hatemongers (a point Matt made in his New Evangelical Scandal piece). But given the vitriol heaped on their generally irenic successors—folks like Louie Giglio and Al Mohler—could it be that the old guard wasn’t quite as mean-spirited as the narrative portrays them?

It is understandable why a leader replacing someone who has been widely-characterized as hateful and belligerent would try to gain a hearing with critics by saying, “Hey, I’m a nice guy.” But just once, I would love to hear someone say, “Yeah, that guy you didn’t like was awesome, and I hope to be as courageous as him.”

Maybe in 2038.

Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.