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What Integrity Can't Do

August 24th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore. Sentinel, 2023, 272pp. $29.

A friend once remarked of an author he’d recently met that the man had “a hundred answers to a thousand questions.” What he meant was something like Chesterton’s concept of madness in the first chapter of Orthodoxy: It’s possible to construct systems that are both perfectly coherent in as much as you can explain everything you want via the system, but that are also far too small, in as much as they require increasingly unprovable or implausible assertions to work.

Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions.

It was this thought that kept recurring to me as I read Russell Moore’s new book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. While there is much in the book one can commend, the book is plagued by a highly reductionist argument in which virtually all of the bad things in evangelicalism come back to Donald Trump and to the lack of integrity in Trump himself and the similar shortage that his ascent has exposed in many evangelical leaders.

To be sure, there is much one can commend in the book. I found the book’s conclusion quite moving. Moore is at his best as a preacher exhorting his readers to repent and believe the Gospel and the conclusion is him at his best. His discussion of how friendships and coalitions have shifted in the past eight years was also quite relatable, and, of course, there are many places where Moore is simply correct in his diagnosis of evangelicalism's lack of integrity and virtue. And yet to read the book is to come away with the feeling that basically all of our problems are primarily individual in nature and basically all of our problems will be solved through maintaining personal integrity.

Certainly it is true that integrity matters a great deal; indeed I can’t think of a time when integrity doesn’t matter. Yet there are problems that cannot be solved simply through integrity.

Here one of the book’s weaker moments might perhaps be illustrative: It is not surprising that Moore so egregiously misunderstood James Wood’s argument regarding evangelization and cultural acceptability and yet even so the degree to which he misses it is striking and worth noting:  

In recent years it has become popular–especially among a certain kind of fundamentalist Calvinist on social media–to mock the idea of ‘winsomeness’ in Christian witness. As I was writing this page, one figure did so, attacking a revered evangelical elder, as he was in the hospital being treated for terminal cancer. The point was that ‘winsomeness’ doesn’t work in these times. Now, the argument goes, the only effective measure is a gloves-off “fighting” evangelicalism, of the sarcastic and condemnatory sort.

Though I don’t agree with all of Wood’s critique (and have teased him that he didn’t evolve on Keller so much as he evolved on Keller’s impotent and often embarrassing Gen X successors), the above is not a faithful account of Wood’s argument, which had far more to do with treating the political arena as an area of primarily evangelistic concern and with the ways in which a deformed missional approach undermines Christian discipleship. Wood has never suggested that we should abandon Christian character in order to secure political security.

The best version of Wood’s argument is that a previous generation of centrist and center-left evangelicals functionally behaved as if simply having personal integrity and adopting a generous, open posture toward our neighbors would be a sufficient witness in any time or place. As we have seen in recent years, that mostly hasn’t panned out. Indeed, in a bit of irony given the beginnings of that discourse, Tim Keller’s treatment at Princeton Seminary is perhaps one of the foremost examples of why that doesn’t always work out. This isn’t to say, as some other Keller critics have suggested though never Wood himself, that integrity or character is optional or even a liability. It is always essential. It is simply sometimes not sufficient on its own to effect positive change Christianly understood.

In terms of what Moore does criticize, howlers like his misreading of Wood aside, I suspect he is broadly correct. It is not hard to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention is corrupt, for example, given what we already publicly know about many of their leaders. If the two architects of your “conservative resurgence” are a man accused of sexual assault and another man accused of covering up sexual assault, well, that suggests that there are serious problems with corruption! Add to that the corruption evident in younger leaders, such as a former seminary president who was spending six figures on the presidential mansion while his school was laying off faculty, or the former denominational president who couldn’t be bothered to write his own sermons, and a certain picture of SBC leadership begins to emerge that broadly aligns with Moore’s account.

Even so, what lessons ought we to learn from that corruption? For Moore, the entire discussion exists in the shadow of the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Yet the corruption in the SBC seems to be equal opportunity in nature and, indeed, implicates many figures Moore was once close to himself. Yet what could have been an occasion to ask harder questions about corruption instead served as fodder for illustrating the danger of aligning oneself with a narcissistic sociopath like Donald Trump. What is mostly, though not altogether, lacking is a consideration of why this corruption has arisen, what could have prevented it from spreading (as a Presbyterian I have some thoughts), or why it has proven so hard to eradicate.

Another striking element of the book is what Moore does not address. To be sure, critiquing any book for what it doesn't say is a dangerous thing—it can easily slide into the reviewer complaining that the author didn't write the book the review thinks they ought to have written. But if the thesis is that evangelicalism is in crisis and needs to return to its first love, then it seems to me necessary to reckon with several of the factors driving that crisis, not just one. There is no meaningful discussion of the deformative effects of technology on Christian communion, for example, save some tangential references to online radicalization. But of the distraction that our tech has wrought, to say nothing of the isolation and anxiety it produces, and how that affects the church, Moore says not a word. Likewise, there is little discussion of COVID and the ways that divided congregations, weakened trust in leadership, and, most damaging of all, effectively cemented the idea that “church” is largely equivalent to “content” and can be participated in remotely via online streaming as easily as it can be in person.

Moore speaks a great deal of the importance of “witness” and yet it seems to me that one of the greatest threats to Christian witness is the dissolution of the in-person, geographically dense Christian communities that ought to be the ones bearing witness. Indeed, it may be the cardinal contradiction of Moore’s career to date: The man is at his best while operating in the sermonic mode. Yet while serving as the head of a denominational policy organization his concerns were often quite divorced from the concerns animating actual local pastors and churches.

This has, in turn, led him to a leadership role in an evangelical organization which is even more divorced from the local church context and which has in recent years sometimes undermined the local church through a kind of stripmining of institutional credibility through its journalistic endeavors. Many of the critiques of Moore as a kind of embryonic mainline liberal should be regarded as absurd–there is no reason to doubt the man’s commitment to orthodoxy. But the one place where this attack has some purchase, I think, is in as much as Moore’s rhetoric has retained the flavor of the pulpit, even as the place where he is standing has grown ever more distant from actual pulpits in actual local churches. In this respect, there is something about Moore’s book that reminds me of the post-mainliner personas so artfully constructed by Jody Bottum in his book An Anxious Age.

If evangelicalism needs an altar call, as the book’s subtitle implies, surely the altar call should include a clear discussion of how our technology and take-it-or-leave-it attitude about the local church has led us into a dark wood of error, out of which we must be rescued? If we have lost track of Jesus and the life of Christian discipleship, surely the passivity and consumerist attitudes imparted to us by digital technology are one of the greatest causes of this loss? And yet these are problems that can’t be resolved through an individual commitment to personal integrity nor can they be set at the feet of President Trump. And so they are largely invisible in Moore’s altar call. There are problems which must be reasoned about, debated, and that require specific communal actions to address. There’s a striking passage in St Paul where he shifts the older imagery slightly, suggesting that God will crush Satan under the church’s heel. Yet the people who together hear the Word, receive the Sacrament, and deliberate together about how to live a life of Christian love together are only occasionally present in Dr. Moore’s argument.

Finally, Moore’s book has virtually nothing to say about the unique complications presented to us today by the latest developments of the sexual revolution, particularly the movement to normalize transgender identities in American public life. This example in particular highlights the limits of personal integrity. It will not do to advise a parent in Washington state, for example, where there have been some genuinely alarming developments in custody laws as they relate to gender identity, that they simply must behave honorably and live at peace with their neighbors.

Certainly they should do that. But more guidance is needed: Is it right, for example, for states to adopt rival laws, as my home state of Nebraska has done, to prevent minors from transitioning? Is it still right even if such activism will provoke progressives to a more intense disdain and even hatred for Christian believers? Would it be right for Christians in states like Washington to consider leaving, as Brian Mattson advised recently? Or would that be a failure to love their blue state neighbors who, after all, need to hear about Jesus and will have a harder time hearing about him if all the orthodox believers flee the state?

These are hard questions that raise a variety of related issues concerning the Christian’s relationship to political life, the call to love neighbor, and what compromises and risks one can licitly take in the attempt to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. They won’t be answered well by Moore’s singular focus on individual integrity. Our answers will not be found apart from the pursuit of integrity and Christian maturity, and yet neither will they be arrived at solely through those things. The hundred answers Moore’s book offers are often wise. But I worry about the nine hundred questions that he leaves largely unexplored.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).