Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why you should pay attention to Vladimir Putin, even if you don’t care about foreign policy … What the “nobody’s perfect” quip leads to with our expectations for character and morality … How I finally won the prize for the “ultimate Southern Baptist” … Plus, books, music, etc. … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
How Vladimir Putin Threatens the Witness of the Church

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia threatens the existence of a free Ukraine, it would be easy for American evangelicals to conclude that this is one more distant foreign policy question. In reality, though, Putinism is much more than a geopolitical threat; it’s also a religious threat. And the question for evangelical Christians is whether the way of Vladimir Putin will become the way of the American church.

The threat to Ukraine hangs over far more than just the Ukrainian people. NATO worries about the stability of the European order. The U.S. State Department worries about any remaining Americans, fearing a repeat of the Afghanistan debacle. Germans wonder whether their dependence on Russian natural gas will lead to an energy crisis. And the whole world worries about whether the move will embolden China to attack Taiwan.

Lost in all of this is another world figure contemplating his next move: the pope.

In The Pillar, JD Flynn and Ed Condon explain that Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox leaders charge the Russian Orthodox Church with complicity in the violent takeover of the Ukrainian people. The standing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a body independent from the Russian Orthodox Church has been a firestorm of controversy since 2018.

The question now, the authors note, is whether Pope Francis will meet any time soon with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church—and, if so, whether that would signal a tolerance for the subjugation of not just a nation but a church.

For American evangelicals, there are real questions too—not only about how we will respond to Putin’s violent use of religion but about whether we will emulate it.

Several years ago, before the tumult of the Trump era, I was seated with other evangelicals on a secular national news program, broadcast on Easter morning. In one sense that weekend, we were all united and in agreement—affirming together the most important truth of the cosmos: the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But where we parted ways was on Vladimir Putin.

I saw Putin the same way I do now—as an enemy. Yet some of the others defended the authoritarian strongman as a defender of Christian values. At the time, I thought we just disagreed about a matter of foreign policy. Looking back, I can see that, for at least some evangelicals, there was a larger disagreement we didn’t even know existed: the question of what “Christian values” are in the first place.

Take the issue of abortion. Not only is the abortion rate in Russia high, but even when pro-government forces articulate something akin to a “pro-life” view, it is usually in terms of curbing demographic decline, not about protecting vulnerable human lives. The animating principle is not “Every life is precious” but “Make Russia great again.”

This is even more pronounced in terms of the Russian government’s treatment of the children filling orphanages and “baby hospitals” around the country. Without a vibrant adoption culture in the former Soviet Union, many of these children age out into terrifying lives of immediate substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and suicide. But that didn’t stop Putin from doing everything possible to end the adoption of these orphans by Americans and others—all as a salve for wounded Russian national pride and as a geopolitical game of strength.

The situation is even worse when one looks at Putin’s response to the gospel itself. He has indeed carefully cultivated the Russian Orthodox Church, even to the point of approving mosaics of himself, Stalin, and the Crimean invasion being placed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the military. In so doing, the Russian regime has relentlessly pursued snuffing out the freedoms of minority religions—especially those of the relatively tiny band of evangelicals and evangelical missionaries from abroad.

Why would a former KGB official who says that the end of the Soviet Union was an awful disaster want to partner with a church? Perhaps it is because he believes, with Karl Marx, that religion can be a useful tool for maintaining power.

And, indeed, religions are useful when they focus on protecting nationalism and national honor. In that sense, religions can turn already-passionate feelings of tribalism and resentment of outsiders into transcendent and unquestionable sentiments. All of that makes perfect Machiavellian sense—unless Jesus is, in fact, raised from the dead.

If only this tendency were limited to the former Soviet Union, we might have the luxury of ignoring it. Pay attention, though, to those who look behind the former Iron Curtain to find the future. Many religious conservatives—most notably Roman Catholics but some evangelical Protestants too—have allied themselves with Hungary’s authoritarian strongman, Viktor Orbán. As libertarian commentator Matt Welch notes, the Hungarian prime minister “makes for an odd champion of American-style Christendom.”

“Abortion is uncontroversially legal in Hungary, the people aren’t particularly religious, and Orbán has exercised kleptocratic control over churches that dare to dissent from his policies,” Welch argues. The key reason for the attraction to Eastern European strongmen, Welch concludes, is that they fight the right enemies and “win.”

If this were just a skirmish between those of us who believe in liberal democracy and those who find it expendable, that would be one thing. But the other, larger problem with this authoritarian temptation is the gospel.

If the church is a cultural vehicle for national stability and pride, then one can hardly expect dictators to do anything other than manipulate it. But if the church is made up, as the Bible tells us, of “living stones” brought in by regenerated hearts through personal faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5), then external conformity to “values” and “civilization” falls woefully short of Christianity.

That would be true even in a place that actually followed more or less Christian values. Yet it’s all the more true when the church is blessing an authoritarian, like Putin, who is known by his own people for poisoning his enemies.

In that case, the witness of the church itself is at stake—because everyone, eventually, can see that a religion that can wave away bloodthirstiness really doesn’t believe its own teachings on objective morality, much less in a coming judgment seat of Christ. Why would anyone listen to such a religion, then, on how to find peace with God and entrance into the life to come?

Evangelical Christians should watch the way of Vladimir Putin, and we should recognize it whenever we are told that we need a Pharaoh or a Barabbas or a Caesar to protect us from our real or perceived enemies. When that happens, we should remember how to say, in any language, “Nyet.”

The Depravity Gospel

With Vladimir Putin all across the news right now, many are recalling the February 2017 comments of then president Donald Trump about the Russian dictator. In a conversation with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Trump expressed respect for Putin. O’Reilly pushed back with “But he’s a killer.” Trump’s response was “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

What interests me about this exchange is not so much the politics of Trump or the geopolitics of Russian-American relations. It’s the way I hear this sort of argument all the time now.

This week on the podcast, I had a conversation with David Brooks, asking him what I find myself asking almost everyone these days: “Is this time as crazy as it seems, or is this just what life has always been like and I was too sheltered to know it?”

David, of course, agreed that something unusually off-kilter is happening in American life. When I asked why, he pointed to a shift after World War II—from people (whether religious or not) seeing themselves as sinners in need of guarding their character, to now having the sort of nonjudgmental sense of self-esteem and personal authenticity that are today’s cultural default.

I’m not sure I agree. To me, it seems that we have not moved into a time of a utopian sense of the goodness of human nature (although that would be bad enough). Rather, we’ve moved into the mirror image of that. We don’t deny human depravity; we take reassurance from it. We sense that everyone is really just about power and appetite, and therefore only those who guard their power and feed their appetites can survive.

It’s not so much “You can’t judge me; I’m a good person!” as it is “You can’t judge me; you’re a bad person too!”

What we have at the moment is not so much a prosperity gospel as it is a depravity gospel. And appeals to character or moral norms are met not with pleas of “Not guilty!” but with dismissals of “Get real!”

In his new book Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Wanted, journalist Jeremy Peters quotes an Alabama Baptist deacon during the tumultuous Roy Moore (no relation) 2017 U.S. Senate race, in light of charges that Judge Moore allegedly had pursued underage girls. “I believe in innocent until proven guilty, but even if he’s guilty, I’ll back him all the way,” the deacon said. “I still feel he’s a Christian man—and nobody’s perfect.”

The deacon is right, of course, that people are innocent until proven guilty. And if he had argued that Judge Moore was of such character that he couldn’t believe the charges to be true, that would be reasonable enough. People could weigh the allegations, decide whether they believed them to be true or false, and vote accordingly. But the part that caught my attention was the deacon’s assertion that “even if [the allegations] are true,” his support wouldn’t falter because “nobody’s perfect.”

Again, if this were a momentary mentality in the middle of a long-over political campaign, that would be one thing. But this has nothing to do with those charges or with that campaign. It’s about the kind of argument we’ve taken on without even noticing we’ve done so.

I hear this line of argument all the time now—including sometimes applied to sexually predatory ministers of the gospel. “Well, nobody’s perfect; all are sinners. Remember King David” can be used to defend the indefensible.

Yet such an argument, when applied to ministry, nullifies the biblical character qualifications of 1 Timothy 2–3 and elsewhere. And when applied to oneself, it can justify literally anything. “Even if I embezzle a little from my company, we’re all sinners.” “I cheat on my spouse a little, but Jesus said lust is adultery of the heart, so who hasn’t?”

This is precisely the kind of argument the Bible says is a contradiction of the gospel itself (Rom. 3:1–8).

Those of us who believe in the doctrine of total depravity use that term to mean that every part of a human being is affected by sin. We can find no part of us—our minds, our emotions, or our wills—that is sinless. We are, then, in need of repentance and mercy as whole persons.

What the doctrine does not mean is that since everyone is as bad as he or she can possibly be, who can expect anything different? God forbid.

Maybe the problem is not that we are a people obsessed with self-esteem but that we are a people who’ve given up on esteeming anything or anyone. Maybe we’ve stopped pursuing holiness because we think that since everything’s lost, nothing can be found, or that since everyone’s blind, no one can see.

Maybe the problem is not just that we’ve neglected character formation but that we don’t think good character is possible at all.

No Comment

I never do this, but because a friend linked to it, I took one of those Buzzfeed-type online quizzes—this one on hymn lyrics. The results came in:

100%—You Are the Ultimate Southern Baptist!

Congratulations! You’re a Southern Baptist through and through! You knew the names of all the hymns of the given lyrics, which is a huge achievement. You’ve definitely made your church proud today.”

So at least there’s that.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader Leigh Haynie, who writes that for the past two and half years, living the expat life, she’s had to kind of choose her Desert Island Bookshelf since books take up so much space. But these are the ones she would choose if she were on an island and could have only one shelf. She writes:

True Grit by Charles Portis—One of the funniest books I have ever read. I am going to need to laugh a lot, and I am going to need the inspiration of Mattie Ross to give me the grit to persevere through the isolation of a desert-island stay.

Persuasion by Jane Austen—The greatest of Jane Austen’s works. I will verbally spar with anyone who disagrees with me. Anne Elliot personifies discipline, humility, and perseverance.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—I will take this book for the beautiful language alone. I will read it aloud to remind me of how lovely the spoken word can be.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse—As I hunt for sustenance each day, I will need to remember that somewhere in the world, at one time or another, the idle rich spent days worrying over a cow-creamer.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy—Percy will provide me with the cynicism and dry humor to balance out the sweetness and goodness of Robinson and Austen. Plus, I will laugh as I always do when I reread this perceptive novel.

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis—If life on the island is a little too idyllic and I find myself making a universe revolving around me as a (g)od, then I will read this to scare the self-righteousness right out of me as it always does.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster—Oh, sweet and wonderful Richard Foster. He will balance out the fear of Lewis and give me a beautiful pattern for a little life in obedience to the true God.

History of Alabama by Albert James Pickett—I will bring it for these sentences alone (written in 1858): “The heart yearns to behold, once more, such a country as Alabama was the first time we saw it, when a boy. But where can we now go, that we shall not find the busy American, with keen desire to destroy everything which nature has made lovely?”

Thanks, Leigh!

What do you think?

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

Power has several prizes
Handcuffs can come in all sizes
Love has a million disguises
But winning is simply not one

—Jon Guerra, “Citizens”

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Eric Ortlund, Suffering Wisely and Well: The Grief of Job and the Grace of God (Crossway)

Jed Coppenger, 21 Days to Childlike Prayer (Harvest House)

Rowan Williams, Collected Poems (Carcanet)

Currently Listening

Jill Phillips’s brand-new album Deeper Into Love. My fellow Jill Phillips fans, you will love this. Those who’ve not listened to her before, check it out

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Russell Moore

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