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Hello, fellow wayfarers. How blue and red America echoes some of the worst caricatures of Episcopalian and Pentecostal churches, just without the religion … How to know whether your church is an authoritarian cult … What happened to my good old boy … And a Desert Island Playlist that took a long time to put together … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

What Happens When Both Sides Secularize

In my new book (releasing Tuesday!), I mention a conversation I had years ago with an older man in ministry whom I respected. We had seen a string of what’s euphemistically called “moral failures” with pastors in our church tradition. I made some comment about their having “lost their ministries.” The older man corrected me. “Oh, they’ll be back,” he said. “After a scandal, blue-collar pastors become Pentecostals and white-collar pastors become Episcopalian.”

This was tongue-in-cheek, of course. This man and I could both name countless pastors in our tradition who, mid-career, had joined a Pentecostal church or sought ordination in the Episcopal church. These folks just changed their minds about liturgy or spiritual gifts or a thousand other factors.

This man also wasn’t talking about the mainstream of the Anglican Communion or of global Pentecostalism (such as the Assemblies of God). He meant, specifically, the most progressive environs of the Episcopal church in the USA and the most populist and extreme areas of prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism. Those places, he argued, were more tolerant of clerical misbehavior—though for very different reasons.

I’ve lived long enough to see that my denomination is hardly different when it comes to morally compromised people making a hasty comeback. Still, what sticks out to me is not the literal reality of this man’s statement so much as the metaphor of it all—a metaphor that explains a good bit of what’s going on in our current American social crisis. It’s as though half of our culture decided to secularize like nominal Episcopalians and the other half decided to secularize like nominal Pentecostals.

We are not headed toward the religious “awakening” of a “moral majority” as envisioned by the previous generation’s Religious Right. We’re also not secularizing to just short of Norway the way some secular progressives predicted. Instead, we might just be hearing a secularized echo of the worst caricatures of white-collar Episcopalians and blue-collar Pentecostals.

A generation ago, Diane Knippers, leader of the more conservative evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church (USA), warned that the reason her church was “more vulnerable to ethical revisionism” than other Protestant churches was not theology but social class. “Episcopalians tend to represent the urban well-off,” she wrote. “They listen to NPR, not Fox. They go to elite universities, not community colleges. They value liturgical niceties over theological substance.”

So, Knippers argued, when “white flight” came to American cities, Episcopal congregations had three choices: “move to the suburbs, … transform themselves to include ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the poor; or reach out to the remaining well-off urbanites.” The third, she said, was the most comfortable option for them—rendering the centers of influence within American Episcopal life out of touch with the rest of America and subject to the winds of ideology most represented in elite, affluent urban centers.

And when asked about the bleeding out of members from the Episcopal church nearly 20 years ago, the then-presiding bishop of the church said it was because Episcopalians were “better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates” than other churches.

This seems to parallel much of what is happening in the left wing of secularization in the country right now. Increasingly, progressives in this country find themselves urban and affluent, disconnected not only from the much-discussed “white working class” but from working-class African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well.

At the same time, though, the secularizing Right seems to be taking on key aspects of prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism. In the 1980s, the country was rocked by a series of scandals in this wing of evangelicalism—such as the meltdown of the PTL ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, with emerging stories of shocking sexual behavior combined with accounts of lavish displays of wealth (such as an air-conditioned doghouse).

“PTL was basically a place where every day was Sunday and every night was Saturday night,” one insider said. “If you live in that kind of atmosphere, Saturday night kind of stuff is going to happen.”

Despite serving time in prison, Jim Bakker was back relatively soon—with an entire set of “prophecies” of jaw-dropping events that never seemed to happen and sales of dried food supplies for people’s bunkers in preparation. Sunday morning or Saturday night, bank receipts never stop.

In some of these sectors, the disconnect of personal character from public ministry has seemed to become not a scandal to be covered but a test of loyalty to be passed. When people attack a prosperity-gospel evangelist for flying around in a private jet or for being on her third marriage, followers might see it as a sign that this leader is making “all the right enemies.” Circling in protection around the leader then becomes a sign of who’s in and who’s out.

That’s why crazy statements aren’t necessarily a hindrance to this sort of ministry but sometimes a church-growth strategy. Suddenly the guy criticized for saying that COVID-19 was a hoax or that his opponents are part of a witch cabal is labeled a modern-day Polycarp figure, who’s standing up for Jesus despite the threat of lions or flame. The spectacle is what draws the crowd, but the drama is what keeps them there—even when the result is a “burned-over district” of cynicism after the enthusiasm has waned.

In a secularizing time, one can get all of that—the personality cults, the conspiracy theories, the “touch not mine anointed” loyalty tests, the “being a character” replacement for having character—without a church or even a ministry. The whole world can be a prosperity-gospel radio talk show: all the resentment and prophecy, without Jesus or the Bible, except when needed to distinguish “real America” from the libs.

What’s the way out of all this? Ironically enough, it might just be Anglicans and Pentecostals. By this, I don’t mean the extremes of their caricatures—and certainly not their secularized echoes—but real, genuine Anglicanism and Pentecostalism.

There’s a reason that, worldwide, both the Anglican Communion and the Pentecostal movement are growing. Anglicanism at its best conveys Christianity with a connectedness to the generations before and a reverence and awe of God in worship. Pentecostalism at its best shakes up dead, lifeless nominalism with joy and a fresh expectation of what the Spirit can do.

The church needs both of these—and a world devoid of Good News needs both too.

How to Tell If You’re in a Cult

Referencing a Scripture passage above reminded me of a not-quite-but-close-enough test of whether you’ve joined an authoritarian cult.

There are many signs of this, but one I’ve found to be dead-on is this: If somebody says, “Touch not mine anointed!” in a controversy and they’re talking about the leader instead of Jesus, you’re probably in an authoritarian cult.

The passage—from 1 Chronicles 16:22—is a song of David about God’s protection of Israel when they were small in number and “wandered from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another” (v. 20). David sang that when the kings of those nations tried to come against God’s prophets, God said, “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”

That language of anointing applied formally to kings and priests and informally to prophets. Oil was poured over their heads, as it was with David when he was marked out to be king. The oil itself was the less significant aspect of anointing; the greater aspect was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In the New Testament, Jesus came as the Messiah or the Christ—literally “the Anointed One.” He is the ultimate Prophet, the ultimate Priest, the ultimate King.

We are to respect and support in every good thing the pastors and leaders God has given us. But I’ve never heard a good shepherd say about himself or herself “Touch not mine anointed!” to shut down accountability.

Usually, those who misuse the passage this way are actually saying, “I’m in charge here; obey or to hell with you.” That’s not anointing—at least not the kind that has anything to do with God.

Goodbye to Waylon

Lots of you have asked about our dog Waylon after I mentioned his struggles with diabetes. Well, while my wife and sons and I were out of town on vacation, he died.

I thought his death would be hard on the kids, but I think it’s been harder on me—and not just because I will miss him.

For a decade, through all the memories of my children growing up—at virtually every stage of life—Waylon was right there. His passing is one more sign of the passing of time, much quicker than we want. (My wife says this is my Enneagram Four-ness more than anything. Maybe.)

Every six months or so, the veterinarian would send a card to the house—the standard form using the dog’s first and middle names—to indicate it was time to come in for a checkup. I would look at the mailer and see the words, “Waylon Jennings Needs Treatment,” and I would say to my wife, “I think the real Waylon Jennings probably got cards like this!”

One time I came home from a terrible day. It was the day a Wall Street Journal headline about me read (and I recall the exact words) “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback from Politics, Culture Wars.” I was getting blasted by old-guard religious-political figures, and I was exhausted. I sat down on the kitchen floor with Waylon and felt the freedom of talking to somebody for whom I was not—and never would be—“controversial.”

He wasn’t attacking me. He wasn’t defending me. He just liked me and knew I’d give him food. It was almost like being in Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys.

Goodbye, Waylon—and thank you.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Susan Choi, who writes:

Over the years of reading this newsletter, I have spent an embarrassing amount of time considering what I would put on my Desert Island Playlist. My love for music is deep, so it took me forever to know how to decide which songs to put on this playlist, but here is where I landed.

1. At least one song to represent some of my favorite artists

2. The song speaks of things that are true and beautiful and takes me back to a specific time/memory

3. I could listen to the song all day long and still find things that captivate my mind and heart.

    Here’s her list:

    • “If You Could Read My Mind,” Gordon Lightfoot—A good example of a song that displays the art and splendor of good songwriting. Every detail of this song is intentionally chosen to create a subtle beauty.

    • “When You Say Nothing at All,” Alison Krauss and Union Station—I remember the exact moment when I introduced my children to Alison Krauss. She is known as “angel voice” in our home.

    • “Perfect Symphony,” Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli—I don’t know why, but I adore that these two artists came together.

    • “Hey Jude,” The Beatles—This is a windows-down, driving-on-the-highway, getting-lost-in-the-moment kind of song.

    • “You’re Still the One,” cover by Ben Rector—I went through a major Shania Twain stage in high school, but I firmly believe Ben Rector trumps Shania. If you don’t know him, go now and listen to his music!

    • “Get Rhythm,” Johnny Cash—Memories flood when Johnny Cash comes on. I love all of his music, but you can’t help but tap your toe along to this one.

    • “Sweet Potato Pie,” Ray Charles and James Taylor—Being born and raised in Georgia, here is my ode to all the memories that Ray Charles brings.

    • “Attaboy,” from the Goat Rodeo Sessions—When my babies were young, this is one of the instrumental albums I would put on to grow their love for all styles of music. They still dance around to it.

    • “All Shook Up,” Elvis Presley—One of my 16th birthday presents was a CD of Elvis’s #1 hits. Pretty amazing gift if you ask me.

    Susan concludes:

    I feel like I’ve betrayed so many artists/genres by not including them! But I loved this exercise, and I have found the choices and explanations of others’ playlists to be a fascinating study in human nature. Thanks for encouraging us to look for the beauty and good in these means of grace.

    Thank you, Susan!

    Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, 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 (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

    Quote of the Moment

    At all times, an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than the rise, for the old one is the world we know.

    —John Updike, in Hugging the Shore

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