A key Southern Baptist leader remains officially uncommitted, as various conservative Christians issue public endorsements of presidential candidates ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucus.
However, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), recently offered statements suggesting a strong favoritism toward Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
On Christmas Eve, the Washington Post ran a column co-authored by Rubio and Moore. The piece on Christian persecution in the Middle East included political proposals to implement and jabs at the current administration.
Moore has not co-authored a column with any other presidential hopefuls during the campaign.
J.C. Derrick, the Washington Bureau chief for World magazine, a conservative Christian publication, called the column “as close to an endorsement as any candidate is going to get from Moore.”
Derrick added, “Moore confirmed to me that he will not endorse a candidate in either the primaries or the general election.”
Moore may not have to use the words “I endorse” to make his preferences known to Southern Baptists and other conservative evangelical voters.
Moore’s ERLC predecessor, Richard Land, often clearly choreographed his leanings even as he avoided official endorsements.
In 2012, however, Land broke his promise to the ERLC board and officially endorsed the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
While collaborating with Rubio, Moore has strongly blasted business mogul Donald Trump and expressed skepticism about Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Polls suggest those are the main two candidates standing between Rubio and the Republican nomination.
Moore’s recent comparison of the three campaigns clearly favors Rubio.
“I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing,” Moore told Roll Call earlier this month.
Moore cast Cruz as a revival of the Moral Majority and Trump as someone who “tends to work most closely with the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism.”
While comparing those two candidates to controversial figures, he associated Rubio with the most popular U.S. Christian figure of the past century.
Despite Graham’s bipartisan friendships – even being close to potential Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton when her husband was in the Oval Office – Moore cast the man popularly called “America’s preacher” as a Republican “wing” of evangelicals.
Rubio’s director of faith outreach, Eric Teetsel, quickly highlighted Moore’s “‘Billy Graham’ wing” comment in a campaign email. Neither Teetsel nor Moore responded to EthicsDaily.com requests for comment.
On another occasion, Moore said the Falwell “wing of evangelicalism is aging and not replicating itself very well in the younger generation,” suggesting the need for a new kind of candidate like Rubio instead of Cruz.
Moore also used an ERLC platform to spotlight Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In August, Moore moderated sessions with Rubio and Bush at an official ERLC event held in conjunction with a missions conference co-sponsored by the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board. Clinton declined an invite to appear.
Moore promised it would be the first in a series of interviews with candidates, though no additional gatherings have yet been announced.
The standard for inviting candidates to the forum was polling position at the start of May, though the announced standard meant invites for the first event should have also been sent to Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
By the time the event was held, business mogul Donald Trump amassed a dramatic lead in the Republican race, and Rubio fell well below the announced standard.
If held today, Cruz would also qualify. At other points, author and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina would both have qualified.
While Moore welcomed Rubio and Bush – both Catholics – Southern Baptists Cruz and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee were left behind.
Rubio does occasionally attend a Southern Baptist congregation in addition to his Catholic parish.
While Moore flirts with Rubio, his ERLC predecessor joined more than 300 Christian leaders who huddled in December for an off-the-record meeting with Cruz in Texas.
In addition to Land, others present included Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, National Religious Broadcasters CEO Jerry Johnson and evangelist Voddie Baucham.
The potential disconnect between the pulpit and the pew is not for lack of trying on the Rubio campaign. Rubio, Cruz and Carson emphasize their faith and are the only campaigns with a faith outreach director on staff.
Although Moore may not share Land’s leanings in this race, he uses the same “I don’t endorse” rhetoric to defend his political activity. Like his ERLC predecessor, Moore promised not to endorse candidates.
“I don’t endorse candidates,” he said in 2014. “I’m not going to endorse a candidate. I’ll never endorse a candidate for president.”
He made similar statements in a Jan. 20, 2016, interview with Kimberly Atkins, host of CSPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
She asked, “Are there particular candidates that appeal to you?”
Moore responded, “I don’t endorse candidates. I simply talk to candidates, expressing our concerns and what we believe and what we are concerned about and worried about and committed to.”
Even if Moore insists he has not broken that promise since he has not officially endorsed Rubio, the IRS defines endorsement activity much broader.
The IRS restricts 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
Moore’s anti-Trump rhetoric clearly fits that broader definition – though it would not necessarily be an IRS violation as long as Moore engages in the activity on his own and not through the ERLC.
The IRS definition of endorsement understands that opposing one candidate naturally helps others.
As Moore tongue-lashes Trump and critiques Cruz, it could help other candidates – like the one sitting next behind those two in the polls.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.