Losing Our Religion
OCTOBER 21, 2023
by Russell Moore
In that moment, I resolved two things. The first was that I would still trust and obey the Jesus to whom Southern Baptists introduced me, and I would follow him, whether he has a southern accent or not, whether his Jordan River baptism was full immersion or not. And the second was that I would never be at another Baptist business meeting again. I was not losing my faith, but I was losing my religion. The altar call they were issuing had me walking the opposite way, right out the back doors and into a world I’d never known before.
On the other side of that reverse altar call, I started to question everything. Was that all it was? Had it all been a lie? That began a period not just of questioning all my assumptions, but also of simultaneously grieving my lost religious home and my own burdened conscience, recognizing complicity in participating for so long in something that now seemed both inane and predatory. I couldn’t help but wonder if the plot twist to the story of American conservative Christianity was that what we thought was the Shire was Mordor all along. I pretend that all of that is past me, but it lingers, in the ringing of my ears of the stress-induced tinnitus that persists to this day, and in the fact that I am still waiting for one sleep without nightmares about the Southern Baptist Convention. But here I am, an accidental exile but an evangelical after all.
My situation was especially public, but it wasn’t especially unusual. The issues—political fusion with Trumpism, Christian nationalism, white-identity backlash, the dismissing of issues such as abuse as “social justice” secularism, and several others—are (some of them or all of them) dividing almost every church, almost every family, almost every friendship I know. Every institution—from the presidency to local churches to family dining room tables—seems to be in crisis, almost to the point of breakdown. Where at the beginning of my ministry parents used to seek my counsel about their young-adult children walking away from the faith, I was now more likely to hear from committed younger Christians wondering how to connect with parents who were politically radicalized by conspiracy theories. I was less likely to hear about wayward children going out into “the real world” and losing their faith as I was to hear about wayward parents retreating into an imaginary world and losing their minds. After a near-decade of American evangelical Christianity defined almost wholly in the public view with Trumpism or racism or the predatory sexual or financial or psychological power dynamics of countless leaders, the outside world didn’t seem to be judging us by “secular” standards as by our own. Weighed in those balances, we were found wanting. Our kingdom was divided and couldn’t stand. Our houses were built upon the sand. The very populist and entrepreneurial energies that led American evangelical Christianity to grow into a world-influencing movement and into a powerful political influence bloc seemed to be what was now undoing us, right down to friendships of decades.
Maybe the problem was the altar calls. Some of our worst impulses could be found there: the revivalist penchant for emotionalism, individualism, novelty, market-driven entrepreneurialism, and a populist energy easily manipulated by the ambitious.
We are more vulnerable than we know. Even so, there is still power in the blood. Maybe, like the old altar calls, this is a moment of decision—decisions about what to seek and what to flee, what to save and what to lose. Maybe “losing our religion” is just another way of saying what Jesus commanded a first century church in crisis—a rekindling of our first love (Rev. 2:4). If the stories are true—and I believe they are—then maybe we should listen to what they’ve told us all along. Only when something is lost can it be found. Only when something dies can it be born again.
Excerpted from Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Russell Moore, 2023.