Imagine for a moment a powerful, but fresh-faced, religious leader of a large conservative Christian body whose behavior and statements excite, infuriate, and confuse both conservatives and progressives by turns. You have just envisioned Pope Francis. You have also just imagined Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Both men assumed their posts atop America’s leading Christian denominations in 2013 at a time when their respective organizations were attempting to overcome tarnished public images. Southern Baptists—America’s largest Protestant group—had been long criticized for their political alignment with the Republican Party and predominately white membership. Their message had grown stale, if not desperate in tone, and they were beginning to decline in numbers. Roman Catholics—America’s largest religious group of any kind—were suffering from clergy sex abuse scandals and their failure to deal swiftly with offenders, as well as the lavish lifestyles of many of their priests and bishops.
The election of each leader brought a promising shift in tone and the hope of revitalization. The Pope sought to exert a more winsome witness on homosexuality in 2013. When asked about LGBT people in the church, the Pope avoided condemning them as “disordered” like previous Popes and instead asked, “Who am I to judge?” Moore has also been more careful in dealing with sexuality issues by denouncing ex-gay therapy and urging Christian parents not to disown their LGBT children.
Both men have also poked another sacred cow for conservatives: environmentalism. Pope Francis chose creation care as the subject of his recent encyclical, calling Christians to take responsibility for caring for the earth and mitigating human-caused climate change. Moore also believes humans are partly responsible for climate change and argued that the BP oil spill and other environmental problems were moral issues and the result of human sin.