This is the latest in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity, aimed at bridging America’s God gulf. Previously, I’ve spoken with the Rev. Timothy Keller, President Jimmy Carter, Cardinal Joseph Tobin and others. Here’s my interview with Beth Moore, an influential evangelical writer who broke with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2021. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Nicholas Kristof: Merry Christmas! This is my favorite season, but I’m skeptical that Jesus was born to a virgin. Do we need to accept miracles to celebrate the Christmas story?
Beth Moore: For people who believe Jesus rose from the dead, a virgin birth is not inconceivable.
Kristof: Most Christians today no longer believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that Eve was made from Adam’s rib. So why hold on to the virgin birth, which, after all, is mentioned in only two of the Gospels and is omitted in Mark, which was probably the first to be written?
Moore: If we were to strip the Bible of its wonders, miracles and mysteries, we might have a religion left, but it wouldn’t be Christianity or Judaism. The miraculous is essential. But any place is a starting point: whatever draws us into the story. God uses all sorts of aspects to draw us into its center.
Kristof: Some 500 years ago, Catholics and Protestants were killing each other partly in a feud over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation. Today, almost nobody knows the difference. So should we worry less about doctrine and define Christian faith in terms of what people do more than in what they believe?
Moore: Our behavior is a result of belief. The love of God takes place not only in word but also in deed. For example, you cannot possibly be steeped in the Gospels and disregard the poor. The Sermon on the Mount is etched in the concrete of the Gospel. First Corinthians 13 says we can be sacrificial and gifted speakers but if we don’t have love, our serving is nothing but noise to God. We’re staring today in the face of a profound failure of discipleship. Our witness has gone awry.
Kristof: Such as the Southern Baptist Convention and its sexual abuse scandals?
Moore: You have to understand, this was my world. From where I sat, it was burgeoning publicly with idolatry, misogyny and racism. There comes a time when you say, “No, I can no longer identify with this.”
Kristof: Did that shake your own religious faith?
Moore: My faith in institutions, yes. Mostly it caused a tremendous season of introspection and repentance. It was too late for me to be greatly shaken about Christ himself.
Kristof: Jesus was remarkably open-minded about gender. The only person in the gospels who defeats him in argument is an unnamed woman described in Mark 7:24-30 and more fully in Matthew 15:21-28; she is feisty as she begs for help and talks back until Jesus changes his mind. So why has the church tended to be patriarchal and sexist?
Moore: Christ made a point of bringing in women. You find women among his traveling band of followers in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus brought Mary of Bethany into theology class. Jesus chose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection. Why would we rebuild a wall Christ tore down? Some of these guys have the attitude, “Give women an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Well, you know what? It’s not their inch.
Kristof: When you and I were young in the 1960s and ’70s, two of the most prominent evangelicals were arguably Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter. And now white evangelicals overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. How did that happen?
Moore: The marriage between the Republican Party and the evangelical church. As believers in Christ, we can’t give ourselves to a political party or to politicians. We’re to be led by the spirit, free agents who can’t be bought.
Kristof:How should we think about the intersection of religion and morality? One of the most repulsive things I’ve seen was the opposition to funding for the AIDS crisis by prominent evangelicals like Senator Jesse Helms because they thought it was gay people who would die. Yet when I visit prisons, when I travel to the poorest places around the world, I disproportionately see people of faith — often conservative people of faith — truly doing the Lord’s work, risking their lives to help others. Somehow Pat Robertson and these heroic missionaries were all reading the same Gospel.
Moore: I often tell people of faith who are demoralized and unsure if they want to be part of Christianity anymore, don’t go to social media for your impressions of the church! We’ve lost our minds there. Go to the streets where we do some good. Go to the crises. To homes for abused women and children. That’s where your faith will be rebuilt.
Kristof: You used that term “Jesus Follower.” I wonder if you think that the term “Christian” has accumulated so much baggage that we should change terminology?
Moore: “Christian” is a fine and wonderful word. But what I saw happening in politics made me change how I refer to myself and the community of fellow believers. What has become “pro-Christian” politically too often fails to reflect what is Christlike.
Kristof: One element of evangelical principles that I find at odds with that message of love is the notion that only people who have accepted Jesus will end up in heaven. I recoil at the idea of Gandhi, who was Hindu, writhing in hell.
Moore: There are things I obviously cannot explain. But I don’t believe anyone is getting into the presence of God except through Christ. That is the spine of my faith. I can’t work out exactly what that looks like, but I know the Savior is good. My best understanding of hell is eternal separation from God. I can’t say what Gandhi or anyone else is doing right now, but I believe to my core the way to God is through Christ.
Kristof: What do liberals not get about evangelicals?
Moore: Breaking down stereotypes begins with knowing people who don’t believe the same thing you do. Case in point: My older brother was in the theater world, where he encountered and embraced Buddhism, renouncing Christianity as backward and hateful. This was my beloved big brother, one of the wittiest, most talented people I’ve ever known. As an attempt to salvage family relationships, all talk of religion became off limits. It didn’t work for the two of us. It left us polite but not close. Ten or so years ago we decided to lift the ban and free each to talk openly about anything, including our beliefs, agreeing to respect each other’s differences.
Kristof: Was your brother won over?
Moore: He died suddenly 10 months ago. My best friend. We were thick as thieves. Thicker than blood. I miss him every second. I can’t say either of us won over the other but we won back our relationship, enjoyed the heck out of each other. And he no longer seemed to think Jesus was a jerk.
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