What are your thoughts on Florida governor Ron DeSantis signing a bill requiring Florida students and professors to register their political views with the state?

What will undoubtedly happen now is that Florida will lose billions of dollars as students will go to other states to attend college and businesses and research companies will locate elsewhere. Isn’t that fun? Equally amusing: cruise lines cannot ask whether someone is vaccinated before boarding, but schools can ask students what political party they support. Dystopia squared.

To conclude: when you’re punishing educational institutions for failing to produce drones that dutifully parrot your bankrupt ideology, what you are is a Nazi. Your mom must be so proud you went to Harvard and Yale. Ron DeSantis – Wikipedia

I see a lot of Florida college students and/or educators lawsuits coming to sue DeSantis for violating their privacy. Since it’s entirely unconstitutional…

The Excesses of Antiracist Education

In my last column I tried to describe part of the current controversy over race and K-12 education — the part that turns on whether it’s possible to tell a fuller historical story about slavery and segregation while also retaining a broadly patriotic understanding of America’s founding and development.

 

In this column I will try to describe the part of the controversy that concerns how we teach about racism today. It’s probably the more intense debate, driving both progressive zeal and conservative backlash.

Again, I want to start with what the new progressivism is interested in changing. One change involves increasingly familiar terms like “structural” and “systemic” racism, and the attempt to teach about race in a way that emphasizes not just explicitly racist laws and attitudes, but also how America’s racist past still influences inequalities today.

In theory, this shift is supposed to enable debates that avoid using “racist” as a personal accusation — since the point is that a culture can sustain persistent racial inequalities even if most white people aren’t bigoted or biased.

Still, this kind of vision would, on its own, face inevitable conservative resistance on several grounds: that it overstates the challenges facing minorities in America today; that it seems to de-emphasize personal responsibility; that it implies policy responses (racial quotas, reparations) that are racially discriminatory, arguably unconstitutional and definitely threatening to the white middle class.

But the basic claim that structural racism exists has strong evidence behind it, and the idea that schools should teach about it in some way is probably a winning argument for progressives. (Almost half of college Republicans, in a recent poll, supported teaching about how “patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other institutions.”) Especially since not every application of the structural-racist diagnosis implies left-wing policy conclusions: The pro-life and school choice movements, for instance, regularly invoke the impact of past progressive racism on disproportionately high African-American abortion rates and underperforming public schools.

What’s really inflaming today’s fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn’t being offered on its own. Instead it’s yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes.

First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins.

Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect “equity” may be a form of structural racism itself.

The first idea is associated with Robin DiAngelo, the second with Ibram X. Kendi, and they converge in places like the work of Tema Okun, whose presentations train educators to see “white-supremacy culture” at work in traditional measures of academic attainment.

The impulses these ideas encourage take different forms in different institutions, but they usually circle around to similar goals. First, the attempt to use racial-education programs to construct a stronger sense of shared white identity, on the apparent theory that making Americans of European ancestry think of themselves as defined by a toxic “whiteness” will lead to its purgation. Second, the deconstruction of standards that manifest racial disparities, on the apparent theory that if we stop using gifted courses or standardized tests, the inequities they reveal will cease to matter.

These goals, it should be stressed, don’t follow necessarily from the theory of structural racism. The first idea arguably betrays the theory’s key insight, that you can have “racism without racists,” by deliberately trying to increase individual racial guilt. The second extends structural analysis beyond what it can reasonably bear, into territory where white supremacy supposedly explains Asian American success on the SAT.

But precisely because they don’t follow from modest and defensible conceptions of systemic racism, smart progressives in the media often retreat to those modest conceptions when challenged by conservatives — without acknowledging that the dubious conceptions are a big part of what’s been amplifying controversy, and conjuring up dubious Republican legislation in response.

Here one could say that figures like Kendi and DiAngelo, and the complex of foundations and bureaucracies that have embraced the new antiracism, increasingly play a similar role to talk radio in the Republican coalition. They represent an ideological extremism that embarrasses clever liberals, as the spirit of Limbaugh often embarrassed right-wing intellectuals. But this embarrassment encourages a pretense that their influence is modest, their excesses forgivable, and the real problem is always the evils of the other side.

That pretense worked out badly for the right, whose intelligentsia awoke in 2016 to discover that they no longer recognized their own coalition. It would be helpful if liberals currently dismissing anxiety over Kendian or DiAngelan ideas as just a “moral panic” experienced a similar awakening now — before progressivism simply becomes its excesses, and the way back to sanity is closed.

The Authoritarian Instincts of Police Unions

They condition their members to see themselves as soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce.

In may 2020, Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old with a smartphone camera, documented the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Most Americans who watched the video of Floyd begging for his life, as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, saw a human being. Robert Kroll did not. The head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis saw a “violent criminal” and viewed the protests that followed as a “terrorist movement.” In a letter to union members, he complained that Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death had been “terminated without due process.”

Kroll’s response was typical. In the apocalyptic rhetoric of police-union leaders, every victim of police misconduct is a criminal who had it coming, and anyone who objects to such misconduct is probably also a criminal, and, by implication, a legitimate target of state violence. Due process is a privilege reserved for the righteous—that is, police officers who might lose their jobs, not the citizens who might lose their lives in a chance encounter with law enforcement.

In the Floyd case, the effectiveness of this rhetoric, so powerful in years past, was blunted by what Americans could see with their own eyes. That eight-minute-46-second video became the spark for what were reportedly the largest civil-rights protests in the history of the United States. It also led to the trial and conviction of Chauvin and the indictment of the three officers who stood by while their colleague committed murder.

But what if Frazier hadn’t had the presence of mind to record what she witnessed? Floyd might have been remembered by the public as Kroll had described him, and that could have been more than enough to spare Chauvin and the others from indictment. The headline of the police department’s statement on the day of Floyd’s murder—“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”—might have become the accepted version of events.

Like any other type of union, police unions view their duty as protecting the interests of their dues-paying members. Yet these unions are fundamentally different, because their members are armed agents of the state. In practice, this means police unions reflexively come to the defense of men like Chauvin, while opposing any meaningful reforms of department procedures. The most modest attempts at change—banning choke holds or even gathering data on misconduct—are met with fierce resistance.

Americans are presently engaged in a debate about how to reform police departments to prevent the unlawful killing of civilians by officers, as well as other, nonlethal abuses of power. Reining in police unions may not seem like the most urgent response to this crisis. But no reform effort can hope to succeed given their power today. As long as they exist in anything like their current form, police unions will condition their members to see themselves as soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce.

The first efforts to establish police unions, around the time of World War I, were largely unsuccessful. Today’s unions took root in the 1960s and ’70s, in part because of new state laws allowing public-sector employees to collectively bargain. But this was also the moment when the most heavily policed communities in the country sought to turn America into a true multiracial democracy, and this profoundly influenced the growth of unions, and their shape today.

The civil-rights movement was a rebellion against the law. It had to be. And the police were called upon to crush it. Many of the most iconic images of the era were representations of police brutality: the Birmingham police siccing dogs on protesters, Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Atlanta cops manhandling Martin Luther King Jr. after arresting him at a sit-in. For police, this moment of radical social change proved to be both a threat and an opportunity.

The threat came in the form of attempts to resolve issues endemic to American policing. These weren’t the first such efforts. In the early 20th century, the widespread ineffectiveness and corruption of police departments had sparked a reform movement. In 1931, the Wickersham Commission, appointed by Herbert Hoover, issued a report on “Lawlessness in Law Enforcement,” which documented a range of abuses, including “physical brutality, illegal detention, and refusal to allow access of counsel to the prisoner.” These were particularly common when police interacted with Black people and immigrants.

That initial reform movement was more successful at professionalizing police practices and ending corruption than addressing such abuses. But in the ’60s, as the civil-rights movement brought graphic images of police brutality into the national spotlight, the Supreme Court stepped in. In a series of decisions, the Court compelled cops to inform suspects of their rights, barred the use of evidence obtained through illegal search and seizure, and gave all defendants a right to counsel. These decisions curtailed, even if they did not eliminate, many of the lawless practices described by the Wickersham Commission. Cities began looking for ways to prevent police misconduct, such as civilian review boards.

To many police officers, the reforms were simply pro-criminal. These incursions on their long-standing prerogatives spurred unionization efforts around the country. “The police unionism movement, which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a reaction to new efforts to bring the police under democratic control,” David Sklansky, a Stanford Law professor and the author of Democracy and the Police, told me.

If the civil-rights movement drew fresh scrutiny to police abuses, however, the backlash to the movement provided the police with new allies and new opportunities. For most white voters, riots and clashes with police in Black neighborhoods in 1967 and ’68 confirmed that liberal efforts to alleviate racial inequality had failed and that overwhelming force was the answer. “Unions discovered that they had a lot of power, that in union contract negotiations, they could play the crime card,” Samuel Walker, a historian of American policing and a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told me.

Book cover image: 'The Cruelty Is the Point' by Adam Serwer, from which this article is adapted.
One World

As they sought maximal leverage, police unions brazenly linked crime with race. In New York City in 1966, for instance, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association promoted a ballot measure that would bar civilians from serving on an oversight board. Supporters of the union ran an ad showing an anxious white woman exiting the subway alone, onto a deserted street, with the words “x … Her life … your life … may depend on it.” The group’s president at the time warned, “You won’t satisfy these people until you get all Negroes and Puerto Ricans on the board and every policeman who goes in front of it is found guilty.” The police union and its allies won in a landslide victory.

Among the unions’ most ardent champions in the tumult of the ’60s was the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, a Democrat. “The police in this country are a beleaguered group,” Wallace said in an interview republished by The New York Times in 1967. They deserved “praise” for beating civil-rights marchers in Selma—or, as he put it, for shutting down the “unlawful assembly” there. In a speech before the convention of the Fraternal Order of Police that same year, Wallace drew a standing ovation as he called for a literal police state: “If the police of this country could run it for about two years, then it would be safe to walk in the streets.”

Wallace lost his bid for the 1968 presidential nomination, but his racist populism proved potent; both Richard Nixon’s winning “law and order” strategy and a new penchant among Democrats for declaring themselves “tough on crime” were products of his campaign. These messages resonated because crime and violence were not merely white concerns. As the Yale Law professor James Forman Jr. writes in Locking Up Our Own, Black political leaders in the ’70s and ’80s pushed for strict anti-crime measures with the strong support of their constituents. (They also sought more government aid to fight poverty and discrimination, but those approaches to crime prevention had fallen out of favor among white voters.) Americans who would never have personally identified with Wallace tacitly took a version of the trade that he’d offered: Give the police impunity, and they will give you order.

Police unions found that they had new leverage at the bargaining table. In contract negotiations with cities, they sought not merely higher pay or better benefits, but protections for officers accused of misconduct.

At this, they proved remarkably successful. Reviewing 82 active police-union contracts in major American cities, a 2017 Reuters investigation found that a majority “call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months.” Many contracts allow officers to access investigative information about complaints or charges against them before being interrogated, so they can get their stories straight. Some require the officer’s approval before making information regarding misconduct public; others set time limits on when citizens can file complaints. A 2017 Washington Post investigation found that since 2006, of the 1,881 officers fired for misconduct at the nation’s largest departments, 451 had been reinstated because of requirements in union contracts.

For many police unions, enacting and enforcing barriers to accountability became a primary concern. In 2014, in San Antonio, the local police union was willing to accept caps on pay and benefits as long as the then–city manager abandoned her efforts to, among other reforms, prevent police from erasing past misconduct records.

The damage that these types of provisions have done is hard to overstate. In one recent study, the economist Rob Gillezeau of the University of Victoria found that after departments unionized, there was a “substantial increase” in police killings of civilians. Neither crime rates nor the safety of officers themselves was affected.

The provisions do more than simply protect bad actors. They cultivate an unhealthy and secretive culture within police departments, strengthening a phenomenon known as the code of silence. In a 2000 survey of police officers by the National Institute of Justice, only 39 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Police officers always report serious criminal violations involving abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

In the same survey, more than eight out of 10 “reported that they do not accept the ‘code of silence’ ” as an “essential part of the mutual trust necessary to good policing.” Yet even officers who might not believe in the code adhere to it. From their perspective, they have little reason to speak up, and plenty of incentive to ignore their conscience while on the job. Those who do speak up can become pariahs, while the misconduct they report goes unpunished.

Michael Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police officer and the author of Walking With the Devil, told me, “The whole problem with the code of silence is not so much that cops don’t want to report misconduct, but that there’s no accountability for the officers that are involved in misconduct. And if a department’s not gonna hold them accountable, why should they step up?”

This is not a system ruined by a few bad apples. This is a system that creates and protects bad apples by design. Most people who become police officers enter the profession because it is held in high esteem and because they wish to provide a public service. But individual good intentions cannot overcome a system intended to render them meaningless. Being a good cop can get you in trouble with your superiors, your fellow officers, and the union that represents you. Being a bad one can get you elected as a union rep.

In 2014, amid protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post published an op-ed by a former police officer. The headline stated plainly, “I’m a Cop. If You Don’t Want to Get Hurt, Don’t Challenge Me.” The author went on to enumerate the perfectly legal behaviors that he viewed as a “challenge”: “Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”

Such a mindset poses a mortal risk to people encountering the police, but it also poses a risk to democracy itself. In democratic societies, the use of state-sanctioned violence is meant to be constrained by the rule of law. Instead, led by their unions, the police in America have become a constituency with a strong interest in the ability to dispense violence with impunity. Such a constituency will have a natural affinity for authoritarianism. And having leveraged a racist backlash to establish their grip on power, such unions will inevitably attract the support of those who see the preservation of racial hierarchy as paramount.

President Donald Trump allied himself with police unions; the unions, in turn, proved to be among his staunchest supporters, campaigning on his behalf all over the country. The fact that last year’s Democratic ticket was composed of the author of the 1994 crime bill and a former prosecutor did nothing to temper the hyperbole of police-union officials and their allies, one of whom attacked Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the “most radical anti-police ticket in history.”

In Trump’s apocalyptic warnings about the consequences of liberal political ascendancy, one can hear the echoes of police-union officials arguing that the police are the thin blue barrier between civilization and collapse. “Americans know the truth,” Trump said during the 2020 campaign. “Without police, there is chaos. Without law, there is anarchy. And without safety, there is catastrophe.”

In the shared ideology of police unions and the Trumpist right, that safety is available only to those who refuse to criticize the police. As Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr told an audience of police officers and prosecutors in 2019, communities that protest maltreatment by police “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This is a mockery of free speech and a perversion of democracy.

If there were any doubt about the police unions’ allegiances, it was made plain after January 6, when a white-supremacist mob attacked the Capitol in the president’s name. These ostensible supporters of “Blue Lives Matter” beat and berated any law-enforcement officers who stood in their way. One officer, a Black Iraq War veteran named Eugene Goodman, led a crowd away from the Senate chamber and in doing so may have prevented lawmakers from being lynched. More than 100 of his fellow officers were reportedly injured in the melee.

Afterward, the National Fraternal Order of Police quietly released a letter condemning the mob and expressing sympathy for the dead and injured officers. But there was no parade of police-union officials on cable television labeling the MAGA mob “terrorists” or “animals.” There were no announcements that off-duty cops would refuse to work security at political events supportive of the mob or the lie about a stolen election that motivated it. That kind of rhetoric is reserved for those who protest the killing of Black people by the police, not an assault on cops in the name of white rule. The head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, John Catanzara, told a local news station how much he sympathized with an armed mob that attempted to overturn the results of a presidential election. “It was a bunch of pissed-off people that feel an election was stolen, somehow, some way,” Catanzara said. Forced to decide between defending democracy and maintaining the political alliances that protect their impunity, the unions made the obvious choice.

Police unions are unlike any other form of organized labor. A teacher who pulls out a gun and shoots a student cannot avoid prosecution if the school fails to investigate the incident within five days. A librarian with a tendency to throw large books at visitors who refuse to heed demands for silence will not be reinstated because an arbitrator determined that management failed to properly follow procedure in firing her. And while these professions provide essential services, withholding their labor cannot constitute a threat of violence.

The question is why there should be police unions at all. Because the defining work of police is violence, any police union is bound to eventually want to negotiate leniency for the misuse of violence by its members, and to advocate for policies that guarantee that leniency. Such a guarantee is rooted, in part, in the racial disparities of police misconduct, which also insulate police from backlash. The preservation of such disparities is thus a political interest for police unions.

Some liberals acknowledge that these unions are an obstacle to reform but argue that workers—including police—have a fundamental right to organize for better wages and benefits. Indeed, former officers I spoke with argued that unions helped secure financial stability or protected them from capricious decisions by management.

Yet the military—hardly exempt from questions about fair pay or capricious leadership—lacks a union. This is a matter of tradition, not law, but it reflects an understanding that such an organized political entity would be dangerous, placing the military beyond democratic accountability and civilian control. Instead, the military relies on public support, which means its members must maintain an outward stance of political neutrality—even when a sitting president expects them to interfere on his behalf.

There are some 18,000 police departments across the United States, and the laws governing relations between the departments and unions vary by jurisdiction. Curtailing union power will thus be a local fight. Some cities and states might opt to disband police unions altogether. Others might take disciplinary procedures off the negotiating table, leaving the unions to advocate for overtime pay and pension plans, not freedom from accountability. This spring, in San Antonio, activists succeeded in putting the collective-bargaining rights of the city’s police union on the ballot. The referendum was narrowly defeated at the polls, but both the activists and the union see the confrontation as the first skirmish in a longer fight.

If police unions are eventually deprived of the powers they’ve wielded for the past half century, current and former officers could still, as individual citizens and as part of police organizations, speak out in favor of their politics. But they would lack the leverage to negotiate getting away with murder as a condition of employment, or to withdraw the state’s cloak of protection to citizens who protest their conduct. The existence of powerful organizations that advocate for armed agents of the state at the expense of the public they serve is not simply an obstacle to reform. It is dangerous.


This article is adapted from Adam Serwer’s new book, The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America. It appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Bust the Police Unions.”

Thurgood Marshall’s punishment was to read the US Constitution

Thurgood Marshall was a mischevious student, he was suspended twice and didn’t take school seriously.  As punishment, the principal made him sit in the basement and read the US Constitution.  While reading if he realized that Black people were not granted the same rights as white people.  He decided to do something about it and went on to be the first Black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Historian Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The 2nd Amendment

Do Black people have full Second Amendment rights?

That’s the question historian Carol Anderson set out to answer after Minnesota police killed Philando Castile, a Black man with a license to carry a gun, during a 2016 traffic stop.

“Here was a Black man who was pulled over by the police, and the police officer asked to see his identification. Philando Castile, using the NRA guidelines, alerts to the officer that he has a licensed weapon with him,” she says. “[And] the police officer began shooting.”

In the 1990s, after the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the National Rifle Association condemned federal authorities as “jackbooted government thugs.” But Anderson says the organization “went virtually silent” when it came to Castile’s case, issuing a tepid statement that did not mention Castile by name.

In her new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, Anderson traces racial distinctions in Americans’ treatment of gun ownership back to the founding of the country and the Second Amendment, which states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The language of the amendment, Anderson says, was crafted to ensure that slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those whom they’d enslaved. And she says the right to bear arms, presumably guaranteed to all citizens, has been repeatedly denied to Black people.

“One of the things that I argue throughout this book is that it is just being Black that is the threat. And so when you mix that being Black as the threat with bearing arms, it’s an exponential fear,” she says. “This isn’t an anti-gun or a pro-gun book. This is a book about African Americans’ rights.”


Interview Highlights

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson

Bloomsbury Publishing

On the crafting of the Second Amendment at the Constitutional Convention

It was in response to the concerns coming out of the Virginia ratification convention for the Constitution, led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, that a militia that was controlled solely by the federal government would not be there to protect the slave owners from an enslaved uprising. And … James Madison crafted that language in order to mollify the concerns coming out of Virginia and the anti-Federalists, that they would still have full control over their state militias — and those militias were used in order to quell slave revolts. … The Second Amendment really provided the cover, the assurances that Patrick Henry and George Mason needed, that the militias would not be controlled by the federal government, but that they would be controlled by the states and at the beck and call of the states to be able to put down these uprisings.

On Black people’s access to arms after the American Revolution

You saw incredible restrictions being put in place about limiting access to arms. And this is across the board for free Blacks and, particularly, for the enslaved. And with each uprising, the laws became even more strict, even more definitive, about who could and who could not bear arms. And so free Blacks were particularly proscribed. And so we see this, for instance, in Georgia, where Georgia had a law that restricted the carrying of guns.

On the Founding Fathers’ fear of a slave revolt, which was stoked by the Haitian Revolution

When Haiti began to overthrow the French colonial masters and were seizing that country for themselves, when Blacks were seizing that country for themselves, the violence of the Haitian Revolution, the existence of the Haitian Revolution, just sent basically an earthquake of fear throughout the United States. You had George Washington lamenting the violence. You had Thomas Jefferson talking about [how] he was fearful that those ideas over there, if they get here, it’s going to be fire. You had James Madison worried. …

Whites … were fleeing Haiti and were bringing their enslaved populations with them, their enslaved people with them. … [There was a fear that] the ideas that these Black Haitians would have, that somehow those ideas of revolution, those ideas of racial justice, those ideas of freedom and democracy would just metastasize throughout Virginia’s Black enslaved population and cause a revolt. You had that same fear coming out of Baltimore that then began to open up the public armory to whites, saying, “You are justified in being armed because they’re bringing too many of these Black Haitians, these enslaved Haitians, up here who have these ideas that Black people can be free.”

On how the Black Panthers responded to restrictions on Black people’s ability to bear arms in the 1960s

What the Black Panthers were dealing with was massive police brutality. Just beating on Black people, killing Black people at will with impunity. And the Panthers decided that they would police the police. Huey P. Newton, who was the co-founder of the Black Panthers along with Bobby Seale, … knew the law, and he knew what the law said about being able to open-carry weapons and the types of weapons you were able to openly carry and how far you had to stand away from the police arresting somebody or interrogating somebody. … And the police did not like having these aggressive Black men and women doing that work of policing the police. And the response was a thing called the Mulford Act, and the Mulford Act set out to ban open carrying of weapons. And it was drafted by a conservative assemblyman in California with the support and help of an NRA representative and eagerly signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan as a way to make illegal what the Panthers were legally doing.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Veteran SILENCED While Memorializing Black History

An Ohio veteran had his microphone cut off during his speech honoring the role Black people played in the formation of Memorial Day. Ana Kasparian, Francesca Fiorentini, and Dr. Rashad Richey discuss on The Young Turks. Watch LIVE weekdays 6-8 pm ET. http://youtube.com/tyt/live

Russell Moore to ERLC trustees: ‘They want me to live in psychological terror’

In February 2020, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission defended himself after a second task force was mounted to investigate complaints against him.

Russell Moore to ERLC trustees: ‘They want me to live in psychological terror’

In February 2020, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission defended himself after a second task force was mounted to investigate complaints against him.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, speaks June 12, 2019, during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Alabama. RNS photo by Butch Dill

(RNS) — The below letter, recently obtained by Religion News Service, was sent in early 2020 to the trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission by its then-president, Russell Moore. We publish it here without changes or corrections, including Moore’s misspelling of Rachael Denhollander’s name.

February 24, 2020

Russell D. Moore
President
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Convention
901 Commerce Street, Suite 901
Nashville, Tennessee

Executive Committee
Board of Trustees
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Convention
901 Commerce Street, Suite 901
Nashville, Tennessee

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This past week all I could think about was the Jordan River.

This is because I realized that the twentieth of this month was the thirty-seventh anniversary of my baptism at Woolmarket Baptist Church, my home congregation in Biloxi, Mississippi. I remember that day well. I remember the way the heated water bubbled around me, as I trembled with nervousness. I remember hearing those words from my pastor, words that I would in later years say myself over and over again: “In obedience to the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in Him, I baptize you my brother, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But what I remember, right before being plunged beneath that water, was looking at the painted backdrop of that baptistery: a scene of the banks of the Jordan River, reminding me, and all of us, that where I was then, Jesus had been before me.

Because I had heard the gospel in that church, had met Jesus there, and because I had seen so many signposts of love and integrity there — even when I couldn’t see it elsewhere — I responded to the call of God to serve Jesus in vocational ministry, preaching the gospel and serving alongside the people I loved — Southern Baptists.


RELATED: Leaked Russell Moore letter blasts SBC conservatives, sheds light on his resignation


And over the past twenty-five years, that’s what I have done. God gave me the opportunity to lead people to Christ and to baptize them in Southern Baptist churches, to help people through their marriage crises in Southern Baptist churches, to help welcome orphaned children into families in Southern Baptist churches, to do evangelism and Bible teaching in prisons and homeless shelters, through Southern Baptist churches. And God allowed me to teach and to lead in the training of young pastors, leaders, and missionaries — with my students scattered all over the world.

And, of course, seven years ago, you were kind enough to elect me to serve as your president. Since then, thanks to you and to the team we have assembled here, we have seen incredible things happen.

Before I say anything else, let me say “thank you” to every one of you. Your support in the letter of the past week brought Maria and me both to tears of gratitude. More than that, even, your pastoral care for us, each one of you, is something I will never ever forget. Because in my talking with you at our meeting, my mind was so scattered by the stress of all that happened, I wanted to take the time to write down for you all some of the things I tried to communicate then, but don’t know if I was calm enough to be able to communicate adequately.

At every single vote of the Southern Baptist Convention since I have been president, the messengers of the SBC have encouraged us and affirmed us overwhelmingly, unanimously or virtually unanimously every time. A tiny minority in our denomination knows that, which is why they choose to wait until as far out from a Southern Baptist Convention meeting as possible to do what they do.

Last week’s action of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, which you know all about, was just such an action, motivated by an individual, the current chairman of the Executive Committee, who was also involved in a similar action when he had leadership in the Georgia Baptist Convention. This person not only drove the motion, but also saw to it that he would be a member of the “task force,” chairman of it, and the one with the power to elect its membership.

You deserve to hear it from me as to why this is.

The lazy journalistic assessment would be that this is about the President of the United States. This has nothing to do with that. Y’all know my concerns about the perennial temptation toward political captivity of the gospel, and that will always and perhaps increasingly be a concern in this era. But this is not the issue here. Most Trump voters and supporters have been nothing but kind and encouraging to me — from Southern Baptist laypeople and pastors to Administration officials all the way up and down the ranks. Just as we did with President Obama, we express disagreement where warranted, but we do so respecting the office and doing so requesting a different viewpoint, not engaging in polemics or attack. And when we agree with what the Administration is doing, we say so and work to achieve good public policy as informed by a biblically-grounded ethic, again just as we did when we could under President Obama, and as I did, before I was in this role, with President Bush. The Administration has asked us to take leadership on too many issues to list here — from working on opioid and mental health concerns in faith-based communities to ensuring religious liberty for adoption providers to working on the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in China and elsewhere.

The presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse. This Executive Committee, through their bylaws workgroup, “exonerated” churches, in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up. One of those churches actively had on staff at the time a sex offender. J.D. Greear, our SBC president, and I were critical of this move, believing that it jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but, more importantly, the lives of vulnerable children in Southern Baptist churches. Against constant backroom attempts to stop forward momentum, we were able to get across the finish line some modest steps toward addressing the crisis in our convention — the Caring Well Challenge, for instance, and the formation of a credentials committee.

As you know, our last ERLC National Conference was built around the issues of sexual abuse. We said from the beginning that we wanted a place for honest dialogue around these issues, and we would not police anyone from speaking what he or she had experienced or thought. At least one speaker harshly criticized us for not doing enough, or not handling things the way he thought we should. I welcomed that criticism. I learned from it, and was glad that the speaker felt the freedom to do so. At that conference, though, Rachael Denhollender participated with me in a conversation where, again, I refused to censor or stop anything that she had to say. In that conversation, she spoke about her thoughts about the disparagement and poor treatment of a sexual abuse survivor by Executive Committee staff. The story Rachael told is accurate, and Maria and I know that because we were, even during that very meeting, ministering alongside others to that mistreated young woman.

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, right, discusses the Southern Baptist Convention's history of addressing sexual abuse with ERLC President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, on Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography 2019

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, right, discusses the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of addressing sexual abuse with ERLC President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, on Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography 2019

This enraged some Executive Committee trustee leadership, who communicated that they were incensed that we would allow such a story to be told. That was communicated with special outrage since the Executive Committee had contributed some money to Caring Well as a reason why we should not have allowed this story to be told. I came away from these conversations with the distinct feeling that I was being told (not from Ronnie Floyd, but from sectors of his trustees, mostly the very sector from which this latest action has come), “You’ve got a nice little Commission there; would be a shame if something happened to it.” I told Maria that at the time. It was, and is, chilling — especially seeing what they had in mind to do under cover of darkness.

I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then “broken down.”

Moreover, the same people enraged at this also were enraged that J.D. Greear made the common-sense statement when asked by the press that, while he could not tell a church what to do or who to invite, that giving a “Defender of the Faith Award” and showcasing a man who was dismissed, for very serious cause, by a Southern Baptist entity, over issues including the treatment of vulnerable women, was not a good idea. The same people who moved to create our “investigative task force” wanted to censure J.D.

These decisions were made, I am told, at the officers’ meeting on the Sunday night before the meeting. I was told nothing of it, nor were you, despite the fact that the President of the Executive Committee would have known of it. On the following Monday, I gave my report before the Cooperative Program subcommittee, and was asked nothing but friendly questions not at all related to the so-called “anecdotal” reports of churches decreasing their giving to the CP. They then, the next day, without ever talking to me or to you went into a secret meeting to form yet another secret task force.

The last time they did this, I was “investigated” by a president of their body who was, at that very moment, using his pastoral authority to sexually sin. The “task force,” we were told at the time, is just about finding a way to “answer questions.” The headlines then were “Russell Moore and the ERLC Under Investigation for hundreds of churches leaving and defunding the convention.” Their own report showed that the claim was false, but there was no similar trumpeting of those findings. That’s because that’s the point — to keep a cloud over me, and to keep me self-censoring and silent about these matters.

At the same time, the other absolutely draining and unrelenting issue has been that of racial reconciliation. My family and I have faced constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention. Some of them have been involved in neo-Confederate activities going back for years. Some are involved with groups funded by white nationalist nativist organizations. Some of them have just expressed raw racist sentiment, behind closed doors. They want to deflect the issue to arcane discussions that people do not understand, such as “critical race theory.” There is no Southern Baptist that I know, of any ethnicity, who is motivated by any critical theory but by the text of Ephesians and Galatians and Romans, the Gospels themselves, the framework of Revelation chapters four and five.

From the very beginning of my service, I have been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters, and have been told to be quiet about this by others. One SBC leader who was at the forefront of these behind-closed-doors assaults had already ripped me to shreds verbally for saying, in 2011, that the Southern Baptist Convention should elect an African-American president. This same leader told a gathering that “The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.” I walked out of that gathering, as did one of you.

Another SBC leader used constant pressure against me in protest of our hiring of Dan Darling and Trillia Newbell, in 2013. At the time, this was, he said, because they did not have adequate Southern Baptist backgrounds. When I answered his concerns to his face, he said, “I was really just concerned about that black girl, whether she’s an egalitarian.” When I asked what possibly could lead him to think that a woman who has written complementarian articles for complementarian websites was an “egalitarian,” he responded: “A lot of those black girls are.” This same leader also let me have it when I said that white Christians should join our black Christian brothers and sisters in lamenting when young black men are shot, and that the moments of Ferguson and Eric Garner and the Emmanuel AME Church murders should motivate the church to address these questions with the gospel embodied in reconciled churches bearing one another’s burdens, that only those with guns would prevent black people from burning down all of our cities.

This is just a tiny sample of what I experience every single day. I am called a liberal—someone who believes in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, in the authority of Holy Scripture, someone who has spent my life defending such concepts as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. I am a “liberal” in this definition not because I deny the inerrancy of Scripture but because I affirm it. I believe in the inerrancy of all Scripture — including Luke 10 and Ephesians 2 and 3 and Romans 12, and all of it. I believe that no sin — including sins of sexual immorality or racial hatred — can be forgiven apart from the blood of Christ and repentance of such sins.

My concern about such issues is not because I believe in “social justice” (although, in the literal meaning of those words, of course I do, as the major and minor prophets tell us), but because I believe in the doctrine of hell. I believe in standing against racism not just because I love our African-American and Hispanic and Asian-American and immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ (although I certainly do), but also because I love bigots. And I believe that unrepentant sin, not brought to the light of Christ and cleansed by the blood of Christ, through the gospel, leads to hell. I really believe in hell. That’s why I’ve been clear for twenty-five years on abortion, on sexual chastity and morality, and on racism.

Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 18, 2019. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 18, 2019. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

But here is the pattern. Find a way to “investigate” me in secret, so that Southern Baptists do not hear what goes on in those rooms. In some of these “investigations,” what I have been charged with is “not playing enough to the Bubbas and the rednecks; they pay the bills.” I don’t think we have “bubbas and rednecks,” I find such slurs offensive and derogatory, personally as well as ethically. I have been charged with saying that we should combat the devil both in his deception of women in thinking abortion is a choice they should make as well as the accusation of the devil in telling such women, in grief after an abortion they have had in the past, that they should hide in shame, that Jesus would not forgive them. I was told, “Such women should be in shame.” When I explained what I believe about the gospel, that those united to Christ in repentance and faith, are received by the Father as just and righteous and that there is “Therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” I was told, “You are not the Evangelism Department of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

I thought we were all “The Evangelism Department of the Southern Baptist Convention.” That’s what they taught me at Woolmarket Baptist Church.

But the strategy here is clear. One of these figures told me in the middle of the 2017 debacle: “We know we can’t take you down. All our wives and kids are with you. This is psychological warfare, to make you think twice before you do or say something.” That’s exactly what it is.

If we want to compare anecdotal reports, I can tell you that I have worked as hard as I possibly can over the past seven years, to talk people into staying in the Southern Baptist Convention. One journalist said to me, “How many times are you going to try to bail these people out?” (speaking, in this case, for our work to try to turn around the disastrous floor action on the ‘alt-right’ in 2017, followed by the sexual abuse crisis matters of 2018). Over the past seven years, we have worked to bring people into SBC involvement, both in giving and in participation, and in talking countless numbers from leaving, because of all of the buffoonery and bigotry and wickedness. I cannot tell you how many people say — faithful, God-fearing leaders — that they do not want to have “Baptist” in their name because they are ashamed. When asked why, they tell us — the same things we are having to deal with over and over again.

Through all of this, brothers and sisters, I have tried to smile and pretend that everything is alright, with me personally and with the denomination. That’s because, for one thing, I don’t want lost people to know about this stuff. I have been afraid that they will associate it with Jesus. I don’t want the countless people — including pastors and church planters and missionaries, young people, women, people of color, to grow weary and to leave.

Some people will say, after this or any number of the other similar moves, that “We do not want Dr. Moore to resign.” They are telling the truth. They do not want me to leave. They want me to live in psychological terror, so that I will not say what the Southern Baptist Convention has assigned me to say, much less to reveal what I know about what goes on behind the scenes. And they want me to do so while asking my constituencies to come in and to stay in the SBC, though as submissive and disengaged “numbers” under the rule of a toxic and abusive gerontocracy.

Everywhere I go — everywhere I go — I am surrounded by former Southern Baptists. Last year, after speaking to the Anglican Church in North America national meeting, I went back to my hotel room and shook with tears. That’s because, as in virtually every one of such meetings, I was greeted by person after person after person who, like me, grew up in Southern Baptist churches, went to all the youth camps, knows the difference between Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, between an RA and an Acteen. I had more conversations about “Training Union” and “Centrifuge” there than I ever have at an SBC meeting. They were nostalgic and wanted to remember a denomination they loved. None of these people, before they left, called the Executive Committee and threatened to defund anything if they didn’t get their way. The thousands of young people I encounter on college campuses who are now non-denominational don’t do exit interviews with their associational Director of Missions (they don’t even know what that is). Instead, they just look at the rage and the bigotry and the cover-ups and the buffoonery and they shrug their shoulders and say, “I guess they don’t want people like me.”

In every one of those situations, I want to scream: “But that’s not who Southern Baptists are! The people in the churches, everywhere that I have seen, are kind and loving and mission-focused. They are not part of all of that that you see!” And, indeed I think I am right. The people who are left are those of us who have learned to simply filter out this nonsense and focus on what we know to be the best of us. The rest of the world cannot see that. And there are not enough of us who have been taught to believe that being a Southern Baptist is a moral obligation.

A while back, I was jolted to read a quote that one commentator posted about the SBC, jolted because that very same quote had come to my own mind so many times. The quote was from Whittaker Chambers, in a letter to his children, about how he came to reject Communism and to flee from the awful Soviet ideology. He referenced a woman talking about her father, who also had left Stalinism, and explained why very simply. “One night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”

I have heard many screams. And I am now realizing that some of those screams were my own, and those of my family.

My children asked my wife the other day if their Dad had had a moral failing. They had heard from their friends that their Dad was under investigation, and, as anyone would, they wondered if this meant that I had a character flaw. Maria cannot live with that, and neither can I.

I wanted you to know, from me, what’s behind all of this, really. You deserve to know. And I wanted you to know that we will not keep living under these circumstances. I will not comply with another secret task force meant to silence me about issues I believe are issues of obedience to Christ. I will not sign another “unity” statement meant to “call off the dogs” of scrutiny so that the beatings may begin again in private. If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to be part of a house of prayer for all peoples, then that’s what I signed up for. If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to be one big retirement home for a furious royal family, then, that’s not what I signed up for.

I can only say, in regard to this latest secret and arcane attempt at intimidation: “I consider it a small thing to be investigated by you, or by any human court. In fact, I do not even investigate myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who investigates me” (1 Cor. 4:3-4).

When God called me to himself in Jesus, and when he called me to serve him in ministry, he called me to stand for the truth, to point the way to the kingdom, to die to self, and to carry the cross. He did not call me to provide cover for racial bigotry and child molestation. I will not do that. I love the Southern Baptist Convention, and am a faithful son of the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not believe the people of the Southern Baptist Convention want me to do that, at least that’s not how they have acted in their votes when they are assembled together in national convention. But a small group in the shadows do want me to do that. They want me to be afraid of them. They want you to be afraid of them.

I am not afraid of them.

As I shared with the officers, when these people started their guerilla attacks, I spent years in grief, feeling like an exile and like an orphan. I felt rejected by my own people and wondered why people would let this go on. A poem by Wendell Berry summed up much of what I was feeling:

“Though you have done nothing shameful,

they will want you to be ashamed.

They will want you to kneel and weep

And say that you should have been like them.

And once you say you are ashamed,

Reading the page they hold out to you,

then such light as you have made

in your history will leave you.

They will no longer need to pursue you.

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

“They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light had picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

‘I am not ashamed.’ A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.”

I am not ashamed. The sort of psychological and institutional terrorism that my wife and children and team and I have endured is not because I am not Southern Baptist enough, but because I am too Southern Baptist. I really believe what they taught me to sing, “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World.”

And I still do.

I want to thank you for standing with us, for caring about us, for being a group of people that have never once wavered in your integrity or your Christlikeness. We could not ask to serve with people we admire and love more than every single one of you. I am sorry that you have to even see this toxic sludge, much less have to deal with it.

In every other instance, I have tried to do what I thought was right: to be quiet, to bear all of this, including the spiritually abusive private meetings that I cannot even bear to think about right now. I have not wanted to defend myself. I just counted on others to do so, and to know that Jesus would bring to light, as he promises, every hidden thing on that day. But I want you to know that I can’t bear it any more. I think to be the subject to all of this that goes on in secret makes me, in some ways, complicit with what I believe to be evil.

There’s nothing other to this letter than that, for you to hear from me what has happened, and to hear from me, knowing that you know it, that the current status of the Southern Baptist Convention must change.

Asking me to live through all of this is one thing. Asking me to be quiet about bigotry and molestation, for the sake of some title, is too much to ask. Thank you for never once asking me to do so.


RELATED: Russell Moore leaves Southern Baptist leadership, but denomination’s troubles remain


The Jordan River on the baptistery wall was fake. It was a water color of a scene that, to be honest, looked more like south Mississippi than the Middle East. But the message behind it was real. The message behind it was that even as I went down into the waters of death, Jesus had been there before, and Jesus would lift me back up, to newness of life. What I am counting on is not my baptism but his. I am counting on the fact that I am joined to One who, when he came out of those waters, heard the voice of God: “You are my beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased.”

As one whose life is hidden in him, my hope is that, however stormy the banks of Jordan, those words apply to me too.

And, you know what? That’s enough for me. Southern Baptists taught me that.

I love you,

Russell Moore

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  • As a current SBC pastor this is all too familiar. I’ve encountered much of this same behavior (on a smaller level) both in local churches and associations. The writing is on the wall for the SBC and the result is it’s going to contract back to its Civil War origins and become a mostly old, white, and southern denomination.

  • God bless you Dr. Moore for speaking truth to power. You are doing the right thing.

  • For the SBC Russell Moore has become the canary in the coal mine. The SBC’s claim to integrity and respect in the greater world depends to a major degree on Moore’s impeccable reputation. And as of right now this particular canary is on life support. One wonders whether Mike Stone fully understands the broad negative consequences for the SBC that will result from his machinations.
  • Russell Moore is an honorable, magnanimous man who rarely has a bad word to say about anyone, even though he has often been unfairly attacked. If he felt the need to say such things, they are true. I always wondered why the ‘character matters in politicians’ SBC, as an organization, was so quick to embrace confessed serial sex offender and overt racist Donald Trump and promote him as some sort of ‘Christian’ leader. Now I no longer wonder. They’re busy sheltering and pacifying sex offenders and overt racists in Christian leadership roles in their organization: why wouldn’t they shelter the same type of person in the White House? If only they cared as much about deadly sins like sexual abuse and racism as they care about abortion and homosexuality – then we might have hope for moral leadership in this country. But now we’re stuck with Democrats because the only Republican option was a reprobate so immoral that his conduct even shocked the consciences of lost people across the country.

  • Lord, purify your Church with a mighty move of your Holy Spirit, esp. in the SBC. Root out not only that which is evil but also those insistent on calling evil good. Crush all attitudes of pride & those bent on turning Christianity into partisan politics. May those who know you & love you learn to love what you love & hate what you hate. Protect Brother Moore & his family, let the truth be revealed from the mountaintops, & bring justice, we pray. Amen.

  • He writes of the SBC I once knew. The one committed to the gospel of Christ, the one that was mission minded and sacrificial. Not perfect, but the one trusting God to forgive us of our imperfections and renew us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The one who taught me that Jesus loves me and that every life is sacred, but then devalued mine. I left many years ago and have never regretted it.

  • Where can the regular church leader like myself get some of the names that he’s referring to? I want to know who these people are.
  • I am not surprised. But God bless Mr. Moore for speaking truth to evil power.

  • I see that I made the right choice by not going to church.

  • The SBC is losing all its big stars… thank goodness they still have the endlessly charismatic Al Mohler and Richard Land.

    • Riverton

      I laughed.

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