Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m., more than 10,000 students pour into the Vines Center at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to hear top-line musical worship performances and talks by the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the Rev. Rick Warren, all recent speakers.
Liberty’s “convocation” is the largest regular gathering of young evangelicals in the country.
And the guy who picks who speaks is Johnnie Moore, a charismatic campus preacher and Liberty vice president who at 28 is becoming a heavy-hitter in the world of conservative Christianity. At a time when young white evangelicals are pushing back against the marriage of their faith with the GOP, Moore looks like he might be a key to the future, espousing a Christianity that is at once orthodox and social justice-minded. He is the go-to adviser for some conservative leaders trying to understand what the heck is going on.
They got a wake-up call in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama captured 33 percent of young white evangelical voters, nearly triple the percentage John Kerry received four years earlier. Moore agrees with many experts who say he did this by tapping into their disaffection with politics and instead inviting them in their own language to be part of a movement.
While Moore says he would “never call myself a Republican,” he has already counseled five Republican presidential candidates and speaks in hip, Millennial ways about his own conservative political agenda that is pro-small government and anti-Obamacare.
“Johnnie very well may be a significant part of the bridge that may save conservative Christianity. He’s a saving thread because he’s cool, relevant, not a fanatic,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, leader of the country’s largest Latino evangelical group.
During a recent visit on campus, Moore demurred when his striking Brazilian wife called him a politics junkie.
He is, he says, ambivalent about the mixing of religion and politics and stays away from the biggest young evangelical conferences, saying he’s wary about “what’s in.” He has also pulled back from blogging too much, freaked out by the harsh tone of the blogosphere.
As such, he seems the perfect envoy for young evangelicals in flux.
“The nitty gritty of politics, that isn’t me. It’s too confrontational,” he says. “It’s kind of a necessary evil, it’s how things are affected. And I want to influence things.”
Growing up in the Bible Belt, Moore saw the pulpit as the center of community power.
His paternal grandfather was a pastor, and even as a child he remembers feeling he was “supposed” to preach. A tiny lectern that now stands in his huge Liberty office was saved by his grandmother to commemorate his first “sermon” at age 5.
Path to the pulpit
But the Christianity around him was filled with painful contradictions.
Both his father and grandfather had neglected children they’d fathered before marriage for fear of looking like phony Christians. The pastor his parents turned to for marital help was involved with the wife of another pastor. As his dad struggled to find regular work, the family moved 20 times in Moore’s first decade, mostly around the South. Even as their finances and marriage were imploding, Moore’s parents’ continued to waltz into various churches each Sunday with fake smiles.
Church was a staple, a cultural requirement for conservative Christians, he says, but never a place Moore saw people being honest about their personal struggles, their flaws, their spiritual doubts.
Little Johnnie decided to fix things by mapping out his own path to the pulpit. Once he moved with his mother and sister to Lynchburg when he was 15, he plunged into competitive public speaking and became one of the top Virginia high-schoolers.
He took up magic and began performing on Christian cruises and National Right to Life conventions.
“To have divorced parents when you come from the heart of the Bible Belt is like a scarlet letter. Magic was very much an escape,” he says.
His pastor at the time was the Moral Majority’s founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who took up an interest in the youth. Moore quickly became Falwell’s protege. When Moore got to Liberty a few years later, Falwell made him a campus pastor within two years and soon a school spokesman. Moore often traveled with Falwell around the world as his assistant until Falwell’s death in 2007.
Today, Moore is not only a vice president of the 12,500-person campus but the best-known of a half-dozen campus pastors, the one who leads Sunday student services. He also heads the thrice-weekly convocation and directs a 17-person department that sends Liberty students around the world on missions.
From this lofty perch, he has come to two conclusions about American evangelicals.