A Truce in the Culture Wars: A Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “A Faith of Our Own”
Recent polls show younger evangelicals leaning to the left of their parents and grandparents, politically at least. Bloggers and authors have discussed and debated the meaning of the shift and its possible causes.
Jonathan Merritt’s A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars (FaithWords, 2012) gives voice to many in the millennial generation. I’m a millennial, and this book taught me a lot about my peers. It’s part memoir, part prescription, and altogether frustrating. Rarely do I read a book that has me go so quickly from nodding my head in agreement to scratching my head in puzzlement.
Let’s start with Jonathan himself. Best known for his advocacy for evangelical engagement on environmental issues, Merritt has written a book (Green Like God) that provides a theological underpinning to the idea of “creation care.” He’s also a favorite “go-to” guy in popular media circles. I think one of the reasons he is solicited by the media (besides his evident giftedness in writing) is that he plays right into the narrative reporters love: young, cool-looking guy moves to the left of his stodgy, conservative upbringing epitomized in his preacher father. I doubt Jonathan sees himself in this light, but I think editors and reporters do.
Nodding My Head in Agreement
Leaving aside Merritt’s other articles and book, what does he say in A Faith of Our Own? To start with, lots of good things.
First, there’s a running theme throughout the book about the need to take responsibility and ownership of one’s convictions.
“As a follower of Jesus, I can cherish the faith of my father and grandfathers. But I also need to take hold of it myself.” (2)
The strongest parts of the book show how Jonathan considers his parents’ political involvement and what he has learned along the way. We are given some interesting stories about Jerry Falwell, Jonathan’s work in advocating for creation care, and other occasions that illustrate the need for a more robust understanding of Christian involvement in the political sphere.
What I see in Jonathan is a guy trying to figure out what faithfulness looks like in this day and age. And while he might not have figured out the answer to what faithfulness looks like, Merritt is sure he knows what faithfulness is not. And I am largely in agreement. In fact, I think his description of faulty political engagement closely resembles the “activist gospel” – one of the six counterfeits I chose to write about in Counterfeit Gospels. Here are some helpful things Jonathan says along these lines:
“Linking God’s kingdom with puny political platforms robs it of the majesty, holiness, vastness, and stunning beauty that more accurately demonstrate who God is. The result of a political ideology divorced from a political theology is a public engagement that often oversteps, overreaches, and underwhelms skeptical non-believers. (18)
“Looking back, I realize that so many Christians on both the right and left value their faith as a tool of a ‘greater cause.’” (22)
“Christians allow the church – that wild and untamable ‘body of Christ’ – to be reduced to a voting bloc.” (32)
“For the Christian, politics is not the only tool or even the primary tool of change.” (128)
All good. Merritt also succeeds at showing the seduction of power. He’s right. Too often, the church’s kingdom agenda has been hijacked by political causes that push the cross from the center in favor of something else. Much of the book contains an incisive critique of how we have conflated Christian doctrine with partisan politics.
The book ends with a good dose of humility. Though one might think Merritt is critiquing everyone before him as if he alone has the answers, he is quick to point out:
“The generation that is yet to come will criticize us as we’ve criticized those before us. This is the burden of every generation.” (177)
That’s a good word. But I don’t want to wait for the next generation to criticize this book. I want to take a stab at it right now! So even though I agree with much of Merritt’s negative assessment of politicized Christianity, I can’t go along with his solution because, frankly, I don’t know what it is.
Scratching My Head
A Faith of Our Own has lots of good rhetoric about loving neighbors and the need to get back to the gospel and the reality of Christ’s kingdom, but there’s very little of substance here regarding what political engagement should actually look like. The closest we get to a model is Billy Graham. Merritt writes:
“If I were to compile a list of Christians a new generation might look to as models for engaging in politics, I’d write down Billy Graham’s name first. I long for more Christians to engage in the public square with the same integrity: resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.” (45)
I have no qualms with pointing to Graham as a model, just as long as we understand what part of Graham’s ministry ought to be emulated. The problem is, some of what Merritt points out is actually discounted by Graham himself.
Resisting the pull of partisanship? Graham admits to overt political engagement during the Nixon years.
Standing courageously in the middle? Well, that depends. When it comes to the slaughter of innocent children in the womb, standing courageously in the middle (like settling merely for abortion reduction) is compromise, not courage. Graham did not stand in the middle last week when he called North Carolina residents to ban same-sex marriage. Neither did he stand in the middle when he desegregated his crusades. He was standing courageously with the prophets of the Old Testament.
Speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties? Yes. Good.
Clinging to the gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations? Again, that depends. Should we marginalize people as we cling to the gospel? Never. Should we marginalize certain positions in light of the gospel? Absolutely.
As the book progresses, it’s clear that Merritt does not want us to refrain from political engagement. He just wants us to do it better than previous generations. He writes:
“Politics itself is not the problem. Foolish participation in politics is what gets the church into trouble. It divides a community for which God desires unity and forces us to lose sight of the reason we live and move and breathe.” (5-6)
So far so good. But when we get into the nitty gritty of what wise political engagement looks like, we’re left with vague generalities, such as:
“Today’s Christians have reflected on culture and have decided to stop separating from it, to stop outright condemning it and instead engage it.” (133)
And then there’s Merritt’s advocacy of a “truce” in the culture wars:
“Today’s Christians are returning to the Bible and glimpsing Jesus with fresh eyes and uncovering a faith that transcends the culture wars. They want a faith that isn’t just politically active, but one that transforms life. They believe we can call a truce in the culture wars while remaining faithful to Christ. In fact, they believe faithfulness requires such a ceasefire.” (6)
But if we’re to keep engaging the political realm, what does this truce look like? It appears that Merritt’s goal is to ramp up our PR as Christians. In other words, we have a bad image and we need to fix it. So perhaps we ought to get away from hot-button political issues altogether.
“What if Christians were known for listening before speaking, for seeking to understand before demanding to be understood? What if they were adept at facilitating dialogues rather than debates?” (62)
“The tragic side effect of enlisting in the culture wars was that the Christian mission in the United States was now being reframed in terms of conflict.” (74)
Merritt is concerned with elevating our image more than he is with parsing the complexities of integrating our participation in the competing kingdoms. He thinks the reason the church is bleeding out from inside and repelling people on the outside is because of our wrongheaded political involvement. Maybe. But there are forces at work here that go beyond a botched political operation. One of the major problems is a polarizing media circus that indulges extremism for good ratings.
So on the one hand, Merritt wants us to give up the political wars. He speaks of our generation this way:
“The word that has consistently emerged is ‘authenticity.’ They do want to follow Jesus, and they do want to be part of the church. But they want a faith community that is free of agendas.” (80)
But later he talks about the need for evangelicals to broaden the agenda (to include more than abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.). So on the one hand, he wants a community free of agendas. On the other hand, he wants us to have more agendas than we already do. In trying to decipher this, I believe much of his concern is actually about our posture toward others, not the positions we hold. He writes:
“Rather than viewing others as political enemies to destroy, they are attempting to live out their faith in all areas of life and pursue a kingdom that is so vast and comprehensive that Washington could never hope to contain it. These Christians aren’t consumed with a platform or a party or a policy; they are devoted to a person who emptied Himself to rule supreme over an otherworldly kingdom.” (86)
I agree that the posture of many Christians can be problematic. We war not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. Political opponents are not our enemies. I’m nodding my head.
But then I’m scratching my head at his talk about Christ’s “otherworldly kingdom.” In many ways, this is the kind of pietistic talk that can lead us to disengage from politics altogether. At times, he seems Anabaptist. Other times, I hear the echoes of Transformationalism.
On the pressing issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Merritt seems to come down against homosexual behavior while simultaneously affirming homosexual people and their need for special governmental protections:
“Some culture-war groups oppose even minor concessions, claiming we should not ‘normalize’ homosexuality in our culture. They fail to realize that our role as Christians is not to delegitimize the existence of those who do not share our beliefs. Our job is to mirror Christ by loving people in spite of our differences and advocating for our culture’s disenfranchised groups.” (117)
He decries Christian leaders who oppose anti-gay bullying legislation, but he says nothing about the militant homosexual activists who bully restaurants (Chick-fil-A, for example, for partnering with a family organization) or adoption agencies who have been shut down rather than violate their consciences. His one-sided treatment of this issue reminds me of pastors on Piers Morgan or in other interview settings who are always asked about homosexuality, only then to be asked, “Why are you so focused on this?” when the host is the one to bring it up.
Ultimately, Merritt’s proposal for cultural engagement is short-sighted. He wants us to accept whatever we can from the culture, but he has no suggestions about how to deal with issues important to Christians that broader culture rejects.
Overall, I suggest you read A Faith of Our Own if you want a glimpse into the thinking of many 20 and 30somethings in the United States today. This book will undoubtedly resonate with a lot of people my age. Unfortunately, I don’t think Merritt has offered a substantive way forward in political involvement. I wish his perceptiveness regarding the solution matched his perceptiveness regarding the problem.