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 GospelsHere 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.

Conclusion

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.

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Comments:


12 thoughts on “A Truce in the Culture Wars: A Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “A Faith of Our Own””

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks for your comments, Trevin.

  2. Rick Patrick says:

    Trevin,

    This is a very balanced and respectful review. I wonder, however, if the culture wars are not similar to spiritual warfare with the enemy himself, which is to say that there is no such thing as a truce. Satan will keep fighting. If we stop in order to observe a so-called truce, it does not follow that he will stop. What we call a truce, then, is really nothing other than a surrender.

    The culture wars will go on without us. Homosexuals will continue to press, not only for acceptance, but for the complete redefinition of marriage. Abortionists will continue to destroy the lives of the unborn. The voices and rights of Christians will continue to be marginalized unfairly using a misunderstanding of the true meaning of our “separation of church and state” policy.

    A truce requires the cooperation of two parties in order to be effective. Since the other side will not lay down their weapons, I submit that Jonathan’s truce, however well intentioned, is really just a surrender. Perhaps Merritt’s inability to articulate a clearly proposed solution stems from his unwillingness to accept that one simply cannot call a truce with Satan and his children.

    1. Phil says:

      Of course no true is possible when one side believes they are battling “Satan and his children” (above “Homosexuals,” and “Abortionists”), rather than merely disagreeing with other well-intentioned, fellow human beings about the best way to structure society.

      1. Rick Patrick says:

        Phil,

        Here are the words of a Man I deeply trust who believed that battles over life and truth were not merely human disagreements in society but were truly larger issues involving spiritual warfare. He also believed that Satan himself, along with the other demons, operated in such a manner as to influence lost human beings in order to lead them in pursuing evil purposes.

        “You are of your father the Devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of liars.” (John 8:44)

        Phil, if you do not believe Satan still does this today, then I can understand why you might consider laying down the spiritual warfare argument which drives the culture wars. On the other hand, if Satan still fights, and does so through people and institutions, then faithfulness in waging spiritual warfare demands cultural warfare.

        1. Phil says:

          Thanks for your comment.

          First, IMHO, the logical conclusion of believing that “Satan still fights, and does so through people and institutions, then faithfulness in waging spiritual warfare demands” actual warfare. Literally. The end result of this is burning people at the stake, for their heresies, lies, and unorthodox beliefs which corrupt others, and destroy all that the “Godly” people are trying to do.

          Also, your quote from John 8:44 is Jesus talking to those who wish to kill him (literally). I think it would be a mistake to say that this quote applies to cultural warfare.

          Finally, I believe Satan’s greatest work is to tear down Love. So yes, I think “he” still works today.

  3. The time in which we live DEMANDS a careful and unrelenting fidelity to the text of Scripture. When a hypothesis is proposed, we MUST require a sound, compassionate and accurate exegetical substantiation for what is being put forth. Anything less will land us in the ditch with the likes of Joel Osteen and other not so orthodox luminaries. Popular perhaps but spiritually deadly!

  4. There are those who would suggest that we call some kind of “social truce” today. Whether intended or not, this would ultimately mean that the Christian voice be excluded from today’s narrative. The Bible doesn’t say that a good economy exalts a nation, but “righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a reproach to any people.” The church can be side-tracked by being over-politicized, but morally at least, the church is becoming the last line of defense. What is the right response? I think of (Acts 17:16-18)of Paul in Athens. He was deeply troubled by what he saw: a city given over completely to idolatry. “His spirit was stirred within him.” I believe we need to be respectful, winsome, and know what we’re talking about; but God help us, when we can no longer be stirred by the things that are blinding and binding, not only individuals, but nations as well. Paul’s reponse was to ramp up his commitment to preach the Gospel, and to engage people in a Biblical dialogue. To back away from this is to fail in the sacred charge that God has entrusted to the church: to be the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Speaking the truth in love should always be our posture and passion.

  5. RF says:

    I’m scratching my head more than nodding in agreement. Yes, I could agree with some of his statements, which are really just aspirational in nature. But I don’t see anything in the selected quotes above to show a plan or a path of how to get where he wants to go. I’m a 30-something elected official and a deacon in my church. These issues are important to me personally and to the electorate and the church, but unless we deal with something concrete then aspiration will never translate into action. To be fair, I’ve not read the book, but unless you’re dealing with real issues that affect electoral politics – not just political issues, mind you – then status quo is what we’re left with. I’m talking about things like money in politics, the tone of debate, an evangelical understanding of how to use power/money wisely and how to understand contemporary socio-economic issues. Otherwise, we’re just going in circles with the same arguments for/against XYZ issues that we dealt with a decade ago.

  6. Jim says:

    Trevin, thanks, for your review. I’m a late 20-something-I’m fascinated by many of my generational peers who are self-professed believers. I find that we desire to shed stereotypes and speak “with gentleness and respect.” However, for many, I find that by trying not to offend, they make so many concessions that their worldview is no longer shaped by Scripture, but by consensus. That’s not courageous, as you pointed out. We can still engage with firm convictions while showing respect and love.

  7. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Q: “Should we marginalize people as we cling to the gospel?”

    A: “Never.”

    Q: “Should we marginalize certain positions in light of the gospel?”

    A: “Absolutely.”

    ——-

    What positions should be marginalized in light of the gospel? Or in light of Scripture’s clear teachings?

    How about marginalizing the position of legalizing the deliberate murder of unborn life?

    How about marginalizing the position of same-sex marriage?

  8. Tom Strode says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful review in which you did an excellent job of engaging with the book and the multiple issues that swirl around this subject.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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