When it comes to evangelicals, no two subjects draw a media crowd more easily than their relationship to politics and voting and the future of the movement.
Both themes collide in the latest offering from young evangelical spokesman Jonathan Merritt, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars (FaithWords). Merritt self-consciously assumes the position of a representative voice of the new trend among evangelicals, heralding the dawn of a new era of evangelical public engagement. Throughout the book, Merritt manages to be simultaneously observational and prescriptive: "Today's Christians are … " is the recurring formula, with the implication that yesterday's Christians are now yesterday's news.
Of course, Merritt is better positioned than most to make the claim. As the son of James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jonathan had a front row seat on conservative Christian politics—and in A Faith of Our Own, he makes full use of it. Merritt describes meeting Jerry Falwell, among others, and manages to cast him in a respectful if critical light.
As to what distinguishes "today's Christians," Merritt's message is an optimistic one, even if not particularly unique. Merritt suggests that today's Christians "believe we can call a truce in the culture wars while remaining faithful to Christ." Merritt's solution is a de-partisanized Christianity that remains politically active and a broadened political agenda that remains dubious about the trappings and temptations of political power that ensnared the culture war generation of Christians.
More than anything, A Faith of Our Own is indispensable for understanding how millennial evangelicals understand their own heritage and their place in the world in light of it. Merritt is honest that millennials have sought a different tone in public predominantly because of their experiences of poverty in third world countries, gay friends, or what have you. As he puts it, "These experiences—these faith crises—are often the power train behind the shifts taking place in our culture. Experiences like these thrust people of faith back into the Scriptures to ask new and different questions." Merritt is careful to suggest that this generation is shaped more by its "reflection" than by "reaction or response." That may be true enough on an individual plane, but Merritt also points out that the broader, younger evangelical world is still reacting: "No one will deny," he writes, "that there is a reaction against the past several decades of Christian political engagement." In every story Merritt tells on this theme, people move in a liberal direction after a perceived failure of their conservative outlook to explain their experiences. The reaction may be a matter of deliberate reflection, but it is a reaction nonetheless.
The lack of clarity on that point is part of what makes A Faith of Our Own so frustrating, albeit enjoyably so. Merritt's writing is poetic and engaging, but it occasionally seems to get away from him. On one page, we are told that the "age of opinion has become the age of incivility." Poetic license can surely account for the hyperbole, given that every age has had its own opinions. But on the next page, we read from Thomas Jefferson that "the atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud of fanaticism." Merritt marks his amazement—"how little has changed in 190 years"—before proceeding to tell us how uncivil our rhetoric has recently become. The rhetoric reaches new heights when he suggests that dissenters to health care reform "employed tactics that would make Aaron Burr wince." There's no footnote, but presumably that's the famous Aaron Burr who once shot someone.