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.
Blind Spots on Both Sides
Merritt's book bears out his point that experiences are the primary drivers of the shifts in evangelicalism. But it also unintentionally highlights the problems of that approach. For instance, Merritt tries to be evenhanded in his critique of Christianity's politicization, even acknowledging that "survey statistics show liberal congregations are among the most politicized." Yet this gets muted when Merritt turns toward critiquing the "culture war." Immediately after rightly recognizing that both conservative and progressive Christians reduce the Bible to their preferred theological frameworks of holiness and liberation respectively, Merritt suggests that "[Christians] reduce the immense witness of the Scriptures to only a few culture-war issues—namely, abortion and gay marriage." Despite his attempts otherwise, Merritt's critiques mostly move in this one direction.
What's more, Merritt's proximity to the leaders of the "culture war" colors his perception of the entire Christian Right, conditioning him to view the broader movement through the lens of its most flawed figureheads. In a section on homosexuality, Merritt highlights the worst quotes from Christian Right leaders and suggests that he has "heard more sermons on the sinfulness of homosexuality than [he] can recall, but … can't remember one quibble from a Christian friend or pastor over any of these statements." Some of the statements are indeed indefensible. But Merritt's presentation here falls into the same "culture war" tactic that he criticizes only two pages later: "[publicizing] the most extreme flank and then [using] that caricature to falsely represent the larger community." He acknowledges that some on the left have used the same "gimmick" against the Christian Right, yet seems unaware of how dangerously close he comes to doing the same.
There is much to appreciate about A Faith of Our Own, especially its reminder of the need to ensure that we are, above all, faithful to the full counsel of Scripture regardless of the political cost. Merritt understands the next generation as well as anyone, and his book expresses its mindset as well as any I have seen. Merritt's cautions to people his age to remember their blind spots is important, I just wish he had used his wisdom to tell us what they are.
But by the end, I was left wondering whether A Faith of Our Own is practical and substantive enough to help today's Christians transcend the culture war, as Merritt claims they desire. Merritt suggests that Christians today are moving "beyond politics," but they must also "advocate for policies that punish injustice, restrain evil, and promote a healthier society." All true enough. What he does not provide is a meaningful reconciliation between Christianity and politics, or any way of helping people know which policies they should advocate in light of their Christian commitments and understanding of justice (which are not, for most of us, as disconnected as they might seem).
What's more, Merritt clearly (and rightly) thinks we should subordinate politics to our Christian beliefs—but his practical recommendations frequently take shape against those he believes have gotten it wrong. As he puts it, "Rejecting the labels and even the culture wars themselves, many of today's Christians are carving out a new path down the middle of the public square." What being in the middle looks like depends upon what happens at the fringes. It is one thing to be a political independent; it is another to know how to enjoy that independence and use it responsibly. Merritt has eloquently advocated the former, but left the latter ambiguous.
Far from transcending the culture war, then, A Faith of Our Own remains firmly locked in its grip. "Today's Christians," as Merritt acknowledges, are still in reaction against what has come before—and in some sense are living off the political capital and intrigue the culture war created. The younger evangelical frustration and desire to move beyond it is simply indicative of how much symbolic and institutional resonance it still has. The world will probably have to wait at least one more generation before evangelicals, having properly escaped its grasp, can look back at the stunted partisanship of the past and see it only as a cautionary tale, a relic, rather than something that is yet to be transcended.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House). He writes at MereOrthodoxy.com and is on Twitter.
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A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Christianity Today included Jonathan Merritt in its "Who's Next" series. Merritt also wrote for CT's Village Green series on creation care. His book, Green Like God, was included in an essay on creation care books.