Is it possible, in the foreseeable future, that the Christian church in America might move away from partisanship, power-seeking and politics? I am not holding my breath but young Christians, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, give me great hope that the church I’ve known since the 1970s is going to change in the coming decades.

I recently found Jonathan Merritt’s book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, in my public library on the new book shelf. I began reading it that same day and found his vision of the future corresponded with my own in many profound, yet truly simple, ways. Jonathan Merritt, the son of a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, grew up in the culture wars but has deliberately moved away from these endless battles. He is now a faith and culture writer who has contributed to a number of mainstream publications and serves as a teacher at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia (suburban Atlanta). His well-known dad, James Merritt, is the pastor of Cross Pointe Church. I am yet to discover the synergy of this father-son relationship but it is obvious, from the church web site, as well as Jonathan’s own site, that they are closely connected in mission and ministry. This, in itself, gives me hope about a different future. A father who was deeply engaged in the culture wars, and a son who wants out, and they are not at odds with one another! Amen.

In the Foreword to Merritt’s new book Kristen Powers, a political analyst at Fox News, describes how she became a Christian six years ago. At the time her first thought was, “I don’t want to be a Republican!” Why? Well, she had worked in the Clinton White House and served a number of Democratic campaigns. She was at home with her political ideology. She writes, “I didn’t want to associate with the conservative politics that so many Christians hold. I was uncomfortable with what I perceived as the anti-gay, anti-intellectual, judgmental perspectives in the community” (xv).

Powers says the media is partly to blame for these stereotypes about Christians but she says she has learned, by being in the church for six years now, that “the bulk of the responsibility for the current image of Christianity” is inside the church (xv). I agree with her. Yet when I write things like this, which I do fairly regularly on my Facebook wall, many Christians push back and then tell me that I am falsely representing the real facts and I am being unfair with the Christian Right. I honestly believe some Christians, including many who are closer to my age, cannot see just how much we have politicized the faith. Younger people like Merritt (and Powers, who was born in 1969 so she doesn’t really qualify) see this far more clearly. Their hopeful response gives me real hope that we can, and will, see change.

The irony here is that I can remember a time before the church adopted the language and values of these endless culture wars. I can remember going to church and never hearing a thing about elections or voting. There was none, and I mean none, of the rhetoric that we now take for granted. I believe this rhetoric has poisoned the well so deeply that we hardly know we are actually drinking this bad water until the effects of it have already made us very, very sick. Both the ethical and spiritual consequences of this are immense to mission.

Kristen Powers tells of going to a wedding where a woman approached her and said that she had watched her on Fox News. The woman then said that she had often wanted to write her a letter and tell her, “If you knew the Lord, you would be a Republican.” Powers writes that this woman nearly fell out of her chair when she answered her by saying, “I do know the Lord, and I’m a Democrat” (xvi).

Powers writes that nowhere in the Bible is there a mandate to be a Republican, to support lower taxes or to wage a war in Iraq. And, she rightly adds, “God is actually not an American” (xvi). If you’re interested Powers became a Christian while attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where the well-known Tim Keller is pastor. Keller is one of those pastors in my generation who does not believe the church should slam Democrats or promote Republicans. She later found Trinity Grace Church where the majority of the people were in their 20s and 30s. Here she discovered a much wider political spectrum among the members and found Christians could be in either party, or no party, and discuss their values without engaging in the language of culture war. She even discovered that there were political conservatives in this congregation who were just as frustrated with the Christian Right as she was. It is this particular part of Merritt’s story, and the lovely Foreword by Kristen Powers, that gives me such hope about the future of the church that is growing among younger believers. I find so many young Christians desire to discuss political and social issues without adopting the forms and positions of the extremes of the Left or the Right. And even if they tend to the extremes they clearly realize this has very little to do with being in the same church together.

Is it too much to believe that this might actually become the norm again? Realistically, I do not think this will happen overnight but I do believe we are seeing the first wave of a new kind of church, a church where we have welcoming congregations that will not be identified so closely with being Democrat or Republican. I pray for this to happen almost every day.

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Comments

  1. Patrick Duncan September 14, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Although I don’t know anything about the Merritts, I believe that they represent the two ditches that Christians fall into. Disengagement vs. Overengagement. I don’t buy into the moral equivalency argument between the two parties for the same reason I don’t believe that you could be non-partisan on issues like civil rights, Jim Crow, slavery, abortion and same sex marriage. If you look at the Civil War and pre-Civil War era, there were a lot of Christians running around saying that you could either take a middle position or even a pro-slavery/JimCrow/abortion/etc position. We live in a representative democracy and therefore we have a responsibility before God to do justice and if we try to sit on the fence or act as though we can separate our religious convictions from our civic responsibilities, I believe we are gravely mistaken. All that said, it does not give us the license to follow our convictions in a manner that is ungodly – and many have sadly done so. Nor should we lose perspective that our ultimate priority should be on the building of earthly political kingdoms, but rather the advance of God’s kingdom. However, John, I do not advise Christians to be politically correct in the manner I sense you would like Christians to be. It’s not realistic for us to hermetically seal ourselves off from the world, and in churches that try to do so, it isn’t healthy (apologies to my Mennonite friends).

    • admin September 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

      The irony of your comment Patrick is that you suggest my approach would (potentially) “hermetically seal ourselves off from the world.” I think nothing of the kind brother. You have not followed my thoughts carefully enough, at least as I believe I wrote them. I am a Kuyperian, in terms of my framework theologically. Within that framework there are different expressions but I am not an anabaptist in any meaningful sense of the terms. (I learn a great deal from this tradition, happily!) What we would apparently not agree upon is the actual role of Christian leaders, and church members, in promoting partisan party endorsements/support, implicitly or explicitly.

      Let me use but one illustration. I am deeply pro-life. Does this mean I believe only the Republican Party should get my vote? Not at all. Why? Because the GOP represents a whole range of issues and stances besides the pro-life platform position. On some matters I think they are morally correct and on other quite wrong. Further, as a deeply pro-life Christian, I would like to influence the Democrats to take this issue on again and change their view. There are a very tiny number of pro-life Democrats. I know some of them personally. We need BOTh parties to become more and more pro-life if our goal is to change the cultural course. To pick one party is to shut out the opportunity to build realistic and workable consensus. The number of 20s and 30s who are pro-life is higher than ever. Many (the majority?) are Democrats. Would it not be right for me as a Christian to support this reality in practical ways?

      I could go on but this should at least show that you have not rightly understood my point.

      • Fr. Merrin September 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

        (sigh) I respect your attempt to try to find a middle way, but in the end you are just going to be banging your head against the wall. How can someone that is pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-religious liberty vote for a candidate or party that promotes abortion, gay marriage, and limitiing of religious liberty? This comparision is going to be bombastic but so be it. It’s akin to say I am against black shirt death squads, but at least Mussolini makes the trains run on time. Or as St. Paul might say, what does light have to do with darkness? I know, I know, Jesus ate with sinners. So do that! Eat with sinners (which is anyone and everyone) but don’t implicitly condone their behavior by voting them into office. I am very afraid of a judgment before Jesus where he will ask us what did you do to stop me from being dismembered and my skull crushed in the womb in a country where you chose the government? I voted for those that promoted the choice to dismember you, because they had a better economic policy that would raise the quality of life of the poor. Before we argue over quality of life, we must first have an absolute right to life.

        • admin September 14, 2012 at 11:21 am

          No need to sigh. I am always prepared and willing to read disagreement with my perspective. We do seem to have a very clear disagreement. Even the Catholic Church, however, would not follow your stance in forming such a partisan conclusion about political parties and membership in them, as evidenced by the bishops’ willingness to keep in tension many truths that are part of Catholic social theology. Simply stated,the pro-life position is part of a larger whole that includes many “life” issues that are seen as moral and important. While I agree with your very last sentence I think (alone) it is simply too easy a way to solve what is a very real tension in ethical and moral theology.

          Further, to cite St. Paul about darkness and light strikes me as var too simplistic as well. Of course these are biblical categories but was the GOP filled with “more light” than the Democratic Convention because of the issues you reference? I do not think the biblical text is being used in its proper context in this application.

          May our disagreement foster real thought and deeper love.

    • Jonathan Merritt September 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      John,

      Good thoughts here. Patrick, you should actually read my book. I do NOT advocate for disengagement. Grab a copy and then drop me a line.

      Best,

      Jonathan Merritt

  2. Patrick Duncan September 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Perhaps my wording wasn’t the best, as it wasn’t actually my assumption or belief that you operate from an anabaptist framework. I was using them as an example of general disengagement from politics.

    In any event, I question your judgment and discernment if you believe that the pro-life cause has a future in the Democratic party. The numbers of those in the DNC who have any authority is shrinking, not growing. There’s a reason for this – if you want to have any significant role in the party or leadership, you have to change your views (like Dick Durbin, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson) or find a corner where you won’t affect public policy. Just as Jim Crow once dominated and corrupted the DNC platform a generation ago, orthodoxy on abortion and increasingly, SSM, has metastasized into a full blown malignant cancer. I’m sorry if it is politically incorrect to say it, but I’d rather be like the doctor who tells the patient the real diagnosis rather than the false, but more comforting one.

    • admin September 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm

      These are truly interesting points that you make Patrick. You refer to Durbin, Gore and Jackson being forced to change their views. You are clearly right about them changing their views under direct pressure. I have publicly said the same thing for years. Gore and Jackson are particularly sad to me as they seemed to have some conviction on the matter, rooted in faith and biblical knowledge, but they were pressured from above. But then you reference Jim Crow. How ironic this point is to me. Why, I hope that you might ask?

      I grew up in the “old South” under Jim Crow. It took a major shift by the Democrats to finally end it. Civil Rights would never have passed under Republican leadership alone but it finally did under a broad and more bi-partisan stance taken by courageous people from both parties. The Republicans always opposed it, at least in principle, but the Kennedy’s, and then LBJ, a president from the “old South”, opposed it and things finally began to shift away from these unjust laws. It took almost 100 years! If a few Democrats resisted their party on abortion then might not real change finally come about? History says that it could. Providence supports that conclusion, if God changes hearts and minds as he wills and the Civil Rights movement is any example. I believe we should work to reform all political parties, not simply adopt one as good and the other as bad. The black and white stereotype approach that many follow is precisely what I resist. The conclusion of your stance, in my view, will lead to further division in the country and the church and thus no real chance to finally overturn Roe v. Wade. I know Democrats who are pro-life working inside the party and believe that they deserve our respect and prayer. I refuse to turn fellow Christians into my opponents through politics. That was my central point in this post.

      As an additional note, we finally have a generation that is much more sympathetic with pro-life thinking, as I noted. If we marginalize this to one party then we will fail once again to build broad momentum for change. My view reflects a broad political real politik that I believe takes time to build. Consider the work of William Wilberforce in Britain as another example and remember that Britain was spared a civil war related to this hot issue in the 19th century.

  3. Chris Criminger September 15, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Hi John,
    Great post . . . Peter Enns came out last week with a post title that said something like if you are frustrated, angry, and all tensed up about whether a Republican or Democrat gets into the White House, you have a theological problem.

    By the way, Brendan Purcell was excellent at the Act 3 forum. Intellectually challenging, funny throughout, and one of the most humble-Chist-like man I have met in a while.

    Keep up the great work!

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