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.