Wrestling With Political Engagement

My friend, Jonathan Merritt, has recently released a book, A Faith of Our Own that has generated some good discussion online. To summarize, Jonathan is the son of Dr. James Merritt, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor and onetime president of the SBC. A Faith of Our Own chronicles a growing desire among millennial Christians to reexamine evangelical political engagement.

I reviewed the book here and felt that, despite some weaknesses, this was a worthy book. What makes Jonathan different than the rash of books that have been released in recent years (Alisa HarrisRaised Right, for example) is that Jonathan is still fairly conservative in both political beliefs and theological practice. He is on staff at his father’s church at Crosspointe Church outside Atlanta. And if you read his Twitter stream, he is clear about his belief in the gospel. In other words, unlike many voices in our generation, he has not replaced a fondness for the religious right with one for the religious left. He’s not calling for wholesale abandonment of Christian orthodoxy.

Still some conservative evangelicals have found fault with Jonathan’s conclusions. Most recently, Owen Strachan, assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky published a piece interacting with an essay Jonathan published for USA Today. Strachan is one of the most articulate voices in the evangelical world. I thoroughly enjoy his work.

I pointed out Strachan’s piece on Twitter and remarked that perhaps Jonathan Merritt would agree with most of it. Jonathan agreed, but Owen still had some criticisms, particularly about three things: 1) Jonathan seemed to advocate evangelical retreat on long-held important issues like abortion and marriage 2) Jonathan “called out” (Strachan’s curious words) highly political evangelicals like Tony Perkins 3) The data present in Jonathan’s USA Today Piece.

I came away thinking that perhaps Jonathan and Owen agreed more than they disagreed and seemed to be talking past each other. This is a generation that is wrestling with our political engagement, so these discussions are good and vital.

I won’t engage the polling data Jonathan presented, mainly because I think Jonathan cleared up the questions on his blog and because I feel polling data is speculative and not necessarily the strongest argument for Jonathan’s thesis that Christians should engage culture more smartly. But on the other questions:

First, does a new tone always translate to retreat? If you’ve read A Faith of Our Own, you’ll understand that Merritt is not necessarily advocating evangelicals stop fighting against abortion on demand or stop fighting the redefinition of marriage. He’s advocating for more Christ-like tone, for Christians to be influencers and to abandon the lust for power, to stop acting as if “we could just get our guy in”, then we’ll have the America we so desire. I wish Jonathan had better laid out a plan for engagement. This is where I think his book could have been stronger, something along the lines of City of Man by Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner. Perhaps a follow up book that smartly lays this out would be good.

I also agree with Strachan that to label all our political engagement in the culture wars is a bit simplistic. Consider abortion. Yes, we have failed to overturn Roe-v-Wade, but we have successfully educated a generation on the horror of abortion. Polls continue to show that younger generations of evangelicals are actually more prolife than their parents. And abortion clinics around the country have rescued babies from abortion and have launched many young unwed mothers into successful parenthood.

However, in Merritt’s defense, there is a certain unhealthy defensiveness among conservatives whenever a leader calls for a more Christlike, civil, tone in our engagement. I’ve experienced this myself. Whenever I call for folks to love and pray for President Obama, even as they oppose his policies, inevitably I get the charge that I’m “liberal” and “moving to the center.” But there’s a big difference in moderating your tone and backing off on your positions. Sometimes I feel conservatives confuse nastiness with action, that to be fully engaged means to adopt harsh rhetoric. This is a sloppy and unfair charge. 

Strachan also took issue with Merrit’s citing of the “Q” conference in DC, where evangelicals gathered to address the declining evangelical witness in the culture and offered pragmatic solutions for Christian engagement. Strachan assumed that all the attendees were liberal or progressive Christians (not true. I know several very conservative folks who attended). And he raised the attendance of several thousand at the Together for the Gospel Conference in Louisville. But I think this actually undermines Strachan’s point that millenial Christians are not less partisan. Yes, it may be true that T4G attendees are highly conservative. But they weren’t attending T4G as a political rally. I didn’t attend, but I listened to several of the main sessions and panels. This was not a political convention. In fact, implicit in much of the content was the idea that the gospel is the only hope for America. And there is quite a synthesis between the T4G/Gospel Coalition/Gospel Centered movement and the movement of folks like Jonathan who advocate a less strident, partisan Christianity. Guys like Russell Moore, Jared C. Wilson, Matt Chandler, David Platt, and others have been preaching against the sort of patriotic idolatry they saw in previous generations. For example, check out J.D. Greear’s enagegment with the marriage amendment in North Carolina. While he came out in favor of it, you’ll find his articles and video on the subject much more sensitive, biblically rooted, and compassionate than what you might have typically found on the issue a generation ago.

Lastly, Owen, at least on Twitter, took issue with Merritt’s “calling out” of Christian Right leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. He called this “bad form.” And while I think perhaps Jonathan’s thesis is a bit too reliant on caricatures of past Christian Right leaders, I felt Strachan’s charge a bit hollow. Mainly because I’m curious when is it right to critique other leaders in print? I’ve read men like Dr. Al Mohler and Russell Moore offer critiques of evangelicals like Joel Olsteen and others in print (critiques I wholeheartedly agreed with). Was that bad form?

To end a very long post, I’d like to say this. I think the wrestling in our generation is good. We, as the Church, need to think through our political engagement. Are we reflecting Christ in our tone and actions? Is a quest for power hurting our mission? The questions Jonathan raises are good ones. And the counterpoints Owen raises are good as well. I think both men are articulate voices and likely agree more than they disagree. And whether or not the polling data bears this out, I feel like younger evangelicals, while still fighting worthy battles against social evils, are calling for a more gracious, gospel-centered tone. And this is good.

Update: I thought Trevin Wax had a fair critique of this book as well. 

Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He previously served five years as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church. He is a contributor to Leadership Journal, Homelife, Crosswalk.com, Stand Firm,” and a variety of other evangelical publications. He has written several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Wrestling With Political Engagement

  1. Daniel,

    I appreciate your kind and measured tone. Well done.

    For the record, I actually took pains to say that "many" Q attendees are moderate or lean liberal. I recently attended Q Practices with Eugene Peterson, for example. That would mean there was at least one conservative there!

    Secondly, I wasn't taking issue with Jonathan critiquing the religious right. I was taking issue with him sand-bagging them. What's the difference between a fair and unfair critique? A fair is balanced. It tries to account for how the other side has made positive contributions. It shows that one has made an effort to understand the other side's motives. Jonathan's piece in USA Today did not do that. It sneered at the religious right. It made no mention of the positive gains made, gains that are not small if you care about the pro-life cause. It also was naive. It didn't take into account that many members of the media has for decades hated the pro-life cause, and have very much helped shape the whole matter into a "war" that they say is about rhetoric and power, not truth and life.

    Unfortunately, Jonathan's piece buys that argument wholesale. He has much to say about how the religious right sought power and used their beliefs to gain a political platform. He has nothing to say about how many crisis pregnancy centers have been founded, how many tiny babies have been saved, and how about 30 states have passed marriage amendments. He says nothing about two Supreme Court justices being elected who are staunchly pro-life.

    He says nothing, furthermore, about the gospel being preached in the midst of many of these efforts. Take Jerry Falwell–he was a culture warrior, and said and did things that I definitely would not do. But he founded a crisis pregnancy center in Liberty's home town. He gave generously to it. The gospel was preached there. This is not to say that such actions wipe out the negative stuff, but surely they balance the picture, right? At least they do if you love the gospel.

    Jonathan's piece fits the media's dominant narrative perfectly. It's a shame that we evangelicals get used to attack other evangelicals.

    • Owen, I agree with you. In fact, I made some of these points in my review of A Faith of Our Own. Many in my generation tend to pendulum swing–to reject everything from a generation ago and fail to appreciate their successes. And though I, like you, cringe at the overly political stuff of men like Falwell, etc, I also wince at the narrative made of them and the diminishing of their impact. Especially Fallwell who established a first-rate Christian university and multiple missions and charitable endeavors, not to mention his support for prolife clinics, etc.

      I think a perspective similar to what Matthew Lee Anderson invokes on Mere Othodoxy is where perhaps the "center" is when considering evangelical political engagement. Eschew the rough partisan edges, but be courageous to combat injustice in our day, including abortion and the attack on marriage. Interestingly, one who fights for life is considered an overly partisan hack. One who fights for poverty is considered heroic.

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