How do evangelicals of the millennial generation engage the culture differently than their parents? This is a question that has been raised with great frequency over the course of the last several years. The latest offering is A Faith of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt, an articulate voice with roots in America’s largest Protestant denomination, The Southern Baptist Convention. Merritt speaks whereof he writes, as the son of a former SBC President and eyewitness to the rough-and-tumble culture wars of a previous generation.
This book is at times a memoir and at times a chronicle of today’s shifting evangelical attitudes toward politics. It has many strong points with which I agree. Like Jonathan, I feel that the lust for power, a seat at the table, has at times corrupted the simplicity and purity of the Church’s central message. For many, the word “evangelical” means a certain brand of conservative politics. At times, we’ve gotten so preoccupied with “getting our guy in” that we’ve lost our way. We’ve forgotten that as followers of Christ, we don’t put our faith in parties and movements and iconic figures. There has also been the tendency to wage a spiritual war with fleshly tools, to adopt the guerrilla tactics that might win temporary skirmishes, but lose the cultural battles.
Jonathan is correct in describing a new generation’s reticence to engage the way the Religious Right did in the past. Even amongst conservative evangelicals, the issue matrix has broadened beyond pro-life, pro-marriage and includes issues like human trafficking, poverty, and creation care. And there is a more healthy relationship to power that sees gospel proclomation as the first hope. Today’s young evangelicals are more interested in church planting and activism and less likely to pin their hopes on the rise and fall of one party or another.
I also appreciate Jonathan’s discernment. In rejecting the politics of a previous generation, he doesn’t reject their theology. He’s still thoroughly evangelical and gospel-centered. You might argue that it his committment to Scriptural fidelity that has unmoored him from a blind allegiance to a particular political movement. I think his approach will mark how my generation approaches issues, on an ala-carte basis rather than accepting the entire package of what talk show hosts or politicians deem “conservative.”
Furthermore, Jonathan writes with a sense of respect and humility for his father’s generation. This is not the rant of a rebel, but the earnest plea of a discerning believer. At the end of the book he offers a warning to today’s evangelicals, that in our quest to differentiate from our fathers we might ignore our own blinds spots. When the books are written about our generation, surely there will be as much criticism of us as we had of those who went before. He doesn’t write with a mocking or sneering tone. And he anchors his approach in an earnest desire to pursue Christ.
I found three weaknesses in the book. First, Jonathan seemed to present his critiques of figures like Jerry Falwell and others as new and shocking. Some of the personal stories he told were new, but Jerry Falwell has been a convenient foil for younger generations for at least a decade. And most younger evangelicals have moved on from their allegiance to the brand of politics that those men employed.
Second, I felt Jonathan could have given readers some better ways to engage important issues. For instance, previous generations may have engaged the prolife cause in a sloppy way, but does that mean we should abandon it all together? I felt like Jonathan could have written more positively about the unsung heroes who staff prolife clinics who save babies every single day. These organizations offer compassion and hope to unwed mothers on a consistent basis. Some of the issues conservative Christians engage are petty and worthless, but the prolife cause can and should be reframed as an issue of justice, not dismissed as a partisan position.
Third, I longed for Jonathan to reframe the issues worth fighting. Yes, we’ve wrongly substituted conservatism for Christianity. Yes, we’ve engaged in petty, unChristian tactics. But there are some issues worth fighting. I know Jonathan isn’t advocating a wholesale retreat from the public square. So what does “faithful presence” look like?
Those quibbles aside, on the whole, this book is a worthy read, a good and honest discussion for a new generation of evangelicals. I have no doubt that Jonathan will continue to be an articulate voice for Christianity in the years to come. I highly recommend this book.