The following book review is a guest post from Summit Pastoral research assistant, Chris Pappalardo.
Jonathan Merritt begins A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by recounting a breakfast meeting he had with the late Jerry Falwell shortly before enrolling at Falwell’s Liberty University. Falwell was a giant in Merritt’s young eyes, but their personal interaction revealed Falwell’s passion for Christian involvement in right-wing politics. The experience left a sour taste in Merritt’s mouth, a general distaste that he claims is typical of a new generation of American Christians. A Faith of Our Own is a manifesto of this emerging Christian generation, one which approaches political issues in a radically different way than their predecessors.
Merritt illustrates the ethos of this new generation by weaving survey statistics with anecdotes of his personal journey. He speaks for younger Christians who tire of the expectation that Christians must choose a side in the “culture wars,” the poisonous battle between political Left and Right. Falwell cast his lot with the Republicans; many others argue boldly that “true” Christians can only vote Democrat. Merritt commends the rising generation’s desire to abandon the culture wars altogether.
As Merritt sees it, the situation was not always so divisive. American Christianity enjoyed a boom in the 1950s, but was soon threatened by the social revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s. As liberal policies gained the day and liberal theology crept into the academy, “fundamentalism” went from a descriptive term to a nasty epithet. Christians of that generation, feeling attacked, responded defensively with initiatives like Falwell’s famed ‘Moral Majority’. These initiatives engaged in explicitly political maneuvers to counter the cultural decline.
We are currently reaping a backlash against these conservative Christian political movements, Merritt notes. The growing non-Christian public largely resents Christians (Merritt contends) for their imperial and judgmental meddling in politics, and many Christians (like Merritt) are ashamed of Falwell and his ilk. “If today’s Christians are reacting,” Merritt writes in one of the best lines of his book, “they are reacting to a reactive expression of faith” (123).
The specter of Jerry Falwell drifts in and out of Merritt’s book, a convenient archetype of wrong-headed Christian engagement in the American culture wars. Merritt ends his book, fittingly, with a reflection on Falwell’s death. As he metaphorically pats the dirt on his grave, Merritt encourages his readers to do the same to Falwell’s misguided mission. Dr. Falwell himself seems to condone this from the great beyond, as Merritt repeatedly asks, “What does he think of his life now” (172–173)? Merritt seems sure that Falwell would now agree that true and lasting Christian societal fruit occurs away from the ballot box.
A Faith of Our Own makes a timely entrance into the fray of the “culture war” discussion, and it has much to contribute to that discussion.
First, Merritt recognizes the need for humility in our current views. Our parent’s generation may have conflated cultural issues with biblical ones, but this is a danger that we are just as liable to make. As Merritt writes, “Christians always face the temptation to depict Jesus in accordance with their own character and cast Him in an image that best suits their worldly goals” (5). In light of this temptation, our criticisms, policies, and acts of political engagement must be presented humbly. Our children and our children’s children will see our faults easily enough.
Second, Merritt helpfully extols Christian orthopraxy—right action—which is too often neglected in our efforts to maintain orthodoxy. Merritt reflects a growing number of Christians who find the Church’s vocal stance on certain moral issues frequently unbalanced and sometimes overtly hypocritical. He takes special aim at the Church’s position towards homosexuality, claiming that while we can maintain that sexual immorality is sinful, we have also been hateful and cruel to the LGBT community: “If we say we love our gay and lesbian neighbors, but then allow our leaders to speak hatred toward them, our hypocrisy is exposed and people suffer” (114). The truth of God must be accompanied by the love of God if we are to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
Third, Merritt’s critique of the current political climate is largely on point. Christians have allowed the Republican Party to treat them as a voting bloc, and the result has not been positive for either. Christians are often viewed as pawns in the political system, not distinct voices seasoning politics with the integrity and truth of Christ. Political rhetoric is heated and each side demonizes the other. In such a climate, civility and charity are distinctive. When church leaders caricature and demonize their opponents, they have the opposite effect they intend: “Picking on someone for long enough—even if they deserve it—will make you a bully and your opponent a martyr” (57). Merritt rightly advises that Christians can change the situation by treating their opponents with grace and civility.
Finally, Merritt attempts to avoid slandering conservatives, and for that we should be grateful. Frustration with the culture wars is often expressed in rants about conservative policies—usually abortion and same-sex marriage—and implies that conservatives are the villains. The wars must stop, but it is the conservatives who should lay down their arms first. Merritt is to be commended for his efforts to avoid such one-sided criticism. “Many on both sides,” Left as well as Right, “lack a biblical framework for healthy engagement with the political process” (31). Admittedly, he does allot more space to critiquing the Right, but that is largely a result of his Southern Baptist background: he knows the political foibles of conservatives better because he was reared a conservative.
While A Faith of Our Own offers its share of commendable insights, certain aspects of the book raise concerns.
First, Merritt frequently frames his discussion of Christian cultural engagement as a choice between two options: we can either attempt political change or seek to change culture organically. Merritt says it is not “how you vote that changes the world. It’s your hands that do the changing” (142). According to Merritt, Jesus himself avoided political squabbles in favor of a more grassroots movement. Christians, then, should not concern themselves with legislation that outlaws gay marriage or abortion; instead, we ought to create an atmosphere in our churches that promotes the biblical view of marriage and human life.
If faced with these two options, we should opt for more organic changes. But these are not the only two options. If Christians are to season their world with the salt of God’s grace and the light of His presence, not only can they have political opinions, they must do so. What would we think of Christians in the 1860s that refused to address the “slavery issue” because it was political? Or of Christians in the 1960s who refused to engage the segregation discussion? Yes, it takes more than mere policy to enact justice and protect the vulnerable, but Christians must recognize that policy still matters. As Vaclav Havel notes in his Politics, Civility and Morality, politics is both upstream and downstream of culture. Politics both reflects the culture and shapes it in a never ending cycle. Merritt admits as much in his book in a couple of places, but quite often argues as if we have to choose one or the other.
Second, while Merritt does not advocate complete disavowal of the political realm, his strategy for engaging in politics is unclear. He admits the legitimacy of political action: “Government can be a powerful tool for justice and goodness, and often Christians must advocate for policies that punish injustice, restrain evil, and promote a healthier society” (128). But how can we know which issues are vital and which issues are moot? Throughout the course of his book, Merritt subtly creates a hierarchy of the key issues. Opposing homosexuality and abortion is apparently misguided—these aren’t the issues we should battle. Racism is. Systemic poverty is. Threats to the environment are. War is, at least most of the time.
This book critiques the shortfalls of the previous generation’s engagement with politics, but fails to put forward a grid for positive engagement. Merritt calls Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ a reactive movement. This book seems to be mostly a reaction to that reaction. We need to get out of a reactive mode and construct a grid for positive Christian political engagement, in the spirit of Abraham Kuyper or Thomas Sowell (e.g. A Conflict of Visions).
Third, for all of his efforts to equally criticize both liberals and conservatives, I was left wondering if Merritt had simply switched sides in the culture wars, at least in terms of defining which issues are pressing and which are irrelevant. Those on the Left calling for an end to the culture wars usually mean having the Right shut up about gay marriage and the right to life and acknowledge the moral imperative of nationalized health care and curbing corporate greed. Merritt thus inadvertently shows how impossible it is to completely avoid the culture wars. Evangelicalism certainly needs a discussion about which political issues are primary, which are secondary, and which are trivial. But Merritt offers little in the way, as I see it, of constructing that grid. He appears to merely champion uncontroversial social agendas and table (or minimize) unpopular ones.
Finally, I found this book a little light on the gospel itself—that Jesus Christ died in our place to free us from sin–and what the implications are of that for Christians in a fallen world. I do not mean to imply that Merritt is himself light on the gospel; it is simply not developed in A Faith of Our Own. Merritt writes, “The great unifier that draws us together is our common commitment to Jesus. . . . American Christians should strive for Jesus, knowing that through that effort unity will be achieved” (162). That’s a good start, but it leaves a lot unsaid. If we are to find a way out of the maze of the culture wars, a clear vision of gospel theology and its implications is crucial.
A Faith of Our Own weaves between the dual goals of description and prescription. Where Merritt sets about describing the current zeitgeist, his work is valuable. He accurately captures the spirit of the budding Christian generation and their disdain for political vitriol. His critiques are valid and are worthy of legitimate discussion. For that reason, the book is sure to resonate with many young readers who view politics with suspicion. Unfortunately, Merritt’s prescription is unclear. Beyond counseling Christians to be more civil with others, it is difficult to see how A Faith of Our Own will disarm the warring parties. Only the gospel can move us beyond the culture wars . . . or into a proper waging of them, as certain situations may require.