Jonathan Merritt grew up in the inner sanctum of the religious right. With a father (James Merritt) who held the presidency of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the author got to know political power brokers such as Jerry Falwell from a young age.
Yet rather than reap the spoils of his A-list connections, he’s taken them to task in A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars (FaithWords/Hachette, May; reviewed in this issue).
Now 29, Merritt laments how in his view churches, on the right and left alike, have been corrupted by embracing partisan politics. He prescribes a more hands-off approach that puts spiritual and moral concerns ahead of partisan ones.
Merritt’s voice resonates with those of other Gen-Y evangelicals, such as Jay Bakker (son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye), who’re making a faith-based case for gay rights and environmental protection. Merritt’s first book, Green Like God (FaithWords/Hachette, 2010), set the stage for more in a similar vein. He has a contract with FaithWords/Hachette to write a third book.
RBL: Is it wrong for Christians to be involved in partisan politics?
Merritt: The Christian church should never be involved in partisan politics. A Christian individual might work within the partisan framework that they’ve been given, but the church as an institution has a higher calling.
RBL: Where in recent years have we seen church institutions get involved in partisan politics?
Merritt: Groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition were using the church as a means to mobilize individual Christians for partisan purposes. When churches are used as campaign stops, it communicates that God is somehow aligned with a political party, when indeed he is not.
RBL: Why is it harmful for a church to be involved with a partisan agenda if that agenda is lined up with an important movement?
Merritt: Partisanism cheapens the church. The church should be something of an exceptional community, called to focus on transcendence, holiness, justice, and love. When we engage in partisan activity, it reduces the church to nothing more than a voting bloc.
RBL: How can the church be prophetic and influence policy if it doesn’t get involved in partisan politics?
Merritt: The best way is to provide people with a biblical framework, whereby they can make spirit-led and informed decisions about public policy. A pastor can teach people what the scriptures say about justice, freedom, and human dignity. But to go beyond that and make specific policy recommendations is an abuse of the sacred calling and exceeds the pastor’s competency.
RBL: What kind of pushback have you received?
Merritt: The Family Research Council blogged and said partisan Christianity is a myth. I responded and said partisan Christianity is not a myth. The church is hemorrhaging from the inside and repelling people from the outside. It’s due in part to the fact that we have been too entwined with partisan politics.
RBL: You say you’ve been called a liberal in sheep’s clothing, a closet socialist, and a theological liberal who doesn’t believe the Bible. Are you any of those things?
Merritt: I’m a political nomad. I’m part of this growing group of evangelicals stuck in the middle. In some ways I’m conservative, and in some ways I’m more liberal, and I’m quite comfortable there. It’s a new way of being Christian. It transcends the tight labels of conservative Republican or liberal Democrat. I just say I’m a follower of Jesus.