The Jonathan Merritt I Knew: Why He’s Not Quite Anti-Gay & Why I Feel Sorry For Him

I am not a warm and fuzzy person by nature, but my heart is hurting for Jonathan Merritt. I haven’t seen the guy in 20 years but every so often I look him up and see what he’s writing about. He is an excellent writer, even though we parted ways politically and theologically long ago.

We were never close, just two kids who knew each other through Mr. Chuck’s children’s worship service. Every Sunday there was a part of the class where you had to sit absolutely still and silent because the kid who could resemble statuary the most got a candy bar. I was the kid with the weird name that dressed a little tacky, and Jonathan was the preacher’s kid who was very proud of his cowboy boots. He was a nice kid. He was funny and enjoyed teasing other kids, but he was never mean. I don’t recall him being spoiled or the center of attention. He was just a cool kid in children’s worship whose name I knew and to whom I usually said “Hello.” Seems strange to think of that little boy, busting a gut with pride over his cowboy boots, as someone involved in a viral internet scandal.

My family started attending First Baptist Church of Snellville after my father abandoned a church he was an associate pastor at because the lead pastor kept violating Wheaton’s Law. The rest of my father’s family attended First Baptist and spoke highly of Dr. James Merritt, who was then pastor and not yet on tv. I suppose he was somewhat famous in Evangelical circles then, but it was the late 80′s and I wasn’t keeping track of such things then. I remember him visiting our home. I had to sit quietly while the adults spoke. I remember thinking that it was silly for me to be there, because I had no say over where we went to church and I didn’t understand half of what they said.

Attending First Baptist of Snellville was a big change for me. It wasn’t the small church where everybody knew everybody (and all their business). It was big, and would become even bigger over the years. My father rarely attended (I think he was simply disenchanted with organized religion) but my mother was very active. She kept the nursery, helped with youth ministry, taught preschool, and I think even helped run the roller skating rink. Yeah, I said roller skating rink. Not as impressive as it sounds. She knew all of the Merritt kids: James, Jonathon and Joshua. James seemed pretty serious for a teenager and I think my sister hung out with him a bit. Joshua was just a baby, and was in nursery back then.

Little hellion that I was, I spent countless hours in that church. Both in service, Sunday School and youth events, but also waiting on my mom. In fact, I remember that the most: finding things to do while I waited on my mom. Anything to make the time pass. Any errand I could run. I spent most of my time in that church on the sidelines, waiting for my mom.

I imagine it was much the same for Jonathan. I know my mom was concerned about him and his brothers spending too much time with babysitters while their parents were busy with church. That seems ironic considering how much time she gave to that church in lieu of taking care of us. When I was about 10 we moved, and it seemed strange to no longer have that all-encompassing church culture around me all the time.

When I look at the trajectory of Jonathan Merritt’s life, I often think there but for the twist of fate go I. Had I stayed in that church, and in that culture, I don’t know that I would have become Pagan. My Pagan spiritual life was borne of having a vacuum, a space, in which to explore the concept of religion from a new perspective. If I had remained in that culture and church, I would likely be a frustrated minister’s wife today. I would have attended a Christian college and be putting in 20 hours a week at church. I read Jonathan’s writing, and sometimes it feels like the ghost of the-Star-that-might-have-been is speaking to me. In my adult life I have used Jonathan as a strange sort of window into the life I could have had.

I know it has to be humiliating to be publicly outed when you’re not merely a public figure, but one struggling with faith and identity. I think many of those who are calling for him to embrace a gay identity have no idea how much he has to lose. Not book contracts or speaking engagements. His family, his friends, his sense of self. His faith. To struggle with your faith is a terrible thing. As a woman, I struggled mightily with the Christian faith. I have to agree with Candace Chellew-Hodge: if you are struggling then you are doing it wrong. I found a faith far more accepting of my sacred femaleness, and I can’t go back to fit into a Christian model of womanhood ever again.

Right now Jonathan is going through a really rough point in his life. I’m sure he’s had a lot of uncomfortable conversations. His life is changed forever. This scandal is going to be something that will be brought up constantly throughout his life. His life will not ever be the same.

I hope he’s ok. I hope he’s not at an abusive “pray away the gay” retreat or harming himself. I hope he has quiet and peace in which to sort this out for himself. Really it doesn’t matter what decisions he makes, because anything going forward from this will be hard, heartbreaking and messy. I would be very surprised if he embraced a gay identity, despite the fact that he’s been pegged as a dangerous pro-gay Evangelical for awhile. He has even written about the inevitability of Evangelicals changing their attitude towards homosexuality:

The group that should be paying the most attention to this ideological change right now is evangelical churches themselves. Retaining young people is crucial, and a more accepting generation will not tolerate business as usual when it comes to the debate over homosexuality. Pastors need not compromise their convictions, but they can expect congregants to call for a more accepting, forgiving message — a more Christian message. If Christian leaders can’t make that transition — and quickly — instead of an awakening, evangelicals may be facing an exodus.

Jonathan is a smart and talented Evangelical voice. He’s not afraid to tackle the issues of environmentalism or homosexuality in the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s not afraid to take unpopular political stances and buck the conservative status quo. And like many moderates, he has made enemies on both sides. His piece defending Chick-Fil-A isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be:

On both sides of our latest culture war divide, we must learn to have level-headed disagreements without resorting to accusations of hate speech and boycotts. As Josh Ozersky argued on TIME Thursday, “businesses should be judged by their products and their practices, not by their politics.”

I agree: I don’t care how my dry cleaner votes. I just want to know if he/she can press my Oxfords without burning my sleeves. I find no compelling reason to treat sandwiches differently than shirts.

From a business standpoint, some might say Cathy’s comments were imprudent if not downright dumb. But in a society that desperately needs healthy public dialogue, we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.

If white meat’s not your thing, try the Golden Arches. But if you want a perfectly fried chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A, will be happy to serve you — gay or straight. In this case, those who boycott are the ones missing out.

I admire him, and there aren’t many contemporary Christian writers I admire. Jonathan Merritt the writer will weather this storm just fine. He is strong and smart. But I’m worried about the little boy who always hung out with a group of girls, stylin’ with his slick hair and shiny cowboy boots.

Do I think Jonathan is gay? I think so. The little boy I remember was a grinning little Southern “Kurt Hummel” with an affinity for Western wear and a touch of swagger. My gaydar may be working retroactively, but it seems pretty certain. Do I think he should identify as gay? I think that’s a pretty personal choice, and only he can make it.

Strange that fate seems to have switched us. I am a heterosexual woman who wants to get married to a man and raise kids one day, and here I am in a GLBTQI-positive faith and living with gay men. It’s almost as if Jonathan got my fate and I got his. I effectively lost my family over my religious, moral and political views. Maybe I would have lost them anyway had I remained a conservative Christian. And now, because he might not be the kind of person who can marry someone of the opposite sex, Jonathan is faced with choices that could potentially cost him his family. Seems easy to say he should just embrace being gay and evolve his faith, but it is not that simple. Those two weird kids sitting stock-still for a candy bar in the same church service 20+ years ago have certainly ended up in strange places.

I feel really bad for that little boy in the cowboy boots. He was a good kid who got the raw end of the deal by not merely being a “preacher’s kid” but by being a famous preacher’s kid. I don’t think he deserved to be outed like this. His views on homosexuality were evolving in an interesting way, and if we can cut Obama slack we should be able to cut Jonathan some slack as well. Whatever he decides to do with this new trajectory of his life, I wish him well. And the guy who outed him? He seems like an ass. And if you listen to his words and watch his face, you can tell he knows he’s an ass.

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About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Kat Emralde

    Star, this is an amazing piece.  I hope he reads it someday and can acknowledge your compassion, understanding and support.

  • kenneth

    It’s too bad it went down this way, but I have a hard time feeling too sorry when guys who make their bones off of persecuting gays gets outed, even if the people or motivations doing the outing are less than noble. Whether he is personally homophobic or not is not even the point. Evangelical Christianity promotes an active and virulent hatred of gays that really borders on genocide. It doesn’t merely preach against them. It raises and spends tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to undermine their human rights in every conceivable venue of culture and law. It has inspired more than a few murders of gay men and women and has driven countless young people to suicide. A big part of what enables this sick dynamic is the movement’s demonization of gays as “the other.”   I see no reason why gay or bisexual men should be allowed to live their lie safely while making a living from the destruction of the people they date on the sly…

  • Star Foster

     But Jonathan has been working hard to get Evangelicals to reconsider their approach to and reaction to homosexuality. This wasn’t an outing of some hateful “gays burn in hell” preacher, but of someone who was thoughtfully writing from a centrist position on the inevitability of Evangelical acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians. In other words, the guy was doing good work. Maybe he didn’t go as far or as fast as many would have liked, but he was still treading dangerous ground and raising awareness.  He was creating change from within, rather than attacking from without. I don’t see that as a bad thing.


    I have to take exception of the statement that Jonathan Merritt was persecuting gays. He has done more for understanding/acceptance of gays by Evangelicals than anyone ever before. He has gone farther for this than anyone ever before. Is he gay? Maybe. Maybe not. But he had to handle his personal issues on his own terms and in his own time. What happened to him has set the entire improvement back farther than it was before he started. I am gay, and I agree with what Jonathan says. Now, his work will now always be overshadowed by the Evangelicals pegging him as a gay revolutionist than them actually listening to his message rather than considering his message. Has anyone read any of his work? It makes such good sense and in the end, is helping gays for more acceptance in the mainstream community. He had so very much to offer. It’s a shame that someone takes the position that they have the right to out someone. Many people, including myself, have had a passing thought [maybe more] that Jonathan is gay. I also thought that it was his place to come to those terms, whether privately or publicly, on his own. I found in my life that those who have nothing to lose care absolutely nothing for those of us who do. Today, my heart bleeds for Jonathan. Where does he pick up and go now? He certainly will not be an effective advocate for Evangelical gays, because everyone will think he has his own agenda. Star, you have written an excellent piece, much more supportive than anything I have read. I don’t know him, I wish I did. I would offer him my love and respect and try to do whatever I could to let him know many people are concerned about him. It’s people like the creep who outed him that cause others to harm themselves or worse. We should embrace Jonathan now, instead of join in on beating him up. Hopefully, he can work through this and find his place again. Sadness.

  • Sam_Handwich

    Interesting article. I’ve been following this story closely since it broke last week. There are
    two things that really irk me:
    First, if you read Merritt’s statements to Ed Stetzer (which seem to be his
    only published words since being outted), you’ll find that he premises his adult
    consensual homosexual behavior on having been molested as a child by a man in
    his neighborhood. This, he claims, led to a “brokenness” which then, somehow,
    led him to having gay sex. This an entirely irresponsible and offensive claim
    for Merritt to float . Not only does it add more confusion to the matter of
    homosexuality, but it makes mockery of the real brokenness suffered by the
    victims of child sexual abuse.
    My second gripe is not specifically aimed at Merritt, but toward the kind of
    indifference he embraces and perpetuates, and what is getting lost in all of this
    discussion. After all, the issue underpinning this entire controversy is not
    whether Chick-fil-a makes tasty sandwiches, or whether boycotts are effective,
    but whether same sex couples should be entitled to access to the same legal
    constructs opposite sex couples enjoy, for the purpose of protecting their
    families. Merritt thinks we shouldn’t be entitled to those same protections, and
    he stated that clearly in the past. Ditto for the Chick-fil-a CEO.

    I don’t view marriage equality as a small issue to be brushed aside in the
    name of pretending to be ‘civil’ toward a bunch of homophobic busybodies and the
    ‘morality’ they very selectively cull from Stone Age religious texts
    and enshrine in state constitutions around America. But, you see, it doesn’t
    matter to these people, or to Merritt, that someone’s partner is being denied
    hospital visitation rights, or inheritance, or custody of a child. All they care
    is that their myopic views of the universe are preserved by state and federal
    laws, no matter how much human misery is left in the wake of their crusades.

  • Star Foster

     His statement to Ed Stetzer was pure party line. I take issue with the false idea that molestation makes you gay as well, but I have to imagine there was a lot of pressure to make that statement adhere to the party line. I’ll be more interested in what Jonathan has to say when he’s had time to process all this.

  • Sam_Handwich

    He’s had years to “process” his sexuality as well as his association with narrow
    minded religious heehaws; his painfully rehearsed answers to Stetzer are
    evidence of this. He’d already fabricated a narrative that would be palatable to
    evangelicals in the event he was outted, including the disgusting attempt to
    blame his sexuality on abuse, peppered with all the evangelically correct
    buzzwords about “sin” and “brokenness”, his “spiritual journey” and the bible’s
    “unambiguous standards for sexuality”. And then he capped it all off with the
    Larry Craigesque “I’m not gay!”. So i’m not sure what’s you’re hoping for, but
    he certainly appears to have slammed the door on any possibility of being honest
    with himself, let alone anyone else.

  • kenneth

    He wasn’t creating change from within. He may have had all the best intentions in the world of doing so, but that dream never comes true inside of morally bankrupt movements like that. Never. 

    There have always been well-intentioned people within such regimes – apartheid, Jim Crow, fascist political regimes of one sort or another. They believe they can soften the movement internally and nudge it back toward sanity. They fail, 100 percent of the time. They get marginalized and purged. Even when they think they’re making some progress, it only means that the regime in question is using them as mascots to put a friendly, progressive face on the movement for outsiders.  

    I don’t question this guy’s heart or good intent, but let’s step back for a moment and look at his position pre-outing: He was already being marginalized by his movements power brokers and elders and the best he was able to get about for gay advocacy was to suggest that we ought to have more pity for gays as fallen beings rather than evil incarnate! That doesn’t feel like a winning strategy. Post-outing, we have an apparently gay man forced to pathologize that part of his humanity by explaining it away as fallout from abuse!

     Talking gay rights, hell, human rights, to such a movement is lost labor. It’s like going down to Jonestown in the final days and trying to sell Jim Jones on the idea of going back to his roots as a hippy feed-the-poor-street preacher. Or sending Jimmy Carter into Mordor to sell Sauron on the idea of dropping world conquest in favor of opening a fair-trade coffee co-op and art therapy center for former child soldiers. Beautiful thoughts, but….c’mmon. 

    Merritt can take a page from pagan theory in his Christian journey here. The idea of death as a threshold to re-birth. If he wants to be something more than this sick movement’s slave, he will leave, and re-envision and rebuild Evangelical Christianity from the ground up.  If what he says is true, that the Evangelical will accept gays as full people, it will only happen when and if young people stop feeding their dollars and talents to the old regime. 

    This is his moment of decision and a fork in the road in his fate. Will he bow to his masters and go back to his cubicle and take the paycheck, or will he take on his mission? The blue or red pill? It is these moments that keep me interested in humanity……

  • montims

    If you hadn’t known him personally, how would you have reacted to this story?  

  • Star Foster

     If this hadn’t involved people I knew and a church culture I was once immersed in? I would probably find it funny. Which just goes to show how much a bit of perspective can change everything.

  • Basil

    Star, I think your article is really beautiful!  But I am with Kenneth on this.  I’m not comfortable with outing, but I make an exception for those who take an active role in the oppression of LGBT persons.  Jonathan has done that.  Maybe he is less egregious than Ted Haggard was, but he advocated a doctrine of gay = fallen, sinful  (a half step removed from gay=pervert, threat to civilization) and his doctrine gave cover to those who commit violence against us, and/or support the discriminatory laws and social norms that burden us.  Some of our most vicious oppressors have been closeted gay men — just look at George Rekers.  Out of this tragedy, hopefully Jonathan can build an honest life for himself, and for those he interacts with.

  • Bill Jones

    Ugh!  You are SO off on this point, Star.  Perhaps only a gay person could understand how damaging what Jonathan Merritt is doing actually IS.

    Please do keep in mind when discussing Jonathan Merritt that he is a gay man who seeks to keep other gay men as second-class citizens by the force of his and other christians’ personal religious beliefs.

    With such a well-written piece, it surprises me that this is your take on Kenneth’s comment.

    Jonathan Merritt is a gay man who seeks to keep other gay men down in society LEGALLY by using his CHOSEN LIFESTYLE of ‘christianity’ as the excuse and reason for doing so.

    From a gay person’s perspective, he is the ULTIMATE traitor.  He’s an ‘Uncle Tom’ Gay Man.  

    He is fighting HIMSELF, but he is using ALL GAY PEOPLE to wager this fight, and he has absolutely no business doing so.

    This makes him unrespectable and undignified by any definition of either word.

    Imagine how much respect you would have for a woman in the public eye using her voice to advocate for the government to treat women inequitably.  How on earth could you respect her, her motives or her work itself?

    Would it matter to you at all if this woman was doing so politely and with a smile on her face?

    I enjoyed your piece very much.  One of the most well-reasoned I’ve read on this matter.

    But I do think your response to Kenneth is kind of odd.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

     Would you really be interested? Would it even have made it to your blog?

    I’m guessing unlikely to the latter.

    But, then, that is the point of a blog, isn’t it? Far more personal than simple news articles.

  • kenneth

    I get where her response comes from. Her perception of the event is shaped by personal knowledge of a guy who sounds like a very decent fellow in person. I can’t fault him for being afraid of losing everything he has professionally or for the mistake of believing that one can reason with evil, a mistake borne of hope that people choosing evil are just misinformed and not really bad people.

     I just think he’s deeply mistaken for believing that one can change an evil regime while wearing its uniform and advancing its goals. It won’t work, not simply for the reasons I’ve already outlined but because one cannot effectively preach truth while living a lie. If this guy hadn’t outed Merritt, somebody would have. Probably someone within his own community competing with him for a big ministry position or viewership or whatever the evangelical industry trafficks in these days. It sounds like they already had pretty well undermined him with whisper campaigns of one sort or another.

       On his best days, all he really could do was talk about gay rights in the abstract. “We should be nicer to those people.” Those people. That’s nice and all, but nobody cares about people in the abstract, and certainly not “those people.”

     That’s the very dynamic that makes homophobia and all other forms of hate work. Closeting enables homophobia because nobody has to engage with gay people as real human beings. They are just “those people” – the radical nun crossdressers, the leather boys, the rest stop lurkers, the meth heads who prowl some bath house in a part of town you’ll never walk through. The “sodomites.” 

     Gay people aren’t, in this delusion of a closeted world, real people. Your co-worker, your son, your sister, your best buddy from high school, certainly not a minister! In the span of my 42 years, gays have gone from a caste of literal untouchables whose very existence was criminalized to within striking distance of full social and legal acceptance. That didn’t happen from anyone like Merritt preaching tolerance in the abstract. It happened because gay people made themselves undeniably visible in every walk of life.

     If he had stayed in the closet, or if he pretends his orientation was just some momentary psychosis, he will end up doing more to enable evangelical homophobia than he ever would or could have by preaching against it. As well intentioned as he was, his closeted life actually did more damage to his cause than the worst firebrands of the movment. It gave the virulent haters cover and a kind of spiritual and intellectual respectability they otherwise couldn’t have. His silence amplified their message of hate.

     If, on the other hand, he comes out and owns it, THAT becomes a powerful witness against hate. The existence of an ordinary clean cut, devoted Christian, a family man, poses a huge problem for homophobic religion. 

  • Bnerd

    A good post. Although I would like to add a few things:

    First off, I have no doubt Jonathan is a decent, kind man. But his “centrism” doesn’t really inspire much in me. I understand his struggle. I grew up in an Evanglical Church (granted non-denominational). I heard much of the same theology he did. I heard the disdainful and hostile tones people used to talk about the LGBTQA community. My parents used to get “parenting advice” via James Dobson and FOF. So I completely understand how hard it is to be a young gay boy growing up in that environment. But I also understand that nothing gets better by simply saying “it’s inevitable” or using less harsh, but ultimately still destructive language to talk about the LGBTQA community. It takes people who are willing to challenge not just Charles Woorly or Fischer, but Jonathan as well. Because so long as he still parrots the destructive idea that LGBTQA people are “broken” he’s still feeding into the homophobia that’s become central to Evangelical culture; and he isn’t going to change anyone’s mind with that kind of rhetoric, regardless of how “inevitable” he seems to believe increased acceptance will be in the movement at some point in the future.

    Having said that, do I have sympathy for him? Absolutely. I went through years of dealing with self loathing as a result of my upbringing. It’s not an easy hurrdle to clear. And I don’t think the appropriate response is to say that people like him deserve to be outed. No one should be outed. Thats my firm belief as someone who *was* outed. That outing resulted in me trying to take my own life. It’s difficult enough dealing with self hatred, but that self hatred doesn’t melt away when the light hits it. It takes time. And it takes time on ones *own* terms.

    Last, his Chick-Fil-A column has one major problem: Dan Cathy sells his business a certain way. He’s been perfectly blunt about it. It’s a “Christian” oriented business. Its part of the “values system” that Cathy routinely pimps whenever he gets a chance. So it’s not that people aren’t judging his product, they are. They’re judging it exactly how Cathy portrays it. Is it unfair to judge a business the way the COO sells it? Also, I tire of the idea that this is a “political or cultural” thing. It’s personal. Period. To someone like me, this isn’t abstract. To someone like me, they’re giving of money to anti-gay groups isn’t “just politics”. It’s a direct assault on me and people like me who have, and continue, to suffer at the hands bigots.

  • Cara

    It’s good to read blog comments.  It reminds me of how cruel and uncaring people are.  It reminds me that Pagans have jerks like every other religion.