Jonathan Merritt’s 3d Way

Jonathan Merritt’s 3d Way March 28, 2012

From USA Today by Tom Krattenmaker:

But not far below the surface, change is afoot in the ranks of a once-reliable GOP voting bloc and around that term, “evangelical.” As has been widely reported, more evangelicals are breaking formation and tackling social problems such as poverty and human trafficking that weren’t on the evangelical political agenda a decade or two ago. Even more seismic, though, is a challenge being mounted against the notion that electoral politics is the way to do God’s work in America’s public life.

In a refreshing departure from the culture war mind-set that has come to characterize this and other recent elections, some of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers and spokespeople are trumpeting an important insight: Christians too fixated on politics are bound to end up frustrated and tarnished. And politics is not the only way to create positive change….

Consider Jonathan Merritt. A one-time GOP precinct leader and the son of a Baptist pastor from Georgia, Merritt, 29, has become one of the most persuasive articulators and exemplars of a revised form of evangelical engagement with politics. Despite the impression one gets from the political rhetoric of late — a “war” on Christians, a “war” on women, a “war” on contraception (and a “war,” evidently, on measured language) — Merritt is convinced that the culture wars’ days are numbered.

Merritt, author of the forthcoming book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus beyond the Culture Wars, put it this way in an e-mail exchange with me: “Americans are tired of the incivility and the partisan divisiveness on both sides. Regardless of how much longer the culture wars are going to continue, Christians need to transcend the polemical, partisan, power-hungry battles that stymie the common good. If my intuition is wrong and the culture wars continue to rage on, my hope and prayer is that Christians will take a higher road as they seek to be faithful in the public square.”



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  • Robert

    What do you mean by ‘politics’? I think the church needs to be up to its neck in politics in the sodest sense of the word. We have a foodbank at my church, for instance. that just puts plaster on the wound; we should be asking just how it is that a rich country allows people to go hungry.

    From a distance of several thousand miles, it looks to me as though some evangelicals have an unhealthy relationship with the GOP. They’ve taken a secular agenda, and used religion to turn it into an absolute good; it’s been placed on a level with God himself. That’s idolatry. What you’re dealing with is culture Christianity; there’s nothing wrong with political religion as long as we remain critical.

  • Robert

    It’s hard to find it on google, but it’s what Bonhoeffer had to deal with. He’d be a good starting point.

  • Seems to me doing God’s work outside of “electoral politics” had been the longstanding Evangelical approach before Pat Robertson and that crowd.

  • Art Balis

    We are called to preach the good news. By wading into politics, don’t you immediately loose half your audience?

    Where is the line between good Biblical preaching and political advocacy?

  • TJJ

    I agree that politics can be poisonous to church and faith. but the fact is all shades of Christianity in this country participate and use the political system and parties to further their vision of what the US should be or not be. In some cases like slavery, there is much more consensus, at least now in hindsight, that Christians and the Church was right to get involved. In issues like abortion, or gay rights, Christians and Churches are very much divided, and I suppose wish the “other” would go away and get out of politics.

    It is fine to talk about a third way when the issues are human trafficing or poverty, where there is broader consensus among Churches and Christians. But a “third way” when it comes to gay marriage, abortion, that is more myth than reality at the present time.

  • I think bringing up Slavery is good. Anytime you want to read a short, but VERY good book. Go find Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis. It is only around 150 pages. But there are very few history books I have read that have more relevance to the modern world. We like to think that Christians were on the right side of slavery. But they were not for the most part. Even advocates for abolition were often unable to theologically argue from scripture about why the bible would be opposed to slavery.

    We all have moral blind spots. Noll’s book does a great job discussing the moral blind spots, the hermeneutical problems around slavery, the shift in thinking about religion in public life and other themes that really are incredibly salient.

  • TJJ

    There were church groups that did, tragically, support slavery (Southern Baptists). But churches in the north for the most part opposed slavery. Slavery was clearly a geographical, social, political issue, as much or more as it was a religious issue, and where one fell on those continuums often determined one’s views.

  • phil_style

    I think someone needs to define “politics”. Christianity is political, in broad sense of the term. But is Christianity modern-US-party-politics political? Probably not.

  • TJJ, I encourage you to read Noll’s book. He has some pretty good evidence that the churches in the north, did not support anti-slavery efforts nearly as much as we think they did. And that it was actually a relatively marginal Christian groups that did support anti-slavery efforts working with secular anti-slavery groups (or very liberal Christians that rejected the authority of scripture.) The common reading of scripture at the time is that there was not a biblical support for outlawing slavery. Many Christians did support outlawing slavery, but not from biblical and Christian ethical positions.

    Wilberforce and others in Europe read scripture differently and so did have a theological position, but inside the US, very few Christians were theologically opposed.

    I won’t recount it whole argument. But it really does come down to a type of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism as Christian Smith would call it.