The Story of a Centrist

The Story of a Centrist June 1, 2012

This is from Jonathan Merritt, and we are pleased that we received permission from him to post this excerpt from his new book A Faith of Our Own.

I became an environmentalist at a Southern Baptist Seminary. Few people on the planet can say that. I was sitting in a theology class listening to a lecture about the general revelation of God in nature and became bitterly convicted that I was contributing to the muffling of God’s voice around me through my destructive lifestyle. Over the next few months, I decided to reflect on my life’s habits and make many personal changes. But I still wanted to do more.

I contacted a group of pastors, professors, and leaders in The Southern Baptist Convention to help me draft a statement expressing a Biblical view of creation care. A few months later, we finished the final draft and I began circulating it among denominational leaders for their support. To my surprise, the signatures poured in. People were overjoyed that others in the denomination were stepping out on this issue.

Then, the heads of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) found out. The ERLC is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention with offices in Nashville and Washington D.C. The entity functions as a lobbying group within the most conservative wing of the Christian right, and they don’t like other people stepping on their turf. I had contacted their office early in the drafting process but received no response.

Then my initiative began gaining steam, and in their reading, it might give the impression that there was variance among Southern Baptists on environmental issues. I became a liability.

ERLC leaders prodded me to abandon the efforts, luring me with soft bribes and hard threats. They told me if I turned the project over to them, they would rewrite it. In return, they would pay for the public release and open up doors for speaking engagements. When I rejected the offer, they said they were obligated to contact signatories and dismantle the effort themselves. With the precision of a five-star political machine, ERLC leaders began locating signatories and trying to convince them to remove their names. Falsehoods circulated about my “hidden agendas” and “political ties.” Emails sent with the cadence of machine gun fire became impossible to contain.

At the time, I was a second year seminary student, unaware of the power and determination of the establishment. I never expected and wasn’t equipped to combat the hornets from the nest I’d accidentally kicked. The breaking point came late one night when I was studying for exams. I received a call from one of my favorite professors, someone I admire. He informed me that ERLC leadership was offering me one last chance to turn over the initiative. If I decided to move forward, the full force of their opposition would fall on me. This included telling “the truth” about my effort to denominational leaders, many whom I considered heroes. I was given 24 hours to consider their offer and decide.

I hung up the phone and wept. I was attempting to act on my convictions under the guidance of wise counsel, but I was not-so-kindly shown the door. Peeking behind the curtain of the establishment church, I was shocked to discover a political machine that looked more a lot more like Washington than Nashville. Rather than turn the initiative over to the group, I released it to the public. Major news media picked up on the story, and soon the toothpaste was out of the tube. The ERLC moved on, and I was left to ponder all that transpired.

Is this the current state of the Christian church in America? Has Christ’s bride become so hungry for influence that she will stop at nothing to protect her power? Is this community at the point where seminary professors will threaten students at the beckoning of the establishment?

Sadly, yes.

I’m not the only one who has been the target of such tactics. I’ve met many over the years who’ve shared similar experiences. Like me, they deviated from the platform, called out someone on the home team, or failed to run their projects through the gatekeepers. They were ignored, ridiculed or discredited, and might as well been handed the black spot from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The political, economic, and social systems in our country don’t exist to glorify God. They were built to turn a profit, build an empire, consolidate power. Some Christian churches, leaders and organizations have been co-opted by these systems with the promise of benefiting from the resources and power they produce. Experiences like mine serve as a warning to all who might challenge these human systems in which Christian entities are enmeshed. Don’t expect to be embraced because you are a good person trying to accomplish a worthy goal or even because you’re “right.” Expecting culture warriors to leave you alone because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.

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  • T

    “it might give the impression that there was variance among Southern Baptists on environmental issues.” There *is* variance among Southern Baptists on environmental issues and a host of other issues. The effort to make it seem otherwise seems to be motivated primarily, if not solely, by the desire to maintain political lobbying clout. That is a prime example of why evangelicals are being seen as shaped and led as much or more by the GOP as Jesus.

  • Tom F.

    Wow. I’m just always really sad to hear about this sort of thing. One might expect this sort of thing from the world, but somehow the wounds received from those in the church are uniquely bad, perhaps because those that inflict them show no remorse and seem to think they are carrying out God’s will as they stab you in the back.

  • Nathan

    Sinful and NOT surprising. This is the reason why the SBC gets its much deserved reputation. I wish congregations would disassociate and repudiate this leadership.

  • Fred

    “Is this the current state of the Christian church in America? ”

    Apparently. And it happens at the local level as well. I’ve tried suggesting to local pastors that we could do a better job of preparing teachers and teaching Bible only to receive the same treatment. I’ve even offered to do it for them at no charge (I have an MRE from a SB seminary).

    As another poster on the JC said once, all you can do, it seems, is “try not to care.”

  • That story breaks my heart because it tells how naturally our human groups (of which institutions are a larger form) close ranks and betray those who won’t submit to the hierarchy or systemic order. The sincere & caring heart, impassioned (we believe) by the Holy Spirit, gets trampled on to protect the extant human pecking order. Even the character of the impassioned person is impugned by those who serve the system, with disregard for the fact of not knowing someone.

    I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s insights into dysfunctional family systems and how those who differentiate themselves are targeted to bring them back into line. We, the church, should mourn when we fail to allow the Spirit of God to provide the shape of our ordering and fail to repent of bringing broken fleshly ways into the church. Peeking behind the curtain of the establishment church, I was shocked to discover a political machine that looked more a lot more like Washington than Nashville. This line describes exactly what Jesus blistered the Pharisees & scribes for in Matthew 23, imho.

  • Bev Mitchell

    With no intention whatsoever to deflect this conversation from its courageous willingness to face the facts, the following article from yesterday’s Common Dreams by Robert C. Koehler and entitled “The Grim Reaper” could profitably be read along with this excellent post by Jonathan Merritt.

    We do have common dreams. From an evangelical Christian viewpoint, of course, Koehler misplaces his hope by pointing to the better angels of humanity. However, in every other respect, his common dream is one that cries out for support from Christians – including our message of where hope can confidently be placed. 

  • tokniffin

    I guess I’m an ’emotional stage’ beyond some of the other commenters: I’m not shocked or even surprised. This is exactly what I expect of churches, especially large ones, and even more especially large, bureaucratic multi-church-overseeing organizations.

    The problem is that we clothe ourselves in religious, christian terms and imagery, but on the inside we operate and think of power very similar to any other organization. The way we talk of ‘leadership’, ‘goals’, ‘growth’, ‘success’, etc… are remarkably similar to the rest of the culture’s.

    I’ve worked in several churches, in several different areas of N America, and I find them all to be very similar on this level. The only thing that “shocks” me are the blank stares from church leaders when I bring up this problem. It doesn’t even register.

  • PaulE

    The last sentence really surprised me. Everything up to that point led me to think he sees himself as a culture warrior. He clearly portrays himself as a reformer doing battle against the current culture of his school. Yet in the last sentence he uses “culture warrior” almost pejoratively: they are bulls who charge indiscriminately. His metaphor is bad, though. He’s not a vegetarian; he’s attacking sacred cows. Of course the bulls will charge.

  • P.

    Sad to say, looking at the history of the SBC’s actions, I’m not surprised at all.

  • It seems to me to be completely wrong, yet at the same time one has to ask what the institution of the SBC holds to on this issue. They evidently want to speak authoritatively for all, something which does not seem Baptist-like to me. And they may well hold to what they’re saying, though I agree that it is all tainted for a number of reasons, not the least which is the clout they want to have in Washington.

    I think one does well to go on, leave them behind, and pursue what they believe they should pursue. But that student was certainly put in a terrible place and bind.

  • JoeyS

    PaulE I imagine he is using “cultural warrior” to mean those who have waged war against mainstream culture over the past 30 years or so – the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world rather than any person who kicks against the goads of his own culture.

  • Guy Lyons

    The sad thing is, most of the men and women who you receive opposition from would have, in the earlier days of their faith, been your ally. Once people get sucked into the various small kingdoms and grow accustom to using the world’s strategy and methods, they forget the real and superior Kingdom. They think it’s necessary to protect the “image” of the little kingdom. Little kingdoms need man’s help, the real Kingdom needs no help other than humble obedient servants. While I’m sad you experienced the power and pride that lies behind the machine, the truth is better than the lie and God has used it to give you much greater wisdom than before the heartache… Well done.


  • These kinds of issues matter, from environmental issues to gay issues and everything in between. As Christians, we won’t all agree with each other (or with the various cultures we find ourselves in), but we absolutely must demonstrate our love for one another in how we address our differences. It’s what Christ commanded. If we fail to do that, we’re destroying the church’s reputation.

  • PaulE

    JoeyS – When he uses the term, clearly he has specifically in mind the ERLC. And yes, you’re probably right that he’s associating them with “those” guys. I guess that’s what surprised me so much. He goes on about how he drafted documents, lobbied leaders, procured signatures, started initiatives, went to the media – all as a bold prophet against a strong and wayward institution. All of that sounds exactly like people in the ERLC, just with different ideas and a different culture. So why call out “those” guys as culture warriors?

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I find this sad and predictable, yet in my case ironic. I attended a climate change conference at Wheaton College several years ago. There much was made of pressure on the college president not to sign an “Evangelical Statement on Climate Change.”

    Our denominational magazine came yesterday. In it was an editorial tried to point out that the church must speak — it cannot remain silent — regarding certain issues. The issue in this case is a proposal to accept the recommendations of a Committee on Christian Stewardship in the Context of Climate Change.

  • Just Wonderin’

    I don’t think I could remain in a denomination that functions in that way. Ultimately, though, this is what the church actually looks like. Outsiders see it more clearly than we insiders. No wonder people are leaving in ever increasing numbers.

  • Scot,
    Great timing on this post. The ERLC of the SBC released its report today containing its findings and action leveled on the head of the ERLC, Dr. Richard Land.

  • megan

    PaulE #14,

    I think most aren’t taking exception to the fact that the ERLC had an opinion on something, or even that they advocated for that opinion (though many will consider their opinion wrong on this issue). It seems the issue lies more with the way they went about advocating for that opinion: implicit and overt threats, enforced appearances of unanimity, etc.

    Simply having a viewpoint on a cultural issue doesn’t necessarily make one a “culture warrior”–at least as that term is commonly used. As I see it, it most often refers to a particular way of pushing that viewpoint that usually involves weapons-grade rhetoric, attempts to intimidate or silence opposition, win-at-all-costs mentality, and generally prizing rightness on the issue over and above love for those affected by the issue. Writing a document and soliciting like-minded people to engage/support is one thing. Attempting to silence a seminary student with threats of public humiliation is another thing altogether.

  • Jake

    So what did all of this accomplish? I mean while the ERLC is a joke and it needs to actually be dismantled .. What does getting a bunch of pastors together to say they support environmental stewardship do exactly? Don’t we have work to do? This all seems like a huge waste of breath. But I guess i can see some value but in the big picture of kingdom work I don’t see it as anything more than a form of self justifying my beliefs by getting other people to agree with me. I have seen a few things that Merritt has written but what has it done? Has it honored God or just got him on CNN? Has it made disciples? Is he laboring on the front lines or just writing witty and chippy articles?

  • Tom F.

    Paul E.,

    Are you sure that you want to suggest that there is no difference between the sort of social engagement that Merritt displayed (engaging, disagreeing, but doing so openly, not using raw power to coerce secretly) and the sort of blackballing, exclusion, and coercion that he was targeted with?

    Really, no difference between these things? Both essentially cultural warriors, huh?

  • Jonathan, I’m not surprised by your experience, fallen men and women reside in every institution and movement. But is it necessary to use the term “culture warrior” as some sort of pejorative? I realize you’re using it to show the culture warrior in your account has, shamefully, reversed roles. But with the recent call by young idealists to ‘lay down arms’ and end the “culture wars,” I find your piece may have lost some of its credibility by playing into the millennial appeal to embrace everything that calls itself Christian. Until I reached that line I was with you, but now I wonder if there is a larger agenda.

  • DSH

    And they wonder why I turned away from my Baptist upbringing in the 1960s and have never been back! They haven’t changed a bit. They continue to lose the best and brightest of the young because they are bullies. They are just as inexorably losing the new generation of my nieces and nephews.

  • Tom F.

    Sarah, “cultural warrior” is, by my lights at least, a pejorative. It implies that within our common US culture there are enemies that needed to be politically defeated. It suggests that compromise is treason (and this is why Merritt was crucified), and that reasoning with the other side is useless, as they are so fundamentally opposed to “us” that defeating them in “war” is the only way to “take back” what is ours.

    I don’t understand: why do you want to “take up arms” and keep the “war” going? Do you think that the only alternative to using “war” language is complete political disengagement? Are the only two options doing nothing and “declaring war” on the other side?

    As someone who identifies somewhat with Merritt, it kinda stings that you think he has an “agenda”, as in something “hidden” that is guiding what he saying that he is not being up front about. He says he is convicted about these issues. Just so you know, words like “agenda” are sharp and make me feel really defensive towards you.

  • Tom, its not that I believe we should look for wars to wage against those outside the church, but as culture makers there’s some responsibility on our part give our answer to the movements and trends because we have children to raise in this society too. I agree that the “war” language is off-putting, but it indeed is a spiritual war and truth is under assault outside the church as well as from within.

    As far as an agenda, I am all about creation care and believe that’s one of the battles worth having with those who believe its good to mistreat the planet. But other battles worth having include the ones over abortion and reproductive technologies and gay marriage because children’s lives are at risk. All I mean is that he didn’t have to attack all culture warriors to make his point, a point that was good and clear with every word and phrase before that statement. What value is there in demonizing all of us? That was simply divisive and I have to wonder why.

  • Alexander

    Someone once showed me a different way of understanding the parable of the mustard seed, because the standard interpretation seems so out of place, especially in Matthew. (Allow me to get to my point, or just read my last para.)

    To provide an analogy for how they said it would’ve sounded, I give you this, the analogy of the motorbike: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a motorbike—the smallest of land vehicles—which, when filled with petrol, flies above the city amidst the raptors and the vultures.” Perhaps a “(land) vehicle” can be said to “fly” when it goes very fast, and “above the city” might compare with all other land vehicles in the city, but this analogy goes too far about the time you hit the birds.

    The birds seeking shade in the branches of the tree—from a mustard seed!?!—were earlier described as the agents of Satan. Shade is the darkness; the person who walks in the darkness doesn’t have the light in them.

    I struggle to believe this account is true, because it is almost too terrifying to contemplate. But I also struggle to believe your story, Jonathan, is true, because it’s too horrible to accept. But they do both argue for each other…