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

The Jonathan Merritt I Knew: Why He’s Not Quite Anti-Gay & Why I Feel Sorry For Him July 30, 2012

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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