Jonathan Merritt: Finding hope amid deep divisions

Jonathan Merritt has questions to answer!
Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.In fact, that’s his vocation at the moment.
When he turns to the Left, he faces pointed questions about his evangelical Christian faith. He responds in newspaper columns and TV appearances by explaining why faith matters deeply to millions of Americans. And, when he turns to the Right? He faces lots of questions about his rejection of the old litmus tests for religious and political correctness. Once again, he steps up and tells his own mentors in the old Religious Right why they’re preaching on dangerously thin ice these days. So, this week’s author interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm is par for the course for this 20-something veteran of answering tough questions.

Why should you read this interview—and get Jonathan’s book? One big reason: If we share any hope for civility and compassion in this dangerous 2012 political cycle, then our hope lies in daring, faithful voices like Jonathan Merritt.
Let’s see how he answers our questions …


DAVID: People know you as a writer and national commentator, so let’s start with a more personal sketch of your life. Give us your age, your hometown and a bit about your church.

JONATHAN: I’m 29 and will turn 30 in August. I live outside of the northeast corner of Atlanta, technically in Buford, Georgia. I serve in my own church, Cross Pointe Church. I teach about nine Sundays a year in our main service. This is a church we planted about eight years ago. We had come from a traditional Southern Baptist church and we struggled with whether to name this new church “Baptist.” After much prayer and thought, we decided that there would have been a significant number of barriers to welcoming new people if we had chosen that Baptist label. Now, on a typical Sunday, we have anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 people.

DAVID: You’re trying to persuade a national audience that people should listen to you. A lot of the people we interview are scholars. They’re famous for a lifetime in academia—N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass. Or, they’ve got long careers behind them that speak for their authority­—Deepak Chopra, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu. You’re young. You’re relatively new on the stage. Who do you speak for? Why should we listen to you?

JONATHAN: That’s a tough question. I don’t claim to speak for anybody. What I do is tell the stories of people I’ve met and I describe the generation that I’m seeing rise up. As I do that, I find an increasing number of people who say to me: Your story is my story. I’m resonating with readers from a vast array of backgrounds and that tells me that I’m telling their story correctly. As we’re talking about this, I’m thinking about mainline Episcopalians who’ve said to me: Wow! You’re talking in ways that we’ve been thinking for years. And I’m thinking about Southern Baptists who say: You’re capturing what we’re thinking, too. I just talked to an actor out in Hollywood who contacted me unexpectedly—an actor in his 50s who just reached out to me and said: Hey, what you’re talking about is what I’m looking for.

DAVID: I like that answer. I could describe it as a journalist’s answer. The basic truth of your experiences as you travel, and your stories as you publish them, is confirmed by your audience. But, I gather that a lot of your audience is frustrated right now.

JONATHAN: It’s true. A growing segment of American evangelicals have grown disenchanted, disillusioned and disaffected from a church that is often partisan, reactionary and angry.


DAVID: We’ve featured interviews with other leading evangelicals. I’m thinking about people you’ve mentioned in your writing: Andrew Marin, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, John Eldredge. Who do you find yourself resonating with most?

JONATHAN: I love Shane. He’s a good friend. I love his heart. I love the way he lives out his faith authentically. But, I think we have a slightly different view of faith and politics. When you read Shane’s Jesus for President, his faith is a bit more political than my faith is. So, I would say there is some distance between what we’re each saying. I think that John Eldredge—based on the way that he writes and who he writes for—is a little closer to my audience. We both write for fairly conservative evangelicals, fairly orthodox evangelicals. I push the line more than he does. If you were to take orthodox evangelicals in America and draw a big circle around them—I’m on the inside edge of that circle while Shane is on the edge and Rob Bell is right outside the edge.

Jay Bakker from our earlier interview with Jay.DAVID: Let me ask you about one more writer: Jay Bakker. He’s an heir to the Religious Right, too. But, Jay has rejected even more than you have of what he has inherited.

JONATHAN: Jay and I have some theological disagreements, but we share a similar personal narrative. We both grew up on the inside and we saw a lot of what happens behind closed doors. Because of Jay’s personal situation with his family, I think he’s a bit more jaded about the church than I am. That’s pushed him outside of the circle and he wants to be outside of the circle in many ways. What he found inside the circle, in his experience, was just too repugnant. I don’t blame him. If I had lived his life, I probably would have found myself where he is today.

One of the things that has informed my voice is that I have a great relationship with Dad. Even though we disagree on a lot of political issues and even some theological issues, we are able to scream and holler and then throw our arms around each other and enjoy watching a football game. This gives me hope that I can remain inside the community and yet speak prophetically some hard truths about the community’s misgivings.


DAVID: And, “Dad” is James Merritt, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor at Crosse Pointe. Since you’re talking now about the courage to speak uncomfortable truths, this is a good place to ask about gay rights. You’re saying that the church should take a huge step back from making angry declarations on homosexuality. I would compare that portion of your book to the writing by Andrew Marin, who also is calling evangelicals to declare a moratorium against anti-gay preaching. Do you see your message as close to Andrew’s on this issue?

JONATHAN: When it comes to Andrew, I think he’s doing some of the best work in terms of building bridges with gays and lesbians among evangelicals. This is work that, in some ways, he’s been alone in doing. Yes, I would find myself in harmony with what he is saying.

We ought to stay out of the pulpit with this hateful, divisive rhetoric. We ought to spend some time learning and having conversations. First of all, I don’t think that every time we open our mouths as Christians, we have to spout our latest list of conclusions about sexuality. There’s a time and place to have deeper conversations about sexual ethics. Rather than spouting more angry rhetoric, I think my personal calling has been to facilitate conversations on how we can tangibly love gays and lesbians in ways we have failed to do in the past. The problem is that the Christian community has created these litmus tests. People want to hear this specific set of statements before they will even listen to you. So, even explaining yourself is difficult. For example, Christians have this cliché: We hate the sin; we love the sinner. But, the truth is: We’ve spent a lot more time hating the sin rather than loving the sinner. When you look at the life of Jesus, he was obsessed with finding new ways to show our love for our neighbors. I want us to work on finding common ground.

DAVID: In your book, you argue that this isn’t simply a matter of personal opinion. You argue that continuing to preach angrily against civil rights for gays is standing on the wrong side of history. Just like many white churches continued to rail against integration long after America was becoming too diverse to turn back—you argue that America is heading irreversibly toward inclusion of gays.

Let me point to a passage in your book, page 117. You write: “Christians are increasingly supportive of same-sex unions. Even among conservative Protestants, 52 percent of young people already say they support some form of same-sex union. According to Robert Jones, the president of Public Religion Research, the trends among Christians on same-sex issues such as unions all point in one direction, and the group should expect ‘sea change within a generation.’” Am I fairly describing what you say in the book?

JONATHAN: In that passage you’re pointing to: Yes, I’m speaking about the issue of same-sex unions. The data point in one direction on that issue. When I say that, people come back to me with: What about the latest statewide vote banning unions? And they point to whatever vote happens to be in the headlines at the moment. And I reply that it’s like being in the presence of someone who is dying. Often, their final breaths are the nastiest—gasping as they die. What you’re seeing in these votes is a final gasp of thinking that is passing away. We’re moving into a new reality. Christians should not be spending time asking: How can we push the country back to some older reality? The question should be: How can we live faithfully in this new reality?


Jonathan MerrittDAVID: You write a lot about race in your book. You point out quite eloquently that, before Christian leaders go down fighting a lost political cause on gay rights, they should remember how tragically evangelical Christians refused to recognize civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But, in 2012, race clearly is not a settled issue. There were headlines this spring about one angry billionaire who was thinking about spending $10 million on a new race-baiting advertising campaign against the president. Is your writing about race and civil rights just a lesson in history, or do you think you’ll be helping to put out more racist-fueled fires this year?

JONATHAN: The election of Barack Obama seemed to promise a post-racial reality in America and what it has done, for some people, is the opposite. We’re seeing that there still are some deep divisions between races in America—divisions we hoped our country had moved beyond. I’ve certainly seen that in the Christian community. Some of the statements we saw from Christian leaders in the Trayvon Martin shooting are examples of that. The truth is that we are increasingly becoming a multi-racial country and in many places a multi-racial church as well. That forces us to begin rethinking the ways we talk about these issues.

The positive side of this is that we really do need this growing diversity. We really do need to hear from many different voices and experiences. American Christians spend far too much time with people who are exactly like they are. In a pluralistic society that’s becoming less and less possible—and the truth is that it’s also less and less helpful for America’s future. Even if we could isolate ourselves in a white echo chamber, that is not a good thing. We need to sit around the table with brothers and sisters who have different cultural experiences and discuss the issues we all face in new ways. As a younger person, I’m used to sitting around tables with men and women, with white Americans, African-Americans, Korean-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, with Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians—on and on. When you talk about issues through all of these lenses, there is a much higher consciousness in the truth that emerges.

DAVID: In our most recent interview with Shane Claiborne, he talked about how the true Christian attitude toward immigrants is not to build huge walls and regard immigrants as potential criminals—but to welcome them. You say similar things about immigrants, right?

JONATHAN: There are four special classes of people that Scripture specifically charge the faithful to protect and advocate for: widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. At least in the last 30 years, many conservative American Christians have not done a good job of protecting and advocating for any of those people.

DAVID: How high do you think the anger is going to rise before the 2012 campaign cycle finally ends? How many fires are you going to have to help extinguish?

JONATHAN: We are seeing the final gasps of the culture wars in Christianity. Eventually, attrition will take care of some of this and the anger will fade away. But my gut is telling me that we’ve got a segment of Christians who feel that this is the most important election of their life and they’re going to go for broke. Conservatives in general and also many Christian conservatives unfortunately have adopted something of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and they are arguing this year that the ends somehow justify the means.

Where do I see hope in this? There are younger Christians who will engage the public square differently—and what the sum total of those two forces tells me is what I already knew to be true: Christians in America, even evangelical Christians, are not monolithic. As a result, they can’t be neatly reduced to a single voting block anymore. I see hope in the new generation that is rising up.

Care to read Part 1 of our coverage of Jonathan Merritt’s book? The story includes some excerpts and our review, explaining why we recommend this book for individual reading and group discussion.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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