In the dangerous 2012 campaign season, when any angry billionaire can blanket America with hate-filled attack ads—the rise of Jonathan Merritt may be an answer to prayer. Merritt, at 29, is heir to evangelical royalty as the son of former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt and a family friend of the late Jerry Falwell (as well as other Religious Right luminaries). Yet, Merritt is using his considerable clout as a hot young writer to urge evangelical friends nationwide to move “Beyond the Culture Wars.”
Why should we pay attention to Jonathan Merritt now? Every day, fresh headlines show the growing toxicity of politics in 2012. Today’s New York Times front page warns: “The intensifying flood of uncapped donations to outside political groups is transforming not just campaigns but the entire business of politics.” This is the first presidential campaign since the Supreme Court threw open the doors to Super PACs that are expected to pour huge fortunes into angry messages that, by definition, candidates cannot even try to moderate. Only days ago, news broke of one billionaire who was considering dumping millions into a no-holds-barred race-baiting campaign against President Obama.
In religious circles, there’s not a more important voice emerging than Jonathan Merritt, who is calling for religious calm from every public pulpit that welcomes him. From the Huffington Post to the Washington Post, from FOX News to network TV talk shows, Merritt is using his considerable connections to call for truly biblical compassion.
Many truly biblical issues fuel Merritt’s passion. Google up evangelical Christian advocates of abolishing nuclear weapons and you’ll find that Merritt has hung his shingle along side Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and many others. Look for Christians who are preaching that we must all work together to save our environment and, once again, Merritt ranks among the top names.
PREVIEW OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN MERRITT
You can read the entire author interview in which ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Jonathan Merritt about his nationwide activism this year. For now, here are a few choice excerpts from that upcoming ReadTheSpirit Q and A …
Jonathan Merritt on Climbing out of Religious Bunkers: American Christians spend far too much time with people who are exactly like they are. In a pluralistic society that is becoming less and less possible—and the truth is that it’s also less and less helpful for America’s future.
Jonathan Merritt on Shedding a Bad Reputation: A growing segment of American evangelicals have grown disenchanted, disillusioned and disaffected from a church that is often partisan, reactionary and angry.
Jonathan Merritt on Acting Biblically: There are four special classes of people that Scriptures 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.
EXCERPT FROM JONATHAN MERRITT’S A FAITH OF OUR OWN:
In his new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, Meritt says in effect: Enough is enough! The mean-spirited political brawls and name calling that pass for political dialogue these days are ignoring truly biblical mandates for activism on behalf of the world’s dire needs. Along the way, we are destroying whatever welcoming reputation Christianity ever had around the world. Here are some of Jonathan Merritt’s own words from his new book …
Christian leaders who claim to represent the larger movement often so thoroughly misrepresent the rest of us that many would cherish clearing the deck and starting from scratch. Today’s Christians believe we all need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. To listen more and speak less and perhaps infuse our debates with a modicum of respect. Turning imperative debates into an episode of The View doesn’t help anything.
People crave a civil society for both personal and pragmatic reasons. Most of humanity feels the offense of harsh words even when they are directed at others. … A coarse culture is also an unproductive culture—especially in a democratic society whose engine runs on compromise and coalition building. When incivility reigns, progress is stymied and compromise is replaced by stalemate. … Christians need a rapid infusion of what Peggy Noonan calls “patriotic grace,” which is to say, “a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we’re in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.” Many of the folks I’ve spoken with want exactly that. They desire what John Murray Cuddihy called a “culture of civility.” They long for the day when the American public square will be a place of passionate but reasonable discussion—resembling the Greek agora more than the Roman Coliseum.
In addition to our sour tone, Christians must confront the brutal tactics that often walk hand in hand with the culture wars. Freud said, “Humans are wolves to fellow humans,” and culture warriors seem to be particularly adroit at destroying their prey. Entrenched in political ideology and armed with a political strategy, culture warriors make use of political tools to achieve political goals. In this mode, enemies are abundant and victory is paramount.
Then, Merritt shares an anecdote about Ed Dobson, who we welcomed to the pages of ReadTheSpirit recently. The danger of advocating compassion and civility is that other culture warriors are not yet ready to lay down their arms. In his own recent years as an activist, Merritt explains that he has been targeted by angry voices from the Right more than once. Merritt writes:
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. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, once high-level leaders in the Moral Majority, say they saw this kind of marginalization employed on people who stepped out of sync with the movement. “Those who doubted or questioned our power were dismissed. Those who warned of danger were ignored, ridiculed, or condemned,” they write.
Ed Dobson admits that he was the victim of such treatment despite faithful service and conservative commitments. After leaving the Moral Majority, Dobson and several other religious leaders were invited to the White House to meet with President Bill Clinton. When interviewed by Christianity Today, he made some favorable comments about the president. Dobson later received a faxed copy of the article from Jerry Falwell. Across the margin, his former employer scribbled, “Unforgivable compromise. Don’t ever call me again.”
Ousting is a typical culture-war tactic. We take someone who has different thoughts or convictions and declare them anathema. We cut them off. Then we chop off anyone who likes that person. Then anyone who likes the person who likes that person also has to be cleaved. The result is an insulated group in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves.
Here’s a link to read the entire author interview with Jonathan Merritt.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.