On the day that our nation is deciding its future for the next four years, it’s fitting to pull back for a moment and reflect on evangelical Christianity’s impact on American politics over the last few generations.
Jonathan Merritt is uniquely positioned to offer words of insight into this delicate subject. Born and raised in an environment that actively engaged in religious culture wars, he had a front row seat to watch conservatives such as Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority have its run of influence in American politics. Merritt even went so far as to attend Liberty University, the fusion of evangelical Christianity and politics in America today.
His critique of Christianity in politics and religious culture wars is scathing. Looking back at the addiction to power and lack of movement on any of the touchstone moral issues (such as gay marriage and abortion), Merritt correctly calls the Christian culture war a failed experiment.
The fundamental question that Christians struggle with is this: how involved should we be in our political system? In the end, the answer is balanced and nuanced. The Bible commands Christians to engage in the world, not withdraw. When you go to either extreme, you diverge from where Jesus would have us walk. Some take the extreme withdrawal approach, where Christians should remove themselves from all societal involvement. This extreme only removes the light from an already dark world, making it even darker.
Merritt uses this book to argue against the opposite extreme: the over-involvement of Christians in politics to the point where we look to the political system (not God) for societal answers, where evangelical Christianity becomes synonymous with the Republican party, and where Christians attempt to legislate morality for the rest of society.
Drawing on personal experience and hefty research, Merritt makes a strong case that evangelicals over-engaging in the political process has not changed the moral fiber of America. Instead, it’s corrupted the moral fiber of the church. The result is a generation of young Christians actively disengaging from anything they see as partisan religious politics.
Merritt’s case in point was the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Seen as a blow to the ‘religious right,’ many scratched their heads to understand why so many young Christians would vote for a Democrat. As Merritt aptly states, the 2008 election “pointed to a larger narrative about a whole generation of Christ-followers who believe the culture-war model is broken and want to liberate their faith from its partisan captivity” (38).
Drawing correctly on history, Merritt looked at the early church and why it resisted the temptation to enter partisan politics in the Roman Empire, “they knew that politics is not the true threat; it’s thirst for power. Power can shipwreck even the most faithful follower” (65). Once Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and thrust upon it power and influence, Christianity diverted onto a path that it would not break free from for another thousand years.
Merritt and I grew up in similar backgrounds (pastors kids in Southern Baptist churches, educated at evangelical colleges), and while he had a much closer seat to the front line of the culture wars, we both experienced the same disenchantment.
As a ‘young Christian’ (since I’m 34, not sure how much longer I can use that label), I completely identify with Merritt’s description of the frustration my generation feels with the culture wars of our parents’ generation. For me, watching the Southern Baptist Convention vote to boycott Disney for its stand on homosexuality was the height of ineptitude. A body of churches that was supposed to be about spreading the gospel got more fired up about making a political point.
For me, the best quote in the book was actually from Tony Campolo, who said, “All too frequently, Christian activists at both ends of the spectrum see power as the primary instrument for saving the world. ‘If we just had the power,’ they say, ‘we could set everything right.’ I want to say to them, ‘I wonder why Jesus didn’t think of that!’” (80)
1. Politics is not the ultimate answer. While evangelicals (Republicans) may decry the downward spiral of America over the past four years, recent history shows that evangelicals had incredible influence under the Reagan and Bush presidencies, and the decline did not stop.
2. The religious leaders that tried to dictate moral behavior in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees. While we castigate and demonize the Pharisees in our sermons, too many Christians act like them in society at large, giving everyone who calls on the name of Jesus a black eye.
3. The churches seeing the most life change seem to be the ones that operate outside of a denominational structure. The rise of non-denominational churches has been dramatic over the past generation. A reflection against the negative connotations of denominational politics, a new generation of churches have risen up to reach people without the denominational and political clutter.
I’m writing this review the day before the presidential election of 2012. I have no idea who will win. Most commentators are hedging their bets and saying it’s too close to call. Either way, 50% of the country will be disappointed by the end of the week. But politics isn’t our answer, nor is it our hope. Jesus still reigns, and the church still has everything it needs to change lives. We just need the church to remember that her power comes from Jesus, not from the political system.