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The Table Video

Jonathan Merritt

Being Christian in Public: Embodying Faith in a Divisive Age - Jonathan Merritt

In the midst of a decades long culture war, much of Christian public engagement has mimicked the secular patterns of divisiveness, incivility, and partisanship. How did we arrive here and how can we engage in a more constructive way? In this talk, Jonathan Merritt describes a brief history of the rise of the American culture wars and how some Christians were swept up in it. He also casts an alternate vision for engaging in important discussions about critical issues without contributing to the rancor that has come to mark the American public square.


Well a handful of years ago, I think maybe more years than I would like to admit, I arrive on campus as a freshman at Liberty University, which is a Christian college. I think not too dissimilar from this one and I was sort of homesick and formative wrestling with that immortal question, who am I? Who am I really?

Well I didn’t answer that question in a year of undergraduate school but I did make a boatload of memories and take a handful of road trips to some of the more interesting towns in Cental Virginia. A list that’s probably even shorter than you would think it is. It’s just up the road from Lynchburg, is a place called Monticello, which is some of you may know it, the famous home place of our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

And within this historic home at Monticello, there is a really interesting piece of furniture. It’s a tall desk made of mahogany and yellow pine. It has six legs instead of four and places where if you squint your eyes you can see lines where the finish has been rubbed off. And in my mind I imagined it was at this desk, in his Monticello home, where Jefferson stood on November 2, 1822, and penned these words, “The atmosphere of our country “is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud “of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, “but too heavy in all.” It’s amazing to me how little has changed in the United States in nearly 200 years. American culture today is indeed plagued by a most distasteful disposition.

While our public square has never been a place of total peace and harmony, it seems that to many over the last several decades, at least, it has grown increasingly divided and increasingly polarized. Angry tirades pollute our airwaves, while name calling and personal attacks saturate the halls of power. Simple issues that were once fertile ground for reasonable debates are now battle grounds for bitter culture wars.

But I think what’s even sadder about what we’re seeing go on in American culture is the way that the American Christian community has contributed to our current climate. We transform secularist into scapegoats. We craft atheists into boogeymen. We struggle to shape public policy to this weird amorphist standard of Christian values, whatever the heck that means, and we use theologically charged language to shame others and strike others down with a swift thus sayeth the Lord. And if that doesn’t make our community undesirable enough, Christians fight against each other with unrivaled tenacity. Believers on the left will villainize converts on the right, calling them narrow minded, antiquated, uncompassionate. Christians on the right will demonize the faithful on the left calling them unorthodox, compromising, capitulating, unpatriotic. In such a moment Christians, I think, are forced to answer most important questions.

How do we disagree with each other with both passion and with grace? How do we contend for a cause we believe to be righteous without disrespecting or slandering our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters in the process? What does it mean to be Christian in public? It’s a question I couldn’t hope to answer in any comprehensive way in 15 or 20 minutes, but it’s one I would like to get us to start chewing on together.

Well we began with a little inspiration from a guy named Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Life must be lived forward “but it can only be understood backwards.” So we begin our discussion with a story that spans the last 50 year or more of history. When Christians in the United States experienced what sociologist Robert Putnam and David Campbell call, a shock and two aftershocks. America in the 1950s, some would say this was the heyday of Christianity in our country, particularly if you are a white Christian male.

Attendance in churches rose from about 14% over this decade. Gospel tunes mixed with popular music on mainstream radio stations and people in the United States in this period maintained great respect for clergy and for institutional religion. Christians influenced and shaped public policy during the 1950s.

During this decade, in God we trust, was adopted as our country’s official motto. Under God was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and yet if you really look and study the 1950s you’ll find that not all was as it seemed because this decade was what many have called the high tide of civil religion. A time in which the Christian faith was as much a culture expression of who we are as Americans as it was anything else. “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded “on a deeply felt religious faith “and I don’t care what it is,” Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed in 1954. And this is when American Christians were blindsided by what Putnam and Campbell call the shock.

The 1960s and 70s brought on the American cultural revolution, a blitzkrieg of social change. Courageous African American leaders forced America to confront her racism as they marched in the civil rights movement. A blood soaked Vietnam brought on a fierce anti-war movement. A growing awareness of ecological degradation brought on the environmental movement, changing sexual standards throughout society made possible the gay rights movement.

Illegal drug use grew. Feminism and women’s liberationist fought to reestablish gender roles and Hollywood grew comfortable with more profanity and promiscuity in television. Meanwhile, on the other end of society, the court seemed to unravel the edges of America’s cultural fabric as well. Banning state sponsored prayer in schools in 1962. Mandatory bible reading in ’63. Legalizing contraception in ’65 and abortion in 1973. Religiously the creeping liberalism of the early part of the century was not threatening traditional theology, and by the 1960s the growing religiosity of a many Americans had developed a tumor of skepticism. The number of Americans claiming religion was very important fell by 23%.

Weekly church attendance plummeted. Many who held tightly to the Christian faith in the United States were reeling, confused, not sure how they should agree or disagree or even engage in the public square, believing many of them that America was in the words of Robert Bork, “slouching towards Gomorrah”. And in response to this, our nation experienced the first aftershock. As a large segment of Christians reconsidered the way that they were disagreeing with public policy, millions mobilizing to turn back the tide.

Pastors began preaching about moral decay, passing out voter guides. Christian mobilization efforts were formed to influence national elections. These groups began educating their constituencies on political issues, encouraging them to get involved in the political process, to speak out, to disagree in public. To vote for candidates who supported quote, Christian positions. The fuse to the modern culture wars was lit and Christians everywhere were marching to take back America for Christ. Well for a time their efforts seemed to be working. Church attendance rose briefly and certain type of Christian, particularly conservative evangelicals, were able to influence national elections on the highest order. Leading Time Magazine to declare 1976 the year of the evangelical. When President Clinton won the presidency, Christians on the left provided him the moral backbone for budget battles, while those on the right led a movement to claim both houses of Congress.

And then I hit, the second aftershock. A new generation that had not experienced the bygone cultural revolution began to reevaluate this partisan, political, power hungry public engagement of many Christians and began to feel dissatisfied. As a result, many people of faith have left religion all together, choosing to be spiritual but not religious, or just to give up on any type of spirituality leading to a 2010 USA Today headline that proclaimed, “Young Adults Now Less Devoted to Faith.” Indeed, 30% fewer young people today regularly attend church than at the heat of the American cultural revolution.

Today we find ourselves in the aftermath of this story. Which is not the whole story when we talk about American Christians but I think it is one of the dominate narratives of American Christians political engagement of the last several decades and one that was marked by at least three characteristics. First, the last generation was highly partisan. As one pollster noted, “If I identified myself as Republican or Democrat, “it tells the listener much less about me “than if they know my religion.” “Consequently, knowing my religion and church attendance “will guarantee you know my electoral preference.”

In the late 20th century, conservative Christians saw the Republican party as an ally and liberal Christians similarly viewed the Democratic party. They also focused on a narrow agenda. Many conservative Christians seem hyper focused on a handful of issues, mainly abortion and gay marriage. Many liberal Christians focused on matters of justice, equality, civil rights issues. And thirdly, they were divisive. In order for any war to be successfully waged one must divide and conquer. And the American culture wars are no exception.

Heighten rhetoric, name calling, angry speeches, these mark the tone of what I call culture warring Christianity. Which I thing lives, perhaps even thrives, at the nexus of these three characteristics. But a new generation of Christians, many of whom are just now coming of age are expressing different characteristics from their forebears. By contrast, they’re increasingly independent. Not that they don’t associate with a particular party or vote along a particular party’s line but they’ve become increasingly independent in that they recognize the limitations and the pitfalls of partisan politics. Rising Christians are less likely to trust exclusively in a particular party and attempt to think about issues on an individual basis.

As Pastor Tim Keller observes, “Today’s Christians may be the vanguard “of some major new religious, “social and political arrangements “that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete. “They have an orthodox faith “that doesn’t fit the current categories “of either liberal, Democrat or conservative Republican.” They also pursue a broad agenda. Increasingly Christians in the United States don’t want the test of their faith to be a fight against one or two issues. Rather they believe our faith in calls us to engage a range of issues from caring for the environment to protecting the poor, caring for immigrants, honoring life from the womb to the tomb. And finally, they desire to be more civil. Americans in general actually believe that the public square has grown too negative, weary of the reactionary, the angry, the political language that stymies progress and the common good.

Approximately two-thirds of the United States or greater, are fed up with Congress, Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party, et cetera, et cetera. Christians are waking up to the ways in which our cultural coarseness has affected their own communities and now desire a substantive change in tone. And it is at the nexus of these three distinctive that we’re finding what I would call the new shape of Christian political engagement. Moving from partisanship to independence, narrow agenda to a broad one, divisiveness to civility. And these shifts I think are actually quite good, as far as they go, but I don’t know that they go far enough. At least not far enough in helping us answer our original question. What does it mean to be Christian in public?

What it means to disagree with each other and to do that well? Will saying we want to be a little bit more civil, will that answer that question? Will claiming to be a little less partisan, even though most of us still vote with one particularly party most of the time, will that help us? Will that help us to be Christian in public? I once heard a talk by Episcopal preacher and author, Barbara Brown Taylor called The Virtuous Preacher in which she pointed out, “The integrity of a preacher matters most. “Skills matter, but effective preaching “has less to do with what a preacher says “than who a preacher is.”

In this talk, in this lecture, Taylor argued that preachers should give a significant amount of their time to thinking about not just what they say but the virtues, their nurturing with their lives. Taylor argued that our daily disciplines, our private practices, our intentional behaviors will shape our public proclamations as much as anything else. You know, the more that I thought about Taylor’s words, the more I wonder if she meant them for more than just preachers because I think they apply to all of us who are trying to be Christian in public. I wonder if maybe the way that we engage in public, even in the political process, is actually shaped as much or more, not by the positions that we hold, but by the virtues we nurture outside of that sphere.

I mean this was certainly makes sense if we believe that all of culture is interconnected, all of its sphere sort of touch each other and overlap in some way. If we believe that life is to be seen and to be lived holistically. So how should we be Christian in public in the frame in which Taylor speaks? Well perhaps we should start by shifting some of our attention and some of our energy from voting values to nurturing virtues. From voting values to nurturing virtues and what are the virtues we are sowing into our lives?

I mean, I think when we think about being Christian in public, when we think about engaging in public policy, we think about what we believe and why we believe it and how it will impact people and who else might believe it and do you want to be associated with those people. I sort of breakdown the these public policy initiatives but what if we began asking ourselves about the virtues that we’re sowing into our lives that help inform the ways in which we speak in public, not just individually but collectively as faith communities? Well in the few moments we have left I want to suggest four virtues that I think if nurtured might help us disagree, well there be many more and I hope maybe as you continue to chew on this question you’ll dream up some of those and you’ll add to your list. The first virtue is bravery.

You know, this word I think wears often a knight’s armor. This word fights lions, it rescues the distressed, it leaps into the unknown and as a result, when we think about being brave and disagreement we think about speaking our minds, standing up for the capital T, truth, and all that seems well and good. I suppose and is appropriate but I also think this virtue has much more to it than just that. In a time when everyone seems to think they’re an expert on everything, in a time when social media pushes us to form an opinion before we’ve even heard all the facts, in a time when the strongest and most extreme views garners the most attention, I wonder if bravery might mean, if it might mean learning when to shut our moths for a moment.

To observe rather than to opine. To let our ears carry the weight of a conversation. To seek to understand someone before we seek to be understood. I like to think that Winston Churchill was onto something when he said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. “Courage is also what it takes “to sit down and listen.” Second virtue I would like to suggest is humility. You know, Augustine once quipped, “It was pride that changed angels into devils. “It is humility that makes men as angels.” Well that sounds good but what the the heck does that even mean? Humility is one of those words that evaporates when you try to sip on it, right? I mean, how do we get more of that into our lives? How do we make this word tangible? Is it more than just mere meekness?

In public I think one way we nurture humility is to take the Apostle Peter’s advice and submit ourselves to each other. Submit ourselves to each others. It’s sort of a dirty word in many sectors of Christianity today. The word submit, maybe it’s empowering to you or disempowering to you based on the gender you were born with, but the Bible actually sort of levels the playing field with this word. We submit ourselves, one to another, we submit ourselves to each other and the word for submit here that Peter used means to bend. It means to lean into someone else’s direction to defer to someone else.

It means sometimes even if you believe you’re right with all that you are, and all that you have, and all that you know it might be a good idea to lean in someone else’s direction, to fit in with their plans, to allow them to lead us to stop resisting. Like many of my colleagues and I suppose many of you, I’ve been known to get into a Twitter spat on occasion and believe it or not these types of exchanges are not as acidic as they seem from the outside. Many of people that I’ve disagreed with on social media are people with whom I maintain a healthy relationship, people I like a lot but in the last several months I’ve begun to shift my attention from this sort of like always fight when you see someone who says something you don’t like to trying to be a hint more humble in this space. And you know what, it sucks, it’s awful. [audience laughing]

But I’m already seeing that when I learned to lean in someone else’s direction, when I learn to defer to another on occasion, it helps remind me just how stupid these things really are. The third virtue is one we mention before empathy. How does one even begin to nurture empathy? I mean, how do you being to, as Alyssa said, to walk in someone else’s shoes? To feel what someone else is feeling without actually being that person and embodying their space? I really struggle with this one as a writer because I would guess on any given issue, about half my readers will disagree with me no matter what I say. I don’t want to offend them.

I don’t want to chase them away. I’d like to change their minds but at the very least I hope to provoke them to think, to build empathy. I keep this list of people handy who have varying views on topics and I always give them a copy of it before I publish it and I will ask them two things not just what do you think about this intellectually but how do you feel? How does this make you feel when you read it? So that I’ll kind of tease out the impact of my words and the sharpness of my argument’s edge.

Another thing I do is try to argue someone else’s viewpoint and you probably will never see me do this in public but I assure you it happens frequently. I’ll write an article arguing the opposite view of the one I actually believed. You would just have no idea how many articles I’ve killed because of this. How many drafts I’ve thrown in the trash on my computer because I built empathy, because I soften my perspective. Now this won’t always happens. Sometimes you’ll still write the article, you’ll still hold the viewpoint, you’ll still send the email, you’ll still argue for the position you held at the start but in these cases I think you’ll find that when you disagree your tone and your posture is often quite different.

And the fourth virtue I would like to suggest is diversity. Now this one is related to the last one but it’s distinct enough that it bears it’s own discussion. For some of us diversity I think gets maligned. I think it gets maligned particularly by conservative Christians because it’s so PC, right? But nurturing diversity among those with whom we share life, I think is actually one way to help us disagree better. After I left Liberty University I attended two different graduate schools. The first was a conservative Southern Baptist seminary and the second was a school in Atlanta, Emory University, a more theologically liberal university with roots in the United Methodist Church.

And one thing I learned from attending these two different colleges is that the biggest difference was not just where the schools fell on the conservative-liberal spectrum but the way they approached education and pedagogy. The Southern Baptist seminary took a confessional approach and Emory took a contextual approach. In the confessional approach, you often move a student toward what the school has decided is the correct answer, the correct doctrine or the correct approach, the correct perspective on a range of issues.

But in the contextual approach you’re trying to get students to engage with answers and doctrines and perspectives from a range of context. Now you can argue that both will have their own benefits but the contextual approach specifically taught me about the importance of diversity. I remember sitting in a theology class early on and the teacher asked someone to explain their view of atonement. So I gave a traditional one and then they began to ask, well what would one of her Korean students think about this? What would be a feminist critique about this? How might Karl Barth critique this? Round and around we went.

And what I leaned was through participating in this approach in education is having a diversity of voices actually helped me achieve a higher consciousness of the issue. I often left with the same view I held when I arrived but I usually learned a lesson about the importance of listening. Held my view more humbly and had a greater empathy for opposing positions. This is how I think diversity can help us disagree well. Bravery, humility empathy, diversity, just four virtues that I think are helpful to nurture.

We Christians are now facing a range of conversations that are unbelievably important, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the future of millions of American immigrants, the threat of terrorism and war, the meaning of marriage, in both a legal and a theological sense in the way that impacts people that we love. The availability and morality of contraception, the future of those who are alive but not yet born, the religious freedoms of those who have serious disagreements with the modern society in which they live. The frightful persecution of Christians, Muslims and minority groups around the world.

The way we disagree, the way we express ourselves as Christians in public, can have an effect on these issues and the lives they touch. Let me ask, what if we began to think about where we’ve come from? Where our forebears were right and where we might improve on their approach. What if we intentionally nurtured virtues and what if we created healthier disagreement that in turn generated innovative and loving solutions to these problems? Wouldn’t that be something? [dramatic music]