Multiply Justice

Not a choice to stay silent

Jonathan Merritt responds to an open letter by David French:

George Washington once said, “To acknowledge the receipt of letters is always proper, to remove doubts of their miscarriage.” I was reminded of his words recently when I clicked the link to David French’s Patheos post, “An Open Letter to Young, ‘Post-Partisan’ Evangelicals.” Though I don’t know Mr. French personally, I want to acknowledge receipt of his letter since he seems to include me in what he calls “fed-up idealist.”

In his letter, Mr. French tells of his political journey from “despising my elders” to “encountering life” to “becoming my elders.” The voyage of the founder of Evangelicals for Mitt unravels with a pendulum-like rhythm that might leave a reader dizzy were it not clear from the beginning where the letter would finally land. Mr. French is now “completely ‘religious right,’” and he holds that position on principle. That’s fine by me.

But I am most troubled by Mr. French’s promotion of a popular false choice rampant among many partisan Christians today. He writes, “So, ‘post-partisan’ Christians, please ponder this: First, as the price for your new path, are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children? Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?”

According to Mr. French, Christians today have two options. We can either continue to fight the culture wars as some conservative American evangelicals have done for more than three decades, or we can retreat from the public square, abandon the unborn, and “keep silent.” But I don’t know anyone who advocates for the latter.

I believe that continuing to fight the culture wars will be a destructive choice for Christians. I’ve outlined the reasons for this position in multiple outlets and most completely in my book. Here are a few:

  • Culture warriors overestimate the power of government to change the hearts and minds of the people it governs
  • Culture warriors operate on a faulty and unbiblical definition of power
  • Culture warriors have adopted a tone that is utterly foreign to the one we find modeled by Jesus himself
  • Culture warriors allowed the Christian church to be reduced to a voting bloc and the handmaiden of a political party
  • Christians who fight in the culture wars have produced an anemic, partisan church that is driving away non-believers in record numbers

Further, a choice to abandon the culture wars is not a choice to stay silent, as Mr. French assumes. I’m a vocal advocate for the unborn and will never attenuate my commitment to that position. I have worked on a number of political issues—from caring for creation, to protecting the poor, to promoting peace—without apology. But I believe that Christians can be good citizens without enlisting ourselves in a war drummed up by politicians and lobbyist and advocacy groups. We can hold passionate positions without adopting the sour tone and nasty tactics that reflect the values of Washington rather than the Kingdom of God. There’s nothing redemptive in Christian leaders and pastors advocating for their values by resorting to name-calling, angry rhetoric, and ruthless marginalization tactics. This is the legacy of the culture wars.

David French ultimately suggests that we keep fighting the culture wars. He wants to continue to implement the tactics and tone that have failed us so miserably. But, as the saying goes, when you continue to do what you’ve been doing, you’ll continue to get what you’ve gotten. In this case, what we have is a failing church with a dwindling population of young people who see the institution as little more than, well, “Evangelicals for Mitt.” It’s a Christian movement with a waning influence not just in the public square, but in the culture as a whole.

I hope that Mr. French and others like him will abandon the false dichotomy of either fighting or staying silent. We must wake up to the destructiveness of the culture wars and the ways in which it has compromised the Christian witness. This is the only path forward I see if we desire to revitalize the American church in the 21st century. As H.G. Wells famously noted, “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”

Jonathan Merritt is the author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. He blogs at  jonathanmerritt.com.

Read the Christianity Today review of Merritt’s book here.

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