If these past couple weeks have taught us anything, it is that there is a dearth of adults standing atop the popular media platforms of our day. Take, for instance, the developments in Ukraine and Russia’s rather abrupt invasion. Some policy experts criticized the empty censure of the executive branch while others observed that even stern policies would fail to address the complex issues and problems involved in the situation. But most of the American public received infantilized versions of these positions: thundering hawkishness or confused inaction.
What is worse, social media and popular Millennial watering holes like Buzzfeed touted feckless slacktivism, generally against Russia for her undemocratic ways and failure to adopt liberal social policies like the LGBT agenda (as if that were particularly relevant in the case at hand, when instead sexual activism had been a western centerpiece during the Sochi Olympics). The illegitimacy of Russian aggression aside, one has to doubt the effectiveness that social media complaints, letter-writing campaigns, and even nonviolent protests would have in the face of President Putin. The kind of political imagination behind such actions is laughable, really. Russia will not sit in a listening circle to dutifully receive a good finger-waggling and time-out from the American public.
While one may hope that American politicians would not listen to the loud complaints of the uninformed in this instance, the weakness of mind illustrated in this crisis remains most unsettling. Although this case is good in that the remaining grown-ups will be making the actual decisions and foreign policy in the face of the Ukraine crisis, it is bad in that it exposes how far the American public has fallen as a politically astute people. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in the early-to-mid 19th century that Americans showed a great patience and interest in discussing political issues of the day, which Tocqueville hoped (but doubted) would continue in order to stave off the soft despotism of inherent in modern democracy.
Now we are faced with a democracy whose people cannot exercise political foresight or level-headed seriousness. This problem does not only manifest itself in the face of harsh, confusing global policy realities, but also issues within United States society and American church culture. The recent failures of state-level RFRA laws exemplifies this issue. A Clinton-era law protecting the religious sensibility of business owners became misconstrued and hijacked as an LGBT rights battleground. Soon, moderate and liberal evangelicals started siding against the RFRA bills since these laws would institute a “new Jim Crow.” Such a hot-button buzzword did more to obfuscate than clarify—it brought more heat than light to the discussion at hand.
Jonathan Merritt, who is particularly proud about his black sheep status in the evangelical world, even went so far as to ask if conservative evangelicals would support a Unitarian baker refusing to make a wedding cake for a Christian couple for religious reasons. “Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions?” Merritt aggressively questioned.
This response reveals more about Merritt and his misconceptions than it does about committed conservative evangelicals. When I posed the question and situation to actual evangelicals of a conservative persuasion, they not only supported the Unitarian’s right to make such decisions, but also added a willingness to fight and die for that other person’s right. This was not the martyrdom complex that Merritt was hoping for, but it seems to be the current temperament right now. As my friend Joe Sunde wrote in his response to Merritt’s article, “[D]iverse and pluralistic markets require diverse sources, and Christians are simply asking that they retain a distinctive voice amid an increasingly diverse economic landscape.”
More worrisome, Merritt in his frustration with his evangelical brethren failed to seriously consider the constitutional implications of his latest statements, advocacy, and positions. It is simply a black hole in his articles that is never explicitly discussed. Knocking down religious liberty for business owners—regardless of faith tradition—has tremendous consequences, and not just in the sexual culture war. Merritt, however, suffers from an evangelical tunnel vision: the community of his youth is upsetting or embarrassing him by its social stances, and he is moved first and foremost to address that audience on the sexuality issue.
But now is the time for harder thought. Merritt’s new path of political punditry has left the safe environment of church social teaching and has entered the colder, starker realm of statecraft in a pluralistic world, where every citizen is affected by the magistrates. Now Merritt’s advocacy will not only affect the megachurch circuit or the Southern Baptist Convention, but also older and younger generations, including those who are not yet born in the world. If Merritt and other likeminded evangelicals were to gain influence and somehow change policy even in a small way, it would affect my parents, myself, my siblings, my nephew, and any children I may have in the future.
This is a hard reality, especially for those raised within a church/Christian school/Christian college context, even more so one that segregates by age. I know Jonathan Merritt means well and has good intentions, but who doesn’t? Good intentions don’t necessarily make good leaders or even good positions. Young Christians—this author included—have to grow up and realize the far reaching consequences of our social and civil actions. I pray those consequences would be good.