Christianity,  Politics

Entering the Fray with Merritt and French

Jonathan Merritt has responded to David French’s “An Open Letter to Young, ‘Post-Partisan’ Evangelicals.” If you still haven’t read French’s letter, do so now. It’s provocative, good, and right.

It’s no surprise, however, that Merritt disagrees with that assessment. Instead, he says that French has put forth a false choice. Merritt writes:

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 don’t know anyone who advocates for the latter either—at least not in so many words. But that’s not really the point of French’s letter. The point is that no matter how you frame it, the cultural elites will not allow you to be too pro-life. As far as access to the mainstream media megaphone goes, your options are limited if you are too pro-life. You either have to tone it down or forfeit the platform.

The fact is that the cultural elites have very little time or patience with those who treat the pro-life cause as a transcendent moral issue—one deserving a certain priority in the ordering of our public life. If you say out loud that abortion-on-demand is the greatest human rights crisis of our time, you will find yourself on the margins pretty quickly. That is the cost of access to those platforms.

Ordinary evangelicals, however, do not have access to those platforms, nor do they seek them. As Christian Smith demonstrates in his book Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want, the average evangelical isn’t much of a political activist, despite the way they are portrayed in the media. For most evangelicals, the extent of their political activism is showing up to vote at election time. These evangelicals view the franchise as a stewardship and a privilege, and that is just as it should be.

My concern with the post-partisanship of Jonathan Merritt is the message that it sends to ordinary evangelicals. When the ordinary evangelical steps into the voting booth this November, he will in fact have a choice to make. And that choice will involve prioritizing some issues over others. But I think Merritt disagrees. In his new book A Faith of Our Own, he writes:

Evangelicals…often reduce the immense witness of the Scriptures to only a few culture-war issues—namely, abortion and gay marriage. Both are important issues deserving serious thought. The Scriptures speak often about life and sexuality. But they also regularly address poverty, equality, justice, peace, and care of God’s good creation.

If Christians act as if the culture-war issues are the only issues or make them so paramount that they dwarf all others, we distill the limitless bounty of the Scriptures into a tiny cup of condensed political juice (p. 89).

How is a reader to apply this reasoning when it comes to voting? Merritt seems to be saying that evangelicals need not prioritize ending the regime of Roe v. Wade in their exercise of the franchise. If that is the message he’s trying to send, I think he is dead wrong.

When it comes to voting (which is the extent of political activism for most evangelicals), if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Merritt’s “post-partisan” approach causes the pro-life issue to get lost in the din of competing interests.

Christians should cast a wary eye toward anyone who suggests that abortion-on-demand is just one among many social ills. In America, it is the single greatest human rights crisis of our time, and to overlook the fact that it is legal in all fifty states to kill a person at any time from 0-9 months gestation is unconscionable.

Abortion definitely deserves more than “serious thought” in the voting booth. It deserves priority.


  • Ken Coleman

    Denny, “seems” and “if” are the hallmarks of lazy sniper bloggers. I expect more from someone in your position. Knowing Jonathan and disagreeing with him on some issues, I can say with certainty that you have carelessly painted Merritt with the wrong brush. Your words below are not disciplined with an intent to have a healthy discourse.

    “Merritt seems to be saying that evangelicals need not prioritize ending the regime of Roe v. Wade in their exercise of the franchise. If that is the message he’s trying to send, I think he is dead wrong.”

    • Denny Burk


      In what way have I misrepresented him? I want to be very careful to be fair to his position. If he supports single-issue voting on the issue of abortion, I think that would be news to a lot of people. But I’ll stand corrected if that’s the case.


      • Ken Coleman

        Denny, I actually addressed your question in my first comment by pulling your words and pasting them. Merritt is not saying and did not say that the pro-life cause is not a priority. You are trying to flip the issue. If you want to be careful re-red my first comment. Im not out to debate you, I wanted to challenge you on what you suppose and promote in your discourse. How about asking Merritt directly and drop “seems” & “if” from your monologue. I am a conservative SBC PK who walks closely with people I don’t agree with on everything and I think it is important to be fair in our criticism.

        • Denny Burk

          I know he thinks it is a priority. My point is that it doesn’t appear to be the priority as far as social issues are concerend. He talks about being pro-life, but he elevates other issues (poverty, environment, etc.) as if they are close moral equivalents. One can be an activist for all of those issues, and that’s no problem. My point is that choices have to be made in the voting booth, and those choices require prioritizing certain issues. If abortion, poverty, and the environment are at the same level of priority, then one’s vote might be a toss-up. If overturning Roe v. Wade is a transcendent moral imperative, then it’s not at all a toss-up.

          • Matt Martin

            “If overturning Roe v. Wade is a transcendent moral imperative…”

            Why does it have to be about overturning a law? Roe v. Wade won’t stop abortions. Most nations where abortion is illegal have higher abortion rates than the US.

            That is the problem when you boil it down to a single issue like overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s not realistic. It doesn’t solve the problem. Laws can make things worse.

            At least to me, that’s why Merritt makes sense. It’s a more holistic approach. If one believes that addressing poverty and education will in the long term reduce more abortions than simply overturning a law, then yes, these issues are close moral equivalents.

            • Linda Smith

              Do you have anything to back up your assertion that nations where abortion is illegal have a higher abortion rate than the U.S.? That is news to me, and I find it very difficult to believe. Experience has taught me that laws do matter! Most people in this country desire to be law abiding. The statistics I was able to find were: in the U.S., in 1960, before abortion was legal, the abortion rate was 0.07 abortions/1000 live births. Compared to 1983, after abortion had been legal for 10 years, the abortion rate had risen to 432.8 abortions/1000 live births.

            • John Doll

              I agree with Denny that abortion is the “single greatest human rights crisis of our time.” However, I think Matt makes an excellent point here when he says that Merritt’s approach is “more holistic.” I think this is an important angle to consider. It really comes down to a question of which is the higher priority; reducing the number of abortions, or restoring the moral stance of our nation. What if the best way to reduce abortion was to focus more on the social issues that give rise to them. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. Can’t there be a holistic approach that doesn’t mean giving up on the legal front?

  • Robert Angison

    How curious is it that this post and a litany of others from the leadership of our convention continue to push back on Mr Merritt’s discussion about abortion in the younger generation. He has (as I’ve read him) basically said they don’t see as a big issue even though older generations do see it as a bigger issue. By framing his entire argument around this one issue (and ignoring the plethora of other issue he raises) you’re basically proving Merritt’s point.

    As I understand it isn’t that he doesn’t oppose abortion, he’s simply commenting on where the millennial generation is on the issue. Yet why is it that our convention leadership requires nothing but lockstep, wholesale opposition of the practice before talking about it?

    Merritt’s overwhelming point in his reply noted above, and in his text, is that there are many other issues which the younger generation finds significant and that camping out on the two extremes like French (et al) only returns us to our socio-political captivity that is robbing the evangelical church of its faithfulness.

    • Denny Burk

      In what way am I proving his point? I’m not sure what you mean here. I’m actually a younger evangelical (if being under 40 counts), and I believe that overturning Roe v. Wade ought to be a transcendent moral concern for Christians in the voting booth. I’m not alone in this. There are countless other young conservative Christians who feel the same way.

      • Scott Van Neste

        It is interesting that Merritt and others think that they speak for the younger evangelical crowd. We may not be in this group for much longer, Denny, but I think you are representing more younger evangelicals than the other group wants to admit.

      • Paul Russell

        Even if overturning Roe v. Wade is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, in the voting booth there are only two viable options: (1) a candidate who will undoubtedly work to make abortions easier to obtain and less expensive, thus increasing their frequency and the consequent loss of life, and (2) a candidate who will work to do the opposite. All progress toward ending legal abortion is good progress.

  • Don Johnson

    CT has a review of Merrit’s book. It points out that the author is the son of a former president of SBC, which I did not know.

    Broken Words: The Abuse of Faith and Science in American Politics by Dudley shows how the evangelical response to abortion changed some years ago, from tolerance to abhorence and that the earlier tolerance teaching was done by many names well known today. In other words, it was not too long ago that evangelicals were teaching that abortion was OK and that it was basically a Catholic misinterpretation of Scripture that made it a problem for them.

    My own voting strategy is to vote anti-pessimal, that is, from the top 2 candidates, vote AGAINST the worst, after considering all the data I can assess.

    • Joe Blackmon

      Of course in the SBC the view of abortion went from tolerance to abhorance. You have heard of a little thing in the SBC called the Conservative Resurrgence where the Christians in the convention stood for the gospel and faithfulness to God’s word against those that now populate Wake Forrest seminary, Truett, and Mercer?

      Christians always vote anti-abortion and anti-gay “rights” as a first priority. Always.

      • Don Johnson

        On p. 43 of Broken Words, it points out that Norman Geisler from DTS wrote in 1971, “The embryo is not fully human – it is an undeveloped person.” Of course, this is not what he says today, one can only find this by seeing it in an old book. But the point remains that there was no (conservative) evangelical consensus that abortion was murder until later based on Ex 21:22-24.

  • Rick Patrick


    Thanks for posting this important exchange. The Culture Wars are not over. We think we have called a truce but the other side is still fighting. That’s not a truce–it’s a surrender. From my viewpoint, we stand in need of this French Revolution. The opposing argument is of Little Merritt.

  • Jesus Morales

    Denny, thanks for adding your two cents. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Quite frankly, while there are other issues besides abortion, gay-marriage, etc, the fact is those are the challenges of our day. Regardless, reasonable people can disagree on how to best help the poor, right injustices, etc. Personally, I think the conservatives have better ideas on how to help the poor and feel the liberal solutions of “MOAR gov’t spending” or “MOAR gov’t programs” are either ineffective or counter-productive.

    Like you and Mr. French have said, if you take the true Biblical stand the world will reject you. Even if you think of yourself as post-partisan, they won’t. Thanks for making these points.

  • RC jr

    While I agree with your piece I think we give up too much when we even begin to describe abortion as a “social issue.” The irony is that the younger folks may not like separating abortion from the environment and poverty because their fathers lumped abortion together with flag burning and the Panama Canal. Abortion isn’t a social issue, but is instead the greatest evil EVER in this land, an evil that makes the Holocaust look tame in comparison. Can you imagine calling the Holocaust a “social issue” or lumping it together with Nazi rationing policy? Babies are being murdered in our neighborhoods every day and we have blog wars about post-partisan millenials. God have mercy on us

    • Denny Burk

      I can’t say that I disagree with you. I want to ratchet up the urgency on this issue. People are far too blasé about the greatest human rights crisis of our time–the legal killing of innocent human beings created in the image of almighty God. God have mercy on us indeed.

    • Leona Roberts

      If 55 million of our citizens were killed by an enemy, it would be the greatest single issue in America and noone would be silent. We would all arise in the war to stop the murder. It would not be considered a social issue. We have a government we can actively be involved, let’s keep it that way and be involved not forgetting our call to the great commission..

    • Judy Nielsen

      I have read through many of the comments and am baffled at how Christians can find equivalency to the murder of the unborn to solving poverty and environmental problems. I agree this is the greatest moral evil of our time and the outcome is worse than Hitler’s holocaust. We here, think he was a murderous monster, If so, what does that make us? And especially those people of faith who will not engage the issue as a top priority in electing people to stop this heinous practice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said…. not to speak is to speak….not to act is to act….God will not hold us guiltless.

  • Bart Barber

    One major plus I hadn’t considered with regard to the SBC-name-change proposal: Jonathan Merritt would probably start using the new name to identify himself, while I’d stick with the old one. Maybe people would believe that we belong to different denominations. 😉

      • allen touchstone

        Is he that we worship not greater than that which divides ? Only Baptists? If the greater Christian Community would come together on those issues on which we agree, we would be able to ‘take back’ this country. Are the Presbyterians not against abortions, Do we believe that the Methodists like abortion. Are the Assembly of God or Episcopalian pastors. When will the followers of Jesus not good enough to fight with over the murder of the innocents? I am sad to see that the one thing Christians will not do is the one thing that could give them power.
        What would Jesus do? I am pretty sure that he would march with all those who are pro-Jesus and anti abortion. Hasn’t it become clear that no single denomination is strong enough to influence politics, but joined together there is so much that can be done.

  • Bart Barber

    The previous attempt at ad hominem sarcastic humor was offered largely because most of the substantive things to say have already appeared in all this back-and-forth.

  • Richard Jones

    To quote what I said over on Christianity Today’s review of Jonathan Merritt’s book:

    From the sound of it, Jonathan Merritt’s “A Faith of Our Own” is more dichotomous and polemic than anything. That seems to be so typical of Jonathan Merritt’s generation. Mostly what I see is that they attempt to mix a secular world view with a semi-Biblical world view and present it wrapped as a “Faith of Our Own”. A faith of their own??? This is consistent with postmodernism and the increase in the secularization of culture, especially within Western cultures. Standing on the solid rock of a Biblical world view certainly isn’t “hipster” and it takes great tenacity in the Lord to defend it. It usually means we are not going to be very popular, and might even be persecuted for our stand; so it becomes easier to compromise and bend with the changing cultural winds rather than stand as oaks of righteousness in the middle of the cultural storms. When I look outside the US where the Church is experiencing heavy persecutions, they look at the Western Church as weak and powerless in its Biblical convictions because they see us embracing the world rather than God’s Kingdom.

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