Are evangelicals responsible for the ISIS persecutions? (A response to Jonathan Merritt)

Jonathan Merritt really enjoys sticking it to evangelicals. He’s had a full menu of “Gotchas” for them lately, from arguing that businesses cannot have Christian values to insisting that Christian teaching is actually popular in American culture (because of Pope Francis). It seems Merritt’s blogging itinerary this year has been to go down the list of what conservative evangelicals think and then write up the reasons they’re wrong, ignorant or dangerous.

His latest piece is, for me, proof positive that he is incapable of speaking fairly about conservative evangelicals. Just look at the headline: “Blame Obama and U.S. Evangelicals for the Persecution of Iraqi Christians.” A more careful editor would have left out the words “Obama and,” since Merritt doesn’t actually criticize the President at all (while we’re on that subject, who exactly is blaming Mr. Obama for what ISIS is doing? Maybe Merritt doesn’t understand the difference between responsibility for murder and responsibility to respond to it). According to Merritt, the ultimate architects of ISIS’s violent evictions are evangelicals.

Merritt’s argument goes like this:

A) ISIS is empowered to do what they are doing because of President Bush’s 2003 invasion

B) Said invasion was endorsed and publicly supported by American evangelicals

C) Therefore, though unintentionally, American evangelicals supported what eventually became ISIS and the ensuing violent eviction of Christians

I have to admit, I did not wake up this morning expecting to be labeled accessory to murder. I appreciate Merritt for making an otherwise drab Monday at least more interesting. But I’ll hold off on turning myself in. You see, Merritt’s argument is a shiny piece of historical revisionism, banking hugely on his readers having neither a functional memory of 2003 nor a competent understanding of what’s happening in Iraq right now. Merritt shrugs off years of foreign policy analysis and complicated geopolitical nuance and goes straight to slander; do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

First, let’s talk about premise B. This is where Merritt is more or less correct in his facts. Yes, there was indeed broad, public support for the 2003 invasion amongst evangelicals. But Merritt uses this to portray evangelicals as war-peddlers. That’s complete nonsense. Evangelical support for the invasion should rather be seen as a reflection of the even broader mainstream support for the war that existed before 2005. It’s simply false to say that evangelicals were trying to “sell” the Iraq war to the American public, but that’s exactly what Merritt claims in this paragraph:

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest protestant denomination, even passed a 2003 resolution supporting the war in Iraq. The organization’s actions, along with the support of other evangelicals, helped validate the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and opened the door to our current reality.

“Helped to validate” the invasion…to whom? Does Merritt mean to argue that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and 58% of Senate Democrats voted for the invasion under the influence of the SBC’s stance? Please. This is pure historical fiction, a portrait of an evangelical war lobby that exists in Merritt’s mind and nowhere else.

What about premise A? Here’s where Merritt’s lack of geopolitical savvy is showing. One can legitimately argue that the US’s policy in Iraq left the back door open for the ISIS monsters. What’s not legitimate is arguing that the religious persecutions of ISIS are directly attributable to the invasion. Such an argument totally sidesteps years of complicated developments within the Middle East. Nicholas Slayton wrote in The Atlantic last month that the violence in Iraq has been fomenting for some time, proliferated by warring Islamic factions and an emerging political nightmare in Syria. Shireen Hunter also wrote a balanced, thoughtful analysis of the situation, criticizing US policy but also noting the unanticipated extremity of Sunni and Shiite hostilities.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, so I don’t feel qualified to speak definitively to the causes of ISIS’s persecutions. My only concern is that Merritt is not an expert either, yet by laying the blame at the feet of American evangelicals, Merritt ties up the persecutions so inextricably to the 2003 invasion that he misleads. And as is so often the case with progressive Christian bloggers, it is conservative evangelicals who end up slandered.

If Merritt thinks evangelicalism is beneath his kindness or even fairness, I encourage him to make it beneath his blogging as well. Criticizing evangelical politics can be legitimate. Promoting a friend’s new book on Christianity and pacifism is fine. What crosses the line is incendiary headlining, supported by historically shallow and logically backwards writing. Evangelicals certainly bear the burden of prayer for those brothers and sisters who are fleeing violent persecution. They do not bear the burden to heed the ridiculousness of progressive opportunists eager to use real suffering to score points against those they don’t respect.



  1. Sidra Zimmerman · July 29, 2014

    While, yes, I see that Merritt wants to point out the SBC supported a war back in 2003 which has led to the rise of ISIS, I have to agree with you. The point it is evangelicals’ fault that Christians are being persecuted in Iraq is absurd. It was wrong for the SBC to approve of going to Iraq, yes, but that does not, in any way make them or anyone but ISIS responsible for the torture and death of Iraqi Christians. For Merritt to imply such is honesty mind boggling.

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