Jonathan Merritt, an award-winning religion writer who contributes regularly to national publications including The Atlantic and The Week, has stepped down as senior columnist for Religion News Service, citing “irreconcilable differences” with his publisher and interim editor-in-chief.
Merritt, son of former Southern Baptist Convention president and Atlanta megachurch pastor James Merritt, is the latest departure from America’s oldest newswire focused on religion and spirituality in a shakeup described by the New Republic as “the spectacular implosion of Religion News Service.”
In April, RNS fired its editor-in-chief, Jerome Socolovsky, without a public explanation. Kimberly Winston, a San Francisco-area journalist covering atheism and freethought, resigned in protest. Managing Editor Lauren Markoe, who joined RNS as a national reporter in 2011, followed by stepping down in May.
Merritt cited the shifts as his reason for stepping down after five years at RNS in a blog posted on June 28. “Though my integrity would not allow me to remain, the details of my disagreements with RNS leadership are unimportant except to those involved and litigating them in public at this time will not serve either party well,” he wrote.
Merritt, 35, emerged as a public figure while still in seminary. At age 26 and attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., he spearheaded in 2008 “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” criticizing the Southern Baptist Convention as too timid in acknowledging mounting scientific evidence linking human activity with global warming.
Working for RNS he broke stories including Christian author Eugene Peterson saying he knows gays and lesbians who “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do.” A day later Peterson retracted the statement, following threats by retailers including LifeWay Christian Resources to stop selling his best-selling Bible paraphrase.
In 2016, Merritt interviewed evangelical author and HGTV celebrity Jen Hatmaker saying she would attend the wedding of an LGBT friend to a same-sex spouse and believes that such relationships can be holy.
Before coming to RNS, Merritt was “outed” in Salon magazine in 2012 by a former evangelical blogger upset about an article he wrote defending Chick-fil-A’s support for groups opposing gay equality. Merritt admitted to physical contact “beyond the bounds of friendship” but said he does not self-identify as gay “because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers.”
Despite recent “unfortunate developments” there, Merritt said he is profoundly grateful for his years with Religion News Service.
“Though I have been the top traffic generator at Religion News Service, I do not overestimate my contribution there,” he wrote. “Many outstanding religion writers remain among their ranks, and in the days ahead, I will continue to champion their work and share their stories with all of you.”
Merritt said he will continue writing columns about religion for other news outlets and finish work on his forthcoming book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — and How We Can Revive Them, which comes out in August.