I've been thinking a lot lately about religion and spirituality, in particular about the role of religion in politics. I've been doing a lot of reading and documentary-watching - just trying to figure out how all these people who claim to be devout followers of Christ can bear so much hatred for people who don't follow their very specific spiritual path.
My own spiritual path has been a winding road with lots of forks, dips, and potholes. My mother was brought up in the Church of Christ, and my dad's folks were devout Pentecostals - some belonging to a branch so fundamental that they did not allow women to cut their hair or wear makeup and jewelry. Though I remember attending church services with my parents from time to time, we didn't pray or read the Bible in my home. My father was totally turned off by the fire and brimstone punitive focus of his childhood church, and my mom, though we went through periods where we attended church regularly, didn't talk much about her faith. Yet, she was probably one of the best examples of Christ's teachings in action that I have ever known. So, my understanding of religion, as a child, wasn't really solid. Visiting my paternal relatives' services frankly scared the hell out of me, where the congregants stood, swaying to the church music, shouting in tongues, faces turned heavenward, with tears streaming from their closed eyes. (As an adult, I find this kind of spiritual cleansing rather appealing, though.) I was baptized in the Christian Church when I was in junior high school, but I have to say, looking back, at the time I didn't truly understand the significance of baptism.
When I went to college in the late 60s, I was all caught up in the culture wars of the period, and religion took a back seat to my crusade for equality and an end to the war in Viet Nam. When I met my now-husband, the fact that he had no use for religion was OK by me, yet I wasn't willing to denounce my basic Christian convictions. I did take both Old and New Testament courses, though, just to better understand, in a more objective sense, the history of my Judeo-Christian heritage. Then, in my late 20's, I found a church that fit my own spiritual convictions better than the more fundamental churches to which I had been exposed as a child. It was through an intelligent, kind, and perceptive minister and my best friend, Gladys, that I became involved in the Presbyterian church, eventually becoming an elder there. I remained active in Woodhaven Presbyterian Church for several years, and all three of my children were baptized there.
What forced me to question organized religion, though, years later, were two things: the expulsion of that same minister that I admired so much, and a specific conversation with the new pastor at Woodhaven, whom I didn't know well. I had just found out the worst news I have ever received, that our daughter was addicted to heroin. So, I called the pastor and told him my daughter could no longer work for the church nursery during Sunday services and explained why. He then launched into an accusatory diatribe about the liability of the church with her being around the children. Most certainly, I knew that. Why else would I have called? He uttered not one word of sympathy or concern for the fact that our family had been shattered to pieces. And it was clear we were no longer welcome, lest the secret get out and the blame fall on him. I was stunned. I also told my Sunday school class in confidence, a group of people I felt especially close to, and they said nothing, I'm assuming because they really didn't know what to say. The next five years were a nightmare as I tried to be a school counselor, raise my son and granddaughter, and get through each day living under a cloud of fear, rage, and anxiety. And during those five years, I got only one phone call from someone at the church - asking about my monetary pledge for the upcoming year. No calls or visits or emails of concern for someone who had devoted hours and hours to the church. I was done with organized religion.
Through the years, I have attended church services infrequently. I have forgiven that pastor who left that church years ago. He is only human. But I just can't shake the feeling that organized religion can sometimes steer so far from the teachings of Jesus, it becomes more of a business that a haven of comfort and peace.
So, for decades, I have lived a life that I believe Jesus would have me live. I have tried to serve others and worship in my own way. I believe Jesus would approve of my core values, for the most part. But I don't make a show of my convictions. I believe that every time I pick up the phone to call a friend in need, or express my love for a beautiful day, or feel thankful for how generous life has been to me, or feel empathy for the suffering and downtrodden, I am uttering a prayer. I do believe in the teachings of Christ as a pattern for my own behavior, and I do believe in a spiritual realm that is far beyond what man is currently able to understand. I don't believe in hell because I don't believe in a punitive God, and I'm not convinced there is a traditional heaven like the one most Christians believe is waiting for us. To me, it's not important that I do good things because I want to be rewarded after death, but rather that I appreciate the here and now rewards of having faith and doing good things.
What I love about living in this country is that, thanks to the wisdom of our founding fathers, it's ok for me to worship any way I please - whether it be communing with nature, participating in church rituals, speaking in tongues, or praying in the middle of a football field. I celebrate and support freedom of religion. But there is currently a faction calling themselves Christians who are convinced that not only are their beliefs the only ones God recognizes, but that God wants everyone else to believe the same way they do. This group wants to eliminate books from public and school libraries they deem unfit for children to read. They discriminate against minorities because they believe our country was founded on European, Christian values and that people of other races are interlopers. They don't want their children to learn that these very same European Christians who established this country used their vast power to keep people of color under their bootheels and that they believed in the supremacy of men, relegating women to second class citizenship. This faction reviles lgbtq+ individuals and uses select scripture to justify their hatred and discrimination toward them (even though you can find scriptural justification for just about anything you want to believe, if you look hard enough). They want to destroy public schools in order to funnel tax dollars to a system of private schools that will teach only their values and beliefs. In short, they want the power to control every aspect of American life.
Ironically, they are the first to proclaim "liberty," rigorously waving the flag; yet their goal is to suppress the freedoms of anybody who does not embrace their way life. They frighten other conservatives into believing all liberals are life-sucking demons, determined to take away all their personal possessions, including, God forbid, their guns. They convince many citizens that the schools are hotbeds of homosexual and transexual "grooming," and that teachers are forcing white children to feel guilty for their ancestors' misdeeds. Their creed is rife with conspiracy theories about staged school shootings, and vaccines meant to rewire our genetic code, and various other evil liberal intentions. Fear and mistrust are their guiding principles. Their mission is to take over the government and force the country to live by their law - ironically, just like some of the middle eastern Muslim countries they so revile. Accordingly, they have infiltrated public office, all over the country, but especially here in Texas. They remind me of the Puritans, who fled religious persecution, only to persecute, and even execute, those whom they believed were straying from God's straight and narrow path.
I've asked myself - where, in this version of Christian conservatism, are the teachings of Jesus and the intensions of our founders? What about the love of the downtrodden, the devotion to the wellbeing of others, the emphasis on empathy and understanding? Where is the humility and generosity, and the notion that we are all equal in God's eyes? I'm reminded of one of my favorite verses:
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn't jealous, it doesn't brag, it isn't arrogant, it isn't rude, it doesn't seek its own advantage, it isn't irritable, it doesn't keep a record of complaints.
1 Corinthians 13: 4-5
...and I wonder where, in this version of Christianity, is the most important of God's commands - that we love one another?
I'm seeing what's happening, and I'm faced with a difficult choice. How can I condemn the behavior of others and still follow the command to love my fellow man? Yet, how can I not? I can ignore those who want to force their version of Christianity upon me and my family, or point out that our country has survived for two and a half centuries on the notion that we are all equal, and the government and the church should remain separate entities. I choose the latter. Knowing that I am a flawed human, I will nevertheless call out those who claim they have a monopoly on Christianity but, in my opinion, are really more invested in power than Christian principles. I will study. I will speak my mind. And I will vote.