Several of you have commented about how my liberal views seem odd for someone in the ministry (some of those comments have been positive, some have been negative.) About six years ago I wrote a two-part post about how I grew up in a fundamentalist church and about my journey away from that world view. I thought I would post it again. Here are both parts:
My Journey Away From Fundamentalism. Part One:
I was listening to an interview on “All Things Considered” on NPR the other day with Christine Rosen the author of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Childhood. In her book she discusses what it was like to grow up attending a very fundamentalist Christian school. Although she has abandoned the beliefs of her childhood and no longer considers herself a fundamentalist, she describes her elementary education with absolutely no rancor. In fact, she describes her childhood with a tremendous amount of affection and delight.
As I listened to her describe her journey, I thought about how closely it resembles mine.
When I was seven, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In retrospect, I think she knew how turbulent our lives would become. She wanted to provide me with some stability and so she decided to start taking me to church. Prior to that, I only remember being inside a church one other time. At the invitation of a friend, we began attending a Southern Baptist church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. My mother’s premonition about the need for stability proved correct. As her illness progressed my father became less and less able to cope with her erratic behavior. He began to travel extensively for his job and was generally only home two weekends a month. When he was home he was often abusive and he and my mother would fight loudly and violently. As an only child, it became my responsibility to be my mother’s protector and mediator to the world. Stability was defiantly in order, and the church quickly became my surrogate parent.
As the years rolled by and I went to High School and then to College, the church became the center of my life. It was the one place I flourished. It was the one place I excelled and was accepted. It was the one place that kept me sane. Here are some of the things I loved about my life as a Southern Baptist:
I loved my Sunday school teacher that year I first started coming to church. I liked to collect rocks and it happened that he was a geologist for an oil company. Each week he would look for unusual rocks on the job and he would bring them to me on Sunday morning. I thought he was a god. He knew about my situation at home, but he never let on, he just made me feel special and important.
I loved Vacation Bible School. I especially loved crafts time. To this day, I can build almost anything out of popsicle sticks. I loved the pageantry of marching into the sanctuary with the American and Christian flags and the Bible. I loved “sword drills” (for the uninitiated, this is a contest on how quickly you can look up passages in the Bible). I loved the Kool Aid and the stale cookies. I loved getting gold stars for memorizing scripture.
As a teenager I loved all of the activities the church provided. I sang in a youth choir that toured all over the United States. I went on interesting mission trips to exotic places. I have wonderful memories of church camp. I loved my youth director. And frankly, I loved being in a position of leadership. I was usually youth group president and I was usually the one who got to lead the music or preach on “youth Sunday.” It was certainly ego boosting at a time I needed some ego boosting. I loved the way I got a standing ovation from the congregation the Sunday I came forward and told the pastor I “felt called” into the ministry.
I loved going to Oklahoma Baptist University. OBU has been listed by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 10 universities in the west (in it’s category) for 14 of the past 16 years. I got a fabulous education there. It has one of the most highly regarded schools of music in the Midwest, and I am honored to have a music degree from there. Even though it was a “Christian” college, I was encouraged to think outside the box. Many of the professors were “Baptist” in name only and brought a wealth of varied backgrounds and beliefs to my college experience.
Once I was in the ministry, I loved the things the Southern Baptist Convention stood for. Rather than individual churches supporting individual missionaries, the 43,000 Southern Baptist Churches across the U.S. pool their resources and support over 5,300 missionaries world wide. No other single charitable group in the world does more food distribution to impoverished areas than the SBC does. I loved the fact that when they talked about being against abortion they put their money where their mouth was and funded homes for unwed pregnant teenagers across the country. I worked as a house father in one of those homes for three years and even though it was difficult, I look back at it as being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I have no doubt that my fundamentalist upbringing saved my life. I have nothing but love and respect for the people in my church that loved and supported me through some very difficult years.
I imagine I sound like a cheerleader or public relations person for fundamentalism. So what happened to bring me to where I am now? Well…that’s in part 2.
My Journey Away From Fundamentalism. Part Two:
I’ve been writing about growing up as a Southern Baptist fundamentalist, and how I’ve come to be an unabashed liberal with views and beliefs very different from those I grew up with. In part 1 I discussed what I loved about growing up in that environment. In part 2, I’m going to talk about why I will NEVER go back to it.
This is how the transformation took place: I was walking down the Damascus Road when, suddenly, I was blinded by a brilliant light. Al Franken appeared to me and asked me why I was persecuting Democrats. Ok, maybe that didn’t happen, but for those of you who are thinking that it must have been a singular defining moment in my life, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. It actually was a very slow process that started back in college (cue harp music and wavy image as I travel back in time).
I mentioned in part 1 that my church was the very center of my life as a pre-teen and teenager. During this time I got quite an indoctrination into fundamentalist rhetoric One of the basic tenants of fundamentalism is an “us-against-them” mentality. I was taught (subtly and not so subtly) that anyone who did not believe like we did was part of the “world” and was the enemy. This included, but was not limited too: Democrats, homosexuals, anyone who smoked, drank, or danced, anyone who was divorced, and anyone who was not of the Christian faith (and other protestant denominations were highly suspect). Jews were not the enemy but they were to be pitied because they failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and we had to take their place as God’s chosen people. We were taught that if we prayed hard enough and sent money to “Jews for Jesus” maybe they still had some hope. This rhetoric was masked in the teaching that “God hates sin, but loves the sinner and that we also should love the sinner but do everything in our power to convert them.” It’s a nice thought, but unfortunately, once we got out from in front of the pulpit it wasn’t unusual to hear something more along the lines of “I hope one of them faggots makes a pass at me, ‘cause I’ll bust his head open with a ball bat.”
I actually had the concept in High School that most of the rest of the world believed like I did. It was with this belief and the background described above that I went off to college. As I mentioned in part 1, I got an excellent liberal arts education at OBU and many of the professors were intent on showing us kids from the heartland of the Bible belt that there was a bigger world out there. I took Western Civilization and Literature and World Religions. I was shocked to find out that my religious beliefs actually put me in the minority when it came to the rest of the world. I began to have a very hard time getting my head around the concept that there were people all over the world who held beliefs that were very different from mine and they were just as committed to their religion and the belief that they were right as I was. I had always been told that anyone who was not a “born again Christian” was going to hell. “God doesn’t send anyone to hell” I was told, “people choose hell by default because of their unbelief.” I would protest by asking “So…you’re telling me that a child raised in China as a Buddhist, and for whom Buddhism is central to their culture and their lives, and who is unlikely to ever consider another possibility because of that culture, is going to hell because of that belief?” The answer would be “If they ever had the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ and refused to believe it, yes, they are going to hell.” That made me really glad I was born in Oklahoma and not Beijing.
My little world was beginning to expand. As part of my college experience, I began to read authors like Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Pynchon, who had VERY different world views from mine. I also moved in with someone who was supposed to be the enemy. That’s right…I ended up with a gay roommate. I had a whole list of stereotypes in my head about what he was supposed to be like, and DAMMIT he didn’t live up to a single one of them! He didn’t try to “bring me over to the dark side.” He was kind, and generous, and caring, and would do anything for anyone. In fact, he had the nerve to end up being one of the most decent and honorable people I’ve ever known. I knew it was ok to like him, but that I was supposed to hate his sin. I just had a hard time hating anything about him.
I left college with my fundamentalism shaky but still loosely in tact. Then I got into the actual ministry, and boy was I in for a surprise. I won’t go into a great deal of explanation here other than to say, I had it in my head that all “Church People” were good, decent, loving folks. I quickly discovered that they could, in fact, be the most downright evil people I’d ever met.
It didn’t happen overnight. As the years went by, the core beliefs I used to hold onto so tightly began to ravel away. I could go on for pages and pages talking about how specific incidents began to move my ideology toward the left, such as the incident of a 16 year old girl in one of my churches who got pregnant, and without access to abortion, and in fear of her parents, attempted to end her life by drinking Drano, and how that shook my stance on abortion rights. I’ll save all those stories for a rainy day, but let’s just say as the days passed by I had a harder and harder time holding onto the beliefs of my childhood.
I tried too though. I tried really hard. My job in the ministry was to continue to teach those beliefs to each new generation and I began to do a very poor job of fulfilling that calling. I wanted out, but it was all I had ever known and I had no idea what else to do. As a child, if I were to confront a problem head on, like my father for example; that confrontation could get me the back of a hand. So I became very good at passive aggressive behavior. In fact, I’m still the national poster child, but at least I know this about myself. Again, I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I began to engage in some very self-destructive behaviors that took the decision for me to leave the ministry out of my hands and put it in the hands of others.
I did abandon those behaviors, and I’ve been out of full-time ministry in a fundamentalist denomination for 18 years. I joined a much more liberal denomination and have been serving in the ministry part time ever since. Over the years my views have moved more and more to the left everyday. Hey, if it’s good enough for Supreme Court Justices, It’s good enough for me.
The odd thing is that I’ve never abandoned my faith. How’s that you say? I think that what finally dawned on me is that there is a difference between faith and religion. I still wanted to be a person of faith, but I no longer wanted to be religious. Faith embraces tolerance. Religion abhors it. Faith can acknowledge theological differences. Religion labels people as heretics and infidels. Faith embraces life, while throughout history; more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason. In response to part 1, my friend misinterpreted1 left this comment: “The church has never saved my life, but my faith definitely has on more than one occasion.” I think she hit the nail on the head. It took me a long time to separate the rhetoric I grew up with and some of the people who espoused it, from my notion of a God who loves me, and wants me to treat people with love, respect, and dignity. But I have, and my faith in God has never been stronger.
I simply no longer possess the arrogance to assume my particular brand of faith has all the answers.
I’ve been told that it’s impossible to be a Christian and be a liberal. For me, it would be impossible to be a Christian and be anything else.