Zeal of a Convert
I mentioned a month or so ago that since my engagement, I’ve sort of re-channeled the views I usually apply to politics into everyday living. “Re-channeled” might be a bit much – I can never shake the political bug – more like incorporated. The line between personally applied values and political ideology is even murkier than it used to be for me, and that was a pretty murky line to begin with. Last night, Jonny and I baked a loaf of bread, a small feat that we’re still so proud of that our second loaf is in the preparation stage as I write this (yup, the first loaf was gone in less than 24 hours). We probably could’ve baked it for a few extra minutes, but it was still the best bread I’ve ever tasted. It was also a really awesome way to spend a Friday night, and I’m not quite sure what that says about my sense of fun.
The bread thing was easy. I had been reading Radical Homemakers, got up yesterday morning, asked Jonny if we had any plans that evening, and when he said no, said, “let’s bake bread.” Done. A lot of future decisions have been equally simple. When we get a bigger house, let’s get a hammock. Let’s get an old dog and a young dog at the same time. Let’s limit eating out to once a month. And tradeoffs, like, the fact that I will one day (again, this goes with the bigger house) get tacky, inflatable, outdoor Christmas decorations in exchange for Jonny getting tacky, inflatable, outdoor Ravens decorations any time they make the playoffs. Fair deal.
But I’m nailing down all these decisions, figuring out how I want to live in big ways and small, and I keep stumbling on the same unresolved problem: I want to belong to a church, and I do not know which church – as in denomination, not simply congregation – I want to join.
I imagine, given the demographics, that this is a common problem. A 2007 Pew survey found that 44% of Americans belong to a different religious (or non-religious) tradition than the one they grew up in, and that statistic cuts in all ways: those who were raised in a faith and left it (to become either non-believers or just religiously unaffiliated); those who were raised without a faith tradition and joined one in adulthood; and those who converted from one faith to another. At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Obama spoke of his own conversion in a way I would guess is very familiar to people who fall into that second category:
This may come as a surprise, for as some of you know, I did not come from a particularly religious family. My father, who I barely knew – I only met once for a month in my entire life – was said to be a non-believer throughout his life.
My mother, whose parents were Baptist and Methodist, grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion, and she usually only took me to church on Easter and Christmas – sometimes. And yet my mother was also one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew. She was somebody who was instinctively guided by the Golden Rule and who nagged me constantly about the homespun values of her Kansas upbringing, values like honesty and hard work and kindness and fair play.
And it’s because of her that I came to understand the equal worth of all men and all women, and the imperatives of an ethical life and the necessity to act on your beliefs. And it’s because of her example and guidance that despite the absence of a formal religious upbringing my earliest inspirations for a life of service ended up being the faith leaders of the civil rights movement.
There was, of course, Martin Luther King and the Baptist leaders, the ways in which they helped those who had been subjugated to make a way out of no way, and transform a nation through the force of love. But there were also Catholic leaders like Father Theodore Heshburg, and Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Muslim leaders and Hindu leaders. Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me just a few years out of college to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago. And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.
What strikes me as interesting and relatable about Obama’s story is the use of religion as an extension of personal values, rather than the other way around. That’s not an easy thing for me to admit to as being “relatable.” As is probably predictable given my stance on just about everything else, I think there’s a lot to be said for viewing religion as something you just are rather than something you choose to be, something that dictates personal values, not flows from them. Eh, as with most bits of philosophy and idealism, easier said than done. What’s a boy like Barack to do when he didn’t have a faith tradition to inherit? Assuming there’s no lightning strike conversion moment, how should he have picked a faith without treating it as an extension of his values?
I’ve been trying to sift through a similar dilemma for more than half my life, seeing all the problems inherent in the church “marketplace” while not really knowing of an alternative for those of us who don’t have an unbroken intergenerational religion. Unlike Obama, I was very much raised in a church – Southern Baptist – but for a variety of reasons, my family left the church when I was 8, and we’ve pretty much all been religious orphans and seekers ever since. As for me, I’ve explored the UCC, the Catholic church, a return to my Southern Baptist roots, the Presbyterian church, and even the Mennonite church. Every time I think I settle, I change the emphasis on values and another option suddenly looks more attractive to me. Buyer’s remorse, just like any other consumer choice. Sad.
But there’s no use in beating myself up over things I can’t change. 44% of Americans – including the President – don’t belong to the faith (or secularism) of their upbringing, and for the most part, they’re a thoughtful and committed lot. So here’s my question for the comments section: do you belong to the same religious tradition you were brought up in? And, if you have converted, have you changed more than once?
How good does that bread look?