I went to church on Easter. This should not be remarkable news. After all, it was a beautiful day in New York City – and it was Easter. If there is a Sunday during the year when most Americans go to church, it is Easter. But what made it remarkable is that ordinarily I am not a churchgoer even on holidays. For reasons that are historical, personal, and political, I usually just stay away. When asked about this, I explain that as a professor of American religion I know too much about the history of the Christian church to ever belong to one or regularly attend one with any amount of peace and conviction. The history of Christianity shows that not only are churches contested spaces, they are also problematic spaces. Even as I was preparing to leave for services I heard a story over NPR about Joseph Amodeo who quit his post as a board member of the New York branch of Catholic Charities in protest over Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s refusal to respond to a “call for help” for LGBT homeless youth. I sighed deeply and nearly didn’t go.
But I did go, and as I sat there in the beautiful Gothic structure on the Upper West Side, surrounded by Anglo-Catholic iconography of stone, wood, and gold, and smells as ancient as the church itself, it felt good to be there. (I am an Episcopalian, having long left the Baptist church of my youth, converting, ironically, while a student at Wheaton College.) For a few moments I was able to put aside what I know, and what I know is this: the Christian church is responsible for some of the most heinous acts committed against human beings in world history. Some of the things that have been done in the name of Jesus, Christianity, and the preservation of the faith could (and should) make your skin crawl. Dissidents, doubters, skeptics, and not a few true believers have been disemboweled, skinned alive, quartered, beheaded, baked, burned, and boiled for their faith or lack of it by a church founded ostensibly on the notion of love and mercy.
Historically speaking, Christian alters run with blood, and the church’s doctrines and creeds – more so than divine inspiration – are the result of treachery, deceit, betrayal, hypocrisy, and bitter ecclesiastical debates. Once you know that, you can’t “un-know” it, and knowing it shapes who you are, what you do, and how you feel about the church. It can be no other way.
People often ask me how it is that African Americans can be overwhelmingly Christian given that it was the faith of their slaveholders and given that the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn slavery. (Those who say that it does are engaging in a type of theological fantasy.) The answer that slaves “transformed” the religion of their masters has been surprisingly easy for some, but extraordinarily difficult for others. The African American writers and artists that I deal with in my recent work all expressed their discontent with the African American religious status quo. James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin (among others) all lamented in different ways the seemingly uncritical devotion black Americans have for the Christian church. They were skeptical of an institution that promoted discrimination and justified injustice. The only right response for them was to remain unaligned with it.
Then there is the current climate of religious and political discourse. (“Religiously political” discourse or “Politically religious” discourse? Both work.) I often find myself amazed at the level of hatred and vitriol spilling from the mouths of people who purport to know Jesus Christ. And I’m not talking about the “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” crowd. They are silly – dangerous, but silly and ultimately irrelevant. I’m talking about Christian schools that encourage bullying of LGBT students. I’m talking about politicians who won’t support marriage equality for “religious reasons” or who think, “corporations are people” at the expense of the poor. I’m talking about uber-Christian Kirk Cameron who touts his compassion while aiding and abetting hateful forces by calling homosexuality “destructive” and “unnatural.” I’m talking about former tennis player and current Pentecostal minister, Margaret Court, who said “politically correct education has masterfully escorted homosexuality out from behind closed doors, into the community openly.”
Rick Santorum, the most devoutly “evangelical” Catholic to seek the presidential nomination in American history, has made it clear that as President he would reverse every liberal social policy passed in the last 50 years. (There have been many.) He would continue his war on the freedom of sexuality, women’s bodies, and women’s rights. And he would do it in the name of his God, not the American government. Yet he wants us to think that he believes in democracy.
Sometimes I look around me and think that I’ve seen enough religious bigotry and utter non-sense from religious people to last two lifetimes.
But, I went to church on Easter – and it was glorious. For a few moments I let the magnificent liturgy of the Episcopal Church and the High Mass rush over me like a wave. It was beautiful; it was awe-inspiring. It was “Festival Day.” And I knew in those moments it was not time to critique; it was time to celebrate. It was time to express my faith – untouched by the troubles of a deeply troubled church.
I may never again “join” a church. Like Emerson, Whitman, Du Bois, Baldwin, Hurston, Hughes and many others in whose footsteps I dare to tread, I will likely find this impossible. But I take comfort in knowing (as many of them did) that somehow I will always belong to one of the most aesthetically beautiful and theologically compelling religious traditions on earth.