I can pinpoint the exact moment when I lost my religion. Or at least my patience with organized religion.
Growing up, we were Social Baptist. That means we went to Church, like most people did back then, as kind of club. It was just something one did. You didn’t really think too much about it. We thought that was for the best…
Religion, or the beliefs part, was viewed as a private journey. It was considered tacky and intrusive to talk about it too much in public. One went to Church to socialize, hear a sermon meant to make you think on your own, and then went on with the week.
My Father always thought that too much religion was just like too much of any other drug. You became obsessed with it and stopped thinking on your own and just followed the leader. He always thought that was dangerous and that it also explained the easy transition drug addicts had to religion.
For a while, like most teenagers of that era, I was really into church. It was a phase. By my Senior year of High School, that definitely was not the case. I was just bored with everything by then-including Church.
My Mother figured out the Church Phase had passed when one of her friends tipped her off I was reading “Jaqueline Susann’s The Love Machine” behind my hymnal in the balcony during the service. She was not pleased.
When we didn’t go to Church on Sunday–which was quite often–my Mother would not answer the phone during church hours for fear someone would find out we weren’t in Church and talk about us. I never quite followed this logic…
Anyway, on the day I lost my religion, it was kind of a fluke that I was actually there that day. I certainly had no intention of being there.
I was hung over has hell.
I had been to a Sub Deb Dance the night before. If you don’t know what a Sub Deb dance is, I’m certainly not going to even try to explain it. Just think of it as a private high school sorority dance.
Back then, we did not have good sense. I had a bottle of bourbon in my Father’s brand new car. The new car that he had just picked up that day. That had cloth upholstery.
Somehow, someone spilled about half the bottle in the car. Not only was this a waste of good bourbon, it was kind of hard to hide.
My Father noticed the smell right away when he checked to see why the windows were down on the car when he went out to get the paper Sunday morning.
He was not pleased. As a punishment, he made me get up and go to Church instead of sleeping until noon and nursing my hangover.
My parents were founding members of this Church. It had grown to be the largest Baptist Church on our side of town.
But this was not a good time to go to our Church, for many reasons.
We had had the same minister for years and years. Part of his perks had been a membership at the same Country Club everyone who attended there belonged to- Tuscarora Country Club. He understood his congregation wanted out the door at noon sharp for lunch reservations and tee times. But he had recently decided to move on to another Church.
We had some temporary Pastor, who did not last long, that I now realize was one of the first Evangelicals. I and almost everyone else hated him. He was definitely not our kind of pastor. He actually screamed, emoted and carried on. It was quite tacky. He was a novelty, at first, but once he started making people late for lunch reservations and tee times by going on until 12:15, then 12:30, people were rapidly getting fed up.
This particular Sunday, he was all wound up about pre-marital sex. I thought discussing sex in a Church was the tackiest thing I had ever heard of. Quite a few people agreed, but wouldn’t say so until after the sermon.
To make a long story short, he asked all the “young” people to come up to the front of the Church and pledge before the Congregation not to have pre-marital sex. Most of the Congregation was just stunned by this move. Including me.
The youngsters all went running down the aisle. The older you got, the more hesitation you saw. One of my friends, who had also been at the dance the night before, stepped out in the aisle, looked around, shrugged her shoulders like “what the hell” and went on down.
At first, I couldn’t move. I was shocked at this type of public display. It simply was not done. How dare some stranger intrude so publicly into so many people’s personal lives? How dare he open them up for public judgement by a congregation?
And I knew a few of the people trotting down that aisle were doing so after their horses were already out of the barn…I guess it was kind of like Bristol Palin and Purity Rings…Fact has no relationship to the perception you are trying to manage.
My Mother was about to fall into the aisle herself from leaning over trying to see what I was going to do several rows behind her-and if it was going to embarrass her. She was shooting me looks that screamed “get down that aisle with everyone else and don’t make a scene.” She seemed to be on the verge of a stroke.
I stepped into the aisle. I looked her in the eye. I turned on my heel and walked up the aisle and out the door of the Church and went home.
I was born into and raised in that Church, but I only went back twice after that day. For my Father’s Funeral and for my Sister’s Wedding.
In that one day, I saw people I had known for years turning into people I no longer wanted to know. Too many people were getting into the show and away from the concept that religion is a personal journey. They wanted an excuse to judge and to throw some folks to the lions.
That is not what I think religion and spirituality ought to be. People who were being given the “right” to judge others by their Pastor and supposed spiritual leader was just not acceptable. He did not have the authority to convey that right.
I could not then, now or ever accept that I am accountable to anyone on earth for my personal moral choices unless I negatively impact someone else. I could not in any way show any kind of acceptance of allowing people to judge and think it was right.
I was out of there.
And so were a lot of other people over the next few weeks when he moved on to tobacco and alcohol. In a Church in the “Worlds Best Tobacco Market” with lot’s of beer distributors and their employees as members, he did not make wise choices. You didn’t pull that crap at a Social Baptist Church.
The Interim Pastors time was short and he was shortly gone, but the damage had been done.
Everything was changing. Walls had been broken down that could not be rebuilt. It was becoming cult like. A pastor had said it was alright to get into people’s personal business. From what I was seeing, I needed to be concerned about my Mother and her fellow congregants joining the religious equivalent of the Manson Family.
I knew this wasn’t for me…
Over the next couple of years, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their followers took center stage in the national political debate. I am convinced that, if there is a hell, there is a special place in it for them. They have sold out the moral authority of religion for political power and have driven more people from the church than anyone else I can think of.
They built their personal empires, but are major contributors to destroying faith and the church as a builder of community in American.
My home town often referred to itself as the “City of Churches”. There were supposedly more Churches per capita than in any other city. The reason for this was that Churches kept getting into internal fights and splitting off to start new churches that eventually did the same thing. It reached the point, any little open storefront seemed to become a Church overnight.
Most of this was driven by people sitting in judgement on other people. Judgement only leads to more judgement and eventually everyone gets burned. Communities collapse due to the ill will this breeds. People leave. Churches eventually fold. Communities dissolve. People lose respect for each other. They stop trying to understand each other and just decide that if someone isn’t like “me”, they must be wrong or dangerous.
One of the things I do recall most from my early religious education was the teaching to judge not least ye be judged. And to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Funny how these simple, honest teachings seem to get lost first.
You never heard much about these teachings from Jerry and Pat and their like. They seemed to forget it was supposedly up to God to judge and not themselves. I think they may have eventually lost the distinction between themselves and the man they supposedly worked for…
Where does that leave me?
First of all, I’m a Gay man and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, along with the Republican Party, have spewed so much hatred and used and built that hatred against Gay People to drive their personal power goals for so long, I don’t see how I can ever go back to any organized Christian religion as it currently exists. They have poisoned the well.
They have also killed my friends and so many other people. By politicizing AIDS and stopping the government from acting early to respond to a medical crisis because of the judgement and “moral” positions of Jerry and Pat and their friends, hundreds, thousands of innocent people died. That, I cannot forgive. The Church has blood on it’s hands for this…
So now, like many American’s I don’t consider myself part of any organized religion.
I like and admire the message of Jesus Christ in its pure form- without the religious/political filters of today. I am intrigued by many aspects of Buddhism. I feel a great attraction to the Jewish faith and their rituals and history as well as their tradition of service and trying to make the world a better place. I take what I like from each and form my own values and spiritual beliefs. And I’m just fine with that.
While I sometimes miss the sense of community and the Holiday celebrations one has with a Church, after more than 35 years, I don’t see myself going back to Church. At least not yet…
Besides, I spend my Sunday Mornings reading several newspapers and blogs so I can post interesting stuff on my other blog or talk about it later in the week. I can’t see giving that up. It’s my “me” time.
Maybe some day I’ll be willing to share it, but not yet… Organized Religion made it too hard for me to find and accept myself for me to forgive it all too easily.
I still have too much anger.
But who knows what the future holds? One thing is for sure, one of the key learnings from this experience was to always keep an open mind. And an open heart. Shutting down either only hurts oneself.
I guess this puts me back where I started all those years ago. Religion is a personal, private spiritual journey.
I’ll just keep trying to work back to those to early learnings: Judge not least ye be judged and love thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.
I think that’s a good place for all of us to start working through this mess that has become religion in America….