My belief in a higher power has morphed into a belief in people.
Last year I wrote a piece on my agnosticism, an element of identity that “others” me in relation to the dominant Christian culture I was raised in. The piece gave me an opportunity to explore all the little twists and turns in the road that led me to arrive at this place and feel comfortable in it, but more than that, it allowed me to focus on all the ways religion has influenced what is by and large a non-religious life.
Some of the people in my life arrived at atheism or agnosticism because of terrible experiences with Christianity, like bouts of food poisoning so violent that you vow never to eat at that restaurant again. When I listen to my lapsed Catholic friends talk of leaving the Church, their faces are often tinged with a shadow of betrayal. For whatever reason, they grew to feel unsupported, even antagonized, by the institution they had been a part of since birth. This was never my experience. The only thing that seemed to differentiate my dad’s Catholic side of the family from my mom’s Lutheran side – which I jokingly referred to as “Catholic Lite” – was that they ate fish on Fridays.
Over time, I came to understand that faith wasn’t necessarily an indicator of goodness. Regular church attendance wasn’t a barometer either. I knew compassionate people who didn’t attend weekly services but lived a Christ-like example in the world every day, and I knew hateful, abusive congregation members who belittled their spouses but diligently sat in the pew every Sunday. Like schools and offices, churches are institutions populated with the imperfect humans who created them: from well-intentioned people looking for atonement to priests who use their sanctioned status to prey on small children.
This evidence seems to support German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s theory that God did not make us in His image, but the other way around. According to Feuerbach, qualities like benevolence or wrath that are attributed to deities are actually just “determinations or qualities drawn from [man’s] own nature – qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself.” In other words, if you’re a generally compassionate and empathetic person, the God you believe in is loving, fiercely tolerant, and an ally to the poor and downtrodden.
And if you’re a person who feels threatened by changing demographics or social mores, it’s easy to imagine, and then believe in, a God who condemns those things. Arguments against same-sex marriage come from a long line of “effort[s] to repackage prejudice as ‘religious liberty.’” In the earlier part of the 20th century, segregationist politicians and clergy justified their views by declaring God-sanctioned separation of the races. Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts school in South Carolina, didn’t admit black students until 1971 and didn’t lift their ban on interracial dating among students until 1999. (Bob Jones University has since issued a “hindsight is 20/20” apology, but arguably because President Stephen Jones was still getting “questions about its views on race.”)
I kept my support of then-candidate Obama a secret while interning for an evangelical Christian institution during college. His name was practically a dirty word in the office and, when he was elected in 2008, the triumph of progressive politics wasn’t exactly celebrated by my co-workers. If Obama really was a Christian (and this was hotly contested by members of the birther movement), he was the wrong kind.
Fortunately, to make sure that we were all the right kind of Christian, the online Nehemiah Institute offered “worldview training” to be adopted by schools and congregations. The first step of this this training was for every employee and student to take the PEERS test, a total of 70 questions that the institute describes as an “objective means for measuring the understanding of how biblical principles apply to all areas of life.” The PEERS test ultimately aims to identify “students [who] are academically proficient, but principally deficient.”
All questions are answered on an agree/neutral/disagree scale and though they are meant to capture opinions and beliefs, it becomes increasingly clear that the test makers had “right” and “wrong” answers in mind. Agreeing with statements such as “The Bible is meant to be a guide or an example to individuals, not an authoritative rule over lives,” is a good way to lose points, while agreeing with “Homosexuality is a sin against God and an offense against society that should be prohibited by law” is a good way to gain them.
After everyone took the test, our results were circulated via e-mail. I felt enormously betrayed as I read many of my colleagues’ responses. The consensus that women in leadership roles are detrimental to society cut me like a knife. If God was truly frowning upon my prioritization of career over family at this point in my life, I decided He wasn’t a God worthy of my praise.
Again, this moment was not a particular turning point for me in that I “turned away from” religion. Rather, I turned toward Christians like writer Stephen Mattson who exemplify New Testament teachings. “Participating in social justice is a Christian tradition inspired by Jesus, not liberal causes, populist agendas, media platforms, lawmakers, or mainstream fads. It’s a deeply spiritual practice,” Mattson reasons. “Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying with the victimized — not rejecting their existence.”
I often wonder what my former colleagues at that school think of Trump, his unabashed pussy-grabbing, his track record of exploiting workers so that the rich can get richer. Robert Jeffress, an evangelical advisor to the president, proclaimed Election Day “[the] day…God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States.” But when I talked to the Christians in my life, including a few pastors, they felt lost and scared. “Where is God?” a friend texted me on November 9. “Because I don’t see Him here.”
As an agnostic who is often on the outside looking in when it comes to religion, it’s become easier for me to understand Christianity by what it isn’t – especially now. After President Obama was sworn in, evangelical figures like Pastor Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) took to denying his Christianity in order to discredit him. “He was born a Muslim,” Graham told CNN, “his father gave him an Islamic name.” The Tea Party echoed Graham’s perfect storm of anti-Islamic and anti-Obama sentiment. Presently, the Tea Party is represented by a congressional house caucus of members who mostly voted for the AHCA: In other words, the group that professes to have “strong Judeo-Christian values” is comfortable with throwing millions of Americans off of their health care.
My belief in a higher power has morphed into a belief in people. Specifically, a belief that people who represent the culturally dominant religion in America will use their faith to stand up for the disenfranchised. “For the record,” a pastor friend of mine posted on November 9, 2016, “I love you no matter what color your skin, your nationality, your gender, your sexual orientation, your class status, your preferred political preferences and I will forever stand beside you as an American. And that is all I have to say today.”
Knowing that Christians who endorse greed and hatred exist, I need to know that Christians like Pastor Chris do too.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.