I stood up and walked out of church.
It was against everything I had been taught about church, a sacred place where you are supposed to be respectful, reverent even. But I still did it. I stood up and walked—no, stormed, stomped, huffed—out of church.
It was the better choice. I would not have remained silent if I’d stayed in that seat. Boiling up within me was the rage that can only come from betrayal.
It sounds dramatic, I know. And really, the catalyst wasn’t all that significant. I’m sure it happened in thousands of churches across the country on that very day, but it was enough for me.
See, I’ve had a quietly troubled past with churches. I attended a Baptist church sporadically as a child, but when I was young the energy seemed much more concentrated around the gossip I received on the front steps than the message I received in the pews. I wasn’t mature enough to process the real reasons for being there. Plus, the church was in a tiny town with dwindling attendance. Pastors came and went. Between their fluctuation and my own, church was never a particularly stable community. By the time I became old enough to actually feel intellectually engaged with theological questions and sought a spiritual community, I was jaded by the small-town nosiness and tired of overhearing people’s comments about my parents’ ugly divorce; that front-step gossip was much too risky now.
So, church was never really my thing, though I read the Bible, talked about God with my friends, and considered myself a Christian. These were facts that I became less and less vocal about as time moved on and being a Christian became more and more synonymous with being close-minded. In the media, Christians were portrayed as anti-science, anti-feminist, and anti-gay. The narratives focused so much on what Christians were against that I began to lose track of what we were supposed to be for. I still considered myself a Christian, but I didn’t talk about it much.
It wasn’t until I got married and moved to a new city where my husband and I began putting down roots that I felt the urge to find a church to call my own. I knew we’d want children soon and I yearned for a space where I could feel spiritually and culturally connected. I was a little afraid. It was very important to me that the congregation be diverse and that the church be open to people from all walks of life. I would not attend a church that preached against homosexuality or feminism.
So we found a church. It was a big church—huge, really. It had multiple services and rows of chairs instead of pews. It was modern and crisp with a young, charismatic preacher whose voice rose and fell with rhetorical flair. The music was contemporary and meaningful, and the people were friendly. We had been going several months.
It was the early fall of 2008. The entire country was heating up into a political frenzy, and I was as engrossed in the fray as anyone else, but I didn’t want that fray in my church. I’m a firm believer that there should be no politics from the pulpit. I do not want to be told how to vote or what God would do if he went into the polling booth. I believe omnipotence exempts God from such activities and that we've been blessed with the tools to figure out those questions for ourselves. I want to be left with my tools to figure it out.
So I was thrilled when that young, charismatic preacher spent much of one Sunday morning talking about his own stance on politics and the pulpit: he was against it. “It’s not my job,” he said, “to tell you how to vote.”
So imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, the service started with a handout from the Family Research Center: Value Voters Guide. (I found an archived version of it here). This guide contained all manner of biased, inflammatory language. It told me whether candidates would “protect the integrity” of abstinence-only programs and “protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” They also put the words “hate crime,” “gender identity,” and same sex “marriage” in scare quotes to de-legitimize these terms. This is clearly a biased document. How could the same pastor who just told me he would never tell me how to vote hand out these documents? Even worse, this document was accompanied by a local news outlet’s voter’s guide that literally told me how to vote. It had the boxes checked next to each of the upcoming local Propositions and told me to take it to polls with me so I wouldn’t get confused.
I was furious. I sat there staring at the documents before me and I felt more and more betrayed. I waited to hear what the pastor would have to say. Maybe there was some explanation. As he took to his stage, I was all ears. I was starting to trust this place, and I was hopeful that there was some way to reconcile these pieces of paper with what he’d said before. The words that came out of his mouth pierced me. He repeated his pledge to never preach from the pulpit and to only provide us unbiased information so that we could make our own choices. He went on and on about the importance of being a fully informed voter. I had two choices. I could scream, or I could leave. So I left. I stood up and stormed out, scooting past the people seated around me who seemed unconcerned with this hypocrisy.
I wrote him a letter, and—to his credit—he called me and we had an hour-long talk. He used a lot of calming rhetoric and talked about how “other people” weren’t as “analytical” as me and needed help sorting through the "facts," but we came to no happy conclusions. I never went back.
I know now that my reaction was the first of several conflicts I would have to sort out on my road toward spiritual understanding. I know in my heart that my faith cannot be based on anything that cannot stand up to questioning. I question everything. I question the stability of the very ground I stand on. I analyze music videos and advertisements around me. I am a thinking being. I believe that there is a God, and—if I’m right—that God created me to be a thinking being. I cannot believe that salvation can only be found by denying that part of myself, a part that is rooted to my very soul.
As a thinking being, those voter’s guides insulted me. They cherry-picked a few narrow issues: gay rights, abortion, and sex education. My view on these issues was very different from the obviously biased view of the writers of this guide, and their cavalier manner of pretending to deliver “just the facts” denied the very existence of my carefully thought-out viewpoints. In addition, these were called “values” guides, but many of the issues that I consider core to my values were not even on the list. What about the treatment of the poor? What about equality and fairness? Are my values not valuable?
My values are key to who I am, and my values as a thinking being have led me to recognize the world around me as a place full of inequalities that I will continue to fight. If there’s no room for fighting against inequality in the organized religions around me, then there is no room for me in those spaces, either. While I do not believe that feminism and religion are inherently incompatible, I have found that compatibility to be something that works only in theory and I hold hope that I'll find a place where that theory takes hold, but I haven't seen it in practice.
*****This post was inspired by the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival on "Faith and Feminism" hosted by from two to one. Submissions for the carnival are open until September 25, so if you're interested in submitting a post on the topic, check out this post for more information.
Photo: Avard Woolaver