Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1
Our Region—Like Our Nation—Remains Predominantly Christian. But What Exactly Does That Mean To The Religion’s Various Adherents?
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Christ and St. Luke's
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
~ The Gospel According to Matthew.
When I was a child I attended Sunday school virtually every week at a lovely and historic Episcopal Church, nestled at the foot of a large, thickly wooded hill in Staten Island, New York. Initially I went because my parents took me. But as I grew older I looked forward to it. In particular, I loved the hymns—especially, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” which promised that I could “be one too.”
After my confirmation, at the age of 10, I became an acolyte and grew to love it even more. I took satisfaction in donning my black robe and white surplice, lighting the torch that I would carry next to the Crucifer—an older boy carrying the heavy brass cross—and assisting the priest in the ritual of communion. I loved the way the morning light gleamed through the stained glass windows; I loved the pomp and circumstance of the processional, and I loved the way the sterling silver communion chalice gleamed in reflection of the altar candles. Most of all—I realize in retrospect—I loved being a part of something larger than myself.
In my late teens, however, I began to question all of that. Having been exposed to other religious traditions, I could no longer accept the exclusive claims of Christianity, even though the minister of my church had never threatened hellfire for non-believers. On the contrary, the message I got while growing up was that God loves us, unconditionally. When I went off to college, I pulled away from the church, but I found that I could never do so entirely. Something always pulled me back.
To this day I have a deep affection for the beauty of the Anglican liturgy, the loving embrace that I felt from the church as a child, and the stories in the Bible. At the same time, I understand the resistance that many people feel toward Christianity. When I was beginning my research on this article, I asked a question of my 3,000-plus Facebook friends: When you read or hear the word ‘Christian’ what other words come to mind? Within a few hours I had received well over 100 responses. Some people mentioned “love” or “compassion.” But the negatives far outweighed the positives. The most common word associations were “arrogant,” “divisive,” judgmental,” “deluded,” “hypocritical,” and “sexually repressive.”
I get where they were coming from. And yet the comments saddened me. They seemed to be based on mass-media stereotypes—and/or bad personal experiences people had as children—rather than broad exposure to people who identify as Christian.
The spectrum is broad, indeed. Over the course of my life I’ve met people who identified as Christian but were harshly judgmental. At the same time, some of the kindest and most brilliant people I’ve ever known are also deeply devout. In between, I’ve met a lot of people who go to church without fervor but with a kind of quiet comfort in the ritual that they’ve known since childhood.
With this in mind, I set out to talk to some Christians in our region, to see what I could learn about the realities of the religion as it lives and breathes today in Coastal Virginia and beyond.
Sanctuary at Christ and St. Luke's
First, let’s look at the big picture. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of U.S. adults identify as Christian. That number is significantly lower than it was in the 1960s. But church attendance is still far higher in this country than in any Western European nation.
In Coastal Virginia, the number of people who identify as Christian is higher still: 89 percent, according to a study conducted in 2002 by Old Dominion University’s Social Science Research Center.
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this as an indication of unity. Tensions within American Christianity have always run high. I encountered this reality some years ago after publishing an essay about my upbringing in the Episcopal Church. Within 24 hours I had received harshly worded emails from two readers, one Catholic, the other Baptist. Both said I belonged to a “false” church—the Catholic because Anglicans had rejected the Pope, and the Baptist because Anglicanism was still essentially Catholic in her view. Their arguments had deep historical roots going back to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. These disputes were especially dramatic in the Puritan settlements of Colonial America. While many people tend to associate Puritans with the execution of “witches,” the disputes among Puritans were arguably more significant, leading to condemnation and exile of “heretics” who remained devout Christians but challenged certain theological ideas.
The strongest words of condemnation, however, were reserved for Catholics. Among protestant reformers, there was a widely held view that the Pope was actually the “Anti-Christ.”
Anti-Catholic sentiment in American was fueled by prejudice against Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century and lingered well into the 20th. In the presidential election of 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy’s greatest obstacle was his Roman Catholicism. Many prominent protestants spread fear that his allegiance to the Pope would result in his putting the interests of his Church above that of the American people as a whole.
And yet, therein—ironically—lies the beauty of our nation. Fierce biases notwithstanding, we are all free to worship as we please—or not worship at all.
We can thank Thomas Jefferson, in particular. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—passed unanimously by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786—proclaimed, “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever … nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief ...” The Statute later became the basis for the First Amendment’s opening clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This “wall of separation” between church and state—a phrase Jefferson used in a letter to a group of Baptists—has been criticized by Americans who feel that our society has become too secular. Jefferson himself was a Deist. He didn’t think much of orthodox Christianity and, in fact—for personal use—created his own version of the Gospels, cutting out all reference to miracles and the supernatural, and keeping only Jesus’ moral teachings. But he believed fervently in every person’s individual right to religious freedom. “It does me no injury,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
The wall of separation proved to be religion’s greatest asset in America. The flourishing of American Christian diversity and vitality in the 19th and 20th centuries is a testament to this.
That said, America’s Christian landscape is always changing. Since the 1960s, the traditional denominations have been losing members as a result of two phenomena: On the one hand, more and more Americans—nearly 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center—now claim no religious affiliation at all. Those who still do, meanwhile, are increasingly flocking to newer, non-denominational churches. (See article in our next issue.)
And yet, the “mainline” churches—as these traditional churches are called—have served as vital forces in the life of our region and our nation.