Christianity Beyond Here & Now

Your church going gaga for MAGA does not justify throwing away the faith

That’s a loaf of bread my daughter Nora (in the orange shirt) made today, and just took out of the oven. You should smell the aroma. Nora became quite skilled at baking during the early Covid period this year. There is a reason I have gained 14 pounds during Covid. I’m not kidding.

This morning I gave a talk to a Christian group in Baton Rouge, about my new book. During the Q&A, a man rose to say that he and his wife raised their three children in the church, but now that they are all adults, two of them have left the church entirely, and the third is, at 32, barely hanging on. He read aloud something his daughter wrote him about why she has rejected the church.

She wrote that she’s “ashamed of the Evangelical church,” over the support so many Evangelicals expressed for Donald Trump. She said that she believes in supporting immigrants, helping the poor, and in racial justice. “That makes me a Democrat,” she wrote. She went on like this. Seeing so many church people support Trump has alienated her.

As I told the man (and the audience), I am skeptical of accounts like that. I don’t for a second doubt that the backing of Trump by so many Evangelicals scandalized the young. But is that sufficient reason to leave Christianity entirely? Whoever said that the church is synonymous with the Republican Party At Prayer? Or the Democratic Party at Prayer, for that matter?

I don’t know this man’s children, but the idea that a 2,000 year old religion, one that is global now, and has had many expressions in the cultures that have adopted it, can be reduced to the views and practices of supporters of a 21st century American political party — it’s just bizarre. They may think that they have rejected Christianity, when they’ve really only rejected a very particular, time-and-culture-bound version of it.

Maybe I see things that way because I’m a convert to Orthodox Christianity, which is quite weird by contemporary American standards. If you immerse yourself in Orthodoxy, you realize quickly that American political ideologies are very far from the center of religious experience. I have friends in my own parish who are passionate about one or the other party. It never comes up at church. As far as I can tell, nobody in our congregation expects either political party to be the perfect advocate for Christian values. I’m a conservative, and generally (but not always) vote for conservative candidates. But I am always aware, whoever I vote for, that I am making an imperfect choice. There has never been a political candidate in my lifetime who, in my judgment, lines up perfectly with my understanding of Christian morality. We have to vote as wisely as we can in the world that exists, not the world as we wish it were.

When I was in my early twenties, and wrestling with whether or not I believed in God, and whether or not I should become a Christian, I had a number of philosophical objections to Christianity. I realized years later that they were all rationalizations. The truth is, I knew that if I became a Christian, I would have to give up my semi-adventurous sex life. That was something I did not want to do. I tried to bargain with God, but though I was a champion rationalizer in most respects, I failed at that one. There really isn’t any honest way to get around the Christian sexual ethic. I wanted the psychological comforts of Christian faith, without having to give up something dear to me. There as a lot of self-deception and cowardice within me back then, but at least I was honest enough to know that a God whose demands are only those I would choose for myself is not really God at all.

Eventually I reached a point of despair, and wanted God more than I wanted my autonomy. That was when my faith became real — but I had to change my life, in ways that were difficult for a single male in his mid-twenties. Once I had made the commitment, it was quite clear to me that though my intellectual objections to Christianity were serious in principle, for me, it was really all about coming up with reasons to avoid making a sacrifice that I did not want to make.

I did something similar a decade later, in the march-up to the Iraq War. I was certain that I was a principled supporter of a difficult but necessary US military operation. In truth, I was traumatized by 9/11 — I saw one of the Twin Towers fall right in front of me — and wanted some Arab Muslim SOB to pay. But that was too crude, so I hid my unworthy motives from myself, behind veils of patriotism and foreign-policy realism.

The heart wants what it wants, and the mind often constructs rationales to make our own willfulness look respectable. Again, I don’t know this man’s children, but I would not be surprised if for whatever reason or reasons, they didn’t want to be Christian, and revulsion at Trump and MAGA Christianity provided them with a rationale that felt virtuous. A year ago, I sat in a rectory in a far suburb of Moscow, with an Orthodox priest who tends the national memorial to all the Russians (religious and otherwise) murdered by the state for political reasons. It was established largely through his advocacy for remembrance. It exists on a site where, in a 14-month period in the 1930s, the Soviet secret police murdered 21,000 political prisoners. Some of them were priests or others killed for their faith. There is a church near the site, built to the memory of those souls.

What could MAGA have possibly meant to them?

Last year I went to Auschwitz. While there I saw the prison cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, was starved to death by the Nazis. When the guards decided to kill ten people as an example to others after an inmate escaped, one of those marked for death screamed, “My wife! My children!” Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to die that horrible death in the man’s place. And so he did, ministering to the nine others over the next two weeks as they died slowly and in agony, without food or water. It happened here, in this place:

Father Kolbe was the last one alive; the Nazis gave him an injection of carbolic acid to finish the job. He was canonized in 1982.

Was Father Kolbe a Trump enthusiast?

In my book Live Not By Lies, I quote a Romanian Orthodox priest, Father George Calciu, talking about the experience of being in a communist dungeon with three other Christian men, one of them a terminally ill tuberculosis patient:

The man was suffocating. Perhaps a whole liter of phlegm and blood came up, and my stomach became upset. I was ready to vomit. Constantine Oprisan noticed this and said to me, “Forgive me.” I was so ashamed! Since I was a student in medicine, I decided then to take care of him . . . and told the others that I would take care of Constantine Oprisan. He was not able to move, and I did everything for him. I put him on the bucket to urinate. I washed his body. I fed him. We had a bowl for food. I took this bowl and put it in front of his mouth.

Father George went on to say that Constantine Oprisan only spoke words of peace and healing. They cared for him for an entire year before he died. The priest recalled:

When I took care of Constantine Oprisan in the cell, I was very happy. I was very happy because I felt his spirituality penetrating my soul. I learned from him to be good, to forgive, not to curse your torturer, not to consider anything of this world to be a treasure for you. In fact, he was living on another level.

Only his body was with us—and his love. Can you imagine? We were in a cell without windows, without air, humid, filthy—yet we had moments of happiness that we never reached in freedom. I cannot explain it.

I wonder how many young Americans disgusted by the politicization of their Evangelical churches in the Trump era know anything about believers like Constantine Oprisan, and those who nurtured him until his death. You see, maybe, why I have so little patience for the belief that Christianity stands or falls on Donald Trump.

I know what it means to be overwhelmed by church corruption, to the point where you can no longer believe. It happened to me as a Catholic, with the sex abuse scandal. That was an incomparably more serious thing than the political foibles of a church’s clergy or laity. Even so, I wish that when I was put to the test, I had had a deeper grounding in the lives of saints who poured themselves out sacrificially for Jesus Christ, in the service of others. Christian history — even the history of our own time (the Civil Rights Movement was led by black pastors!) — is full of these stories. In my own case, I could no longer believe as a Catholic, but by God’s grace I did not abandon faith entirely. Even in the depths of my despair back then, I understood that the choice was not between Catholicism and atheism.

If MAGA alienated you from your Evangelical church, then go find another church! Two of my readers in California, a married couple, found themselves earlier this year alienated from their Evangelical megachurch for the opposite reason: its leadership had become obsessed with progressive identity politics to the point where practicing them had seemingly become the congregation’s reason for being. Rather than leave Christianity, this couple found another church — in their case, an Orthodox parish — and have been amazed and delighted by how deep their experience of the Christian faith is there.

Again, I don’t blame anybody for being put off of Christianity because their church has become preoccupied with politics (liberal or conservative). But to turn away from Christianity because of contemporary politics is like deciding you will never listen to music again because what’s on the radio is trite and offensive. What does Bach or Count Basie have to do with Cardi B? I imagine that some young people who do this think they are striking a blow for cosmopolitan broad-mindedness, but in fact they may well be just as narrow and parochial as those they criticize.

Maybe I’m especially sensitive to this because I’ve been listening on my long drives this week to historian Tom Holland’s book about Europe circa 1000, The Forge of Christendom. You want to find evidence of bad Christians? It’s all there. But so are saints, and so is the religion that, for all its failings at the hands of fallible men and women, gave real hope, dignity, and defense to desperately poor and wretched people.

Perhaps it’s also that I’m growing older, and find myself more inclined to be forgiving of those who try but fail. Life is pain, life is struggle! If you ask me to give you a critique of all that is wrong with the world, and with the Christians in it, I could write at length. But none of that is greater than a single sunbeam that carries hope into the darkness. The older I grow, the more I understand why, when he was asked to contribute to a newspaper symposium answering the question What’s wrong with the world?, G.K. Chesterton is said to have responded with an essay of only two words: “I am.”

If you despair of the church, it will do you good to read the collected letters of Flannery O’Connor, published as The Habit Of Being. Here’s one she wrote in 1958 to her friend Cecil Dawkins. She’s talking here about the Catholic Church, but most of her words here are applicable to all churches:

Your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death.

Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water.

All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature.

God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

She wrote elsewhere that “faith is a ‘walking in darkness,’ and not a theological solution to mystery.” And:

You don’t serve God by saying, the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.

I didn’t understand this when I was the age of that grieving Christian father’s children. I am beginning to, I think. There are some lessons you cannot learn in a book, but if you’re going to give a book to your loved ones suffering a crisis of faith, you won’t go wrong with The Habit Of Being.

One more thing. Below is a photo of Dorota Kravjanska (born 1929), taken by my friend Timo Križka, a Slovak photographer. He interviewed and photographed elderly Slovaks who served prison time under Communism for their faith. Timo was a small boy when Communism ended, and only remembers growing up in liberty. Interviewing these old men and old women, some of whom were not just imprisoned, but tortured, for their faith, changed his life.

In the 1950s, the state sentenced Dorota to a year and a half in jail over her Catholic associations. She had a baby son, Gregor, at home. The captain of the prison guards would taunt her, saying that they would allow her to go home to be with her baby boy if only she would denounce and inform on the others in her church group.

She refused to cooperate. They sent her home when her sentence was over. She missed the first two years of her little boy’s life — but they did not break her.

Look into the eyes of Dorota Kravjanska, and think about all she has seen in her life, and tell me that it’s worth throwing Christianity away because the people at your church went gaga for MAGA: