In Search of the Apolitical Church
I still haven't found what I'm looking for
Several years ago, I started attending an Episcopal church in New York City. I do not have an Episcopal background. My parents were both raised Methodist, my father in a charismatic denomination known as the Pilgrim Holiness Church. But I was attracted to the Episcopals for their progressive values and their acceptance of gay people. I loved the formality of the high church, its resemblance to Catholicism while remaining Protestant. I loved the incense, the robes, the diversity of the congregation. There was great value in speaking with the nuns who were available for prayer on weekday mornings, and warmth in the gathering after Sunday service. As a former goth kid who for years spent more time with Satanists than believers, I thought had finally found my church.
Until the pandemic. The leadership there decided to stay closed far longer than other churches who reopened after the initial wave. To this day, most of their events are still virtual. After the killing of George Floyd, their progressive bent became decidedly partisan. They doubled down on what had previously been a balanced approach to social justice, even hosting a discussion with 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones. Communications heavy-handedly referenced racial strife. Attention to news controversies or whatever political chaos had happened that week began to outweigh the comfort and reassurance of biblical readings and the eternal wisdom of Jesus.
For any Christian institution to devote itself to an ideology that does not subscribe to forgiveness is baffling. It is just as bizarre as the fashion industry, my former field, adhering to a system of thought that abhors freedom of expression. I can say with complete candor that this authoritarian spirit has now infected every community I used to be a part of, and the effect is one of total isolation.
I tried finding a new place to worship. Earlier in the summer, I began attending a Catholic church in a different neighborhood. Again, I was drawn to the beauty of the building’s interior, its ornate and gilded altar, and the feeling of peace that overcame me when entering its doors. I was heartened and inspired when a priest made reference during his homily to an article by David Brooks and spoke on another occasion of the sanctity of the unborn. I thought I had found a place that was willing to go against the prevailing grain. They didn’t even require masks inside the sanctuary, if one had been vaccinated. During the passing of the peace, I could actually see people smile. As someone who lives alone, this meant a great deal to me and often brought tears to my eyes.
But this past Sunday was different. The priest, a frail looking man who must have been nearing his eighties, began to heap scorn on “white supremacy” not two minutes into speaking. He then invoked the nebulous concept of “inclusion,” and promoted the idea that there can be “many truths.”
Seriously? Whatever happened to “I am the way, the truth, and the life?” What happened to “you are all one in Christ Jesus?” What happened to church being a place of refuge from the world? Must every religious institution be subject to a poisonous obsession with race? Is even the Catholic Church now adherent to meaningless postmodern lingo? Are Christians expected to be moral relativists?
I walked out quietly after the homily and sought solace in a nearby park. There, amongst the leaves and soil, I felt free to talk to God on my own. I once had a long conversation with the divine, in the woods, in which He spoke to me of his love for gay people. It was one of the things that made me feel like I could embrace Christianity again, after long spells of atheism and paganism.
There must be a place in modern religious life that is free of politics. People need a place to worship where they will not be bludgeoned over the head with activism. We need some refuge from the news cycle in which the ordinary person can seek quietude, acceptance, and peace.
Ironically, the goth scene was a place of genuine inclusion and its Satanically-inclined people some of the most compassionate I have ever met. There were always trans people in the goth scene. A bent toward spirituality or atheism alike was totally cool. There was a kind of libertarianism, a live-and-let-live sensibility. It was through this network that I discovered the musician Dominick Fernow, and later read an interview in which he stated that “the element of mythology or philosophy that religion attempts to deal with, for better or for worse, is something that is sorely [missing] from a lot of conversation in art today and even just culture today. Things have become [so] overtly politicized that we’ve gotten away from the philosophical and metaphysical realm that we need to deal with. There’s a whole set of questions that are very important that have nothing to do with policy. Policy is very earthbound, and it’s of the moment, but the questions of death and where we come from and our place caught between nature and consciousness are timeless questions.”
I understand that abortion and racial justice are not political abstractions. They are issues of life and death. And it would be nearly impossible for a church to be completely apolitical. After all, I too am seeking a religious community that is generally in line with my social values, as most worshippers naturally are. I also believe that the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement were realized through faith, and through a sense of right and wrong that was undoubtedly influenced by that faith.
What I am arguing for is a place— perhaps above all, a sacred place— that is unburdened by the insidious divisiveness of the ideology taking over America. I am arguing for reprieve from a doctrine of mercilessness and a language that means nothing. If it must infect every workplace, every academic institution, every community center, let there be some church somewhere that puts Jesus first.
Otherwise, I’ll continue to seek Him in the woods.