Why I Went Back to Church

At the age of 37, what motivated me to seek out a church community where I’d feel safe—spiritually and culturally—to be baptized and, more importantly, have my daughter baptized?

The baptism itself was anticlimactic. Perhaps it had to be. I was too distracted by my wet shirt and too worried about my daughter’s tears to be present in the moment. And then there’s the fact that, for at least twenty years since my teenage conversion experience, I’d been imagining the day when I’d be baptized. I also wondered, as the years passed by, if it was too late. When the day finally came—without any irony intended—I was late again.

 

was late to my own baptism.

This past Easter Sunday, my two-year-old daughter and I were scheduled to be baptized at Grace Chapel, a Presbyterian church (PCA) in our adopted hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Anxious to make it to church on time, my wife and I skipped breakfast, filled our daughter’s snack cup with cheerios, and loaded her into the car.

Pulling into the church’s parking lot, I knew instantly that I had messed up. Ben Loos, Grace Chapel’s tall, gregarious, 30-something pastor, was standing at the church’s side entrance. Lovingly, but a bit frantically, he waved at us to dash into the sanctuary.

My face went to my palm. I forgot that the service on Easter started at 8 a.m., not 8:30. Pastor Ben recognized that I was a bit frazzled. “Don’t fret,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and giving my daughter’s knee a squeeze. We had just missed the scheduled slot for baptisms. But he’d fit us in after the sermon.

Following his Easter meditation on how Christ’s empty tomb signaled “the death of death,” Pastor Ben called my daughter and me to the front of the sanctuary. Before two hundred of our fellow parishioners—made up of college and graduate students from the university where I teach, as well as young families like ours—Pastor Ben emptied water from his cupped hands over my head. It was not full immersion. But it was more water than I expected. And cold. The shock raised goose bumps on my neck and arms. The baptismal water mixed with the beads of sweat on my forehead—drawn there out of anxiety for my tardiness and stage fright—and ran under the collar of my Easter blue shirt. My daughter, too, did not love the experience. As Pastor Ben placed a thimble-full of water on her curly, red hair, she screamed for her mother, who sat in the front pew.

The baptism itself was anticlimactic. Perhaps it had to be. I was too distracted by my wet shirt and too worried about my daughter’s tears to be present in the moment. And then there’s the fact that, for at least twenty years since my teenage conversion experience, I’d been imagining the day when I’d be baptized. I also wondered, as the years passed by, if it was too late. When the day finally came—without any irony intended—I was late again.

But why now? At the age of 37, what motivated me to seek out a church community where I’d feel safe—spiritually and culturally—to be baptized and, more importantly, have my daughter baptized?

I went back to church for three reasons. I went back to church because of my daughter, my father, and Donald Trump.

Since the election there has been a lot of talk from scholars, pollsters, and journalists about whether Trump’s victory will lead to a resurgence of the “Religious Left.” Some point to coalitions of diverse Americans, who have shown up in the streets, in town halls, and at airports. While white evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump, other Americans of faith have become a key arm of the resistance to the president’s assaults against immigrants and refugees, the environment, women’s rights, the poor, and the norms of American democracy. Still others argue that despite evidence of a post-election bump at liberal Protestant churches, the Religious Left is too small, too old, and too fractured to effectively organize against Trump.

This debate doesn’t quite capture my idiosyncratic—though perhaps not unique—story. I’m a liberal who returned to a (fairly) conservative church in response to the rise of Trumpism. I did so consciously. I thought that the church was a place for Americans to reforge the bonds of community, which have withered in recent decades due to declining participation in civil society and increased economic and cultural anxiety—all of which Trump masterfully exploited.

I also returned to church arrogantly. Before the election, I believed that the cultures of compassion and service that I know to be practiced within white evangelical churches would serve as a theological prophylactic against Trump’s narcissism, bullying, and immodesty. But my naiveté was crushed when my father—the most devout churchgoer I know—told me that he was voting for Trump. By returning to church, I hoped to serve as a witness to white Christians like my father who, I believed, turned their backs on the gospel mandates to love our neighbors and to care for the least privileged among us. I also wanted to show my daughter a different kind of masculinity than the one that will be on display in the Oval Office as she comes of age over the next four or eight years.

But in my return to church, mostly what I’ve confronted are my own failings—my failings as a Christian and as a citizen; my failings as a father and as a son.

IN MANY WAYS, my decision to return to church is predictable. Sociologists of American religion have taught us that levels of religious participation are not constant. A fall in religiosity during college years is often followed by an increase when Americans marry and have children. Even among the famously pious American Puritans, church participation correlated with the beginnings and the ends of lives. In early Massachusetts, within two weeks of a child’s birth, fathers—the mothers were still recovering from childbirth—hurried to the meetinghouse to have their infants baptized. These fathers might not have set foot in churches for years. But fearing that the child might die before receiving the rite of baptism, the fathers sensed a need, as historian David Hall puts it, “to enclose each child within the shelter of religion.”

Though my daughter was born in Massachusetts, I did not become a modern-day incarnation of those anxiety-ridden Puritan fathers. I had faith that modern medicine and a loving divinity would protect my daughter in this life and in the life to come—with or without baptism. But soon after her birth, for the first time in decades I began to seek out a church community. One reason was practical—to give my wife, who is not a churchgoer, time to herself on Sundays. Another reason was paternal—to introduce my daughter to a spiritual tradition from which, I hoped, she could learn about community and compassion.

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