by Jennifer Vanasco
First published in the Chicago Free Press, May 23, 2007
We were having Margaritas, and my friend Luke paused in the middle of a tirade against evangelicals.
“Oh, wait,” he said. “Um, are you religious?”
I hate this question.
Because “Are you religious?” implies a yes-or-no answer: yes, you’re religious; no, you’re not.
I’m not comfortable in either category, so I’m never sure what to say. Do I give them the long answer? Or do I mutter “No,” which is shorthand for “I’m not evangelical or born again,” which means: “I’m not the kind of Christian you’re worried about.”
I don’t even know, honestly, about calling myself Christian. I go to church, but I think a lot of my brothers and sisters in the pews would likely be suspicious of my suspicions about dogma.
On the one hand, I went to seminary for a short time and take Christianity very seriously. On the other, I wrestle with the fundamental tenets that make Christianity what it is and not something else: the resurrection of the body; the idea that one Middle Eastern man saves every one from sin and he himself is God; the virginity of Mary; a personal God who keeps his ear open to each of our problems.
Back in the early days of Christianity, all of these things were up for grabs. I would have been comfortable being Christian then (well, philosophically comfortable. That whole martyrdom thing is another story).
Yet there is another side of Christianity. The idea that God is love. The conviction that one should practice radical compassion. The very challenging notion that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. The sentiment that individuality should never rise above working for and with the group.
This is very difficult stuff. But this is what connects me to the belief system that is Christianity. Because Buddhism, though a completely different religion on a dogmatic level, has some similar underlying beliefs, I tell people I am Christian-Buddhist, so I don’t scare them away.
I first started doing this about a dozen years ago, when I was visiting New Orleans. I still wore a cross then, so often that I would forget that it rested against my collarbone. I was being hosted by a friend, but when she took me to the lesbian bar in town, I noticed that her friends were shooting me odd looks.
“What is it?” I asked my friend finally.
She shifted feet. “They think you’re here to convert them,” she said. “That you’re not really a lesbian.”
I put the cross in my pocket.
In the minds of this pack of lesbians, Christianity equaled gay hate. In the mind of my friend Luke, who is straight, Christianity equals a shutting down of conversation.
I hate the evangelicals for that.
This, of course, is very un-Christian of me. But the Religious Right has taken something beautiful and tough and twisted it into something ugly and easy.
The most vocal segment of the Christian church at the moment has two heads: the Pope, who takes every chance he gets to try to kick out of the Catholic Church anyone who disagrees with him so as to ensure it’s “purity”; and evangelical Christianity, led by people like the late Jerry Falwell, who looked on the Civil Rights movement with disdain, called Bishop Desmond Tutu a fraud, and said that 9/11 was caused by “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians.”
As Luke pointed out, instead of approaching ideas that are new to them with compassion and curiosity, these figureheads of the Right instead try to kick these ideas—and people—out of the way by declaring that God doesn’t like it.
As if God’s likes and dislikes were as easy to discern as flavors of ice cream.
All of this means that my closet Christianity helps no one (well, except maybe my dating life). What the world needs is more diversity in Christianity, not less. Christians need to know that being Christian isn’t an automatic Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to intolerance; gays, lesbians and others on the left need to know that “Christian” doesn’t equal “enemy.”
So Luke asked me if I were religious.
“Yeah,” I said. “I am.” And I gave him the long answer.
Jennifer Vanasco writes a weekly column. Her contact info and website can be found here.