I 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.
My own childhood experience with religion was peripatetic. My parents divorced when I was three. Weekends and holidays were split between my father, who converted to a stringent brand of evangelical Christianity, and my mother, a classic “religious seeker.” One weekend with my father could include a Saturday-night showing of the Christian rapture epic, A Thief in the Night, in the gymnasium of a non-denominational Bible church. The next weekend with my mother could find me as the lone male at a Wiccan retreat (Sundays at the Unitarian Universalist church were more typical).
I gravitated to evangelical Christianity out of fear and out of a desire to connect with my father. In my early teens, after witnessing it countless times in church and at summer Christian camps, I performed the “sinner’s prayer,” which I was taught moved me from one side of the eternal ledger to the other. Yet by college, I had abandoned conservative Christianity—or at least the kind that taught that God’s grace was conditional on an individual’s rhetorical performance of conversion. I rejected a faith that condemns the unsaved, religious minorities, gay people, feminists, and women’s healthcare providers. My stepfamilies have included members of different faiths, races, and sexual orientations. And my mother is a women’s health nurse practitioner; she has described her past work with Planned Parenthood as part of her fierce commitment to provide the most vulnerable with access to family planning. In the rapture, if my mom, who taught me the most about Jesus’s message of radical love, was left behind, I decided that I’d rather be left behind, too.
MY FAMILY MOVED to Lincoln, Nebraska, last July so I could begin my first tenure-track job. Even before the moving boxes were unpacked, I began church shopping. I tried Lincoln’s Unitarian and United Church of Christ offerings. But while these denominations’ politics aligned with my own, their theologies and their styles of worship did not. My evangelical upbringing was still with me. I needed more Jesus. I wanted to talk about Him, sing to Him, and exhort Him with my prayers. And I wanted to do so with others doing the same.
Yet, I figured that it would be hard to find an evangelical community where I’d feel at home in one of the reddest states in the nation. This anxiety was compounded by the fact that in the last few months before the election, the most devout among white American evangelicals—people like my father—were starting to back Trump en masse. This change was a surprise to many. Before he secured the GOP nomination, higher rates of church attendance correlated with greater skepticism for Trump.
Yet Trump’s primary supporters weren’t just disconnected from church communities. They were part of the growing “bowling alone” segment of the U.S. population. As Robert Putnam has demonstrated, since the 1980s, white Americans in rustbelt cities and suburbs throughout the nation, have disengaged from organized labor, recreational sports, fraternal organizations, and political parties. In Trump, these disaffected Americans heard a validation of a white, Protestant way of life. In the late 2000s, the religious pluralizing and racial browning of American culture—of which President Obama was the most visible symbol—had begun to unseat white American Protestantism from the highest political and cultural posts in the country. The self-styled “blue collar billionaire,” Trump became the unlikely savior to many white Americans like my father who felt that during the Obama years they had been left behind in a sort of secular End of Days.
During the 2016 election, as Trump took his campaign from town to town across America, I began to view the Trump rallies as a sort of secular revival. They created gathering places where the angry and disaffected found other Americans who spoke openly about the dangers of Muslims, Mexicans, “globalists,” and feminists. Like revivals throughout American history, Trump rallies developed their own ritualized, liturgical procession: tailgating before the event; vendors selling “Make America Great Again” merchandise; Trump’s faithful taunting the press core and chanting “build that wall!” Trump’s speech was the climax. Like a tent revival preacher, he declared again and again that he “alone” could thwart the American apocalypse by building a Mexican wall, banning Muslims, and beating Hillary Clinton, who more than a few of his supporters speculated was the Antichrist herself.
Trump filled a void. He built a new ethnonationalist community that was antagonistic to conventional party loyalties, policy orthodoxies, and even American democratic norms. The void, it seemed to me, was created because of the failure of America’s political, cultural, and religious institutions to address the anxieties—real or perceived—of a significant plurality of the American polity. A “third reconstruction,” as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber has called it, would be needed to bridge fissures between Trump supporters and the rest of America.
Despite the fact that most white evangelicals—church-going or not—eventually backed Trump, I still believe that churches are among the best places to begin this reconstruction. The church has been as much a “toxic” as a “tonic,” to borrow from Stephen Prothero, to the health of American civil society. The church has been a bulwark against change. But the church has also been an institution where expanded visions of who belongs in the American body politic—from abolition and women’s suffrage to civil rights and marriage equality—have often been first articulated and practiced.
SOON AFTER I BEGAN attending Grace Chapel in September 2016, the arrogance of my self-prescribed mandate to become a Christian witness to longtime professing Christians was made abundantly clear. Grace didn’t need me; I needed Grace. Each Sunday, I’ve gone to church depleted, due to worrying about the damage Trump is doing to the health of our democracy, our civil liberties, and our planet. Weekly fellowship with the Lincolnites—some of whom did vote for Trump—fills up my spiritual reserves for the week when I teach and write; when I call my representatives; when I participate in marches. My time at Grace Chapel has also taught me that I’m guilty of the Manichean thinking—dividing the world into evil (Trump voters) and good (anti-Trumpers)—that I found so unchristian in the evangelical churches in which I grew up. I have witnessed at Grace Chapel that my fellow Christians who voted for Trump have also dedicated their lives to support the resettlement of Yazidi, Muslim, and Christian refugees and asylum seekers in Lincoln.
What’s more, my time at Grace has taught me that I’ve made an idol out of politics. I’ve outsourced to politicians both my power and my responsibility as a citizen and as a Christian to work to build the kind of “beloved community” that I want to live in. As Pastor Ben told me recently over coffee, “This election exposed how fragile democracy is, and how fragile the church is. This current moment has exposed the fact that we can’t control much at a national level. So we must build the kingdom in local ways.” Specifically, what Ben means is that, according to Grace’s reformed theology, not all will be razed in the End Times; part of the work we do today builds the kingdom to come. At church, my daughter and I are immersed in a kind of Christianity in which we are loved and taught to love others. Outside of church, during our Sunday trips to the zoo, or doing the dishes together at home, reading books snuggled on the couch, and singing Joni Mitchells’ “Circle Game” before bed, I try to model for my daughter a different kind of Christian masculinity than Trumpist masculinity. Perhaps, this kind of intimate, paternal work is kingdom-building.
Grace Chapel’s theology does not always align with my own. I detect a sense of Christian exceptionalism—that Christians are more moral than people of other faiths or no faith—which I reject. I do worry that Grace doesn’t ordain gay people or women because it’s part of the PCA. What if my daughter is gay or wants to become a pastor? Despite these misgivings, for now I feel at home at Grace because the leadership and the laity emphasize humility and charity, where each week we are called to “walk alongside”—not in front of—those with whom we disagree.
Each day I know that I’m failing to practice this more humble and charitable kind of Christianity. Like many Americans in these turbulent times, politics have caused a rift in my family. Since the election, I no longer speak to my father. Why I can live and love in communion with people whom I don’t know well and who also voted for Trump—but I cannot do so with my father—I don’t know. Pastor Ben and I have talked a lot about my failings as a son. “Try to understand your father as he is,” Ben said, “and love him as he is.”
I’m trying. And I know my father is trying. At Thanksgiving, during our last conversation, my father asked, “As a Christian, if I’m wrong [about this election], can you forgive me?” Then, I was too angry. But each day, I’m getting closer to asking him the same question. The reconstruction of our nation, perhaps even the building of the kingdom of God itself, depend on how we—and millions of other American families torn apart by this election—decide to answer these questions.
Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, will be published in September.