Reflecting on our different choices to “stay or leave” the religions of our upbringings while writing Goddess and God in the World with Judith Plaskow, I was prompted to think again about the social and ethnic structures of denominationalism. One of the things Judith has been saying to me since we began discussing this question years ago, is that for her being Jewish is an identity that deeply affects her choice to stay within her religion.
Here on FAR both Gina Messina and Mary Hunt have stated that for them being Catholic is so closely tied to their Italian and Irish identities that they cannot think of themselves anything other than Catholic. For Gina, this recognition led to a renewed commitment Catholicism as a religion. She considers herself “faithfully feminist” and expresses her hope that Pope Francis will transform the church. Mary, on the other hand, feels strongly disaffected from the Church hierarchy and traditional Catholic teachings and does not think Francis will change the Church in significant ways. At the same time, she does not disavow her Catholic identity.
Black feminist theologians, especially those who are Protestant, often speak about black Christianity as inseparable from their identity. White Protestant feminist theologians may feel similarly tied, but they are less likely to say so publicly. Reluctance to claim Protestantism as an identity may be due to the fact that white Protestantism was and to some degree still is the dominant religion in America. To affirm being Protestant or Episcopal or Methodist as an “identity” may be seen as affirming whiteness.
Yet to speak globally of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism obscures the differences and divisions within it. As H. Richard Niebuhr wrote in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, white Protestantism is shaped by class and ethnic identities. Episcopalians tend to be upper class and to have roots in the American Colonies. Lutherans are likely to be Scandinavian or German and mid-western. Baptists are more likely to be southern and lower class.
When I was ten years old, my family moved from one white lower middle class post-war suburb in Los Angeles to another. The neighborhood in which we settled was literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” from the older neighborhoods in the town. Our family joined the First Presbyterian Church, which had been established by earlier residents. When my mother asked if I could join the Girl Scout troop that the other girls in our church belonged to, she was told that they had decided not to take in any “newcomers.” My mother, who was upset by their decision, often commented on the snobbishness of the older residents of the town, as we continued to experience it.
My parents were not Presbyterian by birth. My father’s family were German and Irish Roman Catholics. My mother’s family was Christian Science; she and her sister had been stigmatized in school and were happy to abandon Christian Science when they married. Though branches of my mother’s family had been Swedish and German Lutherans and English Congregationalists and Quakers in the past, she may not have known this history.
When they married, my parents decided to put discrimination against Catholics and suspicion of Christian Scientists behind them. They chose Presbyterianism without any particular knowledge of its history or theology. When it came time for me to join the church at age thirteen, I declined, saying I wanted to know more about “other religions” before allying myself with one. I was aware of the religious diversity within my family: for me joining the Presbyterian Church seemed more like a religious choice than an affirmation of identity.
In college I had Catholic friends and was introduced to the new theology of Vatican II by one of my professors. In graduate school a boyfriend invited me to attend a Vatican II inspired folk mass, and I felt much more at home there than I did at the Yale Chapel. I did not understand it at the time, but one of the reasons for this was class—the Catholics at Yale were not a part of the WASP elite. We were a motley crew of outsiders and misfits.
When I became a feminist, I began to see the sexism at the heart of the Bible and the Christian tradition. After I left Yale, I did not seriously look for a Christian worship community, though I still considered myself to be Christian. I simply could not accept the male dominant and warlike imagery of the Bible, hymns, and prayer. My stomach churned, and I felt like I would throw up.
Although I had been a “practicing Catholic” at Yale, I was not a baptized Catholic. I admired the Catholic radicalism of the Berrigan brothers who led protests of the Vietnam War. At the same time, I was disappointed when the Church decided that women could not become priests and was deeply critical of the Church’s international activism to prevent access to birth control and abortion. Though I felt more at home in Catholic communities than in their Protestant counterparts, I did not take the affirmative step of becoming a baptized Catholic.
I felt no loyalty to Presbyterianism, and when I thought of “choosing” a Protestant denomination, my shoulders tensed—and this is happening again as I write. To this day, I associate (white) Protestantism with exclusivity. I see pursed lips and disapproving glances. During the years when I was deciding to “stay or leave,” I met some of the women who were irregularly ordained in the Episcopal Church. Though I did not have language in which to speak of class, I understood intuitively that the Episcopal Church would never welcome the likes of me. I struggled to understand why being accepted within such a community was so important to other women.
When I made the decision to leave Christianity rather than to work within it to transform it, I believed that rational judgments were primary. Now I am much more cognizant of the complex ways in which questions of identity, family history, ethnicity, class, community, and exclusion shape our decisions to leave or to stay. I think we need to talk more about this.
Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow,is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press has recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.
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