The Social Structures of Religious Identity and the Decision to Leave or Stay by Carol P. Christ

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.


a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designCarol’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

Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow co-edited the path-breaking Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Join the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete by March 15. Save $200.



Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

16 thoughts on “The Social Structures of Religious Identity and the Decision to Leave or Stay by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thanks Carol, I want to move into a new form of religious identity. Protecting the planet environmentally is to me the big question regards traditional Western religions that have a negative attitude toward nature. Eco-spirituality is a new and important direction — it is a movement inspired by a great love for nature and for protecting the environment. It also has been defined as “a manifestation of the spiritual connection between human beings and the environment.”


  2. I agree with you, but there are Jewish feminists and Buddhist feminists and Christian feminists and who are committed the environment, including, where necessary challenging and transforming their traditions. So the question of where we identify is more complex than whether we care about the environment. This is what I was getting at. On the other side, I have been accused of choosing ideas such as commitment to the environment over community, and I am suggesting that communal identity is also complex.


  3. Carol, thank you for another thought provoking post. The “ties that bind” are strong. My choice to leave the Greek Orthodox church many years ago, and follow my own path, was difficult because the sense of community and identity was so strong. But the words expressed from the pulpit and the liturgy always left me shaking my head and feeling hypocritical and claustrophobic. Nature was calling me to follow the labyrinthine path so I kept a few of the rituals that I always enjoyed (like the hidden good luck coin in the New Year’s sweet bread recipe of my maternal ancestors, which of course goes back well before Christianity) and chose the path less travelled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed there are parts of Christianity that seem to have come down from sources other than Christianity. I feel this way about the Panagia, esp. in simple rural churches. She may not feel the same in the US when she is cut off from her roots in the land.


  4. Thank you for being honest , I think that their is not one of us that some from of religion has not touched , its many branches is obvious, since these being passed down threw generations and our ancestors. As I traced my family tree , I found that I was the inheritor of many faiths as to why these were important I really do not know , perhaps it was because they were true believers?or because they them selves were brought up as such ? I think whats most important is what we have learned from them ? has it embedded a form of ethics in all of us ? and Im sure theirs are many lines because of conscience that most of us will not cross but were they placed their threw religion ? or threw common sense ? As science advances and technology and a more logical world takes hold, man has begun to think for him/her self. Im sure at least for this generation, the lore and the mystery as well as the journey of primitive man/woman will linger and Im sure that in the end, we will all say what a journey it has been .


  5. Such a thought-provoking post, Carol. Thank you. It’s causing me to think through my own decisions re: the Lutheran religion of my birth/childhood and the subsequent choices I’ve made to find a religious community as well as continue to strengthen my own spiritual path. Not able to find a consistent community of spiritual support from my shamanic practice or my connections with the Goddess community, I chose to align myself
    with the Quaker Community in Madison, WI. I have not considered these decisions from a social or ethnic aspect, an aspect of white privilege, I assume.


  6. I appreciate you writing about this “staying or leaving” dilemma. I remember too Sr Joan Chittister’s work on “Defecting in Place” as one path. Through my work as a pastor and then as an interfaith chaplain…and now in a broader setting working with spiritual wellness…I’m trying to find my way. I value ongoing conversation on this; how do we fit into denominational choices, when is it time to no longer identify with a religious tradition. Sometimes I lean towards hyphenation to show my lineage and identity, even if what I’m joining together may have contradictions with each other. –Pamela Dintaman, Tucson, AZ


  7. One study I would like to engage in is the circumstances which drive women, usually older, to leave Catholicism. I’m wondering if it is after their children have been Confirmed, the last “big” sacrament for youth. I suspect the burden of dragging their kids to Mass and religious education classes is finally fulfilled, allowing them to settle into questions regarding spirituality and the inequality of the church.


      1. Wow – yes, excellent question. I can totally see how this might be a significant factor (and in many of my friends’ cases is a factor).


  8. Thanks Carol. While reading, I was thinking of your genealogy work and wondering how it might have influenced this post.

    I self identify as Catholic, with a distance from Rome which seems inhabited by a lot of “crazy uncles” struggling to keep their balance on a greased log. I’m glad women are not being ordained officially as I fear it would just suck us into the vacuum of the Vatican. I wonder if we would then have the blessings of so many wonderful Feminist theologians and biblical scholars. I read somewhere that it takes irritation in the shell for an oyster to produce a pearl.

    I treasure the “rascals” in Catholic history – Francis who treasured poverty when clerical poverty was forbidden by Canon Law; Dominic who preached on the road and in the pubs when preaching was limited to Bishops by Canon Law; Catherine of Siena who told the Pope the sins of his Curia stunk to heaven, but somehow never got burned at a stake. She must have been quite a character but I’m glad I never had her for a neighbour. I love the history of Catholics who followed Jesus even when it led to their imprisonment – sometimes by secular authorities and sometimes by the Vatican. It’s my “family history”.

    But it’s been a long time since I’ve been to “official church” where liturgies image a flat earth and laws of the royal court.


    1. My gen research enabled me to know what religions my earlier ancestors practiced, but it didn’t affect my decisions because I only found out recently who my ancestors were. I wonder if I would have tried Quakerism if I had known I had Quaker ancestors, maybe.


  9. I deeply appreciate this post and the questions posed. I too struggled with protestant religions leaving Christianity after my brother’s suicide and returning briefly before eco – spirituality/feminism led me towards my own path. In retrospect, I see the Native American tradition was the only path I could take initially because it was the one that included ALL OF NATURE. Was this choice a result of my Native heritage? I have absolutely no idea since I didn’t even know about my Indian roots growing up. But Nature was both mother and father to the child/adolescent and no religion (and yes, like you I exposed myself to both East and Western traditions) except the Indigenous peoples’ traditions ever “called” to me… being isolated in Western Maine for so many years left me to work out my own path with Nature’s help. Writing my own rituals and celebrating, alone or with others kept me in tune with the seasonal rounds, my love for plants and animals, self reflection, and gratitude as a way of life. But it wasn’t until I came to Northern Mexico that I began to feel at “home” in a way I hadn’t before. I am facing another crossroad in my life – to choose to leave behind the home I love in Maine and strike out again here, in a climate where Pueblo peoples are literally my neighbors… all this at 72….


  10. Thank you for posting this. I should know better by now, but reflecting on my own decisions about staying or going, I hadn’t thought about how class factored into it – only race, gender, and a few other identity markers. I’ve been cognizant of class issues in the church, but you challenge me to think of its relevance to my own path. Thank you.


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