So I’ll put my conclusion at the beginning. It basically boils down to that cute phrase:
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
I know some awesome, kind, loving, accepting Christians (and I’m including Mormons here) who go to church regularly. I also know some arrogant, smug, unpleasant and self-righteous Christians (and I’m including Mormons here) who go to church militantly.
I’d suggest that their churchgoing and believing status is irrelevant to their character, but the facts and their own testimonies don’t actually support that.
Everyone will admit that there are good people and bad people everywhere. Creeps, liars, thieves and unpleasant folks make up certain percentage of the population and one would expect sub-populations to reflect that same statistic. But I think there’s some sort of correlation between unpleasantness and church activity.
First the good:
I can think of a handful of my favorite people who live a Christian life in the sense that there’s a sense of compassion, openness and desire to do good in the world and for others. A few examples with names changed (more to protect my anonymity than theirs):
- “Carol,” a friend of mine since high school is a self professed Christian churchgoer. I can think of several Christian acts she’s performed but I don’t think she has a judgmental bone in her body. Her Christianity is one of helping people and making them feel significant in the world. I received a call from her early one Sunday morning as my house was being threatened by fire saying, “Come to my house. Bring your kids here where it is safe. Now!” I will always remember that. I had nowhere else to go.
- “Nancy and Todd” are two Mormon friends of mine. Without getting too complicated, let’s call Nancy a former girlfriend. She ended up marrying Todd who has since become a BYU Religion Professor, a singer in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an LDS Bishop. Yet, after reconnecting on Facebook Nancy and Todd couldn’t be more kind, loving and accepting of my coming out to them as a gay apostate. They are open and accepting of me in a very genuine way. I sense an honest respect from them and I feel the same towards them and their family.
- “Belinda” is a former business acquaintance that comes across a bit too in-your-face Christian for my taste. Some business meetings, for example, opened with a prayer. But when I went through some really difficult financial struggles, she offered to take a very large personal hit in order to help me get back on my feet. It was a very forgiving, compassionate and un-business-like thing to do. She also offered spiritual “help” which I refused, but her financial offer wasn’t in any way conditional or dependent up my acceptance of her faith.
But are these people kind, tolerant and giving because they are churchgoers or in spite of it? Or is there just no correlation? Something tells me that these people would be just a good, kind and decent if they were Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist.
I found it curious back in 2009 when a Pew report found churchgoers to be more tolerant of torture than other folks. I just think churchgoing makes some people more unpleasant. Here’s my anecdotal evidence of the bad:
- What got me started writing this blog in the first place was my oldest son’s return from a trip out of state to visit the ex’s relatives – all Mormons. After that visit, he flew directly to see me and spend some personal time with his Dad before starting school. I don’t know what happened on that trip to see his other relatives, but what I do know is that there was a drastic change in his unpleasantness, in his fervor for religious conviction and in his intolerance for thought-provoking discussion. I call it a drastic change because he’d spent almost the entire summer with me but there was a change when he returned from that trip and it was a grouchy, sullen, somewhat tortured one.
- My Mom was about as faithful a Mormon as they come. My Dad less so. They originally married in the temple but my Dad later failed to renew his temple recommend. In later years, my Mom became a temple worker and according to my Dad, those day that Mom worked in the temple were hellish. She’d return home sullen, argumentative and just plain unhappy.
- In my own marriage, Sundays became the bane of my existence. It was as if every problem we had that was successfully swept under the rug all week long resurface on Sundays. If there was an argument to be had, it would happen on Sundays after she’d be reminded in church of who she expected me to be contrasted with who I was.
What I don’t understand is why temple and church attendance doesn’t seem to translate into a peaceful, calm demeanor. Why does it seem to spark bitchiness and brooding over unmet expectations?
One thing I’d suggest is that there’s a difference between outward religiousness and inward spirituality. Those folks who seem calm and compassionate derive none of their faith and strength from the outside. It is accomplished entirely on their own.
On the other hand, those who are irritable and condescending are too heavily invested in the spirituality of others to ever really achieve a personal, quiet peace. My friends in the first set of examples would claim that their faith helps them and I can only believe them, but I’d also argue that that same state can be accomplished without their faith.
So I’ll end with another cute quote that I’ve seen attributed to several different people:
“With or without [religion], you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
My kids are good people. The only negative I’ve ever seen has come from their devotion to their Mom’s religion. I’d even take it a bit farther and say the same thing about my ex-wife and my Mom… all good people. Without religion they’d be people who generally try to be good and kind to others. But add Mormonism into the mix and they become smug, irritable and nasty towards others.
I want better for my kids.