One of the first things you notice when you move to Wisconsin – apart from the fact that there’s a lot of snow, alcohol, and white people – is that there is also a preponderance of Christians.
When you live in Manhattan, it’s kind of easy to forget that Christianity is such a big thing. I’m sure there are people from other faith groups who might disagree with that statement. But relative to the nation’s heartland, New Yorkers seem to practice a greater diversity of religions. When someone in New York asks about “the holidays” in casual conversation, for example, they’re not being politically correct. They're probably just trying to figure out when they should go to the grocery store, and when they should completely avoid it. There are also a lot of people in New York who seem to practice no religion at all. I have to assume that's either because they are atheists, or are so busy working all the time that they can't have a spiritual life – other than going to yoga twice a week, and worshipping their awesome handstands in the mirror.
When people say “the holidays” in Wisconsin, on the other hand – and unless they are literally meditating in a Buddhist temple, fasting for Ramadan, or attending a nephew’s Bar mitzvah when they say it -- everyone knows what holiday they probably mean. And it’s probably not Chinese New Year. Or Sukhot.
I don’t know how many people in Wisconsin actually practice their religions. But the funny thing is, the numbers of self-avowed Christians aren't actually that much higher. A recent survey said that more than 80% of people here identify as Christian, a number which is only 10% greater than the number of self-identified Christians in New York. The more significant difference, from my subjective standpoint, would seem to be that the majority of Christians in Wisconsin (50%) call themselves Protestant, while only 30% are Catholic. In New York, Catholics comprise a much larger chunk of the total population.
If the conceptual distinction between Protestant and Catholic -- or better yet, Christian and Catholic -- doesn’t make sense to you, then I am happy to explain it with a mostly inaccurate and potentially offensive historical summary.
For a long time – and if you disregard Eastern Europe -- Catholics were the only Christians in Europe. But eventually, Europe got new and improved Christians. The new Christians didn’t like the original recipe Christians, for a variety of reasons. They expressed their protest in a variety of ways: by nailing things to doors, throwing away idols, getting divorced, cutting off people’s heads, and ultimately, stealing other people’s potatoes. Eventually, they even got fed up with each other. So some of them sailed off to start a new country. The protesters, or Protestants, founded America on the idea of equality. They separated religion and government. They let people build whatever kind of churches they wanted. And in the spirit of religious tolerance, they invited the Catholics to come and do the brick work.
Over time, Protestants got so serious about Christianity in America that they stopped naming their new churches after people and countries. Like, Lutherans. And Anglicans. They just went ahead and named them right after Christ. Like the United Church of Christ. And the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The major Protestant groups didn’t always get along. But historically, they tended to agree about at least two things. One was that the Pope was probably going to take over America with his magic hypnotic incense. And the other was that the Pope’s citizen army of ignorant idol worshippers – the Catholics -- were all secretly baptizing their children.
In the 1960’s, the Kennedys helped to dispel some of the anti-Catholic attitudes, by proving to everyone that Catholics could be even WASPier than WASPs. But there was still a lot of distrust between the various groups. Catholics had established their own schools, where they were free to pray to idols, burn their incense all over the place, and limit their consumption of cafeteria meat to four days a week.
Now, admittedly, I’m not a religious scholar. But the persistence of anti-Catholic attitudes may help to explain why Catholics – though they are, technically speaking, Christians – typically don’t identify as Christians. Or seem, in the larger context of American Christianity, that much like Christians. It's nothing personal. They just didn’t want to do anything else to scare the Protestants.
But for the record: Catholics are not all secretly baptizing your children. Unless they are Catholic grandmothers, in which case they are totally baptizing your children. In fact, they probably already have. In your backyard birdbath.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these religious issues recently, because Mike and I have been shopping around for new spiritual community. That almost sounded like a punch line, but it actually wasn’t. It’s a real issue for us. And it really hasn’t been easy.
We both grew up Catholic. We were baptized, first communioned, confirmed, went to church every week – although like many big Catholic families, we were usually late – and did hard time in Catholic school. Even in New York, after we got married, we still practiced Catholicism. That was only partly about liking the sermons, and mostly about getting our kids properly certified to get into heaven.
But we will probably always consider ourselves culturally Catholic, no matter how much we go to Church. Because that's how we were raised. This means we’ll make an Italian family recipe at Thanksgiving, a Polish family recipe at Christmas, and an Irish family recipe on St. Patrick’s day. And for the rest of the year, we’ll just get really prickly every time someone who wasn’t raised Catholic says anything negative about the Church or the Pope, even if we basically agree with it.
It’s a hard issue for us because we’d like to raise our kids in our cultural heritage. But personally, I've just gotten fed up with all the cultural conservatism. I know – as people who weren’t raised Catholic often don’t know -- that individual churches sometimes buck the system. Our parish priest in New York was openly supportive of homosexuality, and said so from the pulpit. When I was 17 years old, my own confirmation sponsor was an openly gay man. (I knew this because we did lunch).
But the church hierarchy is obviously not that open-minded, especially in more politically conservative areas. And I continue to wonder how they ALL missed the memo on feminism. I’m not asking for the Pope to be a lesbian – necessarily. But I’m not sure I can raise my daughters in a spiritual community where the only leadership positions available to women are teaching elementary school. No offense, nuns. I just think you deserve so much more. See my earlier comment about the Pope.
Still, it’s turned out to be a lot harder to leave the Church than I thought. I mean, it’s easy to leave. We’re not Mormons, after all. If you don’t send your kids to Catholic school or belong to a neighborhood parish, nobody is going to show up at your door with a plate of cookies. You’re pretty much off the Catholic radar, in fact, for everyone but the Catholic grandmother, who will secretly take your children to church anyway.
The hard part, for us, has been finding a new, replacement religion.
We tried the Episcopalians. Given their close theological ties to Anglicanism – which we figured was pretty much just Catholicism for serial monogamists -- we thought we’d find the rituals very familiar. And we totally did. We also liked many other things about that church. The people were incredibly nice. They invited us into the basement for coffee every week, and encouraged us to attend other events. I really liked that actual women got to stand up -- in public, without a male overlord standing nearby – to talk. Their sermons were good, they touched on deep spiritual matters, and they gave us a lot to think about it.
After a while, though, the rituals almost seemed too familiar. As the service progressed, I sort of felt like I was listening to a bunch of Catholics who’d lost their hymnbooks, or couldn’t quite remember the words. Also -- while the rituals were familiar --the congregation was kind of the opposite. I found it sort of distracting that nobody looked Irish, or spoke Spanish, or seemed like they had a Polish grandmother. My feeling of displacement was totally about me, and not about those nice Episcopalians. Nobody actually asked me if I was drunk, or accused me of trying to baptize their children. But somehow, I just couldn’t see myself joining the congregation. I guess I was afraid that once we did it, they'd force us to renounce our allegiance to the Pope, and ask us to promise that we'd never try to take over America with our magical hypnotic incense.
After we fled from the Episcopalians, we got a tip about a Catholic church that’s run by renegade nuns. According to our sources, it was essentially a Catholic service, that just wasn’t sanctioned by the Catholic Church. This seemed promising. So one winter morning, we bundled ourselves and our children up, and drove out to the retreat center. It felt nice to be BACK. Kicking it old school with people who knew the words, and had found their hymnals again. We even saw some familiar faces, which is code for the nuns who used to teach in my Catholic elementary school.
But after that first visit, we never returned. And there were two main reasons, other than the fact that we’re lazy. One was that the sermon – although it was also delivered by a woman, who also somehow managed to speak without the help of a male overlord – was mostly a political lecture. And we didn’t really feel we needed that. I mean, we live in Madison. We can get a political lecture here any day of the week, just by walking down the sidewalk wearing the wrong brand of sunglasses. We really wanted our religious experience to take place in the realm of religion. It’s asking a lot, I know. But we just wanted to hear about God.
The other reason we didn’t return was germs. Mike had just spent the better part of January fighting off pneumonia. And when they started passing around the sacramental bread – Well, enough said. They were passing around the sacramental bread. It took us about five seconds to figure out -- and acknowledge our mutual horror with a nod -- that everyone in that entire congregation was going to get a chance to stick their grimy fingers into that big holy bowl of Jesus and pull out a communion wafer. Each person would hand a wafer to the sniffling stranger next to them – in the middle of flu season -- and each sniffling stranger would turn and do the same.
It was a very participatory version of the sacrament of communion. It was probably very renegade. We headed straight for the door. And we didn’t even stop for holy water.
Now we’re not sure about our next step. We may ultimately return to our Catholic roots, out of sheer familiarity. We could go wiccan, although that seems rather unlikely. We might go neo-transcendentalist and spend our Sundays offering up silent intentions to our compost bin.
Or maybe we’ll get a sign, and follow a different spiritual path. Altogether.
I’m clearly looking for this kind of sign because not long ago, I came across a religious message that caught my eye. There I was, pumping gas into my SUV at the nearby Mobil station, when I noticed that someone had wedged his business card into the credit card slot of the gas pump. It read as follows:
NON DENOMINATIONAL BIBLE GROUP
The card didn’t actually say NAME. It had a name on it, which I am withholding, out of respect for his privacy. Just because he’s a licensed spiritual shepherd, doesn’t mean he wants his name plastered all over the internet.
Well, I hadn’t gone to that gas station looking for a spiritual epiphany. Per se. But I had to wonder if this was really a random coincidence. On one hand, this is Wisconsin. There are a lot of Christians here. There are also a lot of bible groups. And probably a roughly equal number of gas stations.
But on the other hand, our true spiritual paths are sometimes revealed to us. We’d spent the past year searching for a new faith community. One that would neither offend my dear departed Polish grandmother, nor give my family the bubonic plague. And now here I was -- ready to swipe my plastic -- and there’s a business card in the payment slot of my gas pump? I searched for a familiar Bible phrase that would be perfectly suited to explain this event. Seek and Ye Shall Receive? What’s Lost is Now Found? Lift Handle to Operate Pump?
That wasn’t even the truly mystical part. My morning had actually started with an implausibly long list of errands, which included an unforeseen trip to the grocery store, to buy a bag of All-Purpose Flour. This may sound silly to you, non-believers, and people who don’t bake very much. But I keep a close eye on my baking supplies. I didn’t even recall using the last bag of flour. So I found it a little odd that day -- when my butter was already softened, and I was ready to bake ginger molasses cookies for my family – that I had absolutely no flour.
I suppose some people may have just stuck the butter back in the fridge. Or taken out some eggs, and made some custard instead. And granted, I’m no prophet when it comes to baked goods. But I do know my flock. And my flock cries out for my molasses cookies. So I really had no choice but to run out the door in search of All-purpose flour.
It was like manna from heaven. Except the manna wasn’t actually cooked yet. And it was coming from the grocery store.
But what about the other sign I got that day, on my way to the grocery store? That red flashing sign on my dashboard that read: LOW FUEL. Does it take an all-powerful deity to rig the universe in such a way that my car would eventually need gas, and I’d be forced to go to the gas station? Probably not. Because it pretty much says that in the user’s manual. But it was a pretty weird coincidence that I ran out of gas right then, I thought. And that this LOW FUEL sign led me directly to him – to NAME -- the neighborhood Mobil station’s best known spiritual leader.
Eventually, I calmed down and decided that it probably was just a coincidence. I might be a lost, gas-crazed sheep right now, who’s squandered too much of my life not finding religion at gas stations. I should probably spend less time squeegeeing my windows, and more time reading the Bible. I'm pretty sure there is more to life than refined flour, or refined oil. But that didn’t mean that NAME was the right person to fill my tank with salvation, or take me down a new spiritual path. What the signs were probably telling me was that I’m just really serious about my molasses cookies. And that I drive a really big car.
So in the end, I didn’t take the card. I did pick it up, swipe my credit card to pay for my gas, and then put it back in the slot. It seems likely that the next person who came to the gas station just threw the business card in the trash can. But I guess we’ll really never know.
And isn’t that how it goes with religion? There will always be people who feel compelled to shepherd others. Some will insist on telling other people how to sing their hymns, or burn their incense, or fix their handstands, or pick their place of worship. If they do that, I guess they probably shouldn’t be too surprised if their business cards end up in the trash, with the used paper towels, gas receipts, and empty lottery tickets.
But personally, I'm just trying to find a gas pump that actually works for me, and the rest of my flock.