My Heathen Family

In a previous column, "My White Family" Howes wrote about how his family was a typical white family from a Midwestern American suburb. Here he discusses an important way in which they were not typical.

In the summer of 1969 I was riding to a big meet with other swim club members in the back seat of some kid's mother's Jeep. One of the kids asked us all what church we went to. I said, "I don't go to church. I'm an agnostic." The mother took her eyes off the road, glared at me, and said, "Don't say that!"

Thus at age thirteen I first became aware that not going to church was weird (all the other kids went) and frowned upon. My agnosticism got shut down and shot down in a way I wasn't used to from my own broadminded parents. For a budding intellectual elitist, I was pretty naive.

I come from a family of areligious people. My mother and father did not attend church. When I was about five, they must have felt guilty for neglecting their children's spiritual lives, because for a short time we went to a Unitarian church. Of course, this is probably the least religious religion in the USA. Joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who goes door to door but doesn't know why.

I don't remember ever being in the church itself. Instead, I went to Sunday school in the basement. My religious development consisted mainly of building wooden toy cabins with Lincoln Logs. I also met cute twins named Faith and Hope, whose names were the closest I got to the New Testament at Unitarian Sunday school. I don't think my parents' experiment in religious affiliation lasted even a year.

My family did celebrate Christmas, but our festival had more of Dickens than of Jesus about it. We had a Christmas tree, stockings by the chimney, plum pudding, goose, and seasonal music on the hi-fi, but I don't remember us having any crèche scenes. (For more on "Christmas among the Heathens," see my blog, "Alps and Ditches": )

We celebrated Easter with even less Jesus content than Christmas. We indulged in the usual fertility symbols, hunting for dyed hard-boiled eggs and putting them in baskets full of plastic grass, along with jelly beans, chocolate eggs, and chocolate bunnies. But there was no cross, and no trace of the resurrected Christ.

There were some kids in my neighborhood who went to a school called "St. Denis." I didn't know what "Catholic" meant, and I didn't know what a saint was.

In grade school, I found out that a little girl I liked went to a red-brick-colonial church near my house called "The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church." I didn't know what "Lutheran" meant. I knew about Martin Luther King before I ever heard of Martin Luther. I didn't know who the Good Shepherd was, though he sounded like a nice guy.

I guess I did know a little about what a church is for, because there was one down the road from The Good Shepherd called the "Church of God." Even as a youngster I thought, isn't that something like calling it "Church Church"?

My father's sister's husband was Jewish, and by the time I was sixteen, I'd been to three of my cousins' bar mitzvahs, but never to a Christian worship service. I wore a yarmulke, heard my cousins chanting in Hebrew, and ate latkes and dates stuffed with cream cheese at the parties. I envied my cousins the food more than the chanting.

My introduction to Christian theology was — I am not kidding — Jesus Christ Superstar, around 1971. Listening obsessively to this rock opera, it dawned on me that people actually thought Jesus was divine. I learned the story of the Passion, even if the political organizer Judas was the more interesting character. Jesus was charismatic, but aloof and difficult. I didn't know how to love him.

We were not anti-religion. Religion wasn't important enough to us to turn us into atheists. People could do whatever they wanted. Privately, we made gentle fun of the devout and their hypocrisies. I remember my dad calling the string of big stone churches along Woodward Avenue "Piety Row." Evangelism was the spectacle of the simple-minded trying to explain the world to the sophisticated. But publicly, we were friendly and tolerant.

Granted, my father's mother was Episcopalian, but this only made an impression on me at her funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in Detroit. Come to think of it, that must have been my first attendance at a Christian rite, in 1971.

So how weird was my family?

Weird enough.

The Pew Research Center reports that 77% of adults in the USA described themselves as religiously affiliated in 2014. Just over 70% identify as Christian (with approximately 47% Protestant and 21% Catholic). Non-Christians (chiefly Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu) account for just under 6%. The "unaffiliated" make up about 23% of the population.

There has been a general trend away from organized religion since the 1950s, which means my family was even weirder when I was young, but two things are still true: religion is central to the identity of the United States, and Protestantism dominates. Every president was at least nominally Christian. There has been only one Catholic president, John Kennedy.

Depending on who you're talking to, the United States was founded either as a haven where Protestant splinter groups were free from the state-aligned religions of Europe, or as a liberal democratic republic free from monarchy.

The First Amendment to the Constitution wisely combines both attitudes: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." In theory, secularists need not fear an alignment of church and state, and religious groups need not fear government interference in worship.

Much of US history has been a dance between these positions. Secularists are wary of certain privileges of religious organizations such as tax exemption, and of their power to influence politics to impose illiberalism by liberal means. The religiously affiliated are suspicious that the separation of church and state is the sneaky establishment of what they regard as the religion of secular humanism.

Being in the heathen minority brought us no ostracism we knew of. My family sympathized with the secularists, but we kept our heads down and showed everyone respect, whether they deserved it or not. We were so nice, putting others' comfort ahead of our convictions, that I'm sure we were hypocrites too.

Given the poor odds, I didn't insist on marrying a heathen. Luckily, my Catholic wife was open-minded enough to accept a mixed marriage. My devout mother-in-law loved my family and was amazed that such moral people could come from a churchless household. I assured her that existential guilt could go head-to-head with Catholic guilt anytime. We didn't have confession (psychotherapy notwithstanding), and we didn't even have Satan to blame. We were on our own.