If there were a soundtrack for my childhood, it would feature verse after verse…after plaintive, supplicating verse of “Just As I Am.” The 19th-century hymn by Charlotte Elliott – not to be confused with the mawkish ‘80s soft rock hit by pop phenom, Air Supply – was the signature altar call in Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades for decades. Led by choir director Cliff Barrows and set on endless repeat, thousands would sing as hundreds of converts filtered down from the nosebleed seats, mixing with crusade volunteers who were there to prime the salvation pump. They would arrive at the foot of the stage, where prayers were offered, promises were made, and lives were changed. The stakes were high, and Billy Graham offered saving grace, just as you were, establishing a revival paradigm for generations of American evangelicals.
My father was a Southern Baptist preacher who understandably modeled his looks, charisma, and pulpit style after Rev. Graham. I sat through this “hymn of invitation” countless times. While my dad never counseled a president, published a best-selling book, or preached in an NFL stadium, he could bring a sinner home like nobody’s business. He’d drop a layer of pathos over an instrumental verse of “Just As I Am,” creating an emotional crescendo, making it hard for any lost Midwestern soul to resist.
Billy Graham’s funeral is tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about his death, my father’s life, and what all of it means to me.
Now that I don’t believe it anymore.
After a lifetime of significant church involvement, studying and writing about Christian rhetoric as an academic, and serving as a communication professor at a Baptist university for 19 years, I no longer believe the things I used to believe. I didn’t have a Road from Damascus experience, and I don’t have a protestimony to declare, marking my departure from evangelicalism and organized faith. I don’t offer this essay as a defiant deconversion statement. I don’t know how I identify religiously now, and I don’t care. Here are some brief descriptions. Feel free to make your own judgments…I’m certain some of you will, god love ya!
- I quit being a Baptist about 20 years ago.
- I stopped attending church regularly over 10 years ago.
- I don’t attend church at all anymore.
- I’m not sure if I believe in god, but I’m open and not militant about it.
- I accept the possibility there is a cosmic reality where god might reside.
- I still feel an emotional response to grace, love, and a benevolence bigger than us.
- I don’t feel the need to worship.
- I have great respect for my religious (and irreligious) friends and family.
- I have zero interest in theological debates or puzzles.
- I’ve never been as happy or at peace as I am now. Not by a long shot.
- I don’t think every question needs an answer.
- I don’t need anyone else to agree with me.
People want to know the cause. It wasn’t any single thing. It was learning more about history and the sociology of religion. It was watching people I loved (scientists, intellectuals, liberals, the poor, people of color, non-heterosexuals, atheists, etc.) be savaged by the pious. Regularly. It was seeing mercy and forgiveness eclipsed by arrogance and anger. It was being told by a Christian very close to me she “used to love who I was becoming,” suggesting she doesn’t love who I am now. It was finding community among nonbelievers who were exceedingly kind and full of faith, loving me “just as I am.” It was the slow escape from guilt and anxiety. It was relaxing my grip on certainty. It was the peace that passes understanding. It was a little bit of everything.
Somewhere along the way it felt like the burden of proof shifted, or just disappeared. I had spent my life presuming challengers to my religion had to prove their case, and I was a strong apologist for the faith. If there was a gestalt shift in my thinking it was recognizing I didn’t have the burden to prove anything anymore. Letting go of the binary division, the “either-or,” opened me to the “both-and,” freeing me from the need to judge. Ironically, I started winning by losing – the sort of thing Jesus taught in the parables.
With Billy Graham’s death, it felt like the right time to say some of these things publicly. I think Billy was complicated. He pushed for racial integration, nuclear disarmament, and he refused to join Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, and others in the Religious Right’s anti-abortion movement. But he was also pretty unforgiving about sexuality, and the Nixon tapes revealed an anti-Semitic side to him for which he later apologized. While I was a Christian college professor, I wrote a column for the local paper where I argued that grace and tolerance were tandem values we should pursue in our community. A local attorney, who was the president of the regional chapter of the Christian Coalition, sent me an angry letter (which he copied to the president and board of my university in hopes of getting me fired) where he said I’d been “duped by the liberal media,” that I was a “homosexual sympathizer,” and I was committing the “sin of tolerance.” He included a tract with the reprint of a 1950s Billy Graham sermon in it. In fairness, Graham publicly turned away from that sort of bellicose message in the ‘60s.
Billy Graham and I would have disagreed about a lot of things, but I would have loved having a conversation with him about the things dividing us in our country now.
I think my mom and dad are complicated too. I no longer believe many of the things they raised me to believe, and I know that breaks their hearts. I get no joy from that, and my exit from religion was slowed by my concern for them. I love my parents. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. My dad taught me how to speak truth to power, even if it was unpopular. My mother, who reads her Bible and prays every single day, taught me the importance of faith, discipline, and steadfastness. If you ever feel like you can count on me to be truthful and trustworthy, thank my parents.
We’re all complicated. After the 2016 presidential election, my wife and I quit our teaching jobs, sold everything, bought a van, and took to the road to discover more about ourselves and why we’re all so divided. An assumption we made – we hoped for – was that most people were more complicated than we’d come to believe. We’ve been at it for nine months and 22,000 miles, and we’ve found our assumption is correct. We met a leader of a national evangelical organization who told us he might support Biden for president, an atheist who takes her kids to church, a politically astute African-American man who said he’s never voted, a liberal lesbian who’s a gun-owning Army officer, and a second-generation Iraqi-American who strongly supports Trump, to mention a few.
Many of the students and faculty at the little evangelical college where I spent most of my career are among the brightest and most compassionate people I know. If you doubt me, I encourage you to go toe-to-toe with the debaters from our nationally-prominent forensics team. They are the sweetest most mindful people you’ll ever met. Then they will turn around and absolutely decimate you in an academic forum. Even as I was moving away from their community of faith, I never disrespected these people.
By writing this essay I’m inviting criticism from liberals who think I’m not bringing a strong enough critique against religious oppression. Conservatives will object to many of the assumptions I’m making. Everyone will feel like I missed some important argument along the way. They’re right. Because I’m not arguing. But, I do want to hear your story.
It makes me sad Billy Graham is dead. I believe he genuinely wanted to reconcile people to a love he felt they were missing. It makes me sad by publicly discussing losing my religion I’m probably harming some relationships that are very important to me. But, everybody’s complicated and we all need to have our story heard. I felt like it was time for you to hear more of mine, just as I am.