I'm a Christian and a liberal—but my two identities are often at odds with each other
Before my grandmother died recently, she prayed the rosary seven times a day, every day—once for each of her seven children. Meanwhile, while I feel Christian to some degree, I didn’t even go to church for Christmas last year—which, as both of my incredibly devout parents reminded me, was very much a sin. As I prayed over my grandmother’s body, willing her into heaven, I wondered if God was actually listening to me despite the fact that I hadn’t paid him a visit in awhile. Probably? I guessed. But he’s not very happy that I haven’t gone to church in months, and he’s waiting for me to feel sorry.
I didn’t feel sorry, though, because I no longer see myself reflected in the Catholic church. And that has a lot to do with my political inclinations.
Growing up in the Italian-American echo chamber that was Long Island, Christianity and Catholicism were just things everyone did. I’d see my classmates in weekend religion classes, while practicing my Hail Marys so I could receive the Holy Spirit with the illustrious Confirmation name, “Julianna.” I loved Christmas. I loved Easter. I believed in Jesus, but I had no real understanding of what my faith meant, or what Jesus symbolized. The prayers I learned and the scriptures we studied never really sank in, and I never understood why women couldn’t be priests. So instead of paying attention to a priest’s homily when at mass, I found myself falling asleep, or thinking about what I’d order for dinner when we went out after. Overall, being a Catholic was mostly an identity I took on because my parents gave it to me, starting with my baptism and continuing on until I graduated high school. Then I decided to go to a private, Catholic college. I told my parents it had a lot to do with a devotion to my faith, but in all honesty I liked the central N.Y.C. location, and didn’t fully understand the concept of debt.
Ironically, having a church right on campus and not having parents to force me into going made me more interested in attending. We’d sin on a Saturday, and sing hymns together on a Sunday. Most people’s college experiences don’t consist of seeing the guys they hooked up with the night before at mass the next day, but I embraced the down-to-clown yet contrite lifestyle. For the first time in my life, I liked going to church. The songs were fun to sing, and the priests, who were also our deans, spoke about college life without chastising the sexual exploration we were obviously doing on campus or compelling women to measure themselves against the moral purity of Mother Mary. I could finally understand and relate to my faith, and I felt connected to God in a way that almost felt meditative.
That was the first and last time I went to services regularly, though, because when I began a shiny new career as a woke, feminist writer/editor, my faith and my social beliefs started not to jive. I always had liberal inclinations, but it wasn’t until I started addressing political issues in my day-to-day that social liberalism became my gospel truth. By the time 2016 rolled around, my ideologies had moved even further left, and while I had never considered myself a Republican, I no longer flirted with the idea of being a moderate.
As such, church didn’t do it for me anymore. Although the fundamentals of kindness, love, and generosity that I had been taught from a young age still stood, topics like guilt over your humanity and the demonizing of women’s sexuality—especially in the case of abortions—were prevalent in every service I attended. One weekend when I went home to visit my parents, I attended a Sunday mass with my mom. The priest, a local celebrity among the moms of Long Island, decided to get political during his homily—Harvey Weinstein had just been accused by several women of alleged sexual assault, and the priest wanted to comment. “Let us pray for all the women who have been victims of sexual assault,” he said.
Damn straight, I thought as I bowed my head.
“And for all the men who may be wrongly accused at this time.”
My head snapped right back up. I didn’t walk out of the church, but I really wanted to.
The urge to stomp out of a church due to disagreeing with the conservative beliefs being discussed isn’t unique to me, of course. According to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Institute, 65% of adults identify as Christians in the U.S., down 12% since the beginning of the decade. That number is even lower among millennials, with 49% identifying as Christians, and 4-in-10 identifying as religious “nones”—atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Add politics into the mix, and the survey found the number of “religious nones” is growing more rapidly among Democrats than Republicans.
Yet though I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my religious dissonance, I’m not fully ready to let go of my faith. Instead, I want to find new ways to practice it that don’t feel at odds with the other belief systems by which I lead my life.
As much as I loved attending church in college, it deeply hurt me that my fellow Christian peers thought practicing their faith also meant erecting a “baby graveyard” outside of our campus cafeteria, without any thought of who they might be triggering. So I’ve begun to question—can you be a liberal Christian? Can you subscribe to the underlying message of eternal forgiveness and treating everyone with love, compassion, and acceptance, without attaching yourself to the blatant ostracism and contradictions that often comes with it in practice? Is there a way to follow the message of the Catholic church without supporting its demonizing of pro-choice, sex positive women, and its exclusion of LGBTQ people?
I have hope that it’s possible. Currently, I’m inspired by the movement finding ground with Hollywood’s elite, where Christianity and liberalism seem to have a harmonious union. Celebs like Taylor Swift are churning out inclusive, left-leaning anthems like “You Need to Calm Down” alongside ballads mentioning Jesus and faith like “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Then you have the Biebers, whose joint identity as hipster evangelicals stems from their frequent attendance at the cool-yet-Christian Hillsong Church. Hillsong, which originated in Australia, has become a hotspot for Christian-minded millennials looking to worship in stadium-like venues that attract similarly hip young people. Though rooted in Pentecostal Christianity, it’s gained traction for how it prioritizes a connection to Jesus and the Bible over outdated Christian traditions. The lines wrapping around its New York City locations speak for themselves—it’s a place where many left-leaning Christians can feel at home.
While the idea of dawning fedora-esque hats and singing pop-rock hymns alongside the likes of Kendall Jenner is certainly one way to express my Christian faith, it’s not the ideal way to blend my beliefs. While I love Hillsong’s focus on growing a relationship with God, its statements on the LGBTQ community and its past scandals make me reluctant to go. Though Justin Bieber has brought gay fans to join him in worship at Hillsong, the founder and senior pastor of the church’s Australia branch, Brian Houston, wrote a blog post in 2015 detailing that Hillsong does not “affirm a gay lifestyle” and the church does not “knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership.”And as Vox notes, Hillsong isn’t the only new megachurch geared toward recruiting young people into faith that’s hiding conservative political views behind its flannel shirts and all-are-welcome messaging.
So no, I haven’t yet found a practice of my faith that works for me. Instead, I’ve accepted my current status as a salad bar Christian—I pick and choose which beliefs and traditions make sense for me, while leaving the rest behind. I’m also trying to build my connection with God independently through meditation and a gratitude practice. When I want to be with God, I no longer go to church; instead, I turn on my Calm app, and picture myself in the embrace of a loving gold light. For now, as GOOP-y as it may sound, it’s working for me. I may not be praying seven rosaries a day like my grandmother, but I’m still being guided by my faith—and I’m okay if the form it takes continues to evolve.