When a Church Spends Much More on Landscaping Than Needy Families

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Elizabeth Martin, recounts her uneven journey of “losing my religion”:

I was raised to be a lifelong devout Christian, a member of the Southern Baptist church from the time I was in diapers up until I was 18 or 19 years old. I went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights. I went to camp during the summer, and retreats during the fall and spring. I roofed and painted houses each summer on mission trips. I promised to wait until I was married to have sex. I learned the books of the Bible and can recite them from Genesis to Revelation even to this day. I memorized a litany of scriptures. Conservative politics were espoused from the pulpit on a regular basis, and I learned to respond in typical fashion to any discussion on homosexuality or abortion—the two big no-nos according to Evangelicalism.  

Despite this absolute immersion into the Evangelical culture, it did not stick.

I found myself habitually disillusioned and turned off by certain aspects of the faith, and I had a prescient sense that somehow, someway, this lifestyle would not extend much further than my adolescence. I didn’t quite have the knowledge or guts at the time to admit that I would reject the religion of my childhood—I thought it would be malleable enough to change with me—but I knew that it was unsustainable in its current state.

Dogma would rub me the wrong way. I doubted. I resented the treatment of women. (At a young age I once asked my mom why women couldn’t be deacons. She was blindsided by the question.) I was highly judgmental of the lack of critical thought and inquiry. I didn’t want to be associated with something so unabashedly anti-intellectual.

The final blow that led to my leaving organized religion behind came when I was about 17 years old. It was Sunday night and the church was voting on the budget for the upcoming year. The money that filtered into that atypically large church astounded me. The salaries! The power bill! The juice and animal crackers for children’s church!

As I scanned each line item I came to “landscaping” and nearly gasped when I saw the amount of money we spent on weeding flower beds and pruning shrubbery. I compared this to the category marked “benevolence,” which included services such as a food pantry for needy families, and noted that we allocated not even half the resources for benevolence as we did for landscaping.

This church was, to borrow a tired metaphor, nothing more than a social club. It left a sour taste in my mouth that lingers to this day.

I bee-bopped through my twenties largely indifferent to organized religion, much to my parents’ disappointment and pain. To paraphrase Amy Poehler: “Good for them! Not for me.” I thought that I was over it, that I had long ago reckoned with piety and found it wanting.

Imagine my surprise when, at the age of 26 and desperate to end my unhappy marriage, I found myself regurgitating the teachings of the church. Though I had moved away from religion having any major role in my life, I hadn’t quite let go of the teachings that had been ingrained in me from a young age. While I was miserable in my marriage to the point of suicidal depression, I thought it was wrong to end one’s marriage based on happiness alone, for this was the message sent to all members of the congregation: Your happiness is irrelevant in all walks of life, most especially your marriage. It had been years since I heard it last, but it had left a lasting mark.

My parents were in between a rock and a hard place, as it were. They bore witness to my slow fade, the ways in which I was deteriorating before their very eyes in both body and spirit. But to reject the teachings of their faith in order to support their daughter in this most obvious choice she needed to make proved to be a great challenge for them and therefore a great burden for me. I desperately wanted their permission and blessing to leave my husband. I wanted some sort of an acknowledgement that not only was leaving an okay thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.

While I did eventually garner enough of their support to feel buoyed throughout the separation and divorce, I never quite got them to the point of seeing that it was right.

My divorce presented me with some uncomfortable truths regarding my relationship to religion. The first was that I wasn’t as liberated as I once thought myself. While on the surface I was going about my life in a secular fashion, the old-time religion was still deep down there, resting peacefully until the time came for it to pop back up and remind me of the stronghold it still enjoyed over me. Ties that bind, indeed. I was to have my work cut out for me.

The second uncomfortable truth I came to acknowledge was that religion is not innocuous—indeed it’s often, if not always, the exact opposite. The things I was taught as a child did great damage to me and hindered my development as a self-actualized human being. I’d thought that the Evangelical doctrines were innocent enough from an individual perspective. I was wrong.

These two realizations pushed me off the fence I’d been perched on for almost a decade. I weighed my own experiences and the things that I had read and learned throughout my twenties regarding religion and decided that it is not innocent, it is not blameless, it does not have a monopoly on morality and ethics, and perhaps, just maybe, we would all be better off without it.