Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An American veteran, Jon, describes his religious journey while deployed overseas:
I didn’t feel like I had a choice when it came to religion. Just as a child who has touched a hot stove knows what “hot” is, I knew three things about what just happened to me after I called out to God in one of the darkest moments of my life.
I knew he heard me.
I knew he knew me.
I knew he loved for me.
Out of the billions of people on the planet and the vastness of space, I knew the God of the cosmos had just taken a moment to step into my life in a tangible way. In that moment he revealed himself as a real, personal and loving God. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
There was no going back. I fell to my knees and asked God to take over my life because I had made a hot mess of it.
I was a soldier (who had spent four years in the Marines) deployed overseas after 9/11. My responsibilities as a squad leader were to make sure my men were ready for their mission. I could teach them to shoot, get them in shape, and inspect them before every mission, but I couldn’t help them when their dark hours came.
On the day we deployed, one of my young, married soldiers who had a two-year-old “had his heart ripped out” when his wife said she was leaving him and taking the kid. He was destroyed and depressed, and I didn’t know how to fix him.
About halfway through the deployment, one of my soldiers had a nervous breakdown on patrol. He threw his loaded weapon down and refused to be a soldier anymore. I later found out that his wife and six kids were struggling at home. I reacted the wrong way and missed the opportunity to help. I had nothing inside to give him.
And then tragedy hit. One of my older soldiers had three sons at home, and the oldest died due to swallowing his tongue during a seizure. The captain of our unit and I had to bring this soldier in, sit him down and tell him that his son had died. He was absolutely devastated. We told him that he had 30 days to go home, bury his son, take care of his family and come back to the mission. I had no hope for him.
These situations led me to start reading a small pocket Bible my not-yet father-in-law had given me. I started in Ecclesiastes hearing how a great king had chased every frivolous pursuit and found nothing could satisfy him. It said, “everything is meaningless,” and “there is nothing new under the sun.” The king’s pursuits of wisdom, wine, women, wealth, work, and worth had left his soul empty. All of that resonated with me, so I kept reading.
When I got to the Gospels, the person of Jesus intrigued my mind and inspired me beyond anything I’d ever known. His insight into the condition of the human heart and his words stirred in me a desire for truth.
When I read Jesus’ response in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me,” the exclusivity of his claim, power of his person and reality of my new relationship with him all came together. I believed he died and rose again, taking my sin with him, and I called him Lord.
The choice to follow Christ as Lord has made all the difference in my life.
In a previous reader note, a U.S. veteran lost his religion after seeing the horrors of Iraq while a fellow veteran stuck with his faith. Update from another reader, Dwight:
Coming to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to be born again and to become a Christian, is NOT a religious choice. Christianity is not a religion, and if you think that’s all it is, then the chances of you being saved are slim and none.
Being a Christian, being saved, is all about having a personal RELATIONSHIP with the Creator of the universe, with the God who became human flesh at the same time as being God and came to earth to die for the sins of man and to reconcile man to God the Father. The Lord isn’t looking for religious people; He’s looking for people who will have a personal relationship with Him as Redeemer, Savior and Lord.
Being religious is of no value and is a man-made thing. God is much higher than religion. Religion is man looking for a higher authority, power or God; Christianity is about a relationship and it is God coming to man, not the other way around.
Our Choosing Your Religion special project has run its course, and we’ve already aired a ton of your personal stories and reflections centered on the question “What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?,” but there are still many more excellent emails worth posting, so we’ll continue to do so every Sunday, indefinitely. This next one comes from Maria, who as a teenager chose secular works of art over her family’s stifling religion and grew to favor the lessons of a Swedish auteur over her father’s:
I’m so pleased with the “Choosing My Religion” series! Much like the reader who submitted “The Security Blanket of Christianity Was Actually Smothering Me” and the accompanied email from Libby Anne, my biggest religious choice stemmed from the non-choice I faced during my childhood/teen years: I grew up in a self-proclaimed “non denominational” Christian church, one that boasts a literal interpretation of the Bible—one that, after many deep-internet sessions, I’ve found to be a cult.
I have only truly felt “myself” for the past five years, and I’ve thrown myself into books, film, and the depths of Spotify to counter years of starvation in these areas. This year I received Bergman on Bergman as a Christmas gift and found that Ingmar Bergman grew up with a strict religious father, a parish minister prone to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In these interviews, Bergman explores the effect such an upbringing had on his psyche, noting Christianity’s penchant for shame:
If I’ve objected strongly to Christianity, it has been because Christianity is deeply branded by a very virulent humiliation motif. One of its main tenets is, ‘I, a miserable sinner, born in sin, who have sinned all my days, etc.’ Our way of living and behaving under this punishment is completely atavistic.
He expands upon his objection to Christianity and its effects, thinking of his idol, August Strindberg:
It was just that [Strindberg] expressed things which I’d experienced and which I couldn’t find words for. I was stuffed with inhibitions—that’s something we mustn’t forget in this connection. I had difficulty in speaking, sometimes I even stammered a little, as I still do at times to this day. I also found it hard to express myself in writing—a tremendous resistance. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t sing. I played a little, but wasn’t much of a hand at any musical instrument, either—I found it hard to read the music. I couldn’t dance. I was shut in every way.
I identified strongly with these words, and became even more obsessed with my personal narrative, as well as the effects of mandatory religious devotion on children.
My dad and step-mom were “reached out” to in the park where I played as a first grader. Until this point, my father wasn’t religious at all. He wore his hair long, was a devout vegan, he self-published an autobiographical comic, and looked like an extra from Slacker.
At first, he was outraged and offended at the invite. His (then) girlfriend was more receptive and started going to their church. She was drawn in by their seeming niceness and well-behaved kids; these folks emitted undeniable confidence.
After attending many church functions and completing their set of Bible studies, she was “born again” and became a Christian / “Disciple.” She promptly moved out of our house with the new conviction that to live with a man before marriage (read: premarital sex) is a sin in need of repentance.
My dad was heartbroken, unfulfilled by his art, unresolved over his failed marriage to my mother, and was moved in observance of his ex’s extreme change. When it became clear that he would permanently lose her if he did not convert, my dad followed suit.
He was transformed into a completely different person. One of the core beliefs of the church is living for your “treasure in heaven,” taking pride in possessing a strict outsider attitude towards the temporal world. With his newfound doctrine, he passed judgments on his extended and immediate family. He burned many bridges, losing friends from within the art community.
I was denied access to anything deemed “impure,” anything declared ungodly or “worldly.” Any piece of media that I watched, read, listened to, looked at, etc. was to be screened. This meant censorship of movies, TV, music, books, internet, questionable company (anyone outside of the church), extracurricular activities, teachings on evolution, overnight field trips … anything that contradicted their beliefs was a crude waste of time.
When you have someone consistently telling you that the things that you enjoy are sinful, evil, superficial, unimportant, negative, you may start hearing and believing, as I did: you are sinful, you are evil, you are unimportant. I felt that I lost my father to Jesus Christ, and it was not safe to be myself.
I went along with everything, believing what I was taught. I think I wanted to “win” my dad back—his approval. I was baptized at 13. My dad was thrilled with the choice, which in retrospect was not a choice at all. After all, I was a kid only getting one side of the story, being told that this story was The story.
I tried very hard to be the best little Christian. I invited my schoolmates to church, reached out to strangers at the mall, read the Bible and prayed daily, attended summer camps, Friday “devotionals,” Tuesday bible discussion group, Wednesday “mid-week” church service, and regular Sunday service. I had a “discipler” with whom I was to check in, reporting any sin, sharing “good news” of successful outreaches and getting life advice (approval) regularly.
When I left these beliefs behind at 15, the majority of my knowledge base was nullified. Having been programmed to devalue the secular, I was left with crushing depression and anxiety. My reason for living was revealed to be false logically, scientifically, and so on.
I left home after a falling out at 19, as it became too hard to live in their household as a non-believer. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand myself (and them), trying to deprogram.
These years following my departure from the church have been tumultuous. I am now 25 and have moved eight times. I’ve broken up with a few boyfriends who really loved me. I have had nine different jobs. I have a good amount of credit card debt. You could say my personal life has been unstable, and that I struggle with impulse control.
This year, I’ve been trying a new form of therapy: DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. In a recent session, my therapist wrote down two phrases and suggested that I look at them everyday until our next session, taking note of any feelings that arise:
1. I have to hide my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.
2. I have to prove my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.
She articulated the constant internal conflict that I feel which contributes to extreme self-hate, depression and anxiety. I am always seeking love and wanting to share myself and to be validated because I was not validated or loved in a healthy way in my childhood.
At the same time, I’m crippled by potential or perceived rejection: Anything not overtly positive is understood to be negative. I understand this now to be hyper-vigilance as a result of excessive criticism and control. My behaviors and symptoms are defense mechanisms, acting as a form of PTSD.
I was deprived of so many experiences and pieces of media, and I feel triggered when I don’t know or haven’t done something. I feel like a perpetual alien, always playing catch-up, feeling shame for not knowing the *thing* everyone else knew ages ago.
I’ll end with another Bergman quote, as there are no neat conclusions:
My basic view of things is—not to have any basic view of things. From having been exceedingly dogmatic, my views on life have gradually dissolved. They don’t exist any longer.
This story from reader Heather is short but powerful:
I left the Baha’i faith because they shunned a former member. The reason for the shunning was that she had lied when she was trying to leave an oppressive regime. She told the officer at the airport that she was Muslim like her eight-year-old son and husband. Baha’i leaders said she should have told the truth about being Baha’i, even though she would have become a martyr. Yes, she knew for sure that they would have killed her. She should have endured this for her faith. She should have left her son motherless in order to be an example to the world.
If you’re a follower of the Baha’i faith and would like to respond to this email or share your own experience, please let us know. For those who are unfamiliar with the small and relatively new religion, here’s a brief introduction from the Bahai National Center:
Update from a reader:
I grew up as a Baha’i, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Khomeini regime was at its height, many Baha’is were being martyred on a regular basis in Iran. It was definitely something that was a sorrowful point of pride—horror and sadness that people were losing lives, strength and solidarity that people would not recant their religion. Many of us in the United States wrestled with these ideas to no solid conclusions, but I will say it still pisses me off when Christians in the U.S. claim to be oppressed when people around the world still are actually being martyred for their faith.
That said, no one, even at that time, would blame someone for escaping with their lives using any means possible. What Heather may be confusing this with is the treatment of a shadowy splinter group of (usually) ex Baha’is who—much like the Sunni/Shia schism—decide to disavow Baha’ullah in favor of the Bab. This would be like saying John the Baptist is the true lead figure of Christianity rather than Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t something that came up very much and I certainly never met one of these people. For me, the Faith was not a good fit—politically, personally, and theologically—but I still love and respect my former fellow believers very much!
That’s where Christopher Gerlica came across Taoism:
Hi there! I’m really fascinated by your reader series on religious choice. Some basic facts before I get into my little story: I’m 32 years old, I’m white, grew up outside of Detroit in a religiously diverse city/high school, and now I live in the most Catholic state in the union (Rhode Island). Oh and I’m gay and married to an atheist.
My biggest religious choice, hands down, is when I decided to convert to Daoism (please note the spelling, as there are some different opinions about that). My family is “Catholic”—by the quotes I mean I was never baptized, we never went to church, and I didn’t actually see a real live Bible until I was in college. Basically, we were very secular, but I think my parents felt they had to give me some religious upbringing and would ask me randomly if I believed in God (I said yes, because that was the socially acceptable answer). But that was it when it came to religion.
Around the time I was 16 and finally coming to terms with my sexuality and the fact that frankly all the branches of Christianity weren’t too hot about the gays in the early ‘00s, I turned to my family’s set of World Book Encyclopedias. At the time we didn’t have internet or a computer, so these were my only real outlet to explore what else was out there.
I started by looking up “religion” and found what the book classified as the eight main world religions at the time. I pretty much immediately counted out the monotheistic/Abrahamic religions for two reasons: 1. not gay friendly and 2. I have always struggled believing that if there is some higher power, it was just one being. The structure of a team of deities always made much more logical sense. After reading up on Hinduism and Buddhism, they got the cut once I realized that Brahma was kind of confusing at the time and I’m too materialistic, respectively.
I can’t remember the other religions, but I really soaked up the belief system of Daoism. And when I say Daoism, I mean both the philosophical aspect of the Yin and Yang, as well as everything in the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), and the religious side too, which admittedly is derived more from the Chinese folk religions than anything Lao Tzu said.
By the time I graduated high school and entered college, I was trying to read up on anything I could about Daoism and started wearing a sweet Yin and Yang necklace (did I mention this was the early ‘00s?). I went to undergrad in Michigan’s Bible belt—everyone basically seemed very religious, and specifically Protestant, so during that first year people would totally ask what kind of Christian I was, or where I went to church, etc, and being asked that a lot and not wanting to go into a whole “no being agnostic is not the same as atheist” I really did realize that I am a Daoist.
(Side note: I learned early on in college that even the most conservative religious person would never question or try to convert me, but respected me in a way I know they would not respect an atheist, because I had some type of faith. Maybe a bit of a religious privilege? Not sure, but that always fascinated me.)
It was an unplanned move to be vocal about this new religious choice I’d made. Since then, I’ve thought about if my heart was truly in my religion or if it was just some fad, like pooka shell necklaces. But I’m very happy to say that it’s not been some random choice, but really was the path that was meant for me.
A couple last things (I know this got long, sorry!) in reference to some of the themes I think this series is touching on: the ready availability of information today and how my age group views science, logic, etc versus religious dogma. To the former, I would not have originally discovered Daoism if not for my World Books, but my faith would not have grown without my ability to have the internet to research Daoism, its traditions, holidays, and deities. The internet has really enriched my religious experience, something that would have been prohibitively difficult if I had come of age at any time before I did.
As to the latter theme—how my age group views science versus dogma—I’m a lawyer, so I think in terms of facts and logic all the time and I don’t question evolution or any scientific theory, whether or not it puts into question some myth within Daoism. I think the tricky part that those of us who are religious in this day and age have to do is re-think our beliefs to see if they are congruent with scientific reality. I’m just very lucky that Daoism is actually quite a free-wheeling and poorly defined religion in comparison to, say, Christianity or Islam.
The formative experience of my religious life took place in Sunday School when I was about six. The local Presbyterian church was down the street and down the hill from our house, and somehow Mom let me “drive" my “car” (a small black toy car with little pedals that would turn the front wheels) down the hill and leave it in one of the parking spots during the service, much to the amusement of the congregation. Sunday School typically consisted of reading a children’s version of a story from the Bible, discussing the various themes, and having a snack.
This all went off without a hitch, until we came to Genesis.
At the age of six, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. My favorite toys were dinosaurs. My favorite movie was about dinosaurs. My favorite TV show was Paleo-World, which my parents would let me stay up an extra half-hour on Monday nights to watch. From this “research” I knew that the dinosaurs had died out 365 million years ago, which I understood to mean “a really long time before people existed.”
Now back to Sunday School. When they introduced the story of Genesis, they said it was about how the world was made and how we came to be. I was extremely excited, because I knew that somewhere in between the creation of the world and the creation of man, there were dinosaurs. I was about to hear a story about dinosaurs. I couldn’t wait.
But then a funny thing happened: God made the world, and then God made man. No dinosaurs.
I asked our teacher where the dinosaurs were in the story, and while I don’t remember what the answer was, my little mind didn’t find it particularly satisfying. It was clear to me that dinosaurs were real, and if this explanation of world history did not include them, then it must be wrong.
At that moment, I ceased to believe anything they said in church. I came to view them as liars. This germ of skepticism has stayed with me my entire life. Everything I have since learned about history, archaeology, physics, cosmology, biology, and religion has been in some sense aimed at trying to answer the question, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in Genesis?” On this matter, my 30-year-old self and six-year-old self are in perfect agreement, because Genesis is wrong.
That question is addressed in the following video alongside the question, “What makes someone Black?”—and it’s a really great complement to our reader thread:
Here’s an overview of that documentary, Little White Lie, which our video team featured last summer:
Lacey Schwartz was raised in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity. Others often remarked on her dark skin, but her family always said that her looks were inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. “I would tell myself, my dad gets really tan in the summertime or my mom’s hair is really curly just like mine,” Schwartz says in this excerpt [embedded above] from her documentary Little White Lie. It wasn’t until Georgetown University admitted her as a black student—based off a picture—that Schwartz started to question the identity that her parents gave her.
The nine-minute video ends on a big cliffhanger, and you can buy the full documentary on iTunes or Amazon, but I discovered it’s also streaming on Netflix. I jumped into the stream and heard the following quote from Schwartz (the irony of her name is just too perfect), remembering a moment at her bat mitzvah when a member of her synagogue told her, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence.” That made me think of an email that just arrived from Alex, the first reader who responded to the story from Abby that started this whole discussion on Jewish identity and conversion. Here’s Alex:
It was good to correspond with you a few days ago. I found a recent Times of Israel article about members of the African Selwi tribe in Ghana converting to Judaism. You can also look up additional information from Kulanu, an organization which helps isolated communities (African and Asian tribes, etc.) to reconnect with Judaism. Also try B’Chol LaShon, with a similar mission: reaching out to people who want to become Jews by Choice.
There’s a small post I did several years ago on the “Lost Jews” of Zimbabwe that also might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the more complex areas of Jewish identity in Africa.
Abby also emailed a followup:
Thanks again for this opportunity. It’s been enlightening and interesting to follow along with the responses you guys have been posting to my submission. My friends and I have also been laughing all day about how many angry emails you must have received from Jews obsessed over what makes someone a Jew.
Actually there haven’t been any angry emails at all. (Perhaps there’s anger over on Twitter, but I wouldn’t know.) It’s been remarkable how gracious but candid readers have been over this topic. Our latest email comes from Aaron, who doesn’t introduce an especially new angle to the discussion but does an eloquent job of highlighting the best parts:
I want to address a few things that came up in other readers’ responses. First, Alex draws the line on openness to conversion between traditional and liberal forms of Judaism: “The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open.” I don’t disagree with that, but I think it has to be majorly qualified with another line, one that Lekha alludes to: “So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.” This is the line—presumably only present in the liberal forms of Judaism—between religious Judaism and purely secular Judaism.
I’m a Jew who spent his childhood attending High Holy Day services at a Reform temple, and although as a college student I still attend these services sometimes, it’s never been a matter of spirituality. I have no connection whatsoever to the religious side of Judaism; the reason I still attend services, and the reason I consider myself a Jew, is entirely a matter of culture and heritage.
This is true for most of my family, as well. For us, to be Jewish is to connect with a familial history of having been Jewish, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say we draw on Jewish cultural values in a big way; if we have “Jewish values,” they’re the values inherited from, say, American secular Jewish culture rather than from a millennia-long religious culture.
So, that someone like Evan would find the sentence “I identify as Jewish” bizarre is, to me, extremely bizarre, at least for anybody who recognizes that there is a substantial chunk of the Jewish population whose connection to Judaism is rooted only in heritage. I do firmly believe that it’s not meaningful for someone to identify secularly as a Jew if they don’t have that heritage, in the same way that someone cannot identify racially with a heritage they don’t have; but it’s important to recognize that some of us call ourselves Jewish not by virtue of adherence to religious practice, but rather solely by virtue of identification with cultural heritage.
In fact, I take the significance of this identification to be something externally imposed more than anything else: As Jon wrote, “[having standards for acceptance] is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions.”
My identification as Jewish is most deeply rooted in the fact that throughout most of history I would have been labelled as Jewish no matter what I said; that I would have been sent to a concentration camp if I had lived in Nazi Germany in spite of my secularity; that even today I would fear being beaten for talking about my Jewish heritage if I had grown up in Malmö rather than in a major city in the U.S. For me, and for many of the secular Jews I know, identifying as Jewish is tantamount to publicly recognizing that this past is still very much with us, and to standing up to that past, to saying “There is no accepting us as people without accepting as people with this heritage, with this culture—without accepting us as Jewish people.”
As an aside, I want to address something that’s come up in a few of the more religious Jewish readers’ responses: namely, that one is a Jew only by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or converting. I have no problem with this as a doctrine for religious Jews, but I’m extremely wary of applying it to secular Jews. My mother happens to be my Jewish parent, so it’s never been an issue for me, but I hate seeing this kind of exclusion among other secular Jews. The fact of the matter is that, as I wrote above, secular identification with Judaism is largely the result of external labelling, and since a lot of the people doing the external labelling didn’t care at all which parent was Jewish, neither should we.
To identify as a secular Jew is to have Jewish blood and to choose to embrace the label for yourself as a sign of resistance—and nothing more.
One more story, from Maia:
I was adopted as a baby into a Jewish family and was “converted” at two months old by a Conservative rabbi. We did the mikveh and the baby naming and all that. Same with my older brother.
I am now basically a reform/secular Jew, in that I enjoy all the rituals/holidays but I’m not particularly drawn to the theology or keeping kosher etc. My brother is more observant, but when studying with ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he was told that he was not Jewish because his conversion wasn’t done by an Orthodox rabbi. Very upsetting, to say the least.
Even though I am not an observant Jew, when I got married (to a lapsed Catholic), we had a Jewish wedding ceremony and agreed to raise our kids Jewish. His family understands this generally, but I have struggled to explain why I’m uncomfortable celebrating Easter or Christmas with them. Basically, their question is, if I’m not actually concerned about the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, why do I care if we celebrate Christian holidays as well?
The best explanation I can come up with is that it’s helpful to view Jews as you would various Native American groups—that is, as members of a particular tribe. This means that there is both an ethnic/nationalist component to the identity as well as a religious/cultural component.
Now imagine that this tribe is expelled from its homeland and scattered throughout the world. What remains? As the group fractures, the rituals and religion are kept alive but because the tribe is scattered throughout numerous countries, the ethnic identity is muddled (except, of course, when it is used as a point of discrimination).
This means you end up today with ethnic Jews who don’t practice any of the traditions, religious converts who have entered into the “tribe” by agreeing to adopt the belief and ritual system, and everything in between.
For me, it’s fair to say that I don’t adhere to all the laws and rituals of the Jewish tribe, but they are still the framework within which I learned about Judaism and eventually chose how to express myself as a Jew. For me this means that I don't want to celebrate Easter—not because it’s Christian per se, but rather because it is notJewish and, thus not part of my identity, ethnically, religiously, or culturally.
Finally, I agree that it’s terrible that Jews of any stripe would be unwelcoming to converts, but every religion and ethnic group has their own internal strife about who is “authentic” and who isn’t. The truth is, these discussions don’t have a “real” answer; they just serve to highlight what is important to a particular person about his or her own religious identity.
That’s a good note to end on with this Jewish discussion, unless someone has an exceptionally new experience or angle to share. We’ll post more of your stories on other religious choices soon.
Two more Jewish readers continue to debate that question—raised by Abby, the young Catholic-turned-Jew, and then complicated by Lekha, the young Southerner with a Jewish father and Hindu mother. First up is Esther, an Orthodox Jew who is “very normal, but you’d describe me as ‘ultra’ because of the way I look and because I don’t have a TV”:
Jews are Jews by way of being born to a Jewish mother or by converting and following the Torah.
I think some of the people who are writing in and saying they “converted” to Judaism are saying they are Jewish, but at the same time, their lifestyle and practices reject the most important parts of Judaism, so I’m not quite sure why they would expect others to embrace them as fellow Jews. Someone who converts to Judaism but by word and deed refuses to embrace real Jewish practices (eating kosher, belief in God, belief in the Messiah’s anticipated arrival, fasting on fast days, learning Torah on a regular basis, saying blessings before eating, and on and on—there are hundreds of commandments!) is naturally going to be viewed as an inauthentic outsider.
To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion—only the members of the Jewish family do.
And here’s Evan Kominsky, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis:
I was raised in a Jewish household and went to a Conservative synagogue. If you asked me how I would label myself today, I would reluctantly say Orthodox. I say reluctantly because I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. All of these other divisions are extremely harmful to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.
One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people “identify.”
At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence “I identify as Jewish” is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying “I identify as Korean,” regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays.
It pains me to hear about those in the Jewish community who feel excluded. And this is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But the tension described by readers Abby and Lekha between their Jewish identity and their beliefs is an outgrowth of this philosophy, which, when taken to the extreme, falls closer to the antithetical side.
In Jewish practice, there is a balance between the rights and experience of the individual and the obligations that the individual has towards the community. When you swing too heavily to one side or the other, problems start to arise. If you view the “strict religious expectations of what Judaism is” as rules that are meant solely to help the individual connect to God, it’s no wonder they are left by the wayside when they don’t jive 100 percent with how you relate to God.
But there is another aspect. Take for example the commandments surrounding the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). They are given no explanation in the Torah. Later commentators have explained them in context, adding depth and breadth to their significance, but at their core, they are not meant to be understood by human logic. Were each person to say, “I don’t relate to these laws, so I am not going to follow all of them,” the concept of community would be destroyed. No one would be able to eat at each other’s houses.
Another example is Shabbat observance. Jewish law prohibits driving on Shabbat (due to the prohibition of lighting a fire). The collective observance of this law ensures that all members of the Jewish community live within walking distance of the synagogue, and thereby each other. Setting aside the philosophical reasons for this law for the moment (there is a lot of rich material here), the moment people began to privilege their personal feelings to whether or not they relate to a law over the needs of the public, the communal structure of living next to the people you pray with and go to school with and socialize with collapses.
There is a lot to be said here, but the main point I want to get across is that when experiencing a tension between what you believe and what “traditional” Judaism mandates, instead of automatically criticizing what to you seems restrictive, perhaps it would be beneficial to turn a critical eye to the individualistic tendency that idolizes personal preference as the supreme value.
Update from another reader, Jon:
There is so much more nuance to Jewish identity than the strawmen and facile explanations of Jewish law that some of your readers are offering. By one version, you can stick a Post-It on your head that says “I’m Jewish” and you are; by another, unless a certain select set of rabbis signs off on your conversion or your ancestors, you aren’t.
The latter is only the case if you accept one interpretation of Judaism as the only one and assume that the people who have interpreted them have made no mistakes. Under this interpretation, people who have fulfilled the requirements for conversion even under the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in Israel can have their conversions annulled decades later, even if most of their ancestry is Jewish—something which simply is not in the rabbinic sources regarding conversion rites and amounts to as much of an innovation as anything else. Also under this version, people whose ancestry may be unclear due to war or other tragedy may have to convert—in some cases even from communities that have been Jewish from time immemorial, simply because they aren’t on the right lists.
Under the former version, the Post-It one, people are expecting to have everyone accept them as Jewish no matter how little of the various traditions he accepts. In a different way, this too is asking your liberal interpretation of Judaism to be accepted by all. And while I agree that this seems to mesh with people feeling at liberty to pick their identities regardless of actual facts and expect everyone to agree, the difference here is that conscience or beliefs are at least part of being Jewish—and those can change, even if who your parents are cannot. We ought to make that distinction.
Finally, while you can cite important central distinguishing rituals like kashrut, shabbat, and circumcision, anyone who thinks that these are the only obligations of a “traditional” Jew is being just as selective as any reformer. There are responsibilities to the community and to the “stranger” as well. And being a “traditional” Jew alone does not give you a carte blanche to all walks of Jewish life. Indeed, the majority of the population of the State of Israel is secular. One could argue service in the IDF and an Israeli passport is just as much a symbol of Jewish peoplehood as anything any rabbi could issue. Do these secular Jews who eat non-kosher food and turn lights on and off on Saturday not count? If they do, why doesn’t a convert who is more observant? Who’s to say?
The answer is: each different group will have its own standards for acceptance. Failing to recognize all of these different Judaisms, all of these different ways of being Jewish, are problems both the recent converts who think they’ve checked all the boxes and the haredim who think they alone hold the spiritual keys to Jewish peoplehood share.
All in all, however, this is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions, so we should probably all give each other a break. It’s one thing to build a fence around the Torah to protect it from false change, another altogether to build a fence to keep genuine believers away.
Here’s one more Jewish reader, Steve, with “yet another perspective on the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question”:
I had a good laugh when I read “As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying 'I identify as Korean,' regardless of one’s actual heritage”—since I am an Orthodox Jew, as is my Korean-born wife, an Orthodox Convert completely accepted by my “ultra-Orthodox” cousins with absolutely no thought that she doesn’t “look Jewish.” You’d get a blank look from them if you mention “cultural appropriation.”
My wife is still very much a Korean-American, but now she is also 100% Jewish—as Jewish as Golda Meir. Indeed, I kid her that she should have taken the name Golda when she converted, as my Jewish name is Tovye and we have five daughters between us …
You’re probably realizing at this point that this conversation is a perpetual motion machine. I think it’s so fascinating because this is one of those places where the Western Liberal Tradition meets Torah and neither one is backing down.
The reader who prompted that question, Abby, was raised Catholic and converted to Conservative Judaism in college but feels she hasn’t been fully accepted by traditionalist Jews. I updated Abby’s note with a really thoughtful response from a Jewish reader, Alex, who described how “our religion is tribal-based, in a way,” and that “Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.” Building on that discussion is Michael, an Orthodox Jew:
First of all, the Notes section is absolutely amazing. It’s hard to find a place on the internet which hosts thoughtful and civil conversations about sensitive subjects.
As an Orthodox Jew, I want to add the following point to give context to the discussion about conversion: Judaism discourages potential converts because it does not view being Jewish [as] the only path to a relationship with God and a life well lived. According to Jewish beliefs, all that is asked of gentiles is to recognize that there is only one God and to commit to observe basic moral obligations (a set of seven commandments commonly referred to as “Noahide laws”).
Being Jewish is to be part of the covenantal relationship that God established with Abraham and his descendants, a relationship that comes with added responsibilities that are not demanded of the rest of humanity. Because this level of observance is not for everyone, we typically dissuade potential converts and recommend the universal means of serving God, unless they are truly committed to Judaism on principle and not for ulterior motives.
That being said, the Bible does repeatedly remind us to love converts and not hurt them in any way, including emotionally. I echo Alex’s suggestion that many Jews’ questions to converts are a result of curiosity more than anything else. Observant Jews struggle with the tension of leading religious lives in modern society on a daily basis and often wonder how a convert would choose to accept that tension when it would seem much easier to avoid it entirely.
Our next reader is Lekha, who grew up in North Carolina with a Jewish father and a Hindu mother:
As someone who both considers herself Jewish, but is not recognized as such by many other Jews, Abby’s experience as a Jewish convert brought up a lot of feelings for me. I myself often feel like an outsider to Judaism in many ways.
My mother is not Jewish; she is a South Asian Hindu. So to many people I do not “look” Jewish, but I was raised in the religion of my father’s family. I have been lucky enough that people do not generally question my Jewish identity when I claim it, but I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences where people try to explain Judaism to me because they assume that I could never have that background based on how I look.
Also, unlike many Jews in this country, I was raised in a small Southern town with a very tiny Jewish community and no synagogue. I attended a Jewish Sunday school run by the local Jewish group, but I did not have the experience of being raised in a vibrant, large, Jewish community with an established synagogue and lots of opportunities to participate in religious life. Outside of regular Shabbat dinners, and some Sunday school attendance, I didn’t have much access to the kinds of resources that would bolster my knowledge and identity within Judaism.
This has also left me feeling a bit insecure about my Judaism with respect to others who grew up in large (usually Northeastern) cities and thus had access to those resources, feel part of an established community, and make other Jewish friends. This was very different from being part of a very small community in an area where Jews are mostly looked upon with confusion or curiosity (and sometimes prejudice—the number of times I was told I was going to hell / asked to come to Jesus during my childhood is staggering).
Throughout my childhood I only had one Jewish friend, and most of my other friends were Protestants of various stripes who were kind but convinced that my religion was sinfully wrong. This, combined with the lack of community support and being a Jewish person of color, left me feeling very much an outsider to Judaism and Jewish identity—especially when I went to college outside Philadelphia and encountered people who had spent their whole lives surrounded by other Jews, engaging in BBYO, Jewish summer camps, and other activities that reinforced that identity.
As I got older I realized that my actual beliefs about god(s) were not in line with traditional Judaism. However, I still very much claim myself as a Jew, and while I don’t attend regular services, I do celebrate holidays with friends and family. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to the annual vegan, feminist Seder that a close friend and I hold every year next Friday!
So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.
I must admit that I often feel confused when I meet Jewish converts. I think this is because many Jews, especially most of the relatively secular American Jews I know, look on being Jewish as a cultural identity more than a religious identity. People would be confused (or rightly offended, as evidenced by cases like that of Rachel Dolezal) if someone tried to “convert” to a culture or ethnicity that they were not raised in. Many people who claim their identity as Jews, including myself, don’t keep kosher, don’t attend services regularly, and otherwise don’t conform to strict religious expectations of what Judaism is. Yet they can still see themselves as Jewish, because for them it’s primarily a cultural identity.
That’s the perception that Abby Seitz, a 19-year-old journalism student, is struggling with:
I converted to Judaism through the Conservative Movement at the end of my freshman year of college. I was first drawn to Judaism as a 13-year-old girl at Sports Broadcasting Camp. About 60 percent of the campers were Jewish. There had only been one Jewish student in my elementary and middle school in Virginia. I was fascinated by my new friends and their talk of bar mitzvahs and BBYO.
As I learned more about Judaism through the Internet, I began to feel like my angsty teenage existential crisis of anxiety and questions had been answered. I was raised Catholic and did not feel comfortable questioning how one man could encompass both a god and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t understand why the Church took such staunch political positions—especially ones that I morally could not comprehend.
The first time I stepped foot in a synagogue was a few weeks before the High Holidays in 2012, when I was a sophomore in high school. The rabbi at the small reform congregation an hour from my house would not let me begin the conversion process until I was 18.
In the meantime, I read as much as I could and looked at colleges that had a Hillel. I stopped eating out because the food wasn’t kosher-certified.
I wasn’t able to fully live a Jewish life until I moved to Chicago for school in the fall of 2014. While I watched my peers battle homesickness and the difficulty of learning to cook and clean and take care of themselves, I was trying to navigate Jewish social norms. I was shocked when I would go out with my Jewish friends and they would mix meat and milk, or skip services on Yom Kippur.
My freshman year was easily the most eventful: being told by Chabad rabbis I would never be a Jew, being broken up with because my mother isn’t Jewish, the constant personal inquires of, “Oh, you’re a convert? Why did you do that? How do your parents feel about that?”
The biggest religious choice was not standing before a beit din, a court of three rabbis, and declaring my belief in the 613 mitzvot of Judaism, or denouncing my belief in Jesus. It wasn’t giving up Goldfish because they aren’t kosher-certified or spending most of my free time in September trying to make up homework for classes that fall on the High Holidays. The biggest religious choice I ever made was joining a people who, at every turn, did not seem to want me.
Update from a Jewish reader, Alex, who articulates the complexity of how ethnicity, history, and citizenship all relate to being Jewish and practicing Judaism—in all its varied “streams”:
Your reader raises interesting points, but it makes it look like Jews and Judaism as a whole are exclusionary and rejects convert, which is only a half-truth. The reality is much more complex because there are substantial differences between traditional and liberal Judaism.
It is true that Judaism traditionally does not seek converts. While during antiquity Judaism was open to converts, Roman and later Christian prosecutions of Jews and severe state sanctions for conversions led Rabbinic authorities to discourage conversions as well. In fact, if someone wants to convert, the rabbis traditionally need to discourage the person at least three times, to make sure that only those most committed to Judaism and most diligent in seeking to convert join the Jewish people.
Another issue is that Judaism (like some other religions) is based on descent—in the Jewish case, on matrilineal descent—and that, traditionally, we, the Jewish people, regarded ourselves as being descended from our ancestors who stood at Sinai 3,000 years ago when we were granted the Torah upon the Exodus from Egypt. So, in a way, our religion is tribal-based.
Throughout human history, it’s been generally unusual, but not impossible to join another human nation or tribe. (For instance, I could not become Korean or Chinese if I wanted to, although of course, in modern nation states it’s possibly to acquire citizenship). Unlike some other descent-based religions which do not accept conversions—like the Zoroastrians and the Druze—Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.
Although there are many intermarried couples (including my own), conversion to Judaism is still relatively rare, particularly for the Orthodox stream of Judaism. The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open. I believe that your reader’s problem is that she is drawn to traditional Judaism (which is much more restrictive) rather than liberal Judaism (which is more welcoming). So, if she wants to feel more welcome, she should look for more liberal synagogues and date more liberal Jews for whom her conversion status isn’t a problem.
As the personal questions people ask (“why did you convert?” and “how do your parents feel about it?”), she should not take it personally. Such questions typically reflect inquisitiveness rather than standoffishness or hostility. Most people usually stay within the confines of the faith there were born in, so a person who does something atypical obviously elicits curiosity. Once she provides a reasoned reply, most Jews I know would accept the answer (and her as a fellow Jew) and move on.
That’s the metaphor used by this reader in describing the biggest religious decision of her life:
I’m 35 and was raised in a very extreme, conservative Christian environment. My parents homeschooled me all the way through high school, mostly so that they could control what I learned about the world and about religion. This means that I spent all of my life until the age of 18 or so being not only intensively indoctrinated, but also incredibly isolated from the outside world.
Virtually everyone I interacted with believed in “scientific creationism,” as we called it, and in my history books I learned about Manifest Destiny and God’s glorious plan for America. I also learned, both at home and at church, that as a woman I needed to submit to the men in my life, and that God’s best for me was to stay at home and raise a large family.
Undoing the brainwashing took a long time. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I made my biggest religious choice: atheism!
It was a decision for freedom, but still, leaving my religion (and acknowledging that I’d grown up in something closer to a tiny cult than a loving family) plunged me into a crisis. The loss of so many long-held beliefs and ways of looking at the world was so devastating that for a time, I needed therapy three times a week.
I know that many people practice a more liberal form of religion. But that’s not an option for me, at least not at this point. The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice. Attending a (liberal) Christmas Eve service with my new boyfriend’s Catholic family brought on PTSD-like symptoms.
Sometimes I still look back wistfully to the days when I could cling to the knowledge that God had a plan and knew better than I did, no matter what happened. The world felt like a more secure place when I saw it in black-and-white terms and believed myself to be a child of the Creator.
But I don’t get too wistful, because I know that the security blanket of Christianity was actually smothering me. I am much happier now, in my secular life as a humanist. For the first time, I can breathe freely and think honestly. I no longer see myself as a worm with no worth apart from what Christ has given me. I no longer have to repent of each tiny mistake I make. I no longer live in fear of hell. I no longer need to twist my mind to accept things that are in fact illogical and unproven.
Unfortunately, I do still struggle with anger and bitterness and confusion and grief at the way I was raised. I don’t understand the choices my parents made.
That reader’s story reminds me of a similar one published in Patheos by Libby Anne, who was raised by conservative evangelical parents who homeschooled her in a kind of social separation from society increasingly known as “The Benedict Option,” a term popularized by the Orthodox Christian blogger Rod Dreher. The Benedict Option, formed mostly in response to the mainstream acceptance and full legalization of same-sex marriage, harkens back to the 5th century Saint Benedict of Nursia, who retreated from the decadence of Rome and formed an isolated group of monastic communities that sought to preserve Christianity through the Dark Ages. Today’s Ben Oppers are basically retreating from the culture wars, in contrast to the Moral Majority and other conservative religious groups seeking to shape national politics. (Laura Turner wrote a great piece for us last year on “what happens when the ‘moral majority’ becomes a minority.”)
For Libby Anne, her isolation from secular society had the opposite effect of what her parents intended; it led to her to abandon Christianity altogether, as well as a belief in any god. She explains:
The Christian homeschooling movement purports to raise strong, upstanding Christians who will, upon adulthood, be ready to communicate the truth of Christianity and the value of the Christian way of life to the world. The Benedict Option purports the same thing. But how is this supposed to happen if these same Christians grow up so shielded from the world that they have no idea how to interact with it? [...]
There’s another problem, too. Growing up within Christian community, I only ever heard the other side’s arguments through a sort of filter. For example, I studied evolution out of creationist textbooks which explained evolution in an incomplete way and was full of straw men of evolutionary scientists’ positions. The same was true with basically everything. I didn’t hear the other side’s argument from the horse’s mouth, as it were, until I was in [a secular] college, and when I did I was surprised, because what the other side actually said didn’t line up with what I’d been taught it said. This created a crisis of faith, because I no longer felt I could trust what my parents had taught me.
Because what I call the Christian bubble filter is so common across congregations and communities, raising children under a more separate Benedict Option could potentially mean that all of their information about the world outside the bubble would be filtered and thus distorted. This is a problem because when they eventually hear something from someone outside of the bubble, unfiltered—the moment they meet an ordinary gay couple happily raising children, or learn that using entropy to argue against evolution fails on the most basic level—-it won’t line up with what they’d been told inside the bubble. And frankly, postponing this moment until adulthood spells trouble.
Trouble in the sense of rejecting religion altogether, rather than adopting a less rigid form of Christianity, one that’s integrated with mainstream society—bending rather than breaking, in other words. Or, as our reader put it, “The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice.”
That’s what religion is to this Millennial reader, Angelle:
I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but you have to understand that it’s impossible to describe in few words what God has done for me.
The biggest religious choice I’ve made is to follow God above all things.
I was born in a Christian, Evangelical home. Before I even knew how to speak my heart believed in God. But it’s not my upbringing that allowed me to maintain in faith, but rather an ongoing set of events that kept proving me again and again that God exits, listens, and acts upon us.
God met me when my father’s stage 4, rapidly-growing cancer suddenly stopped 2cms away from destroying his brain. And when he had maxillofacial surgery to remove the cancer, the doctor couldn’t reconnect the optic nerve to his brain, but when he opened his eyes, he had perfect vision.
God met me in college, when recession had just hit, and my parents could no longer afford my education. Freshman year: I received a scholarship I never applied to. Sophomore year: I received a large donation from a stranger. Junior year: I was due to be expelled from university because of lack of payment, but instead I was given an extension until my senior year. And senior year: I was the only student in the history of a long established institution to attend graduation with a due balance.
God met me after college, when a series of life events lead me to depression, and when I consciously chose to give my life to Him. And when I asked Him to remove the pain, the suffering, the unwillingness to continue this life, He did. Beyond all comprehension or logic or tactic I could pinpoint as a proven method, He simply did.
It was only after all these events that I understood, at 25 years old, why I believe: not because I was taught to, but because life pushed me to a place where the only answer was God.
He pushed me to a feeling beyond this physical world.
He pushed me to a hope beyond rational understanding.
He pushed me to a state of indescribable peace.
He pushed me to a faith that makes a fool of what makes sense.
He met me where logic ends.
People keep looking for facts that God exists, and these facts are everywhere; most importantly within you. People just don’t know how to look, and sadly, don’t want to learn either.
This is very boring, but the biggest religious choice I’ve had to make is simply that of staying put. I was very fortunate in the tradition that I grew up in. While I am far from incurious, I found that my own tradition, with its demands and expectations of belief and behavior, held up pretty well under scrutiny. So I stayed.
Doing so has reinforced to me the value of rootedness and the flimsiness of whim, volition, and passing fancy. Doubts come and go, but I seem to inhabit a different zone from most modern Americans—not of certainty, but of inevitability. It’s true whether or not I believe it.
From a teenage Mormon reader, Madison Shumway:
A religious choice I suppose I’m still in the process of making is the one to stay in my religion rather than leave it. And while that’s not an unusual decision for many religious people to encounter at least once in their journeys in faith, I'm struggling with it a lot.
I’m 17 and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and for a few years I was dead-set on leaving the church as soon as I left my home, even if it meant cutting off my family and community entirely. That started changing a few months ago, when I decided I would try to find faith again.
That decision didn’t immediately transform my experience, as I hoped it would. Even though I had decided I wanted to stay, and wanted to believe in this huge and grand and intangible thing that made people I knew so happy, it wasn't as easy as one choice. Faith is elusive, and I learned that even when one devotes their lives to it, belief can be hard to cultivate.
At first my big issue with the Church, and staying involved in it, was its culture—the sometimes judgmental and exclusive and downright mean behavior of some of its members. After a while I realized that the culture I hated so much was something created by its members, who are all fallible humans, rather than doctrine or a divine being. I thought that epiphany would make my faith flourish, that it would no longer be so difficult to believe in the gospel in which I so desperately wanted to believe.
But it didn’t, and my journey got harder. Reconciling personal beliefs with religious ones is hard. Overcoming the effects un-Christlike Christians can have on one’s testimony is hard.
But what is so painfully and exhaustingly tough is aching to find belief when that belief just won’t come; when all your prayer and scripture study and church attendance and commandment-following doesn’t translate into faith, like you were always taught it would; when persevering only leads to more persevering, with no easily observable effects but frustration and an increasing feeling of hopelessness.
It takes up such a huge part of my life now, all the trying and worrying and crying and discussing and begging. It affects my mental and emotional health as well as my personal relationships.
Why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. I guess I see something in my religion, something bigger and further away than the promised blessings righteousness is supposed to bring—I guess I see some bright and immeasurable joy, somewhere off in the horizon. And so, every day, I make the choice to keep trying.
This email from another young Mormon woman might be able to help:
You could say I’m writing this in defense of organized religion, since I'm sharing the story of how I re-found my faith. I think your reader series is really perfectly timed, since the world’s focus on religion is so negative at the moment.
I’m 25. I’m a single Mormon girl living in Salt Lake City. I grew up Mormon, but finding my current faith has been a long process. I realize that my opinion may be extremely unpopular, and it’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the pieces you’ve published. But I feel really strongly about my faith, and want to champion it.
I want to share with you part of a talk I wrote last February. The Mormon church doesn’t have just one preacher or pastor; members of the congregation are invited to prepare talks and speak in the general meeting every Sunday instead. I’ve updated it a bit, but essentially, this is what I wrote:
A few months ago, one of the Humans of New York posts caught my eye. It said: “Going through life without God is like being an astronaut tumbling out of control in outer space....you've got to stay close. You can't cut your umbilical cord.” I just love that. For me, at least life without God really is like that, directionless and terrifying.
2013, the year I left the church, was the worst year of my life. I don't say that lightly, either—I mean it. I was in a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship for most of that year, and it, along with some leftover teenage rebellion, caused me to walk away from the church. I turned my back on all of it, including my family, for a year.
I grew up in the church, and was baptized at 8, went to church every week with my parents and younger sisters, attended all the youth meetings, etc., but it was much too easy for me to turn away. Even though I was going to church and doing all the right things, I was not applying the principles and doctrines I was learning to my life. I was just there.
One of the biggest influences on my returning to church was a book I read in 2013, called Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, by Kathleen Norris. It was her definition of sin that caught my eye: sin as “any impulse that leads us away from paying full attention to who [we are] and what we’re doing; any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor.” I remember reading that and thinking, wow, that’s a much better definition of sin than “doing arbitrary wrong things” or “breaking the rules.”
It was this definition that got under my skin and eventually helped me go back to church. I realized that all the principles and doctrines I’d learned growing up were still rattling around in my brain, and I realized that the very restrictions I was straining against would help me, if I followed them, to lead the kind of life I wanted to live—cleanly, soberly, and with a clear conscience. I realized I desperately wanted to stop lying to my family about, well, everything. I realized I needed something to believe in, because believing in nothing and making my own rules was such a hopeless endeavor—without the guidance of a loving God, the world did not make sense to me. I needed to believe that everything will work out in the end, even if everything looks hopeless right now, because God is in charge and He loves us, no matter what.
I’ve attached the whole talk [PDF], as it was when I gave it, if you’re at all interested in reading the whole thing. I believe that religion is an intensely personal thing, and I’m so glad for all the perspectives shared already. The fight regarding religious freedom is going to get worse before it gets better, I think.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whomever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.
We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.
However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.
Tomorrow, pending calamity or misfortune, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become president of the United States. In that moment, the United States’ approach to climate change will invert. Not least because Biden may finish his speech, walk inside the Capitol, and sign a letter committing the U.S. to rejoining the Paris Agreement.
Yet even if that “day one” promise isn’t kept until January 21, Biden’s inauguration will end an ugly period. Starting tomorrow, the highest levels of the federal government will stop intentionally, gleefully trying to make climate change worse. The Trump administration has progressed from enabling construction of fossil-fuel infrastructure to openly trying to make climate change worse. It has smuggled nonsensical math into law with the consequence of making Americans pay more at the pump; its supposedly marquee climate policy may have actually increasedcarbon pollution.In the dozen or so weeks since the election, it has undertaken a final debauchery of environmental rollbacks, finalizing more than a dozen new rules. One measure, borrowed from the playbook of Big Tobacco, restricts the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to consider medical studies in its rulemaking.
The new president must not repeat Obama's mistakes.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then, near the end of his first term, he signed the Social Security Act, which has reduced senior poverty and become one of the most popular federal programs in the United States.
President Joe Biden also faces concentric crises, which move outward toward the future as you unpeel them: the biological threat of the pandemic, the economic recession, and, beyond that, the entrenched problem of child poverty. He also has to contend with the problem casting a shadow over the whole century, the existential crisis of climate change.
Trump leaves behind a wounded nation, and it will take time to heal.
So what if he was bad at it?
The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.
Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.
“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.
In Washington, D.C. today, Joe Biden took the oath of office shortly before noon, becoming the 46th president of the United States of America. In front of a small, socially distanced, and well-guarded audience on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. The singers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks performed; the poet Amanda Gorman gave a reading; and Biden delivered his inaugural address to the nation. Gathered below are scenes from a unique moment in American history.
Trump’s pardons sent an unmistakable message, capping the corruption of his tenure in office.
“Drain the swamp.”
Of all Trump’s lies, that was one of the most puzzling. It’s not just that Trump himself was and is crooked, or even that he so obviously likes and admires crooks. It’s that Trump’s particular form of crookedness was exactly the kind of crookedness that people have in mind when they imagine Washington, D.C., as a “swamp.”
Trump’s first Manhattan real-estate deal—the first deal on which his employer-father allowed him to take the lead—was the redevelopment of a bankrupt historic hotel near New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The deal needed complex permissions from the city and the state. To obtain those permissions, Trump hired the famous fixer Roy Cohn. Cohn secured him a $400 million tax abatement plus other special favors, including a waiver of all urban-preservation rules. After the deal was done, the city official who bestowed the favors was hired as a partner in Cohn’s law firm. A decade later, that official went to federal prison for corruption crimes.
Hopefully one day, getting vaccinated will mean you no longer need a mask. But not yet.
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at email@example.com.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
I’m still confused about what our lives will be like after we are vaccinated. As I understand it, it will still be possible to get the virus, but hopefully the course won’t be as severe or life-threatening. And we are going to have people who won’t even get the vaccine. Do you foresee us still wearing masks for the next year or two? I hate to even type this question.
New London, New Hampshire
I can’t wait to stop wearing masks. I want to go out without a mask so badly that I’ve been dreaming about it. That’s how far the pandemic has lowered the ambitions of my dreams.