Baptists Are Like Cats: Some Stray Thoughts on the Psychology of the “Born Again”
In 1968, I was born again. I’d been Christian my whole life, of course – I was raised in a staunchly Southern Baptist home, and you were Baptist whether you’d been born again yet or not.
Not a lot of people know this about me, and given what I have become over the years, most folks simply don’t have the tools required to imagine what a straight-laced, God-loving boy I was up until, oh, my early 20s. But it’s true. At the age of seven, I walked down the aisle at Union Cross Baptist Church and told the Pastor, Rev. Roy Capehart, that I had accepted Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. Preacher Roy didn’t know it was coming, nor did my grandparents, because it wasn’t something I had talked about with them (or anybody, for that matter) ahead of time. But the Reverend came down out of the pulpit at the end of the service and gave the call, as he always did at the end of the service, and I imagine that the organist was playing “Just As I Am” when I decided this was the thing I needed to do.
Union Cross didn’t have its own baptismal pool, so every month or two, depending on demand, we’d have an evening service at Waughtown Baptist up in Winston-Salem and use theirs. I was baptized and welcomed into the fellowship of the saved along with six or seven others, all of whom were older than me, and pretty much everybody was so proud of me they could have busted.
How Christianity Has Changed
But why does any of this matter? Well, Protestant Christianity in America has changed a lot since 1968, and as you’re probably aware, it has made itself a very visible and frequently malignant force in public life in recent years. It’s been observed by scholars who follow religious trends (if you’re bored I can provide the cites for you) that there has been a significant movement away from traditional denominations (Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) and toward new non-denominational congregations, a shift that gained speed especially as the Baby Boom was growing into adulthood. This phenomenon has dramatically changed how religion is perceived and practiced across the country. My guess is that if you aren’t somebody who attends a non-denominational church yourself, you probably know people who do.
Perhaps in an attempt to hold onto dwindling market share in the face of stiff competition from all the new entrants into the salvation sector, the traditional denominations (primarily Southern Baptist and Methodist where I grew up) have become more and more like the independent churches. I know for sure that the Southern Baptist Convention these days looks a lot more like the non-denominationals than it does the SBC of 1976 or so. Maybe this is less so for other organizations – I don’t know for sure.
If I might generalize a tad, let me offer the following observations about this new breed of church and its membership:
1: They are more politically activist. I remember the first time a church I was a member of offered an opinion on how its members should vote on an issue. It was a local liquor-by-the-drink ordinance that church leaders feared would increase drinking in the community (and boy, I could do a whole book on how funny that premise is all by itself – but I digress). I was still a Good Kid®, so I was teetotally on board with the idea that liquor-by-the-drink might be a bad idea (my family was infested by alcoholism, up one side and back down the other, so at that point in my life I regarded drinking as pretty much pure evil).
But it seemed alien that we were talking about how to vote in church. Up until that point I couldn’t have imagined the preacher crossing that line into politics unless Satan himself was on the ballot, at which point it probably wouldn’t matter, given the unceasing stream of anti-Devil invective that issued from the pulpit on a more or less weekly basis.
This was maybe 1978 or so, and something was happening, although at the time I couldn’t imagine what, exactly. Now, of course, we know what: Jesus is a Republican.
2: They are more given to self-righteousness. This is the primary thrust of what I’ve been thinking on lately. These churches and those who attend (and fund) them are less likely to keep their religious views private – in fact, the idea that religion is or ought to be a private thing is exotic to them. By way of comparison, you have to remember that the traditional denominations I’m talking about, and that the non-denoms have displaced, were already evangelical. They believed that you had an obligation to witness to the lost, and I remember on occasion church or youth group leaders trying to round us all up to go door to door selling religion.
But it never quite took with us, because for me (and I suspect a lot of others), there was just something inappropriate about cold-calling for Jesus. It ran counter to basic American live-and-let-live conservatism. We’re more than willing to tell you how we feel if the subject comes up, but we also understand and respect the fact that others have a right not to be bothered.
The crusading ethic has extended into the political realm as well, to the point where the new breed of activist Christian seems to perceive no boundary between religion and governance. Through the years I’ve repeatedly found myself talking about the difference between traditional conservatism – which trusts people to make their own peace with God and Caesar – and the new crusading variant, which fervently believes it has a holy mandate to impose its views on the non-believers and secularists who were driving the world to hell in the proverbial handbasket.
Fact is, there’s nothing conservative about this movement at all. In a word, this new thing is jihad. These folks aren’t going to like that word, but there it is. The crusader doesn’t believe there is a right not to be bothered.
Two Kinds of Christians
So I’ve been thinking on these questions for years without tripping over any burning bushes. This morning, though, I was struck by a what I believe is a key piece to understanding the rise of the new Christianity. My little revelation isn’t the full measure of the issue by a long shot, but humor me.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are two kinds of evangelical Christians – those that grew up in the church, and those who converted later in life. (Some started in church, strayed, then came back, and for reasons that I hope will be clear, we’re going to count them as converts.)
Right here, before I get in too deeply, let’s pause for a few caveats.
- This theory is drawn from my observations of the life of our culture, which are certainly incomplete.
- I’ve done no surveys and crunched no statistics.
- Even if my posits are dead-on, I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule – plenty of them, in fact.
- You shouldn’t assume that I automatically like folks in one category and don’t like those in the other. I have friends (and family) who fit both descriptions, and there are likewise people in both camps that we’d all be better off without.
- And in the final analysis, it may just be that I’m wrong. If so, I feel sure somebody will tell me.
It’s a theory, something we can talk and think about. So think, talk.
That all said, let me outline my hypothesis about these two groups of Christians, each of which claims millions among its ranks. We’ll call those born and raised in the church “natives,” and those who joined up later in life we’ll call “converts.”
Understand, both groups are “born again,” according to the precepts of church doctrine, but their cultural and psychological relations to Christianity can and do differ dramatically. The differences I’m mostly interested in here have to do with one’s relationship to sin, I think. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, and from experience I don’t see either natives or converts as being more or less sinful than the other group. But, I do think that these two cohorts differ in how they see and coexist with sin.
First, the natives. Natives grow up with sin and salvation living side by side. They sin, they go to church and ask forgiveness, then they sin some more. When I was a teenaged boy (this was still when I was a Good Kid®, remember), my sin of choice was – brace yourself – girls. Booty. Poontang. T&A. Yup, surprise, I was a typical kid with hormones squirting out my ears, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to devise ways into certain girls’ pants (by “certain” it should not be inferred that I was terribly picky or exclusive – it’s just that particular girls occupied more of my attention by virtue of simple proximity). It should be noted, in the interest of full disclosure, that I enjoyed far less success than I’d have liked, and was thus far less sinful than I wanted to be.
Now, in church we heard all about the evils of fornication, and I agreed with these lessons. In principle, anyhow. So in one sense, life was full of spiritual conflict, at least in those rare moments where my brain was functioning. In another sense, though, there was no conflict at all, and I can’t quite explain how this contradictory state of mind worked. The psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance” doesn’t fully articulate the dynamic – I didn’t spend any time rationalizing that Jesus didn’t really mind if I felt some chick up. Perhaps the better term would simply be denial. You knew it was wrong when you did it, but you did it anyway, and I guess you kind of hoped you wouldn’t go to hell for it. To the best of your ability, you just didn’t think about it.
Probably the same thing went through my grandfather’s mind every time he slipped out to the utility closet or up to Clyde’s for a beer, and if he was guilty of some other things my grandmother suspected him of the beer was a comparatively mild crime against God.
It’s like musician/comedian Jim Stafford once said on his weekly variety show: Baptists are like cats – you know they’re raising hell, you just can’t catch ‘em at it. Yup. I suspect if I’d had some way of knowing all the sins being committed by my fellow church members it would have destroyed my ability to trust in anything at all (which wound up happening anyway, I guess). I knew what I was up to, and I knew what my friends and the other kids in the youth group were up to, and I knew pretty much what my grandfather was up to, but I’m not sure I realized until later that we were the rule, not the exception.
In fact, pretty much all Christians in America were, and still are, raising mortal hell. And then going to church. And somehow finding a way to pack an oppressive burden of sin along their intended road to salvation.
In other words, for the natives, sin and salvation, heaven and hell, righteousness and mortal failing, all are integrated into their lives, and have always been so. There has never been a time when the two weren’t there, side by side. They have never lived in a house where Jesus and Lucifer didn’t bunk together.
This isn’t to say that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong or that they’re somehow more complacent about their shortcomings – on the contrary, they see it all up close and personal in their daily lives. Ambivalence, dissonance, and inner strife are constant companions, and like most everybody, they wrestle with these conflicts in hopes of becoming better human beings who are more worthy of eternal reward.
The converts are different from the natives in at least one critical way. They know sin, and they know salvation, and they know the difference, just like the natives. They actively seek to become worthy of salvation, like the natives. And so on.
But in the life of the convert, sin and salvation are not psychologically integrated concepts. In their lives, there was a time when they were wicked, sinful, wandering in a wilderness infested with soul-destroying worldly pleasures. They were lost, empty, and unfulfilled. Then they found Jesus and were born again.
Now their lives are completely different. They wouldn’t say they’re free from sin, of course, but now they live lives that are more aggressively devoted to Jesus and goodness, as they understand it, and by the measures that matter to them and their communities they’re living lives that are far more righteous than the ones they lived before they found the Lord.
The stories some converts can tell are incredibly, intensely, curl-your-hair powerful. I remember as a child the time our church had a guest speaker who’d once been about as wicked as you can get, or so it seemed. He’d been in a motorcycle gang, with all that entails, and he talked about his extensive drug use in his former life (this was actually the first time I ever remember hearing what speed can do to your head if abused over an extended period of time). If the man he once was had walked through the door into the sanctuary at that moment, we’d all have trampled each other running for the door. But he’d found Jesus, and through the glory of the Lord was now blessed with the opportunity to speak to others, giving his testimony about how Christianity had literally saved his life, to say nothing of his soul.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head. Here was somebody who didn’t mess around with any of that penny-ante, pissant little sin that my friends and I perpetrated. No, sir, here was a real sinner, and if he’d died before finding God he’d not only have gone to hell, he’d probably have been housed in one of its worst neighborhoods.
For this man, life could be divided in two – the life of sin, and the life of salvation, with the moment he accepted Jesus as the figurative Berlin Wall standing between the them. Indeed, this is the very language of Protestant salvation – your old life is dead and you are born again. Those words explicitly insist that the saved Christian see his or her new life of grace as separate from the old life of sin.
When I think about the converts I know, they are generally people for whom this is also true, although rarely is the life of sin so profoundly nasty as was that of the speaker who came to visit us at New Friendship Baptist Church back in the 1970s. The life of sin occurred in the past, and they now live the life of salvation. It’s a challenge, because they remain human, and they regularly fail, but it remains something very unlike that which came before their Berlin Wall moment.
At some level the same things are true, or are intended to be true, for the Christian raised in the fold. But in reality, life for the born again native is pretty much what it was before baptism. You may be held to a higher standard, but the house is still a Christian house, like it always has been, and when you accept Christ officially it doesn’t turn your entire life (and often, the lives of those around you) upside down.
The Dark Side of Conversion
If you accept the theory I offer here, what does it add up to? Well, let’s boil it down to this:
- Natives: the life of sin is and always has been present.
- Converts: the life of sin is psychologically in the past.
In this conceptualization, natives don’t see salvation as something that’s especially unusual or surprising. Baptism was kind of like sophomore year – if you didn’t die young, you’d get there eventually, like the rest of the family had. Nor would they see sin as something that’s been forever vanquished – the fact that everybody else in the family had been saved didn’t make them perfect, after all.
Converts, on the other hand, see their salvation as something incredibly special and unanticipated (most of the converts I know certainly do). Every day is new, and the emptiness of the past is now miraculously, marvelously gone, replaced by a warmth, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.
But there’s a dark side to the convert mind set, as well. In its worst manifestations, the convert mind set can be tempted toward a particular breed of self-righteousness (true, natives can muster plenty of self-righteousness themselves, but in many cases it’s tempered somewhat by their personal knowledge of sin’s eternal juxtaposition with salvation). While paying lip service to the idea that one can never be free of sin, converts often project a holier-than-thou-ness which manifests itself in arrogance, and they’re readily given to crusading.
I have long argued that converts can be the worst Christianity has to offer (a considerable statement, I realize), and I now think this is because at some psychological level, their decisions to set sin on the other side of the wall infuse them with a sense of specialness that, when hitched to the engines of the non-denominational church’s rabid evangelical mission, leads them to an assumption that God wants them to impose what they know about salvation on others.
Whether they want it or not.
21st Century or 17th?
As I say, a theory. Right or wrong, though, the issue itself has tremendous implications for all Americans, and especially those who count themselves as Christians (which is to say, a vast majority of Americans). If you haven’t noticed, we find ourselves in the midst of a significant culture war, and the battle for the soul of Christianity will go a long way toward determining the battle for the future of the US.
It is undeniably clear that the mainline denominations failed to understand and address the powerful dynamics driving the emergence of the evangelical right, and as a result the nation’s moderate and progressive Christians – and don’t be fooled, these people still constitute a majority, albeit a disturbingly quiet one – find themselves being spoken for by people who simply do not share the same core values about the proper role of religion in the life of the society.
It’s equally clear that the battle must be won. The commitment and vigor of the new fundamentalism can perhaps be a valuable tool in energizing the productive evolution of American Christianity, which faces unimaginable challenges in providing a spiritual foundation for the 21st Century, but only if properly educated and socialized. As I wrote in the intro to my dissertation a few years back:
Few questions remain as to the inventive power of the human mind, but many critics suggest a that a widening gap between knowledge and morality plagues technological development in the West. A few years ago when England’s Prince Charles delivered the commemoration address at Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration, he lamented that humanity’s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by” (quoted in Safire).
The events of 1968 notwithstanding, I’m not a Christian anymore, but one thing our right-wing types are right about, for better or worse – we are a Christian nation. Christianity has frequently not served us well through the centuries, but I’m a realist, and I can do basic math. If we are to advance our souls, as a culture, so that they begin to catch up to our minds, Christianity must lead.
Right now, the arc of Christianity is leading us not into the 21st Century, but back to the 17th. The American church, if we are to thrive, has to quickly and effectively begin to understand the seemingly incalculable gulf separating its numbers.
If my observations here have any validity at all, American Christians might spend a few minutes pondering what it means when a large portion of its most passionately intense members see sin as something they’re past.