Different religions mark coming of age in different ways. Jewish youth have bar or bat mitvahs; Islamic youth are expected to begin engaging in all the compulsory acts of their faith; Christians raised in churches that practice infant baptism undergo confirmation.
The small General Baptist country church of my Southern youth didn’t baptize anyone until the ephemeral “age of accountability,” usually around adolescence. Children ages 10 to 14 were expected to “get saved” and be dunked in the Tennessee River at the nearest opportunity … after which they often disappeared from church life.
My older brother had been one of a dozen or so teens when he’d come of age; by the time my years hit double digits, you could count my peers on the fingers of one hand. By high school, Sunday school class consisted of me and one kid a couple of years younger.
So when I was 13 or so, it had been a while since a kid had been “born again.” Oh, there had been a few backsliders who had rededicated themselves to the Lord – this church had repeat customers because it taught you could lose salvation at any time with the merest thought – but no youngsters had been saved in a while. So although I was generally a good kid – if inclined to ask too many questions – they were eager for me to feel the Holy Ghost calling (none of that kinder, gentler “Holy Spirit” talk for us).
I don’t remember whether it was the regular pastor or a guest preacher at the pulpit that day, but I seem to recall it was a guest preacher. I want to think it was spring. I do remember my former Sunday school teacher – the regular minister’s sister – playing “Just As I Am” in an endless loop as he made the altar call at the end of a particularly long service. (This church prided itself in the service running way past all those “clock-watchers” who ended at noon.)
I knew I was the “someone in this room” whom the preacher deemed “unprepared to meet the Lord.” Though I’d swallowed hook, line, and sinker the notion that the Rapture would come and the world would end before I was even out of high school, probably, I’d never felt the need to be “born again,” and I saw this tactic as the emotional blackmail that it was. I’d kept my eyes discretely open during more than one “every head bowed, every eye closed” stunt and had seen more than one guest preacher give an “Amen” in response to nothing visible from the next-to-back row.
As the song played over and over again, as the preacher wiped sweat from his forehead and looked straight at me, I did feel something…I felt a terrible headache coming on because I was a growing kid and needed to eat lunch. It was almost 1 p.m.
And so I walked to the altar, let people pile on me even though I don’t like being touched by strangers or being crowded, and I waited until the numerous voiced prayers had mostly died down. I figured I’d sweated enough that, if I squinted my eyes really hard, a person who wanted to think I’d been crying could believe it. I stood up, answered in the affirmative when asked if I’d accepted Jesus as my personal savior, and shook hands with a bunch of people who told me how proud they were of me.
But I never got dunked in the Tennessee River; I’d been traumatized by a swimming coach who’d forced my head underwater. And within the next year, I told off my Sunday school teacher after he said my best friend’s mom was possessed by demons, walked out of that church, and have never set foot in it since then, to my recollection.
When it comes to compulsory religion, the best lack all conviction (my faked “born-again experience,” European state churches with membership in the thousands and attendance in single digits), while the worst are full of passionate intensity (see the nightly news). Only a religion that is freely chosen can be truly owned or beneficial.
Yet these exercises of dominance continue. The American Constitution specifically prohibits religious tests for public office, but American voters judge candidates based on their professed religion all the time.
Some evangelical Christian conservatives were reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney for a number of reasons, and his Mormon faith–labeled a cult by some evangelical churches, though it calls itself Christian and describes itself as being American as apple pie – was one of them. While the Qur’an specifically states that “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2.256), apostasy is a capital offense in some nations with Muslim majorities. And as a non-Jew, I doubt I’d feel very at home in Israel.
Valerie Terico published a piece at AlterNet back in May titled 8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert – to Agnosticism or Atheism. I recognized a lot of the trends she identified from my childhood, still others from my time moderating a daily newspaper’s web forums; there are cautionary tales to be found there for the religious leader humble enough to look.
As a wise woman from Aldaran once said, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
And it’s as true for 21st century earth politics as it was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: We’ve seen in the Arab Spring and its successive seasons what happens when an authoritarian government pushes the suppression of its people past a tipping point.
But it’s also true in the realm of religion. You can lead a kid to an altar, but you can’t make him pray; the ex-Christian movement contains plenty of other examples at various stages of healing.
George Bellows illustration, "Deponent Testifies That He Is No Longer a Sinner," pen and ink drawing, published 3 Jan. 1914 in Harper's Weekly. uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Flickr bot, original work in Boston Public Library collection.
Tennessee native Jason R. Tippitt is pursuing a master of arts in theological studies at Andover Newton Theological School in the Boston area. He is a "religious independent" with an interest in collaborative efforts within, between, and beyond religious communities for the common good. Follow him on Twitter: @TippittJason