The 2016 Election Sent Me Back to Church

Regular Pantsuit Politics listeners know that I’ve been wrestling with institutional trust for months. During the 2016 election, I felt that the Sanders and Trump movements were all about rejection of our existing institutions, about a hunger for not just change, but upheaval. I saw both primaries as evidence that the parties are broken beyond real repair.  I heard arguments about Director Comey as partisan commentary from both sides, indicating that our institutions of justice are no longer sacrosanct or even credible. I’ve read journalism as punditry and concluded that the press as an institution has lost its way. And now, in the wake of evidence about Russian interference in our election and fierce arguments over culpability, degree, causation, and plain old facts, I see more and more evidence that our institutions are vitally important and in serious jeopardy. 

As I’ve considered ways that I can personally contribute to reviving some of our institutions, I’ve found myself directly confronting one of the most powerful institutions in my life: church. 

Growing up, I was in the pew if the church doors were open. My family was active in every part of church life. I loved the people in my congregation, and my minister profoundly and positively influenced me. But (could you feel that “but” coming?)…after a traumatic car accident, church stopped making sense to me. Looking back, somewhere along the way, I started to resent the idea that God would “take away” any pain I was feeling. Because of the messages I was receiving and the struggle I was enduring, I decided that church might be nothing more than a country club for the middle class. I doubled down on my distance from church when my husband and I visited a few churches after relocating to Northern Kentucky. We heard sermons about the evils of gay marriage and found the structured welcome wagons at each congregation more than a little creepy. I just couldn’t reconcile my understanding of God with what I found in churches. 

So, for ten years, I stayed away from church — not from faith, but from church as an institution. 

As I watched the 2016 election unfold, church started surfacing in my mind again. I started thinking about how much church creates community, about the wonderful people who shaped my upbringing because of church. I heard Sarah speaking in such compelling ways about keeping politics in perspective. And I felt spiritually dehydrated by the constant anger pouring out of my social media feeds in a way that I couldn’t quite manage on my own. 

I decided to look for churches, regardless of denomination, with women pastors. My husband has given me some grief about the “woman” criterion. Here’s my explanation: I’m exhausted with the patriarchy and have two daughters. The end. 

My search has led me to a beautiful church with not one but two women pastors. I’ve been attending for a couple of months now. My daughter Jane loves it and says hilarious things like “John the Baptist took people to the ocean to tie dye them.” All of the wonderful things church meant for my family growing up are coming back to me. I heard a message on the Ecclesiastes passage I love (a season for everything) that made me feel so much calmer about the state of the US post-election.

More than anything, I’ve realized that church, like all institutions, will never be perfect, and neither will I. Church, like all institutions, requires me to actively look for the good and to be part of the purpose, rather than waiting for the purpose to be delivered to me. Church, like all institutions, requires give and take, grace and forgiveness, participation and reflection. Church, like all institutions, will only be for me what I choose to make it. 

I’m learning and growing because of that understanding, and I hope to translate that understanding to other institutions that connect more directly to politics at some point. For now, I’m content to take one Sunday at a time and to appreciate the teachings that do directly apply to my political discussions - especially this advice from Colossians, which couldn't be more relevant as we head into the Trump era: "put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience."