One Christian feeling hijacked by politics

On a recent evening after I drove my two oldest boys to a church youth group, my husband and 4-year-old and I went to grab a bite. When the food came, my husband held his hands out to say our usual family grace: "God is great, God is good ..."

I shrank back.

"I don't want to do this," I said.

He was startled.

So was I, but I said, "I don't want to be a Public Christian."

My husband stared at me for a few seconds, and then said, "I understand. I guess I don't either. Let's say a silent prayer."

And we did.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not opposed to religion or worship. But I worry about how contemporary politics have taken religion hostage.

As a cradle Episcopalian, I am a practicing Christian - someday I hope to get it right. I have spent nearly every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening of my life at church - worshiping, singing, and socializing with a community of people who inspire and comfort me.

I'm also a church musician, which means that I have worshiped with many different denominations over the years, playing for Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans.

When I was in college, I played a crummy electronic organ for a nondenominational 7 a.m. service in the Wilford Hall hospital chapel at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. That was where they brought American POWs retrieved from Vietnam. I saw ambulatory skeletons there, every kind of injury imaginable, and many that were unimaginable. For two years, I shared in weekly Christian rituals of healing and reconciliation, trying to bring the living wounded and the walking dead back into the community. Those were the loneliest people I ever met. Hardly anyone sang, but it seemed important to keep playing the hymns.

These days, I worship twice on Sundays, playing for one service at 9 a.m. and singing with the choir at 11. I get to hear the sermon twice. I get to confess twice. I pray for the poor, the sick, the dying, for mercy, peace, and justice, and for our country. At the second service, I take communion with my family.

At both services, I exchange the peace with Christians who span the political spectrum. Before he left Texas for Washington, Karl Rove and his family belonged to my church. I voted against Bush. Four times. We don't all believe the same things, but we belong to a community whose members have agreed to try to love each other. Much of the time, we succeed.

Meanwhile, I live in a country that is increasingly eager to challenge its citizens' loyalty, among people of faith increasingly determined to dispute the faith of others. Some people who call themselves Christians - and some church leaders - are beginning to redefine Christianity in such a way as to exclude worshipers with whom they disagree. I fear a religion in which ideology is more important than theology.

If someone - like me - who has worshiped as a Christian for more than 50 years suddenly feels afraid of the extremes of that religion - what must it be like for those of different beliefs, or of unbelief?

My 14-year-old son has attended two bar mitzvahs this year, and I'm thrilled for him to witness the serious commitment his friends have made to Judaism. I wonder how included those boys feel in our suddenly very Christian nation, in their suddenly very Christian public schools, football stadiums, and town meetings.

If I question political decisions, am I un-American? If I don't agree with a fundamentalist, am I un-Christian?

There used to be two things that you didn't talk about for fear of causing offense: politics and religion. Today the two are so intertwined, you can't talk of one without the other. And when you do, them's fightin' words, pardner. Nowadays, so many people are looking for a fight.

I'm not. Neither am I afraid to pray in public. But I am afraid of my faith being hijacked to promote someone else's political agenda. I am afraid of my faith being used as a weapon in a crusade against anyone who dares to think or believe differently.

I'm not giving up my faith. I plan to keep playing those hymns. And I will continue to pray for our country and to give thanks for our food, our family, and our friends. Twice on Sunday, and at every meal. But not in public.

I don't want to be mistaken for a hijacker.

Gena Caponi Tabery, formerly director of American Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, writes about history and culture.

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