I Went To Church With Jimmy Carter, Or, An Atheist’s Guide To Surviving Sunday School & Christmas Dinner

Me and Jimmy Carter

Me and Jimmy Carter

A couple of weeks ago, I drove over to Columbus, Georgia to visit my birth mom, Callie. As always, we had a great time.

She and I don’t see one another as much as we’d like, and we’ve only known each other for 11 years, but our relationship is as simple and easy as those I share with lifelong friends — and much less strained than the relationships I have with some of my adoptive family.

(Topic for future discussion: if kids avoided meeting their parents until they were adults, would family get-togethers be less awkward?)

Anyway, during my visit, Callie proposed that we drive down to Plains, Georgia to meet Jimmy Carter. I thought, “Sure, who wouldn’t want to do that?” There was just one catch: the meeting would take place at a church, after we’d sat through Sunday school and a church service.


I don’t mean to be one of “those people” — those people who go on and on about how the church has scarred them for life. But I freely admit that my adolescence would’ve been way more enjoyable if I hadn’t spent one-seventh of it sitting in small-town Baptist churches, listening to fire-and-brimstone speeches about homosexuality and other alleged ills.

College saved me. Not only did I have great teachers who broadened my perspectives on history, literature, religion, and countless other topics, but I was no longer obligated to attend Sunday services. I got over fiery, bigoted Baptist rhetoric simply by turning it off. And I’ve never looked back.

So, when I heard Callie’s suggestion, I was of two minds: on the one hand, I thought, “Oh, this ought to make for an interesting adventure”, and on the other I thought, “But do I really have to go to Sunday school?”

In the end, I decided to give it a go. I mean, I’m an adult, I could handle it, right? Callie and I piled into a car with her friends Sandy and Julia, and away we went.

An hour later, after we’d passed through two Secret Service checkpoints, we sat in the chapel and listened to a woman rattle off a list of dos and don’ts (e.g. do tell the president where you’re from if he asks, but don’t get up to go to the bathroom during the service because it makes the agents jumpy). Then President Carter walked in, looking like countless Sunday school teachers I’ve seen in my day. He spent the first half of the lesson giving us his personal insights on things taking place in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere (which was interesting), and the second half discussing passages from the New Testament that described the same event, explaining why each author chose to provide the details that he did (which was also interesting).

Then the preacher arrived and gave a sermon on the Advent theme of peace. One hour later, we were all outside, waiting patiently for a quick photo op with the president.

Me and Jimmy Carter, hands onlyThere weren’t many people at church that day, so things went fairly fast. I stepped up beside President Carter, and as I did, he reached out to shake my hand — something I wasn’t prepared for, since the woman who’d spoken to us before Sunday school said that he definitely wouldn’t be shaking hands. (Germs, you know.) As a result, I gave Jimmy Carter the wimpiest handshake I’ve ever given anyone in my life. Seriously, take a look: if you didn’t know better, you’d think I was a debutante, and Carter had just asked me to dance the Virginia reel. (Note: I don’t think debutantes dance the Virginia reel anymore.)

Then, it was over. And even though it was relatively painless, and even though it seems ridiculous for a grown man to be intimidated, not by the former Leader of the Free World, but by a humble building he’d probably never visit again, I was completely relieved to get back in the car and motor towards home. (Though not without stopping for some truly amazing peanut brittle first.)

* * * * *

Tomorrow, I’ll be going through a similar ordeal: Christmas dinner with the in-laws. Admittedly, sitting down for a six-hour meal with people I love is far easier than spending Sunday school in a Baptist church with a bunch of strangers. Also, Jonno’s family truly love us, and even though there are some evangelicals in the bunch, they’ve never done anything but welcome us with open arms.

Still, there’s the whole “god” issue to get through. I don’t fully identify as an atheist, since atheists tent to be just as dogmatic as the church-goers I grew up with. But if there were a survey in front of me, I’d definitely check the box next to “non-believer”.

So, what’s my plan? I have four at the ready — a lead and three back-ups:

Plan A: Focus on the universal
Whether I’m at Sunday school or Christmas dinner, when the conversation gets a little too “Jesus said this” and “Jesus did that”,  I tend to pull back and focus on the big picture. Sometimes it helps to change the name “Jesus” to “Ben” in my head. For example, when someone proclaims that “Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth”, I picture those words coming out of the mouth of straight ally Ben Cohen, or if I’m feeling a little punchy, Ben, the rat from that Michael Jackson song. It makes the statements seem less preachy, but keeps the general sentiment intact. Usually that sentiment is pretty good.

Plan B: Take the high road
If things cross the line from “preachy” to “judgy”, I tune out the speaker in the interest of keeping the peace. In a church service, it would be a little awkward to stand up in my pew and challenge a pastor, and at a dinner table, I tend to give friends and family the benefit of the doubt. Honestly, sometimes people really don’t understand when they’re being offensive. I still have to explain to members of my family why racist arguments can’t be made un-racist just by adding “But I have plenty of black friends”. And if it happens again, I can always move on to…

Plan C: Engage in courteous debate
I’ve never had the opportunity to engage a pastor over the content of a sermon, but if I did, I’d do so as I was leaving, when he (or she) is shaking my hand on the front steps. At family get-togethers, I’ve usually taken people aside, but when someone’s made a truly offensive comment, I’ve been happy to engage them across the dinner table. Most have backed down pretty quickly. Do that enough, and they become so gun-shy, they start moderating their tone. And if not…

Plan D: Never come back
In my early 20s, I spent four years not speaking to my father. He’d said some hurtful, judgy things, and in response I shut down all communication between us. Eventually, he came around, and now we’re great friends. But even if we hadn’t reconciled, I’d have rather not been around him at all than to have spent time with a guy who did nothing but make me angry.

 Here’s hoping that none of us have to go further than Plan A this holiday week.

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