The Faithful’s Doubt is Our Saving Grace

I met a man last week who hoped to study grace. A funeral director from Tennessee, he knew grace when he saw it, in the quiet grief of a mother who lost a baby at birth or in a family that, confronted with the death of a loved one, knew exactly how to pray.

But the man was searching for a graduate program in which he might investigate God’s grace full time, thereby earning an advanced degree. He’d already been to seminary, but the formal religious education, he said, “didn’t take.” At the same time, the psychology programs to which he applied were skeptical of his area of interest. One suggested that he study “inspiration” instead. This man knew that God’s grace was real. But he was distressed to find that he couldn’t shoehorn it into an academic department.

While reporting on American religion, I’ve been blessed to meet people like the funeral director, the faithful whose hearts are moved and confused by God. These actual people — and not the yellers or the posturers, the outraged or the politically jaded — have fed my interest in this subject for decades. Religion, as it is lived every day, as it consoles and irritates and puzzles folks, is one of the most important forces in American life, and it will continue to be my motivation even as I stop writing in this particular space. This will be my last regular column for The Washington Post.

Ninety-two percent of Americans say they believe in God, according to Gallup, and I’ve come to understand that when they affirm this belief, they are not, for the most part, talking about anything having to do with the culture-war issues that make the news.

Most people of faith don’t care if Mitt Romney is a Mormon; they care if he’s qualified to lead. (In fact, white evangelicals, the group most often cited as having a problem with Romney’s faith, voted for him overwhelmingly in 2012; it turned out that they mistrusted John McCain, whom they suspected of being a private secularist, much, much more.) Most of the religious faithful never gave a thought to whether Catholic institutions should have to provide birth-control coverage to their employees until a small group of conservative activists made it a “religious liberty” issue. Most Americans like their birth control and are glad to have coverage themselves. Culture warriors have always been a small but vocal minority. Constant news and the online competition for clicks makes them louder, but amid the shouting, the search for meaning is lost.

In private, people want something to believe in. And religion, or the desire for religion or even the loathing of religion, reflects that fundamental human quest. When the world is a terrible place, does faith console you? Or does it look like a mean joke, or a trick? And how do you arrive at that answer?

The personal, day-to-day struggle with these questions, and others like them, are what the story of religion is really about. I think often of an interview I did with the Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who told me that the problem of theodicy — Why would a loving God make, say, an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of poor and innocent Haitians? — finally turned him into a nonbeliever.

“I just got to a point where I couldn’t explain how something like this could happen, if there’s a powerful and loving God in charge of the world,” he told me. “It’s a very old problem, and there are a lot of answers, but I don’t think any of them work.”

Also, in private, even the most convinced believers hold an inconsistent faith. Religion, as it is expressed in most people’s lives, is not the two-dimensional phenomenon you see on television, represented by racist or homophobic pastors, or polygamous sects, or atheist autodidacts.

I think often of a woman I met a decade ago who was a ardently conservative evangelical Christian and also a sort of feminist pioneer: one of the first women to graduate from the University of North Carolina’s law school. Or friends of mine, ardently pro-choice, who when pregnant nevertheless feel that they are carrying “a life.” Or the young Southern Baptist who called into a radio show I was on to voice support for same-sex marriage.

Religion in real life is never letter-perfect. It is no surprise that one of the most popular columns I wrote for The Post was about Ezekiel Emanuel, a former National Institutes of Health department chief who is an atheist and also keeps kosher.

And so, because I can, I use this bully pulpit to issue a heartfelt plea. When someone expresses certainty about religion — they say they know about God; they know what God thinks; they know what God has to say about gays or working mothers or birth control or the budget; they know there is no God — don’t believe it. Even Mother Teresa had doubts.

Doubt, from a journalist’s perspective, is where the story is. But it is also the starting point for a real conversation about the things we value most, and in America at this particular moment, that conversation could not be more necessary.