Becoming Born-Again in the Trump Era
Written by Tess Cagle
Illustrated by Loveis Wise
I’d just found my faith in 2016, when Donald Trump, who represents all the things I hate, was elected. So I got baptized.
• • •
On January 20, 2017, as our newly elected president was taking the oath of office, I was submerged in a tub inside my Austin, Texas, church. I’d chosen this day to be baptized for a reason. Trump’s inauguration was the perfect time to publicly proclaim I was tossing aside any faith I’d had in worldly things—like the millions of people who’d voted for such an evil man—and putting it all in Jesus.
Dressed in a navy jumpsuit—loaned by the church to protect our regular clothes, and for modesty—I stood knee-deep in ice-cold water inside a giant basin. This small in-ground tub inside a tiny room in the church was the baptismal pool, used exclusively for this purpose. My boyfriend, Bryan, and our friend Jett, who were going to perform the baptism, splashed in after me and we all clasped hands. The friends around us bowed their heads and began to pray aloud for the renewal of my spirit.
I was nervous. I hate attention, and now the spotlight was on me during an incredibly personal moment. My shyness almost kept me from being baptized; I’d spent months brooding and wondering whether or not I was ready to make a public commitment to God. I could have had the ceremony in private, but in the end I decided that my friends, whom I’d met at weekly church dinners and Bible study, had played a big enough role in my salvation that I wanted all of them to be there.
Even though I’d never prayed in public before, when I opened my mouth, the words flowed out, more easily than I’d expected. I thanked God for all the friends I had made and all the testimonies I had read that led me to this moment. I was especially grateful for His patience with me throughout this yearlong—and honestly, lifelong—process of finding my way to Him. Once we finished praying, I leaned backward into the water, supported by Jett and Bryan. Me being me, I tripped and fell backward, but thankfully the boys caught me just in time. I was fully submerged for fewer than 10 seconds. As I climbed out of the tub, dripping, I felt chilly but relieved. I was now officially reborn.
I didn’t grow up in a religious family. We attended our local Methodist church twice a year, on Christmas Eve and at Easter. I think my mom was the only real person of faith in our household. As I grew up, I had more and more problems with organized religion. The only examples of Christians I saw were the Evangelicals on TV. I grimaced as these old white men who had somehow become spokesmen for an entire religion fought to control female bodies and dehumanize gay people. I became a proud agnostic.
But then, in my junior year of college, I met Bryan. He was five foot seven (exactly my height, if you didn’t count his hair), had brown eyes, was one of the best dressed men I had ever met, and exuded confidence. A devout nondenominational Christian, he was upfront about his faith from the moment we met. He attended Bible study, went to church, prayed with friends—but he also played in a metal band and went to parties. We became close friends, and even when I developed a crush on him, I swore to my friends that nothing would ever happen because I wouldn’t date a Christian.
Famous last words—a year later we were dating. Bryan knew I didn’t go to church, but it was almost six months into our relationship before I mustered up the courage to tell him I was agnostic. I spent a lot of energy worrying we would break up because I couldn’t be “saved.”
I told Bryan I didn’t take issue with God, but with the institution of religion. I thought of faith as a mass of rigid rules, indoctrination, and blind obedience. Bryan totally floored me by responding, “But I’m not religious—I’m spiritual.” He didn’t believe in those rigid rules or blind obedience either, and he said he had no intention of pressuring me into salvation. For him, the birth of Jesus allowed for the end of organized religion and strict laws and initiated a new way to form an intimate relationship with God—through his son. By taking human form and actually interacting with people, Jesus stripped away the barrier between us and God.
Bryan began inviting me to a weekly Bible study he attended—he knew I wasn’t a believer, but his friends really wanted to meet the girl he never stopped talking about. I went, a little begrudgingly. I wanted to be supportive, and I was curious about where he spent every Friday evening. It’s almost laughable, in hindsight, to remember how nervous I was and the pure terror that set in when I realized that there would be group singing. But I survived, and the experience, along with my conversations with Bryan, opened the floodgates of curiosity.
I read C.S. Lewis. I read online about other agnostics finding God. Most important, I downloaded a Bible app to my phone and started reading the New Testament. There were days when nothing resonated, but there were also moments of deep connection. Jesus said the second most important thing Christians must do (after loving and serving God) is to love their neighbors as they love themselves. He told the disciples that it was not their job to cast judgment or punish nonbelievers; that’s God’s job. He emphasized that the rich should give to and support the poor, saying, “You cannot serve both God and money.” All of these ideas and beliefs were ones I already had—I just hadn’t connected them with God’s teachings.
During this period, the presidential campaign was in full force, and Christians in the news were calling for the end of marriage equality, attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, and claiming all Muslims were terrorists. Yet I was reading about how Jesus blessed lepers, broke bread with sinners, and stood up for adulterers. His teaching about serving and supporting one another made me feel like I was following in His footsteps by supporting Black Lives Matter, encouraging fellow Americans to open their arms to refugees, and seeking relationships with people who aren’t like me. I was horrified that people use Jesus as an excuse to spread xenophobia and hate. I decided that, for me, identifying as Christian meant believing in Jesus but not in the actions of others who categorize themselves as Christian.
Of course, I felt hopeless after Trump’s election and about the role my fellow Christians played in it. At a Christmas Eve service at my hometown church, our pastor spoke about how hard it was to have faith in our broken world. She suggested we keep faith by remembering God’s gift to humanity, a son named Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means, “God is with us.” As 2017 loomed, Emmanuel became my beacon of hope, the assurance that even in a dark age, we would not be alone.
Baptism isn’t the end goal of the Christian life, but the very first step. You don’t have to have all the answers to do it, and afterward, you continue to study the Bible and follow the teachings of Jesus. We aren’t perfect; believers also struggle with faith and stumble at times. I can hardly explain my own convictions, let alone the meaning behind every biblical story. I can tell you I believe in God, and I believe he gave us Jesus, who gave us the best representation of how to live a life of love and compassion. Like a lot of modern-day Christians, I’m challenged by the concept of hell. I tend to believe that God reserves hellfire for truly awful people—not those who waver in their faith or perceive the world differently, and certainly not for those of other faiths, the LGBTQ community, or any of the vulnerable people I’ve seen persecuted by this alleged God-loving administration.
It’s hard to reconcile that I nominally share a religion with this president—a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy and retweets hate speech toward Muslims. When a state auditor in Alabama compared Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct with a minor to the relationship between Mary and Joseph in the Bible, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt frustrated that these “spokesmen for God” were able to distort the narrative, becoming the definition of American Christianity for the masses.
But I often feel as alienated from fellow progressive liberals as I do from my fellow Christians. Liberals can be just as closed-minded and bigoted as conservatives. I recently got drinks with a group of progressive women I hardly knew, and they spent a decent portion of the evening shit-talking Christians. I wanted to speak up, but I was afraid of the ridicule I would face or the hostile questions I wouldn’t be able to answer. I was hurt by what they said, and embarrassed that I said nothing. By the time I left the table, I felt shitty and insignificant.
In fact, until now, I’ve told very few people that I’m a Christian, or that I’ve been born again. At first, I shared the news only with friends who identified as Christian. It took months before I could tell my sister, who’s one of my closest friends. “Christians” like Donald Trump and Roy Moore kept me from opening my heart to God growing up; they’re why I didn’t share my faith widely when I found it.
In the year since I was baptized, my life has been incredibly turbulent. I graduated from college, got a job, quit that job to move to New York, and moved in with Bryan—all the while trying to merge my old views of the world with my new beliefs in God. I personally don’t believe the rules laid out in the Old Testament need to be followed verbatim; you can discern what works best for your relationship with God by praying about it. Bryan and I haven’t always done things a traditional church would approve of (like moving in together before marriage), but we’ve done what we’ve felt was best for our relationship together and with God, and I trust that’s enough for Him.
As we enter year two of Trump’s presidency, I’m vowing to be more vocal about my beliefs and to question the Christian narrative presented by Republicans. Maybe, by sharing my relationship with God publicly and continuing to love openly and indiscriminately, I can begin to paint a new picture of the American Christian. I believe God gave us the power of choice a long time ago, and that human actions must take responsibility for electing that man. But I also believe that, even in trying times, God stands with us and presents us with opportunities to grow—and I’m hopeful that Americans will find ways to be better in reaction to Trump.