An Atheist in the Pulpit

Public identity and private belief are never more at odds than when a preacher loses his faith.

  1. James McAllister, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister in the midwest, was working on his sunday sermon one Thursday afternoon last summer. It wasn't going well. The reverend wasn't suffering from writer's block—in fact, he was crafting quite an elegant parable about "the importance of making our whole lives a prayer." No, the problem was bigger than that. The sermon skated around a private truth that McAllister could no longer deny.

    McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. "You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror," he says of his sermons. "But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I'm a fraud."

    Months ago, McAllister, who is presented pseudonymously here, took his crisis to the bishop. He'd lost the faith, he explained, and he wanted out.

    "Oh you're not quitting," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "You haven't lost your faith."

    "Um, yeah I have," McAllister said. "This is for real."

    The bishop shook her head. For the church elders, McAllister's revelations simply did not compute.

    "They're either in complete denial," he says, "or they're completely comfortable with the idea...

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