Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Post Conversion” first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Touchstone.
Sally Quinn Gets Religion, Sort Of
by Mark Tooley
Washington Post journalist and Washington social doyenne Sally Quinn, whose poison-pen personality profiles in the Post’s Style section of the 1970s and 1980s once terrified, and titillated, official Washington, is on a spiritual journey. And the effect, chronicled in “On Faith,” a new religion weblog on washingtonpost.com, hosted with Time magazine editor Jon Meacham, is not altogether unpleasant.
Quinn’s marriage to Washington Post editor and Watergate hero Ben Bradlee, twenty years her senior, made her part of an unparalleled journalistic and social power couple. (She describes him as a believing but non-churchgoing Episcopalian.) Her novels and Washington social histories kept her profile high, even as she retreated somewhat from journalism in favor of motherhood.
Left on Faith
“On Faith” features several dozen prominent religionists giving their views on issues spiritual and temporal. The list is slanted to the left. Meacham is Episcopalian, and Quinn was, in part, raised Episcopalian.
Perhaps this explains why liberal Episcopalians are disproportionately represented: There’s Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Schori; radical Jesus Seminar revisionists Bishop John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg; the current bishop of Washington, D.C., John Chane; the former bishop of Washington, D.C., Jane Dixon; Columbia University professor Randall Balmer; and labyrinth popularizer Lauren Artress. Inevitably, there is also South Africa’s Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Also on the left are radical Benedictine nun Joan Chittister; History of God author Karen Armstrong; Catholic revisionist John Dominic Crossan; British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins; the Pluralism Project’s Diane Eck; Catholic ethicist Bryan Hehir; “emerging church” leader Brian McLaren; Gnostic enthusiast Elaine Pagels; Wiccan priestess Starhawk; and Sojourners leader Jim Wallis.
Conservative religious voices, mostly Evangelical, include Southern Baptist leader Richard Land; columnist Cal Thomas; evangelist Luis Palau; megachurch pastor Rick Warren; prison ministry leader Chuck Colson; and Texas pastor T. D. Jakes. Conservative Catholics, with the exception of papal biographer George Weigel and a few others, are largely absent.
There are also Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel; Madeline Albright (still another liberal Episcopalian); and former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, who is, among so much else, a Muslim cleric.
Though not particularly known, at least publicly, for her religious interests, Quinn is by far the most intriguing of the panelists. She recalls that she was once a Christian, raised in Protestant military chapels, later became an atheist, and is now a spiritual seeker. She is writing a book on religion in Washington. Becoming a mother for the first time at age 41, her now 25-year-old son has needed lifelong care because of a heart defect.
Her son’s health problem was “the most important thing that ever happened to me. . . . In the end maybe it will make me a better writer because I’ve become more empathetic and more sympathetic than I ever was before.” She is not entirely proud of her past as a biting chronicler of Washington personalities. “A lot of people got hurt in the process,” she wrote in her most recent entry. “I never really felt good about that.”
Several years ago Quinn began her spiritual journey after realizing that religion intersected with nearly everything about which she had written for thirty years. “I changed my mind about being an atheist,” she reported. “I would only describe myself now as a seeker.”
She has not settled into any particular religious belief system, but is enjoying “great conversations” with assorted religionists. “Whatever gives you solace, whatever gives your life meaning, whatever helps you make it through the night is nothing less than a blessing,” she wrote recently.
A Precocious Atheist
Quinn has blogged about Hindu eroticism and about walking the labyrinth. But far more interesting is her own spiritual history.
“When I was a child and my parents made me go to Sunday school I never really believed in God because I simply couldn’t relate to an all-powerful male God,” Quinn wrote recently. “I couldn’t ever imagine that if God had been a woman she would have sent her only begotten daughter to earth to be crucified. It was too horrifying to even contemplate. The idea of actually worshipping someone who would do that was unthinkable.”
Evidently a precocious child, Quinn remembered that “I became an atheist when I was six, though I didn’t know the word then. When I was 13 and had learned the word, I declared myself to my parents, both Protestants, who were horrified. The fact was, though, I just didn’t, couldn’t believe.” She refused to join her family in saying grace at the dinner table, eventually forcing her angry father to end the mealtime prayers.
Quinn attributes her childhood loss of faith, in part, to seeing pictures of concentration camp victims that her father brought back from World War II, and from her months in a hospital, where she saw horribly maimed soldiers from the Korean War. She does not believe, at least when she last wrote on the subject, in December 2006, that Jesus is divine or that God is omnipotent and loving. But she always thought it would be “wonderful” to believe in such a God.
Only twice in her life, she says, has she prayed privately. The first time she prayed, she asked for protection for her father when he was serving in the Korean War. The second time she prayed when her son was near death in the hospital.
Both times she prayed she feared that she was selfish for preferring her own relations in her prayers while so many others in the world suffered. And she “didn’t know who or what to pray to.” She doubts that “a good, loving, just God would create me, love me, and then not reveal himself to me.” Thirteen years ago, though, flush with gratitude at Thanksgiving, she asked her father to resume saying grace.
Why did Quinn abandon her atheism? She realized that she had been “condescending” towards religious believers. And she was influenced by Meacham, a practicing Christian and “one of the smartest, most decent people I have ever met.” Over several years, he persuaded her not to define herself negatively as an atheist. As she began to study religion, she was “amazed and embarrassed” by her previous ignorance.
A Free Way to God
Quinn now believes in God, who is for her “goodness and love and beauty, humility, kindness and grace, generosity, and the human spirit.” She is not sure she believes in a creator but is “curious.” She believes that after death her spirit will live in another place, but she is not sure what to call it.
Though still an atheist at the time, Quinn had her infant son baptized 25 years ago in a restaurant by a “radical” Episcopal priest. Last year, he announced to her that he now believes in God, and his views of the divine are shaped by the masculine and dramatic images of the Sistine Chapel. He believes that his suffering through a lifetime of congenital heart illness may have been part of a divine plan.
And he recently told his mother: “You started out as an atheist. Now you’re a free thinker. I think you’re on your way to believing in God.”
Sally Quinn’s weblog can be found at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/sally_quinn.
“Post Conversion” first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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