People laugh when I admit this, but my conversion to Christianity resulted from two powerful forces: science and Donald Trump. But before that journey began, I needed distance from extreme religious trauma. I grew up within an offshoot Mormon cult, living with seven biological siblings in various motor homes, tents, houses, and sheds. Besides time spent in homeschooling, I attended 17 different public schools. When I took my ACT test, we lived in a shed with no running water in the Ozarks.
My father believed he was a Mormon prophet destined to become president. The LDS Church eventually excommunicated him for heresy. As a child, he was raped by a Mormon babysitter and witnessed the sudden death of a best friend. His children inherited the trauma. I have two siblings with schizophrenia, including one brother who tried to rape me and one who accused me of trying to seduce him. I’ve been hospitalized nine times for depression, fibromyalgia, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.
For years, I assumed I’d never return to belief in God or organized religion. My heart remained closed for over a decade because of the evil things I’d seen done in God’s name. To fill the void, I threw myself into work, schooling, dating, friends, and travel as ultimate sources of meaning. I studied business policy at Harvard and worked as an analyst for major Wall Street firms, earning unthinkable sums for a girl from a motor home. I launched a career in political journalism at outlets like Politico, The Hill, and the Washington Times.
Materially, I was well off. But spiritually, I felt poorer than ever. I couldn’t help comparing myself to people who appeared more successful. Over time, I discovered my earthly gifts and accomplishments didn’t offer real fulfillment.
I turned to ancient Stoic philosophy to bring me peace and stability, and in many respects it did. But it wasn’t enough during the 2016 election, when I felt an existential crisis. I realized that when I’d lost my faith in God, I had allowed politics to become a substitute religion.
I won’t delve into any partisan analysis of the 2016 election. I mention it here because it was a potent factor in my faith journey.
When Trump rode down his golden escalator in June 2015, I’d built my career toward working on a Republican campaign or in the White House. It would be a crowning success. I felt ready. I knew the economy after managing billions of dollars in credit risk on Wall Street. I’d appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, and other networks, even sparring on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
But I couldn’t endorse what Trump said about women, and I couldn’t abide his lack of public-service experience. I refused overtures from Trump campaigners hoping to get me involved. A “Never Trumper” throughout the 2016 race, I wrote in the then senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, as my protest candidate.
During this crisis of meaning, I felt distraught and adrift. So I turned to church, first to Redeemer Presbyterian, founded by the late Tim Keller, and also to Saint Thomas Episcopal on Fifth Avenue.
Each week, I generally attended either a Sunday service or a Bible study. There, I encountered Scripture’s answer to career and political idolatry in passages like Mark 8:36–37, which asks, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (NKJV). And I gradually discovered why Christianity supplanted Stoicism (and other ancient philosophies).
Like Buddhism, Stoicism teaches detachment to help relieve human suffering. We are in pain, the Stoics say, because we irrationally attach ourselves to things, and true liberation comes from refusing to let them control our peace. There is truth in those sentiments, but Stoicism didn’t offer sustaining community, and it didn’t help me comprehend either human depravity or the possibility of redemption.
I enjoyed Keller’s intellectual approach. His church welcomed skeptics, atheists, and agnostics like me. He provided a solid answer to my anger at organized religion. I resonated with his response in The Prodigal God to Karl Marx’s charge that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” As Keller observed,
That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory. Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it. Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people. It’s more like the smelling salts.
As I studied theology, I also began studying science and metaphysics, discovering abundant evidence for a divine creator that blew away any last vestiges of agnosticism. I embraced a ministry called Science + God created by former Harvard physics professor Michael Guillen. An atheist when he entered Cornell University, he left as a Christian, graduating with three PhDs—mathematics, astronomy, and physics—before teaching at Harvard and joining ABC News as chief science correspondent.
The more I studied science, history, anthropology, and other disciplines, the more my faith in God and my confidence in Christianity grew. In Mormonism, further study had produced further disillusionment. Studying Christianity felt like uncovering buried treasure discarded by intellectuals who had discounted its scientific and philosophical heft.
I joined the Episcopal Church, having been influenced by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the preacher from the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. More than two billion people watched his sermon on the power of love. But I already knew the power of this small, bespectacled, energetic man. One of his chief advisors, Chuck Robertson, became a spiritual mentor to me after we met in Manhattan.
Reverend Chuck gave me the bishop’s book Crazy Christians. It’s about love’s power to heal racial, socioeconomic, and all other divisions. As an African American, Curry grew up amid segregation, and his father brought his family to the Episcopal Church because it served the same Communion cup to parishioners of all races. Curry saw the truth of Galatians 3:28, that “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” His words touched my heart and encouraged my faith journey.
My baptism day—December 3, 2017—was the happiest of my life. A group of about 30 family and friends watched me vow to “serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself” and “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
More than six years since my baptism, I enjoy a healthier relationship to politics. I still have strong convictions, which I don’t hesitate to share in columns, speeches, or TV appearances, but I know God is far bigger than any puny manmade system.
As I returned to a walk with God, I felt enveloped with a sense of peace that surpassed understanding. The mission of Christ to unify and heal breathed new life and joy into my bruised heart. I recovered a sense of confidence, not in myself but in my identity as a child of God.
Carrie Sheffield is a policy analyst in Washington, DC. This essay is adapted from her book, Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.