There is a growing sense that conservative Christians are not only losing the transgender debate, but that they will lose it completely in the end. There are reasons being given for this outcome, as outlined in a recent article for Religion News Service by journalist Jonathan Merritt, including: a focusing more on ideology than on people and their individual stories; quoting Scripture instead of looking to science; and relying on fear in terms of cultural impact.
I actually agree with all three assessments. Perhaps not with how they are always caricatured; but they are, in essence, valid. And yes, they may cost conservative Christians the transgender debate in the public square of culture.
And it will be for all the right reasons.
There is a growing, worrisome sentiment within some Christian ranks that the worst thing that could possibly happen would be to lose minds in a court of public opinion. So, the thinking goes, we should drop that issue. Capitulate. Give in to culture. Don’t fight it – because if you do, you’ll lose.
And losing is everything.
No. It is not.
Abandoning orthodoxy is everything.
Let’s return to the three reasons being cited for losing the transgender debate:
1. Focusing on Ideology Over People
When conservative Christians talk about transgender issues, they bring up worldview and doctrine, ideology and transcendent truth. Those opposed tell stories of transgender people – their hurts and fears, worries and anxieties. They make it about personal choice and personal happiness. As one writer put it, “Narrative framing usually wins in public debates because it touches listeners’ hearts.”
Now, to be fair, this narrative could be shattered by a single story of an eight-year-old girl assaulted by a man citing “bathroom rights” to have gained predatory access to her in a restroom stall, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
Stories do, after all, cut both ways.
But in light of our culture’s greatest value being that of individual freedom, there is no doubt anything that would seek to curtail that freedom from being expressed is going to be a minority report.
So does this mean we must abandon ideology and go with individual freedom because we’re losing the cultural debate? That because they have the personal narrative – the “face” to go along with it – we must throw up our hands and say, “You win!”? And not only “You win,” but “You must be right!”?
No. If anything, Christians of all stripes – conservative or not – should become increasingly prepared to be in the minority on this and many other issues in an increasingly post-Christian and openly Christian-hostile context.
We can have robust conversations about whether an ideology is biblical, but to abandon ideology because it “loses” when compared to personal story means that all of revealed truth stands subject to the whims, circumstances and desires of individuals.
That is not the meaning of transcendent truth, much less the heart of the Christian faith.
2. Quoting Scripture Instead of Science
There are few thinking Christians – conservative or otherwise – who believe science and Scripture are in conflict with one another. What most would argue is that: 1) Science should not be limited to solely naturalistic theories and postulates and 2) Science is often in flux, so before a “seeming” conflict with Scripture is embraced, let’s give the Scriptures the benefit of the doubt and make sure we're interpreting it fairly in regard to authorial intent. And to date, what has science found that has contradicted scripture? Certainly not something as exaggerated as evolution. Genesis says that God did it and that it was good. It never says how God did it. All Christians would argue is that much of evolutionary theory sure does seem to need a guiding force and/or a helping hand behind it.
So is science on one side or the other of the transgender debate? And are Christians burying their heads (or minds) in the sand when it comes to that science?
For example, some would point to intersex persons (those who used to be designated as “hermaphrodites”) as a scientific proof against the Bible’s statements that there are two sexes, and that God created humanity to be one or the other. This is such a statistically small percentage, even among the already statistically small percentage of transgenders, that it fails to speak to the wider cultural issues at hand.
But even more to the point, when a person is born with both a penis and a vagina, does anyone view this as a biological normalcy? As a story on intersex children in Time magazine noted, in the medical establishment, the wide variety of conditions that might be referred to as “intersex” are typically referred to as “disorders of sex development.”
So theologically, rather than see the existence of such people as proof of God’s will in creation, they are more the result of the fall, which has led to a wide range of physical disorders that are not God’s perfect will for His creation at all.
In the recent past, such rare conditions were addressed surgically. Only of late have such “normalizing” interventions become contested as if somehow this is a condition to be embraced on grounds of individual freedom. A cynic might say that an obscure medical condition that has historically been considered something to be treated has been co-opted by a larger agenda to make a case for things far from related to its medical case.
The broader science on such issues is much clearer, as I detailed in an earlier blog here.
3. Relying on Fear
There were many mistakes made by Christians in the early years of the ascendance of what was then known as the “homosexual agenda”: the hate-filled rhetoric, the fear-mongering about the demise of all marriages, and more.
And I agree that much of this was reprehensible (the hate), and the rest irrelevant (the fear). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be afraid or cast the appalling vision of where certain decisions will inevitably lead.
Slippery slopes are real. I’ve written about them most recently here. In truth, much that conservative Christians warned about, whether in a spirit of fear-mongering or not, has taken place. The acceptance of homoerotic behavior did lead to gay marriage; gay marriage has led to a flood of cases arguing for polygamy; and now, we see the “T” in LGBT is getting its desired place. Maddening as it may be for some to hear, right or wrong, this would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago.
In this “debate,” I know of no Christians of prominence calling for the removal of basic rights from transgender people; no one is spending time on whether their lifestyle is a “choice” or not; money is not flooding in to send them to rehabilitation programs; no one is saying that if they get the Zika virus, it’s God’s judgment on them.
Believe it or not, this really is about maintaining personal convictions about sexual identity, and having those convictions not be violated in ways that are deeply personal and private.
And while bathroom rapes may not suddenly flood trending stories on Facebook, women will be exposed to people of an opposite sex in the most personal and private areas of life (bathrooms), and even nudity (public changing rooms/showers). That isn’t fear-mongering, that is simply a description of the “right” being argued for from the LGBT community and their supporters.
So yes, once again, we may lose another cultural debate. But again, for all the right reasons.
And better to lose this battle than the larger war of compromise,
…and our souls in the process.
James Emery White
Jonathan Merritt, “3 reasons conservative Christians will lose the transgender debate,” May 14, 2016, Religion News Service, read online.
Katy Steinmetz, “This is what intersex means,” November 21, 2014, Time, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.