Edited by Spencer Ackerman
IN 2017, nearly all prominent American conservative evangelical leaders signed a mildly theological manifesto called The Nashville Statement, issued by a nonprofit called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Only married cisgender heterosexual people—or people practicing total celibacy—were living in obedience to God’s will, it said, because gender roles are divinely ordained. The statement denounced out trans and gay people and affirmed that “God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage”—not “all Christians,” but “all people.”
It was a scandal among Christians, though not of much note to the national media outside religion sections—certainly not as political news. But in many ways, the Nashville Statement, which now boasts more than 24,000 total signatories, marked the birth of a new movement within the church against sexual minorities after the stinging defeat to conservatives of Obergerfell v Hodges and the subsequent affirmation of gay congregants in many less hidebound churches. The document voiced fears about gay and trans people, long-held but rarely articulated in public, and at last codified them for everyone to read. Conservative Calvinists like John Piper, who founded the CBMW with fellow Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem, have long taken the idea that gender roles are God’s doing, not man’s, to extremes. When in 2009 a woman asked Piper for advice on spousal abuse, he said, ”I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.”
It is hard to overstate the closeness of the anti-feminist, anti-LGBT Christian establishment and the modern conservative political movement, both of which are obsessed with turning back the clock on public education. Prominent conservative theologians ordained in various denominations signed the Nashville Statement—Piper, the Southern Baptist Convention’s then-head of public policy Russell D. Moore, the late conservative Anglican priest J. I. Packer—but so did Christian political operative James Dobson, two state senators, and seven members of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the dark-money lawfare group that has pushed (as of last month) 166 different bills restricting speech by and about trans and gay people. The focus has overhwelmingly been on children: denying gender-affirming care to trans kids, denying public schoolchildren access to books with gay characters, preventing teachers from speaking about sexual orientation except in the context of sex education.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is currently run by Michael Farris, formerly of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. That group defends homeschooling parents, primarily Christians, who come under investigation by child-protection authorities. The HSLDA works with conservative model legislation outfit the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); it is likely that ADF is now helping to craft anti-trans model legislation. Public agitators like The Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo have attracted attention to their hateful and clearly false claims that gay and trans adults are child predators lurking in schools, but this network of Christian legal organizations and para-church organizations like the CBMW are doing the logistical work of redirecting public resources toward further disenfranchising gay and trans people, especially gay and trans children. And they are doing it in the name of protecting those same children.
IT’S TACIT in the Nashville Statement that, outside the tiny oasis of sanctified genital contact between married cisgender heterosexuals, there is a sort of sinful Kinsey scale. It spans masturbation to rape, with infidelity and homosexuality somewhere in the middle. Christian leaders have contended for decades that indulging in one sexual sin will lead you into more elaborate ones—porn leads to adultery, gay people are just oversexed, and trans people are just extra gay. (I feel obligated to say that this bizarre nonsense obviously reflects neither the life experiences of the gay and trans people I know personally nor the settled science around sexual orientation and gender identity.) After that, you might get up to all kinds of evil stuff.
As someone who was once a young person in a church where leaders taught this, I can tell you firsthand that hearing it taught as the Word of God fills you with an overwhelming despair. Especially if you’re a man—and women have it much worse, but in a different way—the whole thing makes you feel like the kind of monster who transforms in the light of a full moon and eats people, whether or not he likes the idea while it’s still light out. The trick seems to be to hold out long enough to find a man or woman who will agree to be your husband or wife before you finally go nuts and turn into John or Jane Wayne Gacy.
Believing as many of us do in this incipient monstrosity—which fits in nicely with more traditional doctrines like total depravity—lots of Christians develop deep fears about gay and trans people. Those People, they come to believe, are way, way, way over on the sinful end of the spectrum, and probably a lonely night or two away from trawling playgrounds. As such, Christian organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family have both a new fundraising opportunity—the transes are coming for your kids, give us money—and more insidiously, a new inroad to the lives of their listeners and their listeners' children. (Focus has a huge radio presence and a free streaming service for kids.) Current items on the “resource”-filled Focus website encourage grandparents not to affirm their trans grandkids even under the threat of being cut off from their family, and recommend discredited “ex-gay” ministries to closeted gay Christians.
That interposition between family members is a signal feature of the conservative Christian movement, and one that is not much discussed, because of the way the movement has so relentlessly described itself as “pro-family.” Its name of choice is only correct insofar as it uses the singular: The Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, the Presbyterian Church of America and so on are dedicated to the advancement of a single, Platonically ideal family, of which all other families are wan shadows. Those groups, of course, are the arbiters of how close you’ve gotten to that ideal.
This is what conservatives mean when they say they are “protecting” children from accepting themselves as transgender or gay—that they are protecting children from interacting with trans people, who, like a vampire, will turn you trans. What they do not mean is that they are protecting the children from being interfered with by heterosexual adults.
IN 2002, Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur, one of the original signatories to the Nashville Statement, announced at a Sunday evening service that his congregants were to cut ties with Eileen Gray, whom “the Lord wants... to be put out of the church, to be publicly shamed, to be put away from fellowship.” Gray had refused to accept church discipline, MacArthur said, by which he meant she had refused to drop the restraining order against her husband David, who had beaten and molested the couple’s children and who taught music at Grace Community. For that crime, Grace-goers were instructed to “treat her as an unbeliever.”
Julie Roys, who runs the investigative website The Roys Report, broke the story here, complete with a YouTube video of MacArthur delivering the remarks; I unreservedly recommend her work to you. In a later post, she chronicles the same church’s reaction to the arrest of David Gray, two years later, on unrelated charges of child abuse.
Grace Community is not a tiny outlier where bad things happein the shadows. There are plenty of examples of those and I have neither the time nor, frankly, the stomach to rehash them all. (I will note the nearly identical concealment of sexual abuse and misconduct at Australia’s Hillsong, a model for many American churches) 8,000 people attend weekly services at Grace Community. MacArthur has written and edited dozens of books, many of them published by Thomas Nelson, a division of HarperCollins, including his own edition of the Bible. MacArthur’s church is non-denominational, so he is unfettered by any higher authority on earth than his own conscience.
It is fair to say that MacArthur is representative of this particular genus of conservative Christian minister. It further seems fair to say that the welfare of children, which is the standard around which Christians rally one another and their secular friends and neighbors, is not his highest priority. Another signatory, James Dobson, is legendary for his own bestselling, folksy tales of cruelty to his children and even his pet dachshund. Again, the safety and welfare of small kids just doesn’t seem like it even attracts these men, much less plays such an integral role in their faith that they can’t help but force everybody else to go along with it.
We’re asked to believe that conservative Christians care so much about children that, when they are slightly misguided in their assessment of sexual politics, they go wildly astray. That just isn’t true, it has never been true, and it will never be true. Their contempt for smaller and weaker people is very much a part of their theology. I don’t have to say this about them. They declare it without shame.