Among socially conservative religious leaders, the rapid shift of the cultural and legal status quo on issues of sexuality has created a palpable sense of disorientation. Some, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, have argued that this is a time of clarity for Christians: It will become harder for evangelicals to blend into mass culture, and while that separation comes with costs, it may actually be a boon to the faith. Others, like the writer Rod Dreher, have suggested that conservatives may be forced into a sort of cultural withdrawal, a retreat into self-sustaining communities of people who share similar values.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlantic on the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.
It’s a somewhat novel approach to being an evangelical in public life: engaging debates about sexuality on their own terms. As Mohler himself admits, this hasn’t always been the case. “While Christians were secure in a cultural consensus that was negative toward same-sex acts and same-sex relationships, we didn’t have to worry too much about understanding our neighbors,” he said. “We did horribly oversimplify the issue.” Now that norms around LGBT issues are changing, evangelicals can no longer afford that kind of glibness, but it’s tricky to balance civility with steadfastness. Mohler said he’s not “trying to launch Culture War II,” but he also doesn’t want evangelicals to back down on their beliefs. “Christians have not had to demonstrate patience, culturally speaking, in a very long time. The kind of work and witness we’re called to—it could take a very long time to show effects.”
The cultural project he’s proposing is complicated, both intellectually and politically. But it’s most complicated because it’s uncomfortable. For so long, evangelical Christians implicitly owned American culture. Now, Mohler and co. are asking to be taken seriously by the new moral majority, whose lifestyles, marriages, and families they deeply oppose.
The idea that gender and sex are distinct is fairly new. In the United States, psychologists and social theorists began seriously developing “gender theory”—roughly, the idea that male/femaleness is socially constructed, whereas sex is biologically determined—in the late 1960s. This idea has become overwhelmingly accepted in American culture. It is embedded in terminology guidelines from medical groups like the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association; media organizations like the Associated Press; and, of course, LGBT advocacy organizations such as GLAAD.
For a long time, the culture-war opponents of homosexuality mocked or ignored the premises of gender theory. Ironically, this made it difficult to see the full depth of the intellectual fault lines between those who support homosexuality and those who oppose it on moral grounds. This is the usefulness of Mohler’s translation project: Two sides of a cultural conflict, so long framed in different vocabulary, can be directly compared.
Mohler talks a lot about the rise of what he calls “the autonomous self”—the idea that people should be able to determine who they are and make their own choices about how and when they have sex. This is the basic premise of every gay-rights movement, but it’s fundamentally at odds with the way Mohler and certain other evangelicals see the world. “[People] want to know why biblically-minded Christians can’t buy into the modern concept of sexual orientation as it’s presented, or an understanding of gender as entirely socially constructed,” he said. “But the distinction is actually more fundamental: It’s whether or not we are autonomous selves who define our own identity, or whether we’re creatures who are defined by a creator.”
Mohler’s viewpoint depends on a fairly rigid moral universe, one in which people are commanded by God to act in a specific way, including when it comes to sex acts, wearing “male” or “female” clothes, and embracing the gender identity associated with one’s biological sex. He laments that American teens are surrounded by a “peer culture more committed to tolerance than any other moral principle,” which highlights another fundamental tension: He believes self-derived morality is not sufficient, and that Christians have a moral obligation to guide the acts of others.
Even though this way of thinking seems directly at odds with a self-derived sexual ethic, there are some counterintuitive echoes between Mohler’s theological worldview and the vocabulary of the LGBT community. For example: When Mohler talks about the experience of brokenness, of recognizing one’s own sinful nature, it sounds very similar to descriptions of gender dysphoria. This is the feeling that one’s gender identity doesn’t match with one’s biological sex—a common experience among transgender people.
“We are indeed alienated from our true selves. In that sense, those who are struggling with the transgender issues, they aren’t wrong. They’re just being incredibly honest,” Mohler said. “According to the Bible, the world is not separated between those who are fully, wonderfully integrated selves, and those who are broken. No: The Bible says we are all broken.” The difference, to Mohler, is what you choose to do about it. Many in the LGBT community would support a transgender person’s decision to dress differently, carefully pursue hormone therapy, or get surgery. Mohler, on the other hand, believes “we find wholeness and resolution only in being the man or the woman that God meant us to be, or made us to be.”
It’s a strange kind of empathy: one that resolutely condemns the choices, lifestyles, and self-declared identities of LGBT people, but also resolutely affirms that their underlying struggle is real. Repeatedly in his book, Mohler calls on evangelicals to be more welcoming to people who feel an attraction to the same sex, or who feel that sense of gender dysphoria. “We must admit that Christians have sinned against transgender people and those struggling with such questions by simplistic explanations that do not take into account the deep spiritual and personal anguish of those who are in the struggle,” he writes.
Even this slight posture shift may be a big cultural change for many evangelicals, and one that won’t come easily. Mohler’s school, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, hosted a panel discussion earlier this fall billed as the “first evangelical conference on transgenderism.” Some of the conversation followed Mohler’s delicate model—standing firm against queerness while still trying to understand and not mock it—but other moments were rougher. A professor at the seminary, James M. Hamilton Jr., described visiting a college, somewhere in the SEC, and speaking to a group of young men. “And the whole time, I’m thinking to myself, these guys need to be told to man up … to stop looking like girls, in the way they walk, in the way they talk, in the way they wear their hats,” he said. “It was all just, it was gross. I think it’s our responsibility to say to the younger generation, ‘You need to knock that off, and you need to start acting like a man.’” No offense to anyone, he added.
While Mohler doesn’t call anyone “gross” for being effeminate (or, as Hamilton put it, “what [my wife] will call as ‘floppiness’”), he does have his own few moments of tonal derision. He recommends using the term “homosexual,” rather than “gay,” because it “has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake.” And he dedicates a whole section of his book to proving that there was a “gay agenda” to legalize same-sex marriage and normalize homosexuality in American culture.
But he also recognizes—mildly, mildly—that there is wisdom to be drawn from questioning traditional norms of sexuality. Even though he firmly agrees that men and women should embrace the gender identity that matches their sex, “We do understand that a part of that is socially constructed,” he said. “And not only that, in a fallen world, there can be exaggerations and corruptions of what it means to be a man and a woman. There are some very brutalistic corruptions of masculinity, and there are some very trivial and hyper-sexualized understandings of the female that the Bible would clearly reject.”
When gay marriage became legal in the United States, there was a good deal of triumphalism within the LGBT community. Celebrations of a long-fought victory came with a sense of historical inevitability, that law and culture were always bound to one day affirm the equal rights of all couples to wed. Anyone who thinks cultural conflicts over sexuality and gender are settled, though, is badly mistaken.
“The transgender issues are going to be even more complex and challenging than the same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage for the Christian church,” Mohler said. “The transgender challenge isn’t reducible merely to behaviors, in the sense [of] same-sex relationships with sexual acts—that gets down to behavior pretty fast. But when it comes to transgender issues, the behaviors are a lot more nuanced. It’s identity that’s at the core.”
He cited a number of tangible complications that might arise out of the clash of different worldviews on transgender identity. Courts across the country are facing new questions of how to balance LGBT rights with religious liberty. Communities are wrestling with confusing challenges, like how schools should assign gender labels to bathrooms and how city governments should write gay-discrimination ordinances—just this week, voters shot down a proposal for such a law in Houston. There’s already been evidence that these conflicts aren’t just theoretical or abstract: Look to the death of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio who committed suicide this year, citing frustrations with the religious expectations of her parents. As new and more tangly legal and cultural conflicts related to gender identity arise, evangelicals face a choice about how to engage with the cultural majority. But those who support LGBT rights face a choice, too: How should they engage back?
It’s easy to jot off self-righteous prose about pluralism, the importance of dialogue and engagement with others’ beliefs. It’s much harder to figure out the first-principle questions that affect people’s lives, like whether all adoption agencies should be compelled by law to place children with gay families. (Mohler doesn’t support gay families, he said, but “at the first level, the most emergency level, we should be thankful that any child is clothed and fed.”) In his book, Mohler suggests that people who continuously struggle with same-sex attraction should maintain lifelong celibacy, becoming a “eunuch for the kingdom.” That’s a huge personal decision, one that would radically define a person’s life. Even with all his answers, Mohler did not have straightforward advice for how churches should deal with a transgender person who wants to be saved in an evangelical church but has already undergone gender-reassignment surgery. (“Would surgery now be pastorally required or advisable in order to obey Christ? … Pastors and congregations should consider age, context, and even physical and physiological factors when determining a course of action,” he writes.)
There is a morally important counterargument to all of this. LBGT Americans have suffered from incredible discrimination and bigotry, often at the hands of those in the old cultural majority. Conservative Christians, so long represented among advisors to presidents and powerful public voices and those who readily embraced discrimination, might seem unlikely recipients of either compassion or intellectual generosity.
But it’s precisely because these stakes are so high, and this history so fraught, that the hard work of persuasion matters on both sides. So far, successful examples of this have been rare, but not unheard of. In Utah, for example, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting LGBT housing and employment discrimination while allowing certain exemptions for religious groups, the result of a collaboration between LGBT and faith organizations. As more cities and states consider this kind of statute, Utah could serve as a template.
Because it’s a way of living that’s better than balkanization. “Should Christian parents allow their children to play at the homes of children who have parents in a same-sex union?” Mohler asks at the end of his book, in a section called “hard questions.” “Christians are in the world in order to preach the gospel and to work for the good of our neighbors so that they might live more flourishing lives and follow Jesus Christ. That can only happen if we develop genuine friendships with our neighbors.” Fundamental moral judgement definitely makes playdates more awkward. But in the long run, the kids from both of those families, who will one day inherit a very different version of this culture war, will probably be better off.