A bit of U.S. “mainline” Protestant history was made May 11. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches announced that its 70-year-old executive minister, American Baptist Donald Anderson, will take three months off for an unspecified “process of transitioning” to female identity.
The council’s board is “totally supportive,” stated its president, a United Church of Christ pastor, and anticipates Anderson’s September return under the new name of Donnie. The council sponsored an April 24 “merciful conversation on gender identity and expression” at an Episcopal church.
By coincidence, the April 25 edition of The Christian Century, a prototypical “mainline” voice, published a noteworthy article on “nonbinary gender” as part of God’s good creation.
The piece was an excerpt from a new release by the Presbyterian Church (USA) book house, “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.” Author Austen Hartke, creator of the youtube series “Transgender and Christian,” is a recent graduate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won an Old Testament prize.
This frontier in modern moral theology confronts many U.S. religious groups head-on, and just after legalized same-sex marriage, causing religious-freedom disputes the news media will be covering for the foreseeable future.
The transgender cause contrasts with the heavily “binary” and “cisgender” culture throughout the Bible and the Quran that shapes the beliefs of traditional Christians, Jew and Muslims. On that, reporters should review this declaration issued last December. The 20 endorsers include a Catholic cardinal and bishops who chair relevant committees of the hierarchy, two ranking Eastern Orthodox leaders, conservative Protestant officials, a prominent African-American churchman and a Muslim imam (but no Orthodox rabbis).
The 20 are careful to affirm the “inherent dignity” of all human beings as created by God, and urge love, sensitivity, mercy and patience toward those experiencing “discomfort with his or her sex, or the desire to be identified as the other sex.”
However, they find “deeply troubling” and harmful the “gender ideology” seeking to enforce “the false idea that a man can be or become a woman or vice versa.” They insist on government’s “compelling interest” in maintaining “the scientific fact of human biology and supporting the social institutions and norms that surround it.” The group is especially upset over medical efforts to alter underage children through potentially damaging hormones.
Though Pope Francis has won considerable applause from cultural liberals otherwise, he upholds the gender line, as in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. It says “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different,” and that it is unhealthy to try to “cancel out sexual difference.”
Citing papal teaching, the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ committees on the family and education objected that the 2016 transgender “guidance” to schools from the Barack Obama administration’s justice and education departments “contradicts a basic understanding of human formation.”
The nation’s second-largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, typifies the attitudes of conservative and evangelical Protestants.
A resolution from its 2014 gathering says transgender neighbors are “image-bearers of Almighty God” and condemns abuse or bullying. But it insists the Bible designates “the fundamental distinction that God has embedded in the very biology of the human race,” so that gender is “determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.”
Mormon, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish authorities hold similar beliefs.
Against that, Hartke cites theologian Megan DeFranza, who holds degrees from an evangelical college and seminary and is now a Boston University researcher. She believes “the simplistic binary model is no longer sufficient. It is dishonest to the diversity of persons created in the image of God.”
In Hartke’s own view of scripture, “instead of asking the text to define and label all that is, we can ask God to speak into the space between the words, between biblical times and our time, and between categories we see as opposites.” In this way “we have to say yes to who God created us to be.”
Then we have this appeal for compromise from J.J. McCullough, a columnist with the socio-political conservatives at National Review. Such middle ground will be difficult to achieve.