Commentary on Caitlyn Jenner Reveals Fundamentalism’s Abusive Dynamic

With some notable exceptions, Evangelical responses to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition have mostly been a huge disappointment. A good overview of Christian responses appeared at the Atlantic, while here at RD Daniel Schultz weighed in with a cogent critique of complementarian theology.

But I want to focus on how the more vicious Christian responses to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition reveal the inherently abusive dynamic of fundamentalism*—a dynamic that cannot be squared with Christian claims to believe in the fundamental dignity of every human individual.

Let’s start by examining what the self-described revivalist and charismatic preacher John Burton had to say about Ms. Jenner in a smugly judgmental, generally nasty, and deliberately misgendering piece called “Celebrating Confusion: The Crisis of Bruce (not Caitlyn) Jenner”:

Without Jesus, Bruce Jenner is hopeless—regardless of whether he struggles with gender identity or not. Eternity is a small and rapidly decreasing number of heartbeats away and he will live, as Bruce Jenner, not Caitlyn, for trillions of years (forever) in horrifying, unending torment—a never-ending panic attack. For those who don’t radically, completely die to their own pursuits and their own selfish identities and decide to make Jesus Christ the supreme loving Master of their lives, hell is their future. This is truth. This is terror.

Note the use of “terror” in conjunction with “loving.” If the goal of terrorism is to use acts of violence or the threat thereof to create fear that results in control over those targeted, then it’s not a stretch to call Burton’s god a cosmic terrorist. And yet Burton’s Jesus is supposedly a “supreme loving Master”—just one who will blithely consign you to trillions of years of torment if you don’t do what he says. This isn’t love. There’s another term for it: abuse.

In the wake of the Josh Duggar scandal and conservative Christian reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, it’s become clear that abuse is very much a feature, not a bug, of Christian fundamentalism. I can’t say how Jenner herself may react to the invective being spewed by Burton and many other conservative Christian bloggers, but I can say that attitudes like Burton’s contribute to a climate in which far too many LGBTQ youth commit suicide or end up on the streets.

As a former Evangelical ultimately alienated by the ugliness of the culture wars, I know that internalizing such a toxic attitude is hard, probably impossible, to avoid if you’re raised with and surrounded by it. As a result, many people remain in abusive relationships with particular churches, religious communities, and understandings of faith and God. Many persevere in doomed efforts to conform to what they’re taught God wants, believing that God loves them, wants what’s best for them, and will give them the power to change if only they have enough faith and put in enough effort. There’s a built-in disciplinary mechanism here—should you “fail” to achieve the change you’re after, you are primed to assume that the problem is with you, not with the beliefs you’re being told you must accept on penalty of hellfire. And so the cycle of abuse continues.

A god who would insist that people like Caitlyn Jenner and other members of the LGBTQ community suppress fundamental aspects of their identity or else is not loving. Nor is a belief in such a god compatible with proceeding from the premise of the fundamental dignity of each human individual, despite Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians insisting that their belief in individual dignity is grounded in religious faith, in the belief that each person is created in the image and likeness of God.

Some Christians have realized the inherent disconnect here, coming around to full LGBTQ affirmation, as can be seen in this post making a Christian case for the acceptance of Jenner’s transition. Too often, however, conservative Christians pull a bait and switch when it comes to individual dignity, invoking divine authority in order to define other people’s fundamental experiences for them.

I used to be guilty of this myself. I remember uncomfortable conversations with some of the first open members of the LGBTQ community I got to know, when, although I was conflicted and I tried to be as nice about it as possible, I felt like my faith compelled me to see any non-heterosexual orientation as a sin. Thanks to those conversations and those patient interlocutors, I changed my views. It became self-evident that listening to people describe their own experiences had to trump the kind of dogma that would erase those experiences.

If the dignity of the individual person means anything, then it has to mean this. Otherwise, it’s just sleight of hand that plays into the abusive dynamic of dogmatism, the consequences of which are all too evident in contemporary America.

*While “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are highly contested and fluid terms (and certainly not equivalent) the above post uses “fundamentalist” as a blanket label for fringe, conservative evangelicals. –eds

34 Comments

  • kevinbobrow@gmail.com' Kevin Bobrow says:

    Great thoughts, Chris. If our God is loving, he is loving. If he calls us to love, he calls us to love. That’s it. We don’t have to worry about whether something is a sin or acceptable or true when it comes to other people – we just must love them. When it comes to ourselves, we must decide our path either within the confines of what God wants for us or outside of that. That is also up to each person. If we decide to live our lives within those confines, we must seek out earnestly what it is God desires for our lives, and be able to live with the decisions we have made. If not, then that is not something on our radar and we do what we choose. Either way, it is not my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to decide whether someone else is living their life the right way, or making the right choices. When “Christians” come out lambasting someone for their choices, all I hear is Jesus’ own words: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” As Christians we are called to love, then love, and then love some more. That’s it. God will sort out the rest. You are completely on the money when you say that a loving God cannot coexist with the abusive, ridiculous, threatening “god” we hear about from the fundamentalists. In my opinion, they have adopted a pseudo-Christianity that has forgotten the core of who Jesus was and is. Yes, Jesus called people to a high standard. And yes, he called out sin when he saw it in the lives of religious leaders. But when it came to those struggling to find God, those trying to figure out life and how they fit in it, all we see in Jesus’ life is kindness, patience, tenderness, compassion, and unconditional love…

  • chris@east20thst.net' cmbennett01 says:

    Do fundamentalists really claim to believe in the fundamental dignity of every human individual? While some may pay lip service to the idea, I think most on the far right would bite the bullet and admit they believe in the fundamental depravity of the human individual. For many faith is submission and obedience, sin is disobedience.

    That fundamentalist behave in an abusive, authoritarian manner, is perfectly compatible with the idea that man was created in gods image.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    I have yet to for any of those critical of this news tell me why Jenner’s gender matters in their life. Is it really so important for them to state on the record that “Jenner will always be a man!”? Is everyone’s gender so important to them? I heard the news, accepted that whatever the Jenners want to do is their business and moved on.

    If the religious would quit trying to manage everyone’s sexuality and gender, quit getting offended at those that disparage religion and faith, and quit attempting to force everyone to obey their god, we wouldn’t even be talking about this now.

  • chris@east20thst.net' cmbennett01 says:

    The totalitarian mind can not accept the existence of anyone who does not share their beliefs. People who do not believe as they do are viewed as a threat to their belief system. They are cracks in the foundation of the world view they hold without question. Everyone must obey, because theirs is the one true god.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    whatever the Jenners want to do is their business and moved on.

    The Jenners are part of the Kardashians, so that makes it more important.

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    As a long time atheist, when I read something like what you have written here, I feel hope for humanity and a feeling that even I could get on board with the Christianity you describe. But then, for every one comment like yours there are 250 or more comments of the type Christopher discussed. How did one belief system get so far apart?

    Just wait till Frank shows up and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, great comment. Thank you.

  • kevinbobrow@gmail.com' Kevin Bobrow says:

    Those are some of the kindest words anyone has ever spoken to me. I totally get why many have a very sour impression of Jesus/Christianity/the Church. It is the fault of all of us who have called ourselves Christians but haven’t lived it out, or have tried to follow Jesus but missed the point. If my life could be defined by one thing, I would want it to point to a Jesus who is not at all like many think – but is overflowing with love and kindness and grace… A Jesus who smiles, and laughs, and gives, and forgives. I hope you do give him a shot! Peace to you – and thank you for your kind words!

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    This talk of Hell is the flailing desperation of the prosperity gospel, which the Duggar story and the Caitlyn Jenner story are each widely showcasing in different ways. I grew up in family of rooted Catholic Democrats, and only lately have I begun realizing how many Christians see the Gospel as essentially a pill to cure all things, and the doped-up easy life that Duggars acted out on TV is the Fruit of the Spirit. Caitlyn Jenner’s public act of not being cured by Jesus alone is sheer satanism itself, and as long as she admits to still being herself, she is declaring herself not cured and therefore not saved. To protect the pill, Josh Duggar’s transgression has been described as “BC” – Before [he was] Christian – in hand-waving defiance of his pre-scandal testimony, and now that he has taken more Jesus pills, he is all better, no pedophilia left, and how dare anyone talk about it. These kinds of Christians are worshipers of snake oil. They can’t handle real problems or deal with real humanity except by resorting to panicked threats and demands of silence, because there are not supposed to be problems. They paid for a cure, they expect a cure to be working.

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    Hi Kevin – I’d like to give more than just me a shot at your Jesus. I’d like to ‘love bomb’ the Internet with your comment.

    And peace to you also. I have a feeling I’ll remember you for a long time.

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    Must be my day for finding good stuff. Just ran into Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America? on HuffPo. I’d link it, but the comment would probably go the ‘pending’ black hole of doom. I hope this is the start of a thing – where love trumps nasty.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I’m not sure those words have real meaning. Christians specialize in words. I wonder if there is any way Christianity can deal with the nation’s major problem, which was caused by Christianity? That problem is Christianity fell for the moral majority thing, and started voting Republican in high numbers, and this allowed the rich to dominate the nation and pretty much rob us blind for decades, while using war to profit, and eventually torture. If there is a good side to Christianity, it needs to do more than preach Jesus. It needs to solve the problem that Christianity has caused, or at least totally separate themselves and make it clear that other Christian religion is the opposite of what they are. I think they have put their efforts into fuzzing the line, instead of drawing it more clearly.

  • PyotrZ@gmail.com' PyotrZ says:

    When legitimate Christians try to understand the wickedness of the Fundamentalists, they generally cite human failings and politics. This is how a humanist understands the Fundamentalists. If you sincerely believe that supernatural forces such as God are active in the world, then perhaps you should consider whether the Fundamentalists and associated movements are guided by an inimical supernatural force other than God. Certainly no devil could do a better a job of discrediting Christianity than the Right has done. Is it all just greed and misunderstanding? Personally I see the situation through the lens of secular ponerology, but if I believed in a supernatural adversary I would in Fundamentalism the Devil’s greatest triumph.

    The key to confronting Burton’s style of psychological attack is to remember that it does not matter if he is right. If Burton’s terrorist God exists then it must be defied. To be in agreement with such a being is to be a traitor to all humanity. Fundamentalists, in this light, resemble nothing so much as the kapos of the Holocaust: prisoners who worked for the Nazis, carrying out extermination in order to buy time for themselves.

    “If any man have an ear, let him hear.”

  • imjessietr@yahoo.com' Kelly says:

    They are for individuals only because then they can blame individuals and avoid recognizing cultural aspects of “sin”. They want the suicidal person to take responsibility but not the person who made them that way.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    So hopefully there is no God, because if there is a God then things are screwed up beyond repair.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Many people who have been immersed in fundamentalism and escaped understand it is a cult – a manipulative and toxic ideology of psychological control. Indeed, the convoluted nature of believing in everlasting damnation conflicts with belief in a loving God and focus on human failure mixed with a god who demands performance conflicts with belief in the inherent dignity of every person, as well as the grace of God communicated in and through the Christ.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Many times, it’s gay Christians who most reflect that compassion, isn’t it?

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Seashell – you asked how one belief system got so far apart and I can answer that. It’s simple – the Bible, as a whole, has taken the place of Christ as the principle agenda-setter for what theologies and doctrines are prioritized and it has taken His place as the filter through which those theologies and doctrines are internalized.

    To elaborate, the Old Testament presents a different way of understanding God than what was presented by Christ once He was on the scene. Then, much later, the followers saw belief in Him as a continuum but the trajectory was set by the OT as it had been understood, with Christ simply added into the mix instead of Christ being the interpretive key for a new understanding of the OT and the entire continuum, as well as the psychological dynamics involved. So, in the name of Jesus, Christianity became Old Covenant 2.0.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    I saw that piece, as well. Very good content. You know, there are a lot of people out there who’ve checked out and call themselves atheists but it’s not because they don’t want to believe in a healthy spirituality – it’s because of the toxic religion they’ve rejected. I say God is very much involved in that rejection because we SHOULD reject toxic religion and I believe God is leading us to reject it. By the way, when I use the word “God,” I’m talking about Life itself – not some person up in the heavens somewhere.

    What if Life is God and we’re all very much in God that way – belief or no belief?

  • kevinbobrow@gmail.com' Kevin Bobrow says:

    Jim I steer clear of politics, mainly because I’m not educated in them enough to know how to approach them. But one thing you said I have not really thought about, and I think you’re right. I think those of us who understand following Jesus is all about love and undeserved grace (not after you stop sinning but right now, as you are) need to make a clearer delineation between ourselves and the Jesus we follow and those who would co-opt the gospel for their own means. You made me think that all the way back to Constantine political forces have been co-opting the gospel to make it say what they want it to say, and to use this powerful (true, in my view) movement for their own purposes. I think this trend has certainly continued to this day, and as you said usually shows up with war-mongering, pro-death penalty, anti-welfare Republicans posing as devout “Christians” who give us all a bad name. I think you are absolutely right that we need to differentiate ourselves – I will think on how we might do that… Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  • kevinbobrow@gmail.com' Kevin Bobrow says:

    Very interesting thoughts. I think you might be onto something I had never considered about the fundamentalists. Certainly I would say they have been duped, led astray. The thing about it is that I’ve interacted with many of them and I think most are actually trying their best, doing what they’ve been taught. That doesn’t excuse it, but I guess I’d have a hard time identifying them as the devil’s stronghold since most just want to do what’s right. It’s just that ways of thinking get reinforced over generations, and often even get supersized and heightened generation to generation… But as Jim said above, Christians who preach love and not judgment need to make an effort to better delineate themselves from the fundamentalists…

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Kevin, please give very strong consideration to buying and reading “One Nation Under God” by Kevin Kruse. He’s a history professor at Princeton and has, with great detail, outlined the historical development of how Christianity has been co-opted by conservative political and corporate forces in this country. A hint: It started in reaction to the New Deal and got rolling under Eisenhower.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I think the Republican party has been using Christians, and they are good at it. They need votes, and promises might be the cheapest way to buy those votes. They probably have no long term commitment to Christianity, but in the other direction Christians would have a hard time admitting a mistake and reversing direction, so they will continue the political support.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Then it shifted into high gear with the moral majority as a reaction to the hippies.

    Then it reached its peak with the Bush election because of moral outrage over Clinton, and evangelical Christianity became the segment of the US population most supporting torture.

  • kevinbobrow@gmail.com' Kevin Bobrow says:

    Yet there are many Christians who see these things, and don’t vote that way. Like I said I’m not into politics, but I haven’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in a long time… It hit me a while back that Jesus is all about bringing a new, abundant life. He is all about radically valuing the worth of every individual. So I need to be all about everything that is “pro-life.” So sure, I need to be pro-life when it comes to abortion, because abortion certainly devalues life. But I also need to be pro-life when it comes to war (i.e. anti-war). And I need to be pro-life when it comes to punishing wrongdoers (i.e. anti-death penalty). And I need to be pro-life when it comes to helping the poor (i.e. okay with welfare). And I need to be pro-life when it comes to immigrants, and the list could go on. While I don’t believe any thinking person could come down on one side of the fence on every political issue, I have found that I fall on the Democrat side of the fence more often than the Republican. However, I certainly despise both parties equally! 🙂 Like I said, I don’t like politics! I just wanted to show that I and many others like me have noticed a bit of what has been happening (hard to miss!), and how our faith has been co-opted. And I for one have no interest in allowing that to continue…

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The Democratic party is a mess and it is hard to trust them. The Republican party is more consistent. You can count on them to tilt the game in favor of the rich over the rest of the population every time.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    There was an awful lot that happened long before the Moral Majority, but that was a big part of the more recent part of it, which began with Francis Schaeffer.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The divisions come from the Bible, and the churches, and the denominations. Christ is not the answer. He just provides a way for the divisions to see themselves as right and the other divisions as wrong or less right.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    What if Life is God and we’re all very much in God that way – belief or no belief?

    That would be like the Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love”.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Yes. And what if religion’s job is to call to our awareness that which already IS and that which we already ARE? That would be very different from creating an alternate universe and spreading it through memes.

  • karieordway56@msn.com' Karie Ryan Ordway says:

    Read also “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet. The formation of religion for the powerful. Trickle down Christianity. Redefining Jesus from the gentle shepard to the man’s man who demands obedience. Infects Washington and anyone who would be anyone must pay homage.

  • karieordway56@msn.com' Karie Ryan Ordway says:

    Very true. But Eisenhower saw the writing on the wall and tried to warn the Republicans away from joining at the hip with Christians. They didn’t listen.

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    As usual, it’s complicated. From what I can gather, I think you have hit on one of the major sink holes in Christianity. In 2001, the Baptist Standard covered the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, where the Bible-Firsters tried to gain control over the Jesus-Firsters. According to the Standard:

    Rather than a Trinity, they worship a defacto Quartet: Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Holy Bible, with the Bible acting as the arbiter of the other three.

    The problem for the rest of us in the US is that these people are reliable voters and believe the 1st Amendment is their personal freedom card and to hell with everyone else.

    I used to be apathetic about religion. Now I’m getting pissed. Yet, at the same time I recognize that many are nice people and it’s not all Christians, but about 25% of them. Can they be saved from themselves, do you think? Thank you for your comment.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    Can they – can we – be saved from ourselves? Yes and no. It depends on which self – the true self or the false one – the ego that doesn’t know who it is and is the real culprit behind toxic religion. There is a true self that is who we all are in God, whatever God’s nature should be. Call it the soul. It’s who we really are in God and is pure. It will live forever, but the ego tries to form a sense of self and identity around the body, mind, tribe and preferences. Religion falls under mind and group and what we have with toxic religion is the ego having taken over and the sacred is defamed in the name of the sacred as we worship at the alter of identity and all else the ego is obsessed with.

  • yijuzjab@imgof.com' Frank says:

    Supporting sin is not loving.

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