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