The Same Toxic Christian Right Theology Supports Both the Online Bullying I Experienced and the Cruel Anti-Trans Policy in TX — And it’s Not Remotely Fringe

From promotional materials for Jesus and John Wayne.

In late February, I went through an episode of online bullying that made me feel more dehumanized than I ever had since coming out as a transgender woman, leading to several days of heightened depressive symptoms and low productivity. The suffering this bullying caused me undoubtedly pales in comparison to what families with trans children who are currently under attack in Texas are going through since Governor Greg Abbott ordered child welfare agencies to treat parental support for, and medical provision of, gender-affirming health care for minors as child abuse. And while that attack is certainly political—although many in the press seem to rely on a fairly narrow definition of that term when they describe the cruel Texas policy—it’s no longer tenable to argue that the attack is “merely” theoretical or rhetorical, even if a handful of state officials have said they believe the policy to be illegal and will refuse to comply.

On Tuesday, the news dropped that Texas officials had opened “child abuse” investigations into parents who support their children in accessing age-appropriate gender-affirming medical care. They started with a state CPS employee, referred to as “Jane Doe,” who has a 16-year-old transgender daughter (“Mary Doe”) and says she feels “betrayed by my state and the agency for whom I work.” In light of this development, Texas has unequivocally become ground zero for the nationwide assault on trans people being carried out by the Christian Right and the GOP—an assault that’s advancing to disturbing degrees in a number of Republican-controlled states, even if a court in Texas has stayed the investigation into the Does, for now.

Apart from that context, I wouldn’t bother writing a column about an incident of online bullying, something I and every vocal marginalized social media user with any visibility, along with every journalist who covers controversial topics—especially if the journalists are women—experience regularly. Such bullying shouldn’t, of course, be “normal,” but it is commonplace and not especially newsworthy. 

However, within the context described above, it may be illuminating to examine the bullying I recently experienced—primarily from white evangelicals, some of them fairly prominent—for what it tells us about the mentality that leads good Christians to launch “child abuse” investigations that target loving parents of trans children, thereby raising a metaphorical middle finger to both fundamental human decency and the medical consensus.

Both the rhetorical and legal attacks on trans people are, after all, of a piece. Dehumanization of the members of a vulnerable group scapegoated by grievance-driven authoritarians is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for genocide. And what’s happening in Texas now, with some state officials “just following orders,” may eventually rise to the level of genocide, one means of which is the removal of children of a targeted group from their parents so that they can be placed in an environment in which their identity will be denied and erased, to the extent that’s possible. 

Of course, infants have not yet developed a sense of their gender identity, and so cannot be targeted, which is one major difference between Texas’s assault on trans people and campaigns targeting racial, ethnic, or religious groups—but if those currently in power in Texas aren’t stopped, it’s not out of the question that, down the line, the state could move on to removing infants from queer parents, and/or other means of violently persecuting the queer population. In the case of trans adolescents forcibly removed from supportive families, the likely result will be numerous suicides.

So, what does dehumanization look like on the level of public rhetoric and polemics in an age of social media and surging fascism? In this particular case, it looked like far right-wing Christians attempting to discredit a scholar and her brilliant book—historian and Calvin University professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation—by gesturing to the mere fact that a brief quotation from a mostly positive review I wrote for The Boston Globe in 2020 appears on the cover of the paperback edition that came out in June 2021. In my review, I called Jesus and John Wayne “a book that America needs now,” a statement I stand by, and the one that appears on the cover of the paperback—a choice made neither by myself nor by Du Mez.

The “theobrogians” of the evangelical world seem to have only just “discovered” this, however, and when they did they had a field day with it, bizarrely manufacturing a whole “scandal” to impugn the Christian faith of Du Mez by shrieking about how a trans person found the book valuable. That’s right. The thrust of their entire argument, such as it is, is this: “A transgender likes this book, therefore it must be anti-Christian.” (By the way, please do not say “a transgender.” It’s offensive, and I’m using it in my summary of the trolling here because the trolling was meant to offend.) While the primary target here was Du Mez, my role in the whole affair wasn’t merely that of collateral damage. I was directly bullied too. 

The Twitter brouhaha started when an alt-right Anglo-Catholic account—an account that has trolled me on multiple occasions—tweeted a relatively recent picture of me alongside a pre-transition picture and a picture of the cover of the paperback edition of Jesus and John Wayne, followed by, “I honestly thought most people knew about this Chris[sic.] was the dude who was running the Empty the Pews apostate movement and was very radical in promoting the idea that spreading the gospel was like a hate crime. Big, big fan of J&JW.”* 

Posting blown up pictures perceived as unflattering, zoomed in on the face, is a common tactic among alt-right trolls, who use it to target both Jews (and those perceived to be Jews) in an antisemitic way—often including mentions of “physiognomy” or even specific references to the nose—and trans women, who they like to portray as ugly, “mentally ill,” etc. In the latter case, pre-transition pictures are often used, and the tweets may feature derogatory commentary that of course includes, but also goes beyond, misgendering. 

If this recent incident had been limited to anonymous alt-right accounts, it wouldn’t warrant much commentary. What makes it remarkable is the way in which the original tweet was quote-tweeted and amplified numerous times by non-anonymous evangelical pastors, theologians, and Christian Right activists who happily embrace a vicious alt-right bullying tactic in order to score points against Du Mez, a socially progressive, confessionally Reformed Protestant they see as heterodox for her politics and her willingness to tell the truth about systemic misogyny in conservative, mostly white evangelical subculture.

Many seem to have picked up on the thread via William E. Wolfe, a Heritage Action for America alum and former Trump administration official in the Defense and State Departments who is currently pursuing a formal theological education with the goal of becoming a pastor. An angry man who clearly has issues, Wolfe has charmingly linked the “transgender movement” to “normalizing pedophilia” and called trans rights activism, along with abortion, “the rotten fruit of unfettered liberalism as a governing political ideology.” 

On February 23, quote-tweeting the original alt-right post featuring a pre-transition picture, Wolfe stated, “Du Mez had a radical LGBT and transgender activist endorse the book on the front cover. But tell me more how Christian aversion to this book is just that ‘white evangelicals’ can’t handle hearing about our ‘history.’” Of course, this isn’t even accurate, and Wolfe undoubtedly knows that. I didn’t blurb Du Mez’s book; the publisher liked a quote from my review and chose to put it on the front cover of the paperback. In a subsequent tweet, Wolfe had the gall to claim, with classic evangelical passive aggression, that he holds “no animus” toward me personally. 

Wolfe’s willingness to use me as a prop to smear Du Mez, who has been undergoing similar attacks for years (including a coordinated campaign to get her fired, carried out by people who supposedly hate “cancel culture”), caught on quickly with other evangelicals, including pastors and professors at evangelical colleges. The immediate dehumanization occurring here is that I feature only as a prop, a cheap means to attack Du Mez through guilt by association, but it goes deeper than that. To Wolfe and his ilk, all that matters is that I’m transgender and vocally express my support for LGBTQ rights, including the rights of trans children to access age-appropriate medical care. They will never deign to mention that I have a Ph.D. in history and a long professional record of expert commentary on the Christian Right—characteristics that make me highly qualified to review a book like Jesus and John Wayne. In short, they refuse to view me as anything like a whole person.

As the trolling developed, it expanded to include Beth Allison Barr, a Baylor University history professor and the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, another book and author the theobrogians love to hate for her challenge to their precious theology of “male headship.” Barr bravely stood up for Du Mez and myself, but the evangelical trolls jumped on one of my replies to a tweet in which I disagreed with her framing, attempting to “smear” her with the suggestion that she might be LGBTQ-affirming and using rhetoric frequently found among British TERFs to call me a man speaking over a woman.

Andrew T. Walker, a professor of ethics and public theology at the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary and a managing editor of World magazine, a highly influential evangelical publication, got in on the guilt-by-association dunking:

One Southern Baptist pastor even used the slur “tranny” in his tweet about the situation:

Eventually, Denny Burk, a pastor and a professor at Boyce College, the undergraduate institution associated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published a blog post about “the transgender, deconstructing exvangelical endorser of ‘Jesus and John Wayne,” in which he made gratuitous use of he pronouns, presumably enjoying the rush of power that comes from misgendering someone from a vulnerable social group that he and his ilk have chosen to scapegoat. A contributor to The Gospel Coalition, Burk is also president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organization dedicated to asserting patriarchal theology as the only valid Christian approach that was founded by influential evangelical authors and theologians John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

In short, the evangelical men who chose to bully me and Du Mez on Twitter aren’t remotely fringe—they have power and influence. And it is they and their flocks who are making life increasingly difficult and, frankly, dangerous, for transgender Americans and members of other marginalized groups. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is somehow still in office despite being indicted on highly credible felony fraud charges in 2015, issued the legal opinion that Governor Greg Abbott used as the basis for his brutal attack on trans children and their families. 

While Abbot is Catholic, Paxton is an alum of Baylor University, a school affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Paxton attends a Southern Baptist Church, and, as R.G. Ratcliffe has argued in the pages of Texas Monthly, he’s “a fundamentalist who wears his Christianity on his sleeve” and who uses his powerful position “as a cudgel in the culture wars for the Christian Right.”

In short, the toxic theology of the Christian Right that denies the validity of queer existence and teaches that women must submit to men is behind both the online bullying I experienced from evangelical leaders last month, and the political assault on LGBTQ rights happening in Texas and elsewhere across the United States. The dehumanization of members of targeted groups on display in the bullying derives support from conservative theology, and in turn paves the way for state-sponsored persecution of, and extralegal violence against, members of the targeted groups. 

There’s no more room for doubt about the extent to which an authoritarian ethos characterizes the mainstream of American evangelicalism, and the human cost will be high if we can’t find a way to stop the Christian Right from destroying what’s left of American democracy


*For what it’s worth, my #EmptyThePews hashtag campaign from 2017 is not, and has never been, anything so organized that anyone could be said to be “running” it. Also, I have never said that “spreading the gospel was like a hate crime.” I have argued that proselytizing is objectifying and offensive, and said I hope I live to see the day when we come to consider it a serious social faux pas. I don’t think it should be criminalized any more than I think calling Nickelback your favorite band or farting at the dinner table should be criminalized.