The GOP’s Most Lethal Weapon Isn’t Guns, It’s Religion: Why Black Lives and Trans Kids Are Pivotal to Saving Democracy
I. Faces in the Crowd
I can still vividly recall the state school board meeting several years back when I had that sinking realization that my trans son and kids like him will never be safe in this world. At least not if we keep trying to debate their humanity with those whose opinion is based on a weaponized version of Christianity.
At that meeting, we were hoping the state would approve guidance to help all public schools create safe and inclusive learning environments for LGBTQ students. Along with other supportive parents and allies, I talked openly about our family’s story and the ways in which our educators and school district successfully supported our transgender son since kindergarten.
Prior to that meeting, I maintained a degree of optimism that reason would ultimately prevail over the fear mongering and disinformation that maligns transgender, gender-diverse, and intersex students and their allies. I had come to expect the occasional minister and religious parent who voiced their concerns. But this meeting was different.
What I didn’t anticipate were the busloads of worshippers, entire church congregations filling the meeting hall and lobby and spilling out onto the plaza. I didn’t anticipate the number of anti-trans protestors who would frame their arguments in religious terms. I certainly didn’t anticipate the viciousness in which they would condemn trans students as abominations to God and a threat to other children.
I should have seen it coming.
In what would become commonplace in the years that followed, conservative community leaders organized church congregations and would bus them to school board meetings by the hundreds. Trans students had to walk through a sea of vitriol, sometimes punctuated with Oath Keepers in full tactical gear, flagpole in hand to show us America belonged to their kind. We hadn’t yet seen how these same Oath Keepers would brandish flag poles as weapons in the storming of the Capitol.
Like any parent, it’s difficult for me to fathom how my child, seven years old at the time, could elicit the malice that we saw on the faces of those protestors. Protestors who are quick to assert that it is love that moves them to erase your child.
But I can assure you it is not love in any form that we see on the faces and in the actions of anti-trans protestors. Their faces are as familiar as they are repulsive because we’ve seen them before, far too many times. They are the faces captured in the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine, walking determinedly through a crowd of angry white protesters.
The 15-year-old Ms. Eckford was one of nine black students who ushered in the era of desegregation in Arkansas, holding the state accountable for defying the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. But on that day, she was turned away by the National Guard and harassed with taunts and threats against her life.
In that single photo, the unfiltered truth of where Arkansas and much of our society stood on racial equality was exposed for all to see. Black communities were not just segregated, they were dehumanized.
It’s impossible to compare the freedom struggles faced by different groups of people, because their experiences are unique, their pain and suffering known only to them. We don’t need to engage in competitive victimhood, but the root causes behind the oppression are unmistakable and cannot be ignored.
The ideology that produced hundreds of years of slavery was still tightly woven into the fabric of southern life. Even after emancipation, Southern states governed as if the Confederacy won the Civil War. From courthouses to houses of worship, white southerners were told they had a God-given right, an obligation even, to preserve the systems of racial segregation and white supremacy at all levels of government.
The photo also serves as a warning, that despite the appearance of progress, we have a long, long way to go. Nearly seventy years later, the faces in that crowd seem to reappear whenever systemic racism, in particular anti-Black racism, and injustice are challenged.
What many of us failed to appreciate is that Christianity, as with all religions, is just as easily weaponized today as it was in the Middle Ages. Through the centuries, religious exploitation proved such an effective way to exert power and control over a populace that it became the ultimate weapon of European conquest.
It seems we have enabled the weaponization of religion by our collective inability as a species to get comfortable with uncertainty. No one can say with any certainty, for example, what happens after death. But the fear of not knowing is so unsettling to some that they choose to believe religion holds the answers to all the great mysteries of our existence. Rather than inspiring curiosity, fear closes the mind.
It is the very nature of faith that makes it susceptible to the most egregious forms of manipulation and corruption. Armies can be raised, and conquests fought by framing any topic as a battle between good and evil. In Medieval Europe, the Catholic Church declared itself good and anyone who challenged the power of the church was of course evil.
For those of us branded as evil based on racial, LGBTQ, cultural, or religious identities, or our stance on women’s bodily autonomy, there is no doubt that a Holy War is being waged against us. This feels pre-genocidal. This feels like The Handmaid’s Tale. And as just reported by Anya Zoledziowski in Vice, leaked emails from anti-trans lobbyists and legislators show that we are not wrong. In fact, it’s much worse than we imagined.
Do not be mislead, the actions of anti-trans protestors are not the result of disjointed attempts by a few extremists. They are the result of a movement that has seemingly perfected the weaponization of religion: Christian nationalism.
II. The Weaponization of Christianity
Although its methods have evolved over time, the ideology of Christian nationalism is not new. It has existed for centuries, though under different guises. Today’s embodiment still has its roots in white supremacy and the desire to maintain the patriarchal hierarchy that is at the core of militant Christianity.
More than half of Republicans now openly identify as Christian nationalists, based on a recent poll. As one of the most outspoken proponents of Christian nationalism, Rep. Marjory Taylor-Greene recently gave a speech at a rally organized by white supremacist Nick Fuentes, and sat on stage with him as he praised the Nazi party and its ideals. Of course, not all Christian nationalists are card-carrying members of the American Nazi Movement, KKK, Proud Boys, or Oath Keepers. But there is no doubt that many still deeply identify with the ideology of the Confederate South and a white, patriarchal Christian worldview.
In her recent book The Power Worshippers, Katherine Stewart chronicles her decades-long investigation into Christian nationalism. The sobering reality is that Christian nationalism is a highly organized, worldwide network of evangelical and like-minded religious organizations funded by a dark web of extremely wealthy, old-money conservative families. The assault on individual liberties will not stop with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It is the tip of the iceberg.
As Christian nationalism comes out of the closet, its adherents do not shy away from proclaiming their goal of establishing a Christian American Kingdom. Many conservative legislators reinforce the false notion that our founders meant for America to be governed by Christian rule. Case in point, in 2022 Rep. Lauren Boebert proudly proclaimed,
“The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our founding fathers intended it.”
Christian nationalism, however, is not only the greatest threat to democracy, but to religious freedom as well. The Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), Amanda Tylor, warns us,
“Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities. It heavily relies upon a mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s special favor. It is not a religion, but it intersects with Christianity in its use of Christian symbols and language.”
“The ‘Christian’ in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.”
The culture behind militant masculinity and the role it played in the 2016 election is the topic of Kristin Du Mez’s book, Jesus and John Wayne. It surprised many people when the white evangelical community, led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., quickly gave its support to Trump.
But as Ms. Du Mez explains, it is quite consistent with enduring, mainstream evangelical values, where leaders have long preached a “mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity — of patriarchy and submission, sex and power.” She documents the pattern of abuse and coverup by evangelical leaders, due in no small part to the culture of militant masculinity they helped to perpetuate.
It is a mistake to underestimate the power behind white Christian nationalism. It has energized a new generation of conservatives raised to believe that equality for Black and LGBTQ Americans is the greatest threat to their way of life. To see the effects of that power, one need only look at the popularity of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with his Anti-Woke agenda and the cult-like adulation that helped Marjory Taylor-Greene rise to prominence.
The white backlash against the movements for Black justice, reproductive justice, gay marriage, and trans rights was swift and brutal. And our family is now front and center in the crosshairs of Christian nationalists.
III. Trans Kids in the Crosshairs
My family’s journey began on Easter Sunday more than a decade ago. It was then that my young transgender son gave me the chance to see the world through his eyes. Though assigned female at birth, my son was experiencing what we now know is gender dysphoria. That moment was a foreshadowing of the consistent, insistent, and persistent distress over the mismatch between his body and his identity – a dysphoria that made his life a living hell over the next two years.
It’s not just a matter of preference in clothes, hairstyles, or pronouns, although those were all extremely important to our son. He was distraught that his body did not match his identity. Young people with gender dysphoria suffer extremely high rates of depression and anxiety, with an attempted suicide rate approaching 50%. In contrast, youth who are affirmed in their gender identity experience mental health similar to the rest of the population.
We were fortunate to have access to medical professionals who diagnosed our son’s gender dysphoria and provided gender-affirming health care. Gender dysphoria is real, more common than we think – and entirely manageable.
We know that gender, like so many other things in life, is on a spectrum. We also know that gender dysphoria often reveals itself at the age when all children first begin associating with a gender – typically two to three years old. We were not alone in our experiences.
In the years since we affirmed his gender identity and he socially transitioned (i.e., his outward appearance now matches his identity), he has thrived. It was lifesaving.
My son was recently interviewed for a story in the Detroit News. He shared about his experiences in elementary school as the first openly trans student in the Dexter school district. “It was pretty normal. I was treated like every other kid. My parents talked to the principal (Craig McCalla) and he talked to my teacher. There were no problems. Curious kids, they asked questions.”
The normalcy of my son’s school experience and the cautious optimism we maintained would end as he started high school this past year.
In Michigan, the recently introduced HB-6454, copycat legislation similar to laws passed in Texas and Alabama, seeks to prevent life-affirming health care for trans and gender-diverse youth. It also seeks to criminalize supportive parents and health providers as child abusers – a federal offense with a potential sentence of life in prison.
What exactly is my crime? I’m the dad of a 14-year-old transgender son and I make it possible for him to follow the medical recommendations of pediatric endocrinologists at the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS), one of the top-ranked medical institutions in the world.
The University of Michigan Health System provides gender dysphoria diagnoses and gender-affirming care that aligns with the evidence-based practices called for by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the American Psychology Association (APA), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Pediatric Endocrine Society (PES), among others.
A 2022 article in Scientific American reported that,
“All of those medical societies find such care to be evidence-based and medically necessary.”
In addition, “data from more than a dozen studies of more than 30,000 transgender and gender-diverse young people consistently show that access to gender-affirming care is associated with better mental health outcomes — and that lack of access to such care is associated with higher rates of suicidality, depression and self-harming behavior.”
“Data suggests that the effects of denying that care are worse than whatever side effects result from delaying sex-assigned-at-birth puberty. And medical society guidelines conclude that the benefits of gender-affirming care outweigh the risks.”
Our family has taken part in one of the longitudinal studies that tracks the efficacy of gender-affirming care. It is one of many studies showing that gender-affirming health care improves mental health outcomes for trans patients.
Unlike the anti-trans critiques, the results of this and similar research are published in peer-reviewed journals by leading researchers in the field. There is always more to learn, just like with any medical treatment, but there is no doubt that today’s gender affirming care is the best evidence-based option available.
I must admit, the prospect of going to prison isn’t something I’ve had to seriously consider before. But it is nothing compared to what will happen to trans kids under this law. My son and others like him will be denied gender-affirming health care and taken away from their families.
For a population that already has to overcome lies that accuse them of being sexual deviants, denying this care will have deadly consequences. Our kids see no future for themselves in a world dominated by conservative ideology and supernatural doctrine that denies their right to exist.
I appeal to people to ask themselves why trans kids are suddenly the highest priority of conservative state legislators and wealthy donors. Are conservatives really trying to protect trans kids?
Do these legislators have evidence that every major medical and mental health organization in the U.S., including our pediatric endocrinologists at the University of Michigan, have somehow neglected to consider? Were the countless testimonies of parents and trans kids themselves even considered?
No. The anti-trans movement is not motivated out of care for trans kids. No more than segregation was motivated out of care for Black Americans.
IV. We’ve Been Here Before
We’ve seen this strategy before. One would think we’d have learned by now.
Black Americans remained shackled by segregation for nearly 100 years after emancipation. There was a continuous indoctrination and reinforcement of lies that became ingrained in American culture and institutions, primarily in the South but not exclusively by any means.
Denied equal and equitable access to voting, education, employment, justice, housing, health care, businesses, transportation, public facilities, hotels, and recreation – segregation was not just physical. It was meant to dehumanize and isolate, to destroy the spirit as well as the body and mind. Equality and justice were as far away in the 1950’s as the 1850’s. And both times it required bloodshed to make any progress.
Some people may be surprised to learn that the same forces fighting to suppress trans identities are also fighting to suppress Black identities. The same forces that deny the rights of trans people also deny the rights of Black people. The same forces that demonize and incite violence against trans communities also demonize and incite violence against Black communities.
Christian nationalism is the political-religious machine behind those forces. It is a rebirth of the Religious Right. The same Religious Right that defied the Civil Rights Act and fought to keep their Christian universities as segregated, racist institutions well into the 1970’s. The same Religious Right that supports conservative leaders who openly court white supremacists and endorse restrictive voting laws. The same Religious Right that strives to eliminate Black lives from American history in our public schools.
The same states that fought against Black freedom and civil rights now lead the fight against trans existence and LGBTQ rights. States like Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and of course Mississippi, a state known as the most inhumane in the nation by black leaders in the 1950’s and 60’s.
As reported recently in the NY Times, an anti-trans bill in Mississippi denies the existence of trans identities, declaring “Separate is not inherently unequal,” a reference to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld segregation. Trans kids do not exist in the state’s eyes – at least not as human beings. The glory days are back in Mississippi.
There are currently hundreds of anti-trans bills making their way through state houses. In the states enacting these laws, state officials are proud to share why they are making it a top priority to deny the rights of trans kids and prosecute the parents, doctors, and educators who support them.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey didn’t need many words to explain why she was signing anti-trans legislation into law,
“If the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”
A firmly held religious belief is enough justification for those legislators to create laws that jeopardize my son’s life and would put me in prison – possibly for life. We’re not far removed from when similar rationale was used to justify genocide, slavery, and segregation of Black and indigenous peoples. In this, we are no different than the tyrannical theocracies that govern by “sharia law.”
Statements like this one from Rep. Marjory Taylor-Greene demonstrate how normalized it has become to use supernatural claims to dehumanize and condemn others. On the House floor in 2021, Greene declared that her opposition to LGBTQ equality is based on her belief that it will destroy God’s creation:
“God created us male and female. In his image, he created us. The Equality Act that we are to vote on this week destroys God’s creation. It also completely annihilates women’s rights and religious freedom.”
It’s about to get much worse.
In his majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Alito proudly interprets the constitution through the lens of Catholic Canon Law and doctrine going as far back as 800 years, referencing 17th and 13th century Christian doctrine. It won’t end there, as Justice Thomas declared that all past rulings will be viewed from this lens.
The legislation recently signed by Gov. DeSantis has also been introduced at the federal level in 2022 by Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene. Conservative justices of the Supreme Court have also been busy, ruling that public funds can be used in support of religious-based education and permitting prayer in school and at school functions.
Over the next two years alone, anti-trans legislation will disenfranchise a generation of trans and LGBTQ youth, just like the restrictive voting laws in many of those states will disenfranchise a generation of Black youth. The Supreme Court conservative majority has already ruled in favor of religious freedom on a number of cases. There is a clear path for states to do the same and they have taken advantage of it.
In the enraged faces of the Christian protestors at the school board meeting, I finally understood why we are still fighting battles against systemic racism, some 70 years after Little Rock and 160 years after emancipation. I saw in those faces that we may still be fighting against racism and defending the existence of the LGBTQ community 160 years from now – unless we take the bold step that every generation seems to stop short of taking.
We must confront the mother of all big lies and embrace the mother of all inconvenient truths:
Faith is not fact.
It may be only four words, but this statement is the result of four hundred years or so of scientific discoveries that culminated in one of humanity’s crowning achievements, the scientific method. It is a testament to human curiosity, the force that drives us to question, explore, and learn about ourselves, our world, and the universe. It is also a testament to our insatiable search for truth.
V. The Mother of All Inconvenient Truths
Acknowledging faith is not fact recognizes that the core tenets of religious doctrine, as with any supernatural speculation, are unproven and unprovable. It does not claim that any religion is false, for we can no more prove that God does not exist than we can that He/She/They exist.
Recognizing faith is not fact does not diminish an individual’s religious freedom, it preserves it by ensuring that no religion or supernatural claim can be used to dehumanize and oppress others. Agnostic is how I would describe myself when it comes to religious belief, which in simple terms means I don’t know, I can’t say with any certainty. It doesn’t stop me from speculating, but it does stop me from making false claims and weaponizing those claims to oppress others.
It is in our nature, after all, to be curious about the origins and meaning of life, the finality of death, and the great mysteries of the universe. Our quest for answers gives us some of our most inspiring discoveries. It is also in our nature to want answers and certainty, especially in regard to those great mysteries.
But we live in a world that does not give up its secrets easily. The one thing we do not have is certainty. It is that uncertainty and fear about such fundamental aspects of life and death that cause many people to seek comfort in religion.
People may hold deeply held beliefs built on doctrine that they assume to be factual, and consider it their truth, which is of course a subjective truth. Objective truths require facts, which in turn rely on evidence from hypotheses that can be tested through measurements and observations that are repeatable and can be verified independently. We call this the scientific method.
Regardless of whether hypotheses about the supernatural originate from religious doctrine or not, the scientific method gives us a powerful framework to evaluate those hypotheses. Since we can’t conceive of any way to repeatably test and independently verify the existence of a supernatural deity, much less the traits and commands issued by that deity, it is irresponsible and dangerous to claim any religious doctrine is objectively true or based on facts.
It can be discomforting and sometimes terrifying when something we thought was a certainty is suddenly shown to be uncertain or false. But if we can overcome our fears, the scientific method becomes the guide-star in our search for objective truth.
Science doesn’t have all the answers either. But the difference between science and religion is that science doesn’t claim to. It allows us to embrace uncertainty rather than flee from it.
Like so many others in my generation, I was inspired by the Cosmos series and accompanying book of that name by Dr. Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan. Cosmos was an affirmation of the sheer wonderment and almost obsessive desire many of us felt to understand the universe and our place in it.
Now more than ever, we must provide future generations with the tools they need to make the most informed decisions about the many crises we face on our planet. If I could have these future generations read only one book on this topic, it would be Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience – A Personal View of the Search for God.
We keep finding ourselves debating the most critical issues of our time with those who justify their arguments in religious terms: climate crisis, reproductive justice, voter suppression, anti-trans legislation, LGBTQ rights, stolen elections and insurrection, vaccines and masks, and even gun control. It seems these words from Carl Sagan ring truer than ever,
“You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep-seated need to believe.”
Sagan defined superstition as belief without evidence. If we’ve learned anything from the history of the church, it’s that superstition is not easily overcome.
It is a tribute to our founders that they recognized the dangers of governments that allowed theocratic rule or gave power to a national religion. They knew all too well the endless conflicts in Europe and here in the colonies that inevitably occur if religions are permitted to enforce their unproven supernatural edicts on the rest of the population.
The intentionality of our founders cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the first amendment and the barriers they placed throughout the constitution to prevent religious influence over any branch of government. Checks and balances were enshrined in the three branches of government to ensure objective decision-making that would hold up to scrutiny.
In fact, many of the founders already recognized the value in applying scientific principles to matters of government. In Reinvigorating the Role of Science in Democracy, Andrew A. Rosenberg, et al., of the Union of Concerned Scientists, make these observations:
“John Adams spoke of the ‘science of government.’ In a debate with Benjamin Franklin in 1776, Adams invoked the principle of mechanical equilibrium to argue for his conception of our government’s system of checks and balances — designed, at least in part, to ensure policies based on verified, trustworthy evidence.”
“Concepts such as transparency, a rigorous examination of ideas, review and critique by technically qualified peers, free speech and open exchange, and protection against retaliation for one’s beliefs (or findings) are central to the health of both science and democratic government.”
The scientific method gives us the tools we need to make evidence-based decisions. It allows us to state unequivocally that religious beliefs, like any supernatural conjecture, can neither be proven nor disproven.
Acknowledging that faith is not fact does not stop us from believing or appreciating the wisdom and splendor of the stories of our faith. They often carry with them the traditions and convictions of our ancestors. Some themes even seem to be common among all religions in some form or another, like those encouraging us to love and care for one another, regardless of our differences.
But while religious doctrine may inform our character, it is certainly not necessary for human morality. Quite to the contrary, religions are responsible or complicit in some of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man. The essential elements of morality are the result of societal evolution and natural selection. Morality today often exists in spite of religion rather than because of it.
We are of course still at liberty to have religious beliefs – as long as those beliefs are not weaponized. That liberty ends when it is used to dehumanize and persecute others and to destabilize our government institutions. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening today.
Perhaps we fooled ourselves into thinking our constitution and representative democracy would provide the natural barriers to prevent the weaponization of religion. If so, the assault on the Capitol and relentless legislative attacks on trans kids, Black identities, and women’s bodily autonomy should have snapped us back into reality. As it is, we probably came within a secret service security team’s resolve of becoming a theocratic fascist state on January 6th.
The reality is quite awful. But it is instructive to look at the origin of anti-trans sentiment, as it provides insight into how the far right weaponizes religion. Insight that informs how we can stop it.
VI. The Anti-Trans Origin Story
The origins of the anti-trans movement can be traced back to 2014. Conservatives were beginning to panic as the public started learning more about homosexuality and rejecting Christian right-wing propaganda. Even more concerning, anti-discrimination legislation was being introduced in cities around the country that included sexual orientation and gender identity – legislation like the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO measure.
Conservative Houston churches were especially outraged about the bill’s provisions allowing trans people to use the restrooms or locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity. It wasn’t long before a local Houston lawyer and political activist, Jared Woodfill, and a local right-wing radio host and dietary supplement supplier, Dr. Steven Hotze, saw their chance.
Both men were running the influential Conservative Republicans of Texas group that considered itself the vanguard of the Christian right in Texas and were also members of Houston’s Second Baptist megachurch. This is the same church attended by Dan Patrick, a one-time Christian right radio host who became Texas’ lieutenant governor in 2015.
The group started gaining traction when it launched a fear-mongering ad campaign that branded trans people as child sexual predators. The success of the Houston campaign led to similar approaches in N. Carolina and initiated a wave of GOP sponsored bills around the country.
But the wave of bathroom bills didn’t quite translate to the victories conservatives expected. The lies about trans people were easily debunked by evidence, not the least of which came from law enforcement. The laws passed by N. Carolina in 2015 were rescinded by 2020. After hundreds of legislative failures, the GOP had to rethink its strategy.
Nonetheless, the Houston experiment was still an overall success for conservatives. It reaffirmed the effectiveness of Christian nationalism’s big lie strategy and gaslighting campaigns – especially those claiming that allowing trans people to use public facilities corresponding to their gender identity is a threat to public safety.
True to form, conservatives have recently adjusted their strategy. Arkansas became the first state since N. Carolina to advance an anti-trans bathroom bill, this one banning trans adults from using a public facility where minors may be present.
The false claims that gender dysphoria is simply a mental illness were debunked, as were the claims about massive numbers of trans kids detransitioning. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, conservatives’ anti-trans gaslighting campaigns caught fire.
Those who practice fear-mongering are not constrained by facts and evidence. This is especially true for the Christian-centered group of medical and mental health practitioners who reject evidence-based practices in favor of their personal interpretation of biblical principles. These practitioners follow in a long line of racist medical professionals who supported the dehumanization and segregation of Black Americans based on white supremacist-laden Christian doctrine thinly veiled as pseudo-science.
The phrase sexual mutilation has been popularized by anti-trans doctors and legislators to spark outrage. Anti-trans health care professionals who intentionally disseminate false information must be held accountable for their medical malpractice. Their recommendations are so blatantly reckless, intentional, and contrary to medical consensus that criminal prosecution is warranted.
Right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance saw the writing on the wall with respect to gay marriage and shifted their propaganda and political focus to gender dysphoria. They continue to wage disinformation campaigns in an attempt to discredit the medical and mental health community’s Standards of Care and help state legislators draft bans on gender-affirming treatment.
Smear campaigns were launched that falsely accused gender-affirming parents and health care professionals of being child abusers and part of a greater conspiracy to sexualize and groom children. The result was the unprecedented wave of legislation that now outlaws evidence-based medical practices – it is another rejection of the scientific method that will result in the death of children and the destruction of families.
The ACLU and other advocacy groups can only afford to challenge a small percentage of the harmful legislation affecting LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. In the interim, trans youth are dying, seeing no future in a world that criminalizes their very existence. Black, Asian, and Native American youth see their history being denied and a violent backlash against attempts to change institutionalized racial injustice.
The disinformation and lies are not only monetized by right wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, but by the likes of convicted Sandy-Hook-denier Alex Jones, social influencer Chaya Raichik, and podcasters Joe Rogan and Matt Walsh. Whether those lies are intentionally publicized or perpetuated through irresponsible and reckless reporting, the result is the same – injustice and inhumanity against the most vulnerable among us.
I wonder how much time these influencers spent with a transgender child and their parents before they chose to attack us. How much time have they spent learning about the people they are endangering? There is no greater demonstration of bullying, cowardice, and abuse of power. They use their influence to attack kids, families, and those who do not have the power or platform to fight back against the lies.
Trans-affirming educators are often targeted by influencers who make false accusations about them on social media and expose them to abuse and violence. The targeting includes death threats against teachers and doctors and even bomb threats against hospitals like Boston’s Children Hospital.
We can expect the number and lethality of these attacks to escalate, just as white Christian nationalist lies continue to escalate violence against Black communities. Violence like the murderous rampage in Buffalo, NY, and of course the violent rioting by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville, VA – widely seen as the coming-out party for the emboldened alt-Right and what should have been a wake-up call for our country.
The enormous wealth and sphere of influence of Christian nationalism is intimidating enough, but it is the weaponization of Christianity that gives the movement its power. I do not believe we can achieve any semblance of lasting equality and justice for Black and LGBTQ lives until we end the weaponization of religion, and it starts with education.
Education is always at the forefront of change, where knowledge and learning face off against the forces of tradition and status quo. I do not believe we can end the weaponization of religion until we commit to educating society, and especially our young people, on the necessity of not only acknowledging that faith is not fact, but also in embracing the scientific method.
Which leads us to our next problem: public education is public enemy number one in the eyes of Christian nationalists.
VII. Educators are Always on the Front Lines
From segregation and denial of Black identities to eradication of trans identities, schools and educators always find themselves on the front lines in battles for freedom and civil rights. It is why so much money is spent by the far right on lawsuits and propaganda campaigns that attack public schools and educators.
Following the lead of Gov. DeSantis in Florida, public education is under fire in red states around the country. Legislation is being passed that bans books, teaching materials, and even discussions about LGBTQ identities, as well as any hint of social and emotional learning, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, and content that gives a more accurate depiction of African American and Native American life, past or present.
In 2021, the American Library Association reported 1,597 book challenges or removals, the highest number since they began tracking the crisis. By far, most of the books banned in 2021 were written by or about LGBTQ or Black experiences.
At a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, which was held in response to the crisis, Ruby Bridges herself testified that the children’s book “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” was one of the most challenged books of 2021. The book tells the story of her experiences as the first Black child to integrate a New Orleans school.
The attack on public education by evangelical Christians is not a new strategy. It began with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education 1954 supreme court decision. Some people may be surprised to hear that Christian nationalism as we know it today is deeply rooted in white supremacist ideology. That landmark decision legally ended racial segregation in public schools and prompted enraged evangelical leaders like Bob Jones, Jr. and Jerry Falwell to establish their own Christian schools.
Starting in the 1960’s, a wave of private Christian schools were launched with the express purpose of banning admission of black students and preserving racial segregation. Their curriculum continued the indoctrination of white supremacist and Christian values in K-12 and post-secondary colleges and universities.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, their schools defiantly violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University were two of the largest white-only schools in the country and the key to their success was their tax-exempt status as church-related organizations.
When the IRS began investigating Bob Jones University, the university was unrepentant. At least, that is, until the IRS moved to terminate the university’s tax exemption and access to public funds.
Evangelical Christian leaders were incensed at being forced to end racial segregation, but they now had a bigger problem. They needed to ensure that their tax status would be protected at the highest levels of government. They needed a new way to rally evangelical voters.
Paul Weyrich, conservative political activist and devout Catholic, worked closely with Jerry Falwell to re-brand the evangelical movement, coining the term Moral Majority. As Dr. Carol Anderson points out in her book, One Person, No Vote, Weyrich was also the founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization responsible for architecting voter suppression legislation. Legislation, that Dr. Anderson notes, “spread like a cancer throughout the United States.”
Although the Moral Majority and later the Religious Right brands faded over time, the movement did not. It only moved underground as it prepared for its next re-branding as Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism was funded and organized by wealthy families like the DeVos’ and Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green, among others. They are major players in conservative politics and well rewarded for their loyalty, as witnessed by Betsy DeVos’ term as Education Secretary under Trump.
DeVos was not only unqualified to lead the federal agency responsible for education, but made it her life’s mission to eliminate secular public education. In her term as Education Secretary, DeVos’ priorities were to rescind civil rights protections for trans kids and advocate for public funding of private Christian schools.
From banning books and curriculum on Black and trans lives, to criminalizing trans-affirming health care, the Anti-Woke Movement is sweeping America. But while DeSantis may think he’s the founder of this movement, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages had him beat by centuries.
For a millennium, the bible was used to affirm the superiority of white Europeans and justify genocide and slavery. The Catholic Church, and later many other Christian denominations, sanctioned slavery and oppression of black and indigenous peoples. Those who survived were forced to abandon their cultures, religions, and freedom – conversion to Christianity was not a choice.
It should come as no surprise then, that Christian nationalists are spending enormous resources attacking the rights of trans and Black communities and their allies. We are part of the Woke Mob that governors like DeSantis are waging war against. Public education in particular is under constant legislative assault from the GOP, with the help of Christian nationalist organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
What makes this war so uniquely dangerous in historical terms is how effectively the GOP has exploited religious fervor. By working hand-in-hand with evangelical Christian leaders and the movements they created, elections have been won and Christian nationalists have been placed in prominent and powerful positions in all three branches of government.
White supremacy and anti-LGBTQ ideology are fully embraced by churches that align themselves with Christian nationalism. It is that ideology which fuels the rage of white Christian voters and sends them to the polls – and to the Capitol.
The result has been a massive, orchestrated onslaught of anti-trans, anti-Black, anti-Woke legislation that has become the top priority of GOP leaders across the country. The stage is being set for an all-out assault on our democracy.
Christian nationalists are intent on creating an America that more closely resembles Europe in the Middle Ages. A time when scientists like Copernicus and other trailblazers of scientific understanding were persecuted for opposing church doctrine. A time when Black and indigenous peoples had value only as property and women were fully subjugated to men. And just like in the Middle Ages, religion is the weapon that is making this possible.
Where does this leave us?
VIII. The Answer Has Always Been Hiding in Plain Sight
I have found no better inspiration than King’s vision of the Beloved Community, a vision his wife Coretta Scott King put into service through the King Center she founded in 1968, which is now led by their youngest daughter, Dr. Bernice King. The Community that King envisioned would exist in a World House, where “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
Make no mistake, this was not some superficial call for brotherly love. It was not a call to burn our constitution and start over. Quite the opposite.
It was a demand to fulfill our constitutional commitments, or as King stated in his final speech, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” King wanted to hold America accountable for its hypocrisy, not only in its institutionalized racism, but its abuse and weaponization of religion. In a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta around the 4th of July, 1965, King spoke again of his dream,
“The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.”
King preached the social gospel and embodied our constitutional ideals in his commitment to social justice. And of all the barriers he encountered, King made it clear that the greatest threat to Black freedom was not white supremacist ideology, but in the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
King was deeply troubled by white Christian churches that justified and embraced white supremacy as part of their doctrine, and those that chose to remain silent. It was this weaponization of white Christian ideology that enslaved and dehumanized Black Americans for hundreds of years and ensured that it was deeply intertwined in America’s institutions and into the social fabric of everyday life.
I encourage everyone to read or re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to better understand the context, but I will quote a few passages that deeply resonated with me:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.”
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;”
“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
“Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions.”
“I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.’ In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.'”
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.”
The white American Kingdom that Christian nationalists seek to build is a fascist Christian state, by any other name. It is the very antithesis of King’s Beloved Community and World House, which so wholly embodies the spirit of our constitution and what America can and should be.
We have the knowledge – the question is, do we have the will?
IX. We Have the Knowledge, Do We Have the Will?
When the stakes are so extraordinarily high, as they are when legislation is passed to criminalize gender-affirming care and to eradicate trans and Black identities, the justification for those actions must also be extraordinarily high. Instead, we have just the opposite.
Legislation is being proposed and enacted based on a weaponized interpretation of Christian doctrine and debunked pseudo-science, blatantly disregarding the overwhelming facts and evidence obtained through the scientific method. Our efforts to date have been largely unsuccessful because a narrow interpretation of Christianity has been deemed superior to facts and evidence by the Supreme Court and statehouses around the country.
This isn’t just about trans kids, Black lives, and reproductive justice. It’s not about any single issue on the political spectrum. It’s about the systemic dehumanization and persecution of all those who do not conform to white, Christian nationalist ideology.
Perhaps we have been blinded by the illusion of progress and an assumption that democracy will always prevail. Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that people are generally coming around to accepting differences and it will be enough to tip the scales on the side of justice and equality.
I remember the words of Dr. Clayborne Carson, the first Director of the MLK Research Institute at Stanford, who often says, “don’t ever forget, democracy is still an experiment.”
What we continue to ignore is that systems of injustice do not care if a majority of the population disagrees – those systems have always been disproportionately controlled by a relatively small, but enormously wealthy and influential elite. Even when we make gains, we are only one election cycle from having them reversed.
The weaponization of religion has proven time and time again to be resistant to arguments based on reason. Laws are being passed that have been shown to endanger our trans kids’ lives, including driving them to suicide, by people proclaiming they have a religious right to do so.
It is irresponsible for us to keep debating the humanity of our children thinking we will have a different outcome. It is foolhardy to think we can overcome anti-Black, anti-trans, and anti-LGBTQ religious fervor when reason, facts, and evidence can be summarily dismissed and ignored.
Everything we have been doing to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding by educating and empowering oppressed people to tell their stories is now being criminalized. Civil and human rights are being denied in the name of religious freedom by the highest courts in our land.
Yes, we will continue to fight this legislation in the courts, we will continue to get out the vote, we will try to open hearts and minds – all of these things are necessary, but in no way sufficient.
I have come to the conclusion that unless we collectively acknowledge faith is not fact and enshrine the scientific method in our practice of government, our country will only be free and just for white Christian nationalists.
It may seem impossible, and I won’t argue that the outcome is uncertain. But I do have faith and I believe there is a path.
It is a path well worn by those who marched and sacrificed for the Black Freedom Movement. It is a path that wound its way through black churches and supportive white churches. It is a path that continued on despite the deadly bombings of those churches and the assassination of its leaders.
The path to ending the weaponization of religion and dismantling systems of injustice will reach an impasse if we do not have the support of those churches today. White supremacists have been emboldened by conservative churches and a GOP that now embraces Christian nationalism. We can expect more violence, more legislation that will endanger lives and erase identities — in the name of God.
Our kids’ lives depend on every inclusive church using the power of their platform to counter Christian nationalism.
It is difficult to hold onto a dream. As Dr. King shared in a 1967 interview, in some ways his “dream had turned into a nightmare,” and “some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism.”
That’s where we are. There’s only one way out of this nightmare, and it’s to keep marching down that path, but with a solid realism.
Peter Tchoryk is an engineer and a dad who discovered he had a lot to learn from his kids. He is committed to making this world safer for LGBTQ and Black communities, people of color, and all those persecuted for trying to live authentically. www.FaithIsNotFact.com