Anti-LGBTQ: Follow the Anti-Evolution Road

It must be a difficult time to oppose full inclusion for LGBTQ children. Two major banks have pulled out of a Florida voucher school program. Why? Because the program supported schools that discriminated against LGBTQ students, families, and teachers. The historian in me can’t help but wonder: Will anti-LGBTQ conservatives repeat the century-old model of anti-evolution activism?

I know it is silly to make predictions based on the past, but the anti-LGBTQ movement among conservative Christians certainly seems to be following the road laid down a century ago by anti-evolution activists. Here is how it worked back then:

Phase 1: We Are the Real Christians. In this phase, conservative intellectuals tried to fight the growing sense that their conservatism made them something new. Instead, conservatives insisted they were only upholding the time-tested truths of real Christianity. Their opposition to evolution, they insisted, did not make them anything other than “Christians.”

For example, in 1923 James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago lamented the tendency of anti-evolution “Fundamentalists” to call themselves anything other than “Christians.” As Gray put it,

As a matter of fact, not a few church members . . . believe that Fundamentalism is some new thing and some awful heresy that must metaphorically, be stamped out. . . . dear brethren, do not let the old name slip away from us. . . . It is a name that stands for the pure and complete gospel of Jesus Christ, a name that has never been identified with any movement, fanaticism, or fad, and which has been made so sacred to us by its defenders in all the years.

Phase 2: Scare Tactics. In the 1920s, evolution came to represent the best of modern science to many Americans. Conservative anti-evolution activists found themselves suddenly on the defensive, needing to prove to their co-religionists that evolution was truly dangerous. Many of them, like evangelist T.T. Martin, found themselves using more and more extreme language to describe the threat posed by evolution. As Martin wrote in 1923,

Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.

Phase 3: Fight for our Right. At the same time, conservative anti-evolution Christians campaigned to purge public institutions of evolutionary ideas. At my alma mater the University of Wisconsin, for example, in 1921 William Jennings Bryan taunted President Edward Birge to either ban evolution or post the following signs on all classrooms:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Phase 4: A School of Our Own. When those fights failed, anti-evolution conservatives turned inward. They founded schools of their own that would teach an anti-evolution version of Christianity. As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. described his new school in 1928,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At first glance, the anti-LGBTQ wing of conservative Christianity seems to be following the same path. Just like the 1920s, these days conservatives are confronted with rapidly changing mainstream attitudes. Back then, it was evolution. These days, it is about gender and sexuality.

Save our Schools Cover Art jpg

Will anti-LGBTQ activists in the 2020s follow the path of anti-evolution activists in the 1920s?

And we’ve seen a similar pattern. For example, as I noted in a recent commentary in the Washington Post, conservative Christians like Karen Pence often defend their anti-LGBTQ attitudes as simply traditional or (small-o) “orthodox” Christianity.

Second, anti-LGBTQ conservatives work hard these days to convince their fellow Christians that LGBTQ rights present a dire threat. For example, creationist activist Ken Ham has long warned of creeping LGBTQ acceptance. As Ham wrote back in 2015,

From what we’ve seen and know about the LGBT movement, the leaders don’t just want legalization of their immmoral behavior, but also want to force acceptance of this on everyone. They want everyone not just to tolerate their position, but to accept it while they themselves show intolerance for those who do not hold to their views.

Next, anti-LGBTQ Christians have certainly been competing for influence within mainstream institutions. From California to Missouri, activists have tried hard to purge public schools and libraries of pro-LGBTQ ideas. Most often, just as anti-evolution activists did in the 1920s, anti-LGBTQ activists have lost.

And some of them have moved to Phase 4. Perhaps most famously, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher has called for the Benedict Option, separating from an irredeemably corrupt mainstream society to form purer enclaves where traditional ideas of sexuality and gender can dominate.

How will it all play out? History is a famously bad guide to the future, but the trajectory of anti-evolution activism offers a few possibilities. Back in the 1920s, opposing mainstream science worked. Schools and colleges that planted a flag for anti-evolutionary “fundamentalism” thrived.

In Illinois, for example, Wheaton College declared itself an anti-evolution institution in 1925 and its enrollment grew in leaps and bounds. Between 1916 and 1928, enrollment at Wheaton grew by four hundred percent. (By way of contrast, similar non-fundamentalist colleges in the area grew by an average of 46%.)

The benefits of standing outside the mainstream had their costs, however. Back in the 1920s, anti-evolution fundamentalists tended to believe in a far less radical form of creationism. Most of them, even the firmest anti-evolution activists among them, still wanted to earn the respect of mainstream scientists. They mostly pooh-poohed radical ideas about a young earth and a sudden, fiat creation of all life.

When anti-evolution activists started their own institutions, however, it gave them the ability to encourage more radical forms of Christian belief. In schools like Bob Jones University, young-earth creationism became the norm. Perhaps because they had given up on mainstream acceptance, they were able to indulge ideas such as young-earth creationism that had absolutely no merit outside the charmed circle of radical-creationist schools.

Will that happen again? It just might. As anti-LGBTQ conservatives read more headlines like the ones we’re seeing today, they might grow more and more convinced that their ideas are unwelcome outside their own circles. It might seem more and more tempting to create separatist institutions in which their own ideas are welcomed. If that happens, perhaps we will see a repeat of the creationist tradition. Namely, the mainstream might grow more and more comfortable with LGTBQ acceptance while a small but energetic minority embraces more and more radical versions of anti-LGTQ thinking.

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3 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  February 1, 2020

    Within “LGBTQ” are different ideas giving rise to different issues.

    In Christianity it’s not sinful to have the opinion that you’re “really” a girl though physically a boy. It’s also not sinful to have sexual desires for people of one’s own sex. So merely being “trans” or “gay” isn’t a moral problem.

    The moral problems have to do with acting on the desire for sex with people of one’s own sex, or mutilating the genital organs in order to conform to the belief in one’s “true gender”. It’s actions, not thoughts or preferences.

    In other words there is a jumble of ideas contained in the term “LGBTQ” which makes the terms “anti-LGBTQ” and “full inclusion for LGBTQ children” wildly imprecise. No conservative Christians that I know of object to, or want to exclude, “LGBTQ children” as such. It’s only certain behaviors that we would forbid within Christian institutions. In this sense it’s utterly unlike the fundamentalist attitude towards evolution during the 1920s (and later). With evolution people objected specifically to an idea, and actions were objected to only to the extent that they served to promote the idea. They weren’t objecting to evolutionist behaviors, as if evolutionists had certain desires that others didn’t have, to act on which was gravely sinful.

    Evolution was a scientific theory to which fundamentalists refused to assent in the face of the data and the consensus of scientists. What is the current “scientific theory” with regard to LGBTQ? That it’s not immoral? But as you know, morality is not something science can pronounce upon. Even if it were “scientifically proven” that sexual desires for people of one’s own sex was “normal”, that would have nothing to do with the morality of it. The vast majority of Christians would agree that it’s normal to have a desire for sex with people one isn’t married to; but they nevertheless consider it immoral to have sex outside marriage.

    In other words the evolution controversy was over a scientific proposition, whereas the LGBTQ controversy is over the morality of certain behaviors. As much as your side may wish to cloak its position in the mantle of scientific progress, against which ignorant cretins are standing as against an inevitable tide, the dispute actually goes back to the time of the very origins of the Church. Hedonists have always hated Christianity for its anti-hedonism. It’s not science versus faith, it’s indulgence versus self-denial. It’s the idea that it’s wrong to deny “who you are”, versus the idea that one must die to self. (Gal. 5:24; Lk. 9:23.)

    Christianity teaches that all of us have to deny and curb our desires, and none of us gets to decide “who we are” or what’s true and right “to me”. All must submit to the idea that God made us and therefore determines what and who we are, what our purpose is, and what we may and may not do. The dispute over evolution is indeed related to this, since evolution — at least the brand of evolution that’s objected to by most Christians, even today — states that God didn’t make us; no one did. The implication of which is, be what you want and do what you will. This is the heart of the matter. It’s not about politics or hate or, least of all, science.

    Reply
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