Christian Colleges Find LGBT Loophole

What are conservative Christians to do? Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage must be recognized nationwide, some conservatives have called for retreat, for the “Benedict Option.” Christian colleges, some fret, are in a particularly difficult position, since they could be forced to violate their own religious principles in order to include same-sex couples, transgender students and faculty, and unmarried homosexual students and faculty. Some schools, however, have taken advantage of a loophole in federal law that seems to alleviate some of these fears. This loophole, however, only sidesteps the real problem; it leaves the most important questions unaddressed.

First, a little background: As we noted in the run-up to the Obergefell decision, conservative religious colleges worried that the SCOTUS ruling could force them into an impossible position. It would not be theologically possible for many schools to introduce housing for same-sex couples, for instance. Yet if they did not, they would be in violation of non-discrimination rules.

As I predicted based on my current research into the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this kind of thing would likely lead to another fracture among the network of conservative colleges and universities.

Once the decision was passed, it did indeed prompt a split among conservative Christian schools. Some schools immediately changed their policies about homosexuality to accommodate the ruling. Others doubled down on their existing policies banning homosexuality.

We read with interest this week that some three dozen religious schools have applied for a waiver from Title IX. Via the New York Times, we see news from The Column that handfuls of Christian college have successfully applied for waivers.

Column list of schools

Waivers for all?

As The Column reports, the original language of Title IX banned sex- and gender-based discrimination at institutions of higher education. But it included a vital loophole. Such rules, the law stated, could be waived in some cases. As Andy Birkey of The Column puts it,

When Title IX was passed in 1972 to combat discrimination based on sex, Congress added a small but powerful provision that states that an educational institution that is “controlled by a religious organization” does not have to comply if Title IX “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Apparently, thirty-six schools have applied for these waivers, and twenty-seven have been approved. For many of the schools, the Christian Legal Society has provided a how-to guide to apply for such waivers.

For conservative colleges, this waiver might seem to solve their legal and religious pickle. But it will not heal the rift between such schools. Schools such as Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, have already left the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They changed their policies to welcome homosexual faculty, and presumably transgender faculty as well.

This loophole might provide wiggle room for some conservative religious schools. It leaves the most important questions on the table, however. What is the proper religious attitude toward non-heterosexual sex? Toward non-traditional marriages? Toward gender identity and sexuality as a whole?

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

Christians & Caitlyn

What are conservative evangelical Christians to do? Mainstream American culture seems to be celebrating our newfound openness about sexuality and gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner is feted and adored, not stigmatized and isolated. Should evangelicals join in the celebration? In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelical psychologist Mark Yarhouse lays out his vision of the proper Christian response to transgender issues. Will it work? Can it lift evangelical churches above the culture-war fray?

First, the usual caveat: I’m no evangelical. I’m just a mild-mannered historian interested in culture-war issues. Today’s article by Professor Yarhouse will help outsiders like me understand one way conservative evangelicals might understand those issues.

Good news for the Good News?

Good news for the Good News?

Yarhouse works at Regent University in Virginia, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. For evangelicals, Yarhouse argues, there are three common reactions to today’s discussions about gender dysphoria.

First, some Christians think of it as a question of “integrity.” God created us male and female, some think, and we need to respect that.

Or, Christians might think of gender dysphoria as a “disability.” Like depression or schizophrenia, gender dysphoria is a mental-health issue. It is not a moral question, Yarhouse argues, though the decisions people make as a result of their mental-health issues can certainly have moral consequences.

Finally, Yarhouse notes, many mainstream Americans see gender dysphoria through the lens of “diversity.” Seen this way, transgender persons should be celebrated for their bravery and moral courage.

In language that some conservative folks might find disconcerting, Yarhouse thinks there is value in all three of these approaches. Churches must continue to value ideas about gender integrity, he believes. Understanding maleness and femaleness must be part of any attempt to live Christian lives. But he thinks evangelicals should also approach transgender people with “empathy and compassion.” Not least, Yarhouse values the notion that transgender people should be welcomed and celebrated, just as every person who comes to every church should be welcomed and celebrated.

As he puts it,

When it comes to support, many evangelical communities may be tempted to respond to transgender persons by shouting “Integrity!” The integrity lens is important, but simply urging persons with gender dysphoria to act in accordance with their biological sex and ignore their extreme discomfort won’t constitute pastoral care or a meaningful cultural witness.

The disability lens may lead us to shout, “Compassion!” and the diversity lens may lead us to shout “Celebrate!” But both of these lenses suggest that the creational goodness of maleness and femaleness can be discarded—or that no meaning is to be found in the marks of our suffering.

Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.

Churches, Yarhouse argues, must rise above “culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage.”

Now, I’m not an evangelical and I’m not a transgender person, so I’m probably getting this wrong. But as an outsider, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by Yarhouse’s prescription. I can’t help but notice that many conservative evangelical communities are influenced at least as much by their conservative identity as by their evangelical one. For many thoughtful conservatives, the rush to embrace transgender people as part of a “new normal” seems pusillanimous. Even if they recognize the Christian weight of Yarhouse’s arguments, they still feel bound to defend traditional gender rules and norms.

And from the other side, if I were a transgender individual, I don’t think I’d feel fully welcomed into a church that still insisted on maintaining a respect for the “integrity” of male-female gender duality. That is, even in the best-case scenario, if a Yarhouse-ite church allowed me to become a member, but maintained a strong sense that I was suffering from a disability and that I was somehow going against the integrity of God’s gender plan, I don’t think I’d rush to join.

Am I off base? Do conservative Christian readers find Yarhouse’s ideas compelling? Do transgender folks?

Would You Buy Cookies from a Girl with a Penis?

It is difficult to ask that kind of question, because we don’t like to think about children and sexuality at the same time. It’s even more awkward, since we don’t seem quite sure what we mean when we say “boy” and “girl.” Recently the Girl Scouts announced their continuing policy to allow transgender girls to participate in scouting. Today in the Christian Post we see some explanation of why religious conservatives dislike it.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, ideas about gender are among the most contentious in today’s culture wars. We’ve recently seen in these pages a productive interchange across the culture-war trenches.

...can we talk?

…can we talk?

In general—and I’m painting with a broad brush here—conservatives tend to see gender as a God-given and immutable part of human identity. People are born male or female, just as God created them. On a more sophisticated level, conservative intellectuals might look askance at gender-bending ideas as merely the latest efflorescence of cultural degeneration. When Rome rotted, for example, sophisticated Romans scoffed at old ideas about divinity and sexuality. The moral thing to do, with this mindset, is to fight all attempts to blur the bright line between boys and girls.

On the other side, progressives—including your humble editor—tend to see gender as more fluid. People are born with a wide spectrum of biological parts. Babies are assigned one gender at birth, based usually on their dominant physical sex characteristics. That assigned gender does not always match a person’s true gender, or a person may not identify with any particular gender at all. In this mindset, the moral thing to do is to recognize and value the ways people discover and identify their own genders.

The Girl Scouts now officially agree with this position. As their “Chief Girl Expert” explained recently, they have decided to recognize girls as those young people who identify as girls, regardless of external biological characteristics and regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. As she put it,

If a girl is recognized by her family, school and community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe.  Inclusion of transgender girls is handled at a council level on a case by case basis, with the welfare and best interests of all members as a top priority.

What’s wrong with that? The socially conservative American Family Association started a petition to encourage the Girl Scouts to change their minds. As the AFA explained,

This means girls in the organization will be forced to recognize and accept transgenderism as a normal lifestyle. Boys in skirts, boys in make-up and boys in tents will become a part of the program. This change will put young innocent girls at risk.

Adults are willing to experiment on our kids – both the boys who are confused and the girls who will wonder why a boy in a dress is in the bathroom with them.

The Girl Scouts of America has lost its moral compass and needs your encouragement to rescind this new policy. Since 2003, bad policies like this have resulted in GSA’s enrollment dropping by over one million girls, almost 27% of its membership.

In this statement we can see what some conservatives object to in the Girl Scouts’ decision. First, the AFA says that this decision will normalize transgenderism. Fair enough, I think. But to folks like me, that seems like a good goal. To some conservatives, it does not. To the AFA, transgender girls are not brave people who have worked hard to wrestle with fundamental questions about their true selves. Rather, they are “boys in skirts. . . . boys who are confused.” For many conservatives, this notion that transgender girls are really boys seems enormously powerful.

Also, the AFA charges that these masquerading boys will be put in intimate and potentially sexual contact (“boys in tents”) with “real” girls. Just as we’ve seen elsewhere when the question of transgender youth comes up, there is worry among conservatives that the inherent aggressive sexuality of males will put “young innocent girls at risk.”

Moreover, these sinister changes are not merely accidental. According to the AFA, they are the calculated efforts of wrong-headed progressive adults. As I argue in my new book, this accusation against progressives’ proclivity to engage in dangerous experimentation on kids has a long history. In this conservative mindset, progressivism isn’t just wrong, it is dangerous to children.

Finally, in this AFA petition we see an appeal to a bedrock conservative notion. The AFA accuses the Girl Scouts of having lost their “moral compass.” Just as with our cultural disagreements over the notion of gender itself, conservatives and progressives tend to disagree over the idea of a moral compass. For many conservatives, we know—and have always known—the distinction between right and wrong. The rules have been laid out for millennia. When organizations change or challenge those rules, some conservatives think, they have willfully abandoned those God-given rules.

Progressives, for their part, tend to value the ability to adapt to changing and unique circumstances.  What is the morally correct thing to do?  In general, we should value all persons, regardless of their differences.  In this case, that means welcoming transgender girls into the Girl Scouts.  To do otherwise would be cruel and immorally rigid.

Predictably, it will be very difficult to communicate when we have such fundamental disagreements.  Predictably, progressives will accuse conservatives of hatred and bigotry. Conservatives will accuse progressives of encouraging sexual license among children. Both accusations are intensely hurtful. Who wants to be a bigot? Who wants to be a pimp?

Isn’t there any better way to have this discussion?

Is This Progressive College Anti-Science?

How do you know your gender?  At the conservative Weekly Standard last week, Jonathan Last took Smith College to task for leftist anti-science when it came to gender identification.  Are Last’s accusations fair?

First, some background.  Smith College, an historic women-only school in western Massachusetts, has finalized its position on transgender students.  In short, the leaders at Smith decided on what we might call a “past-the-gate” rule.  If a student identifies as a woman when she applies, she may be admitted.  This is true no matter what gender she was assigned at birth.  If, however, someone identifies as a woman as a freshman, but transitions to a man during his time at Smith, he will be permitted to remain, even though Smith maintains its women-only rule.

Make sense?  In other words, the leaders at Smith want to recognize students’ right to identify their own genders.  It is not biological hardware that determines gender, Smith agrees, but rather a person’s identification.

Is this anti-science?  Last thinks so.  As he puts it, this decision

has shown that the left’s allegiance to capital-“S” Science is only a sometimes thing. Progressives believe that science contains the definitive answers to all questions—except when it doesn’t, and we must accept the idea of deep, human truths, which might contradict science.

Of course, anyone who spends time with culture-war issues knows that the Left embraces plenty of anti-science.  There are lots of progressives who oppose vaccines and genetically modified food.  But this transgender case seems trickier.

Last accuses Smith of ignoring the claims of science.  He implies that the scientifically verifiable claims of biology should be given more weight than people’s subjective ideas about their true gender identification.

Deluded?  Or scientific?

Deluded? Or scientific?

Now, maybe I’m blinded by my progressive prejudices here, but isn’t there a scientific reason to believe that gender is something beyond simple biology?  In other words, we may be born with primary and secondary sexual characteristics, but there is a divide between having certain biological characteristics and identifying as a particular gender.

So Last’s accusation raises an interesting question.  If we view gender identification as merely a belief, a feeling, or a choice, then Smith College’s decision seems to place those non-scientific things above scientific proofs.  But if we trust mainstream scientists such as those at the American Psychological Association, gender identity is something more.

So who are the real anti-scientists here?  Conservative intellectuals who deny the internal aspects of gender identity?  Or progressive college leaders who ignore biological verities to respect students’ preferences?