The Southern Baptist Convention opened its annual meeting this week not by changing its stance on LGBT issues, but instead, reaffirming its opposition and adding to it. A resolution was accepted by the convention on Tuesday that states the belief in the existence of only two genders, and opposition to gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapies. This comes as somewhat of a surprise to observers who had been wondering whether a change was in the works. Headlines proclaimed that Southern Baptist leaders were softening and showing signs of progress towards LGBT issues, but they have all been proven wrong.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) stance on the issues of marriage equality and the primacy of traditional marriage in society are standards it has upheld for many years despite the culutral change all around them. There were signs, however, that it was finally preparing to be more accepting of LGBT people. At a Southern Baptist Convention gathering in April, one pastor was openly declaring the war against homosexuality over, something they have been reluctant to give up on in recent years. Pastor Jimmy Scroggins said to the gathering, “We’re all in agreement that the culture war is over when it comes to homosexuality.” At the same meeting, another pastor told attendees that if “you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage.” These kinds of statements made by members of the SBC seemed to be indicative of a change in thinking on homosexuality for the entire organization.
Even the SBC’s president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore seemed to be softening towards LGBT persons. He talked about how the terms evangelicals used to refer to them have changed, shifting away from what he called an “evangelical belligerence” that was openly combative towards homosexuals. He talked specifically about the use of the “gay agenda,” which he said many evangelicals used as if there was “a group of super-villains in a lair, plotting somewhere the downfall of the family.” He complimented the fact that he did not hear this kind of language anymore and praised the focus on sexual morality that had occurred at a broader level than just LGBT opposition. It was not about converting people from gay-to-straight, but about understanding that there are people who struggle with same-sex attraction everywhere and purifying everyone of their sexual sins instead of singling out only certain ones. Moore was not explicitly affirming LGBT persons. He still believes homosexuality is a sin, but it seemed that he was at least signalling a change to the militant tone that evangelicals have taken towards them in the past.
Just when it seemed like maybe there was going to be a culture shift for the SBC, however, the convention accepted a resolution that proved it had made no changes at all. The resolution on transgender individuals states that “the separation of one’s gender identity from the physical reality of their biological birth sex poses the harmful effect of engendering an understanding of sexuality and personhood that is fluid.” It referenced news stories that reported on parents who have allowed children to express their gender identity on their own, even letting them undergo gender reassignment therapies. It placed the word “therapies” in quotes, to emphasize its disbelief in such practices. It also labeled being transgender as a “gender identity disorder,” indicating that it believed that such people were suffering from some form of mental problem. This was inferred despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association no longer considers it a disorder, which was acknowledged in the text. The resolution was the first time the SBC had explicitly dealt with the issue of transgender individuals and it expanded an already oppositional stance towards the LGBT community.
The adoption of this resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention shows that optimistic commentators were wrong and that it is not changing its stance on LGBT issues. Instead, the SBC seems to be doubling down by highlighting transgender people as part of its policy statements. The resolution affirms the belief that transgender people are disordered and that they are mistaken about their own identities. Their self-images are labeled as “harmful.” Moreover, transgender people are considered to be so mistaken about their own identities that they simply do not exist. They are just wrong about who they think they are. This is not just an erasure of an entire group of people, but it is also a misidentification of them. It also leaves out people who identify as transgender for reasons other than that their gender identity does not align with their biological sex, such as intersex individuals whose biological sx is ambiguous from birth. Overall, the SBC mischaracterized, erased and insulted a group of 700,000 people living in America, some of whom may actually be members of the organization.
While it seems as though the SBC has decided simply not to change, there is another way to look at this resolution. Instead of a repudiation of any progress that might have been made, it can be seen as the result of steps that have already been taken. Russell Moore’s discussion of the evangelical attitude towards LGBT persons was softer, but it did not promote any real progress beyond a change in conversion tactics. There may be no more talk of gay conversion therapy, but now it seems like “kill them with kindness” is the new strategy. Moore has labelled this “convictional kindness” and made it a centerpiece of his arm of the SBC. According to him, “We oppose demons; we don’t demonize opponents.” The opposition to LGBT people still exists, but the SBC is just going to be nicer about it.
In fact, the resolution the SBC adopted seems full of this type of kindness. It resolves, among other things, “that we extend love and compassion to those whose experience… includes a perceived conflict between their biological sex and their gender identity.” It also includes statements about loving their “transgender neighbors” and an invitation to them to “trust in Christ and experience renewal in the gospel.” This would apparently allow them to join the SBC’s congregations, but only as long as they “repent.” All the civility Moore encourages seems to be conditional. The SBC, then, has decided to be nice to transgender individuals, all the while denying that they exist, telling them that it is all in their heads and terms and conditions apply.
Rather than feeling flattered by the niceness of this conditional compassion, some critics have labeled the resolution as discriminatory. Chicago based transgender blogger and former SBC churchgoer Meggan Sommerville wrote, “This resolution is not just a doctrinal stance for the church but it is an act of spelling out discrimination and prejudice in the name of God.” Another writer, Candace Chellew-Hodge, who is the founder of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and a protestant pastor herself, roundly criticized the SBC for being too inclusive in its condemnation. According to her, the SBC’s “condemnation has gone all-inclusive as they take special aim at the transgender community.” The T in LGBT is no longer being ignored by the SBC.
Sommerville also notes that the resolution has an explicitly political cast to it. The resolution, in fact, does more than just affect the doctrinal stance of the church, but calls all members of the SBC to act politically to block any legislation that deals with the transgender community. Specifically, the SBC opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and has committed to “pray for and support legislative and legal efforts to oppose… legislation like it that would give gender identity the same legal protections as sex and race.” It also called on government officials to prevent transgender individuals from becoming a “protected class.” Sommerville identified this policy as “what can only be described as an extreme right wing, transphobic, political move.” In essence, the SBC wants to be nice to transgender people, but not nice enough to protect them from the discrimination they experience every day.
This resolution which has been adopted by the SBC may be seen as a reaffirmation of its hardcore conservative beliefs and a repudiation of any attempt at progress towards acceptance of the LGBT community. It can also be seen as merely the continuation of a new strategy of evangelization. “Convictional kindness” is finally being taken to its fullest extreme as yet another group is being included under its jurisdiction. Transgender people are being discriminated against in the very policy of the convention itself along with lesbians, gays and bisexuals. They have been labeled as disordered and the SBC commits to denying them political and legal protection, even as it claims to welcome them. Despite the seemingly new welcome of the Southern Baptist Convention’s compassion, however, it is not changing its stance on LGBT issues or LGBT persons themselves. For that reason, it is doubtful whether any LGBT identified persons will be drawn to its new “kindness.”
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury