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The Nashville Statement Is the Religious Right’s Death Rattle

Beneath an unequivocal stance against queer sexual orientation lies a deep insecurity about the Christian right's position in American politics.

Michael Springer/Getty Images

American Evangelicals should feel as though they have inherited the earth. By helping put Donald Trump in the White House, they are in a position to implement the agenda of their dreams. In May, Trump signed an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” that critics say will further erode the wall between church and state. With Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that Roe v. Wade will finally be struck down. Evangelicals have packed Congress and state legislatures and the courts with Christian conservatives, and have a champion in the executive branch in the form of Vice President Mike Pence.

But there are complications even in paradise, and in a different light the evangelical political movement has never looked weaker. By supporting Trump—who has been accused numerous times of sexual assault, regularly traffics in racism and bigotry, takes evident pleasure in bullying the weakest among us, and can’t name a book of the Bible without tripping over his own ignorance—it has forsaken whatever moral high ground it claims to possess. Trump himself is deeply unpopular, and so, too, are the political tenets of conservative evangelicalism. According to Gallup, 79 percent of Americans overall say abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. Meanwhile, younger evangelicals continue to drift from their elders: 47 percent of evangelicals under age 53 say they support marriage equality. Gerrymandering wins elections, but it doesn’t win culture wars.

The Nashville Statement, then, sounds like the death rattle of a movement that has disgraced itself. Released on August 30 by the Tennessee-based Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), the statement declares, unequivocally, that queer sexual orientations are sins to God. The statement was signed by 187 prominent evangelicals, constituting something like a last stand as gay marriage continues its march to mainstream acceptability. But what is telling about the Nashville Statement is not its homophobia; CBMW, after all, has been opposed to LGBT rights since its founding in 1987. It is that, after decades of giving up ground to the left, and after hitching its star to a president with zero Christian feeling, the religious right is revealing just how much of its philosophy boils down to plain prejudice.  

This is evident in CBMW’s roots. Founded by systematic theologian Wayne Grudem, the organization was established to promote the doctrine of “complementarianism.” Complementarians are Biblical literalists, and according to their interpretation of the Scriptures, women and men are to have distinct roles at home and in church. In essence and in practice, women are to submit to men, who are to be spiritual leaders.

Women cannot preach or hold any kind of spiritual authority over men. Men exercise “headship” over their wives, establishing a hierarchy whose basic mechanics differ from denomination to denomination. Complementarians say the doctrine is not misogynistic—indeed, the Nashville Statement claims in its third article that signers do not believe the differences between men and women “render them unequal in dignity or worth.” But the unavoidable truth is that complementarians believe men should lead the church, and women should follow them. This naturally creates a hierarchy, with men at the top. CBMW is patriarchy in its most cartoonish iteration, which is useful in that it clarifies what so many evangelists try to hide.

Queer sexual orientations and gender fluidity, like feminism, represent a threat to that patriarchy. So the Nashville Statement goes to great lengths to put LGBT life outside the borders of Christendom. For example, it tries to resolve the quandary intersex people present to its version of Biblical literalism; after all, these people must have been created by God, and therefore, God himself does not always create firm distinctions between men and women. The CBMW basically shouts over that argument—over science, too—asserting that queer sexualities and gender fluidity are affronts to God: “WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.”

Most controversially, it states definitively that if you disagree with its precepts, you are not a Christian. Here is Article 10 of the Nashville Statement, in its entirety:

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

This is a direct attack on LGBT Christians and on LGBT-affirming Christians of all orientations. Evangelicals obey no canon law; each denomination is responsible for itself, an outgrowth of the Protestant belief in the individual priesthood of every believer. There is no evangelical magisterium, dictating the terms of excommunication and apostasy. Yet, in the Nashville Statement, the CBMW casts itself in exactly this role while simultaneously absolving itself of any destruction it might inflict.

But beneath this bold, aggressive stance lurks deep insecurity. If gender is fluid, these would-be patriarchs lose authority. They cannot admit the truth about intersex and transgender people because doing so undermines their most cherished assertions about the headship of men and the submission of women. They don’t all couch this sentiment in the same terms. Some say that they reject patriarchy and value women. They proffer the old canards about loving sinners and hating sin. Finally, they shrug, and tell you they can’t help it, because this is what it means to be a Christian.

Roughly 80 percent of all white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But the media has often made it seem as if there are deep fissures in the community. Prominent Trump critics like Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention publicly decried Trump’s impiety and racism, thus earning plaudits from the liberal commentariat. Moore, however, signed the Nashville Statement, alongside many pro-Trump evangelicals. In support of the statement, Mohler wrote in The Washington Post: “For the sake of same-sex attracted people and others, we did not believe we could remain silent—or unclear—and be faithful.” 

Again, this a statement that puts LGBT people and their friends and family beyond the pale. The religious right remains essentially unified, and the Nashville Statement shows that what these political evangelicals all share is prejudice—specifically, prejudice toward women and LGBT people.

One signatory, John Piper, once said abused women need to submit to their husbands: “If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.” Another signatory, James Dobson, wrote in 1983’s Love Must Be Tough: “I have seen marital relationships where the woman deliberately ‘baited’ her husband until he hit her.” Dobson added that he doesn’t think this is true in “most” domestic violence situations, but this caveat doesn’t soften the rest of the passage. Dobson’s hypothetical evil wife baits to get what she wants: a divorce. “She can show her wounds to her friends who gasp at the viciousness of that man. She can press charges against him in some cases and have him thrown in jail. She can embarrass him at his work or in the church,” he complained. God forbid.

A third signatory, Paige Patterson, has opined: “She will find her greatest contribution and impact through the children she bears.” We women are good for breeding, it seems, and not for much else. I have heard variations of this rhetoric hundreds of times in fundamentalist churches (Patterson sits on my alma mater’s board of trustees) and even as I write these criticisms I know that the men who need to read them the most will not care. My body made me useful, for a while. My mind is just a hindrance.

The Nashville Statement’s transparent misogyny also infects the evangelical movement’s great contribution to American politics: the anti-abortion movement. It is no surprise that the signatories of this statement are some of the country’s greatest opponents of abortion. But what is interesting is that they signed onto a document that so directly questions the underlying motives for their anti-abortion position. It is almost as if all the rhetoric about saving the lives of unborn children is a cover for their real goal, which is to control the bodies and lives of women.

“When there is poison in the blood, no one knows on what part of the body it will break out,” William Jennings Bryan said at the close of the Scopes Trial in 1925. “But we can be sure that it will continue to break out until the blood is purified.” Bryan spoke then of the theory of evolution, and of the need to contain its pernicious influence. His words persuaded a Tennessee court to convict John Scopes of breaking state law by teaching evolution to his biology students.

Bryan won the case, but lost the war. Most Americans now regard the Scopes verdict as an unhappy relic of a less enlightened nation. It is now illegal to teach creationism as scientific fact in public schools; this reflects both scientific consensus and the popular understanding that creationism is a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory. Thirty-eight percent of Americans still believe in the creationist account of our origins, but that is a historical low. According to Gallup, most Americans now believe that God either guided the evolutionary process, or that the process occurred entirely independent of any deity. 

Bryan thought he had preserved Christian America—that he had kept it pure. In fact, he helped expose the myths that had shored it up. His ideological descendants seem to think they’ve accomplished a similar feat. But like Bryan, they have only ensured their own infamy.