Religious Right At Crossroads On Transgender Issues?

About Tope Fadiran Charlton

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Dr. Heath Adam Ackley Photo courtest of APU student paper "The Clause"

Dr. Heath Adam Ackley
Photo courtest of APU student paper “Clause”

Last week, Azusa Pacific University (APU) announced it is parting ways with Dr. Heath Adam Ackleya faculty member of 15 years and one-time chair of the school’s theology and philosophy department—because of his identity as a transgender man. APU’s statement, issued jointly with Dr. Ackley, followed a controversy set off in mid-September, when Ackley informed a supervisor of his gender transition and plans to make “Heath Adam Ackley” his legal name. 

According to Ackley, the evangelical university responded by asking him to leave immediately, and refusing insurance coverage for hormones and other transition-related care. After negotiations for Ackley to teach through the end of the semester failed, and what APU described as “confidential” and “thoughtful conversations” to “treat all parties with dignity and respect while upholding the values of the university,” APU and Ackley claimed in their statement to have “reached…mutual agreement” that it would be better for him to “pursue professional endeavors elsewhere.” 

In addition to raising the issue of employment discrimination against transgender people, Dr. Ackley’s ordeal points to the pivotal moment the Religious Right has arrived at with respect to its theology and messaging on transgender issues. Responses from APU and Christian media reflected conservative Christians’ general opposition to transgender rights, and continued conflation of gender identity with sexual orientation (per APU’s statement, their disagreement was over “human sexuality”). Even so, the range of responses showed that the Religious Right’s theology specific to transgender issues remains rudimentary and in flux, in ways transgender communities and supporters may be able to productively leverage. 

Christian media coverage of Dr. Ackley’s story included actively hostile commentary from the usual suspects. Life News and WORLD Magazine insisted on referring to him by his former name and as “she/her.” Life News and the Christian Post both implied that Ackley’s gender identity is a mental illness, stressing the inclusion of “gender dysphoria” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V [or DSM-V]. Christian Post also pointedly noted that one of Ackley’s student supporters at APU is an “outspoken lesbian.” 

But other responses were less overtly inflammatory. APU carefully avoided any use of gendered pronouns in both of its public statements, and referred to him as “Dr. Ackley,” rather than by his previous name. In comments to APU’s student newspaper, Dr. Scott Daniels (Dean of APU’s School of Theology) stated that, despite “strong convictions regarding gender identity in the evangelical community,” the church’s stance on transgender issues is “still in question,” even for those like him who are clergy in “fairly conservative denomination[s].” Daniels continued: “in the right context Adam [Dr. Ackley] could serve as an important voice in helping bring some clarity into that conversation, helping the church have that conversation in ways that are maybe more robust and thoughtful.” 

Flagship evangelical publication Christianity Today (CT) covered the story through an excerpt of a Religious News Service article by former CT editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey, published with an editor’s note highlighting the magazine’s “past stories involving transgender issues.” They also pointed readers to a Washington Post op-ed by Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a rebuttal from another evangelical writer, Jonathan Merritt, both predating Ackley’s conflict with APU. 

CT, Moore, and Merritt all make a case similar to Dean Daniels’ call for “more robust and thoughtful” evangelical engagement on transgender issues, but differ on whether the “transgender question” is an open or settled one. For Merritt, evangelicals “haven’t considered all the theological, ethical, and scientific intricacies of this issue. Perhaps we are afraid that what we discover will stretch the bounds of our thinking.” Russell Moore and Christianity Today, on the other hand, are firm in their religious transphobia. Moore argues that “[conservative Christians] believe we can no more surgically alter our gospel than we can surgically alter our gender,“ while CT’s Executive Editor Andy Crouch insists that “matter matters” and rejects what he calls the “LGBTQIA coalition[’s]…a conviction that human beings are not created male and female in any essential or important way.” Rather than openness to stretching theological boundaries, Moore and CT call for a “strong theological grounding” and “winsome pastoral footing” for religious transphobia – better articulated and more strategic messaging against transgender people and communities. 

These responses show conservative evangelicalism to be at a crossroads moment with respect to transgender issues. Ackley’s coming out highlighted a lack of theology specific to transgender identities: APU’s code of conduct explicitly condemns homosexuality, but on gender says only that “Humans were created as gendered beings.” Religious Right leaders are beginning to articulate a need to address gender identity as an issue distinct from (but still related to) sexual orientation. Comments like Daniels’s and Merritt’s and surprising support (recently contradicted) for transgender people from Pat Robertson suggest that the outcome of this increased attention to transgender communities may not be monolithic rejection. 

It may be that these rifts can be heightened to drive wedges between groups that might otherwise be allied against transgender communities. The “work-in-progress” nature of transgender-specific theology offers a rare opportunity to anticipate Religious Right organizing and messaging on this issue, and perhaps even build bridges with conservative Christians who may be more open to a conversation about transgender rights.

Tope Fadiran Charlton is an associate fellow, working on issues of religious liberty and racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice. She is the founder and editor of Are Women Human?, a space for queer feminist and critical race analysis of religion and media. As a freelance writer she has contributed to The Guardian, Salon, Religion Dispatches, R.H. Reality Check, Ebony.com, and other outlets. Charlton was a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Department at Harvard.