“The worst, hardest thing in my life, without question,” tweeted Rabbi Daniel Bogard of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, “is the war that the Missouri Legislature is waging on my family and the family of every trans kid in this State. JUST LEAVE US ALONE.” Despite these pleas and the thousands of other laments echoing in the halls of Missouri’s Capitol building in Jefferson City, state legislators are not leaving trans kids and their families alone. In fact, Missouri leads the nation in anti-trans legislation with a whopping 34 bills that are specifically targeting life-saving, gender-affirming health care, banning trans kids from sports, and banning education surrounding gender and sexuality — however, that number seems to keep rising.
While some Christian clergy have stood up and defended Missouri’s trans youth, other Christians have been on the offensive against trans rights. For example, Rep. Justin Sparks (R.-Mo.), along with other supporters of the current slate of anti-trans legislation, cites his church membership in his public profile on the Missouri House website. Rep. Brad Hudson (R.-Mo.) and Rep. Brian Seitz (R.-Mo.) are two other key sponsors of anti-trans legislation who note that they are pastors in their Missouri House biographies.
Christians in Missouri, with only a few exceptions, have largely been silent. Our siblings from the Jewish community, on the other hand, have led the way in speaking out against this legislation.
Bogard and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, two leaders in the Jewish community and parents to trans children, have spoken at hearings, lobbied politicians, and organized their faith communities to show up to oppose the anti-trans legislation coming from Missouri’s lawmakers. Picker Neiss told Sojourners by email that she’s often “struck when sitting in the hearing rooms of how much of the narrative around these bills is couched in Biblical sources and religious language and always from Christians.”
Similarly, Bogard told Sojourners in a phone interview that the lawmakers who support these bills soak the presentations of these laws in Christian language and scripture, suggesting that denying gender-affirming healthcare to children is simply the way God wants it.
While it is predominately Christians who are attacking the trans community, some Christian clergy have shown up to speak against transphobic sentiments and legislative efforts. Rev. Michael Angell, the Rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Mo., has testified against these bills. In an email to Sojourners, Angell said, “I went to Jefferson City because I am a Christian, a priest, and a pastor. I have a large number of LGBTQ+ folks in my parish, including families with trans kids … My faith asks me to stand up with vulnerable people when they are under attack.”
Hearing these stories might lead some Christians to say, “Well, the legislators pushing this anti-trans agenda are actually ‘Christian nationalists’ and not representative of ‘true’ Christianity.” But simply calling anti-trans Christians “Christian nationalists” won’t stop the pastors, lawmakers, and laypeople who are fighting to pass laws that will denigrate the lives of vulnerable children. The legislators pushing the current anti-trans bills are a product of the type of Christianity we, here in the U.S., have let flourish. Christians who oppose such laws must speak out and organize against it.
The current discourse around right-wing politics and religion has been focused on the phrase “Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalism is a catchall for a variety of beliefs that generally claim the U.S. is founded upon Christian ideas and that the country’s current laws ought to reflect those beliefs. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R.-Ga.) is perhaps one of the most well known politicians in the U.S. who identifies as a Christian nationalist, but, according to a survey done by Pew Research, “Eight-in-ten White evangelical Protestants (81 percent) say the country’s founders intended it to be a Christian nation.” Christian nationalism, as a term, is fine but imprecise. What we’re seeing from lawmakers, like those in Missouri but also in other states, too, is more properly defined as “Christofascism.”
These attacks on trans youth and their families by confessing Christians is an example of what Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle called Christofascism. Written in 1990, Sölle explains in The Window of Vulnerability that Christofascism is an authoritarian instrumentalization of Christianity that is used “to engender hate, to lead [Christians] into battle, into crusades” against various bogeymen created by right-wing factions. Applying this idea to the context of anti-trans legislation in Missouri, the persecution of trans children is being used as a wedge issue to drive evangelical voters to the polls. Because Republicans lack signature agenda items (besides tax cuts for the wealthy), they rely on creating controversy around cultural issues that will scare their base into showing up and voting for Republican candidates. When Sölle wrote in the 80’s and 90’s, the right-wing’s go-to boogeymen were homosexuality, pornography, drug addiction, and communism. Today, it’s trans kids playing sports and gender-affirming healthcare.
Sölle explains that Christofascism emerged from the convergence of ultra-conservativism with the white evangelical church of the ’80s and ’90s. Christofascism’s historical novelty is that it used the mass media networks of the Moral Majority and other conservative Christian movements to distribute right-wing ideologies in order to politically activate fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.
What’s particularly dangerous, from Sölle’s perspective, is Christofascism’s voluntary nature. Sölle writes that Christofascism “is not compulsory, nor is it brought about in totalitarian fashion by violence.” For example, it hasn’t taken an authoritarian regime to force fascist ideas, like denying children life-saving healthcare, on Christians. The agenda of Christofascists hasn’t taken the organization of reeducation camps or secret police; the much more troubling truth is that many Christians have simply adopted these fascist ideas and policies regarding trans people. The “soft fascism” of conservative Christianity — Christians simply opting into increasingly radical right-wing agendas and movements — has blossomed into legislation that seeks to use state power to discipline trans kids and their families.
If these laws pass, the parents of trans children in Missouri will have to face the very real situation of either denying their children the health care that doctors recommend or facing the persecution of state government.
Like Angell, Christian clergy and lay people must stand against the Christofascism that is endemic to our current political landscape. Concretely, that means showing up alongside other faith communities to testify against these horrid laws. But more than that, Christian faith communities must think about the issue of Christofascism as an existential threat from within. How have we allowed Christofascism to blossom in the first place? What can we do to pull it up by the roots?
Sölle ends her chapter on Christofascism with a description of the Christian religion under the banner of Christofascism: “This kind of religion knows the cross only as a magical symbol of what he has done for us, not as the sign of the poor man who was tortured to death … a miracle weapon in service of the mighty.” It is undeniable that Christianity has been complicit in a great deal of evil in the world, but it is up to us whether it remains so.
Christofascists have spent decades building a political movement in this country, and it’s the task of every Christian who opposes such a disgusting ideology to not only wrestle back the heart of our religion, but to work on dismantling the Christofascism we’ve let grow in the cracks.