The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), released a statement criticizing President Donald Trump’s recent decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military. In it, he compared the transgender ban to the racial discrimination practiced by the military prior to 1948.
Many civil rights advocates have been reluctant to compare the struggle for racial justice to modern transgender activism—not only because there are obvious differences between the two movements, but also because some civil rights leaders have said the comparison diminishes their own struggle for racial equity. Rev. Nelson, who is the first African-American head of the PCUSA, demonstrates a conspicuous divergence from these civil rights leaders.
By comparing the fight for racial justice to transgender activism, Rev. Nelson invokes the darling of the postmodern academy, intersectionality, which aims to conflate social categorizations, like race, class and gender, in order to foster solidarity among marginalized peoples. In addition to the practical benefit of unifying various aggrieved parties, intersectionality also serves to reduce unique, often unrelated social movements to pieces of a broader tapestry of Marxist historicism.
Rev. Nelson, who is often described in PCUSA literature as a “prophetic voice for justice,” describes the famous verse from Micah as a clarion call to Presbyterians to “stand firmly” with transgender activists. According to Nelson, inclusion in military service is a way to affirm marginalized groups’ “citizenship and humanity.” It is unclear why Rev. Nelson, who is often an outspoken critic of the U.S. military, believes that this same institution is also “a bell tolling the advance of justice.”
Furthermore, in order to inject some statistical evidence into his case, Rev. Nelson cites a study, recently debunked by Politifact, which exaggerates the actual number of transgender service members.
Overall, he characterizes the transgender ban as “cruel” and that it is a “demonization” of transgender people.
To get a sense of the magnitude of this injustice in his estimation, it might be helpful to compare other things Rev. Nelson recently described as cruel or demonization:
Surely Rev. Nelson does not believe that solitary confinement or unjust police shootings are the same level of cruelty as banning a certain type of person from serving in the military. So perhaps Rev. Nelson is not particularly precise with his use of the word cruel. This sort of imprecision should be no surprise to anyone who saw that Rev. Nelson also characterized the enormous exodus from his own denomination not as a sign of “dying,” but rather an indicator that the PCUSA is “reforming.”
Alternatively, one could get a sense of the importance of this issue when Rev. Nelson called military service a “right.”
Of course, a quick search of the things Rev. Nelson has called a “right” reveals a litany of subjects that would make many Christians uncomfortable—even those within his own increasingly liberal denomination. Among the things Rev. Nelson has called rights are:
It is no coincidence that Rev. Nelson invokes the idea of fundamental human rights when it comes to progressive policies. He also has a record of rejecting any rights that might be invoked to justify conservative policies. For example, on the question of whether Christians had the right to decline certain types of work based on their conscience (i.e., Christian cake bakers and florists who have refused to serve gay weddings), he explicitly rejected it: “But people of faith who run for-profit companies that serve the public do not have the right to discriminate against citizens who want to buy a product or service.”
One would be hard-pressed to find an example of a public position Rev. Nelson has taken that diverges from the party platform of the Democrats. His opposition to the recent transgender ban is no exception to this trend. There was a time, early in Rev. Nelson’s career, when he pretended to take a more balanced view. In the run up to the 2012 election he said, “The answer to our struggles is not on the right and it’s not on the left. It’s somewhere in the middle of a dialogue that’s based on engaged listening.”
If there is any dialogue going on in the PCUSA these days, it’s hidden from public view. There is a lot of evidence that Trump’s transgender ban is a very complicated issue that requires and understanding of two dynamic, enormously complex subjects: the medical needs of a diverse range of people from the transgender community and the personnel needs of the most powerful military force in the world. In the news, we can see various former military leaders make strong cases both for and against accepting people in the military.
Even the stories on the transgender ban that were run by the left-leaning New York Times appears to facilitate more “dialogue” than does the Presbyterian Church’s announcement on the subject. At the very least, The New York Times presents (mostly fairly) the position of those both for and against the ban.
Sadly, despite early aspirations to facilitate dialogue among well-meaning people who disagree about political questions, the Presbyterian Church (USA) appears more like an institution where progressives can wrap the preferred public policy goals in the moral language of the Church.
It is ironic that Rev. Nelson characterizes the transgender ban as “demonization” because, in using this inflammatory rhetoric in such an unbalanced exhortation, he effectively demonizes any well-intentioned conservatives who might disagree with him.Google+