The Third Way and US Politics

Talking about politics?

The general focus here at the Third Way Newsletter is often on issues of gender and sexuality and the Church. That makes a lot of sense given that questions and contentions about sexuality and gender seem to fuel much of the disagreement, debate, and disunity within the church in the global West, and particularly the United States today; LGBTQ+ concerns are the experimentum crucis for a Romans 14, Third Way of dealing with debatable matters in the Church today. Recently though (and I am embarrassed that it has taken me so long to notice) it occurred to me that this year, the church in the US seems to be contending nearly as much around the issue of politics.

Now historically (at least in recent history), I would argue that political disagreement within the US Church has mapped fairly easily onto the larger, pre-existing denominational and identity divides. White Evangelicals vote Republican ever since the rise of the moral majority, historically black churches trend Democrat, mainline Protestants have largely followed their geographical demographics with a bit of a tendency towards the Democrats, Anabaptists and Quakers don’t vote (or secretly vote but don’t talk about it), and Catholics have their own liberal/conservative theological divide which generally maps onto a Democrat/Republican political affiliation. Of course there have been exceptions which have been more or less notable, and in the last few American elections, millennial Evangelicals have gained some attention by shifting towards independent and Democrat affiliation.

But this election seems different, and I think legitimately so. The old categories are breaking down (has anyone decided yet whether the new designation “Progressive Christians” are Evangelicals or Mainline Christians? Where are all of these neo-Anabaptists coming from?) and with them, so are the easily mapped political associations. I know self identified Evangelicals (my own roots) who are planning to vote Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Constitution, and Green; some will be engaging in a principled abstention from voting and others won’t be voting out of cynicism or a generalized political apathy. The political landscape of American Christianity is changing.

What does this have to do with the Third Way?

And there is a lot that is good to be said about this increasing political diversity in the Church. In fact, I am a huge fan of disentangling Jesus’ church from secular politics. I am really happy that being an Evangelical Christian no longer automatically means being a Republican in the US. I think that this shift away from automatic political identification is a positive one. But we need to realize that it comes at a cost. One of the great lessons I have learned over the last several years is that diversity is better, stronger, and more beautiful than homogeneity but it is also harder. A diversity of political affiliation (including disagreements over whether we ought to have a political affiliation at all) within the body of Christ is a strength but is also a place of vulnerability. It is a chance for us to be divided, to lose our love for one another. To borrow a metaphor from Paul, it is when the hand first realizes that it is not an eye, that it is most likely to say to the eye “I don’t need you”.

Of course this is another iteration of Paul’s whole point in Romans 14. We are to be one, despite our political, theological, and other identity differences, we are to recognize our oneness in Christ, we must continue in our love for one another.

In this political season that is not at all easy. Remember, we are talking about real disputable matters here, not matters of no importance. Or relationship to politics (secular or ecclesial) matters. I genuinely believe that the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election will be a matter of life and death for many people. It will determine the foreign and domestic policies which drive military intervention abroad and medical intervention at home. Even the decision whether or not to participate matters. My Anabaptist friends remind me that the act of voting entangles me with the system of Empire and will incline me towards identification with the world, my progressive and conservative friends remind me that silence in the face of injustice (or potential injustice) allows the perpetuation of injustice.

These points are well made, the positions are well reasoned, and I am not neutral about them. I am fully convinced that by supporting the positions and candidates I disagree with, my fellow Christians are actively contributing to damage in the world. And yet…. and yet I also notice that, like me, they are acting out of their best understanding of what God is showing them. I must see that they too are trying to choose, and act out Love Himself. Once again, here again, we must remember that we may be among the weak, or we may be among the strong, and that either way we are called, neither to give up our beliefs, nor to cease in our love for our family in Christ. We can mourn (and I do) the very real damage the Jesus body has done, is doing, and will do to “the least of these” but we must mourn as one body; it is our body, the body of Christ, and if He can love His whole body, I believe that I am to love it as well.

So what am I going to do?

This last Sunday one of our pastors told us that Jesus had broken her heart over the disunity of the Church in this political season. She called on us to join her in fasting and prayer every Tuesday between now and the election for the unity of the Church. I want to extend that invitation to you. I do not expect that I will radically change my beliefs about politics or society, and I don’t intend to back down or stop calling for what I believe to be the most loving actions US citizens can take in November, but I will commit to stand in the Spirit of God and pray against the division of Jesus’ church. I will repent for the times I have allowed politics to make me think of the members of Jesus body as “the other”, and allowed my love to wane. I will pray each Tuesday that God increases my love for those whom I believe are wrong. And I will pray that you will join me.

Dr. Paul McHugh and Christian Integrity

Over the last few weeks (basically since the passage of North Carolina’s HB2) I have seen a particular 2015 Public Discourse Article by Dr. Paul McHugh passed around social media by folks who take the position that we as a society ought not recognized the gender identities of transgender individuals. While that is a position I ultimately disagree with and believe to be deeply harmful to a vulnerable population, I do recognize that there are scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments which can be marshaled in its defense–I think those arguments ultimately fail (I have put forward my own counter-argument to the theological in this series), but some of them are, at least, worth discussion in the abstract. However I think it is important to note that, regardless of your position on the topic, Dr. McHugh’s articles are not useful sources of information for the following reasons.

Credentials

I suspect that McHugh’s popularity on this subject comes from the fact that, on paper, his credentials are excellent on the subject of transgender psychology. Dr. McHugh is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who holds his MD from Harvard Medical School, has published significantly in his field, and has a robust history of teaching and practice. So on the basis of his credentials, Dr. McHugh really does merit attention. However the fact is that Dr. McHugh stands practically alone on this topic against other credentialed experts and organizations in this field. Notably, as Mari Brighe points out in her comprehensive article critiquing McHugh, Dr. McHugh’s positions are in opposition to the findings of (among others) the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In terms of constructive debate and conversation, this means that while it is valid to cite Dr. McHugh as an expert or authority on the subject, it is completely unwarranted to present him as some sort of final word (when dealing with science it is usually problematic to assume that there is a total consensus), and anyone who decides to reference Dr. McHugh in support of an argument or position they are defending should be aware that there are many well credentialed vices which oppose him. While he has a degree of authority on the subject, his expertise must be situated in the context of overwhelming dissent from the medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment. So don’t use Dr. McHugh in an appeal to authority, tactically it will backfire, and more importantly is it a misrepresentation of the overall “voice” of the collective experts in this field. Dr. McHugh is a single, albeit credentialed voice who is considered discredited on this subject by many other experts in the field, so long as he is presented that way, you will avoid misinformation on that count.

Argumentation

Because Dr. McHugh won’t work as a final authority on the subject, any use of his work depends on an analysis of the quality of the arguments Dr. McHugh actually makes. But it is this analysis which makes any use of his work deeply troubling. When writing on the subject, Dr. McHugh routinely cites two specific studies in defense of his conclusions and systematically ignores the many studies which undermine his statements. First, it needs to be said that Dr. McHugh’s failure to even acknowledge the growing body of medical and psychological literature which challenges his thesis causes his case to appear stronger than it actually is and calls his integrity into some question.

More troubling though is the fact that Dr. McHugh fundamentally misrepresents the conclusions of the study he primarily cites (a 2011 Swedish study) and refers to as “the most thorough follow-up of sex reassigned people”. He cites their findings that post-op transsexual people have significantly heightened suicide risks when compared to the general population, and uses that as support for his belief that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is bad for transgender people. The problem with this use is that the study itself claims the exact opposite. Quoting from the study’s conclusion (emphasis mine):

Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.

In fact, the study concludes that sex reassignment surgery does indeed help transgender folk and is saying that after surgery, treatment providers should be careful to recognize that there are ongoing traumas and stresses that trans people will face and that SRS should be accompanied by ongoing care afterwards. This must be stated as clearly as possible The study Dr. McHugh cites as his primary evidence says exactly the opposite of what he claims it implies. Dr. McHugh is a sufficiently thorough and intelligent scientist that it is hard to see his misrepresentation of this study as anything but disingenuous, particularly given the fact that the study’s primary author, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, stated in the paper itself that the study would not work as an analysis of the efficacy of SRS (here is an interview with Dr Dhejne where she expresses significant frustration at McHugh’s, as well as other people’s, misuse of her study).

The other study Dr. McHugh routinely references in his popular writing is a 1979 study which he encouraged, based on his already existing distrust of SRS. The problem here is that this study, by Dr. JK Meyer, predates many of the surgical techniques and refinements available today, the study consisted of only 50 individuals (all male-to-female transgender persons), and was seen as controversial and problematic from the outset. Even it its problems were overlooked though (and they shouldn’t be), this leaves Dr. McHugh with a single study in contrast with the conclusions of the collective medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment and a much larger body of work which has been thoroughly examined in a number of comprehensive literature reviews on the subject.

Conclusion

People who take a “conservative” position on questions relating to the gender identities of transgender persons need to stop citing the writing of Dr. Paul McHugh. He is not representative of the contemporary medical or psychological/psychiatric consensus and the support he provides for his argumentation ranges from misrepresentation, to disingenuous, to outright misinformation. In citing him you will only convince those who are not willing to research his claim and those who already agree with you and are merely looking for an “authority” to support what they have already decided to believe. This undermines your own credibility and, to the extent that you speak/write “as a Christian” harms your witness. Please take the time to build your arguments on well researched data, presented with appropriate caveats, limiting the degree of certainty you express to the quality and quantity of the data. And when you do, please be prepared to change you mind as well.

 

P.S. While I have your attention, please stop referring to trans people as “the transgendered” or “a transgender”. Transgender is an adjective (its counterpart is cisgender) used to specify something about an individual person. People aren’t adjectives and, in my experience, transgender people don’t like to be spoken about as though they were. So “Bob is a tall, transgender athlete.”

A Pacifist’s Thoughts on Being Among “The Weak”

One of the frustrations I have discovered writing about LGBT questions from a Third Way perspective is that I, and many of us who take this perspective at present, end up writing from the standpoint of the “strong”. As a result, I am constantly in danger of coming off as condescending (a perennial temptation for “the strong”) and am regularly accused of arguing for an approach which would privilege my take on the relevant theology. Continue reading

A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s Review – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I responded rather critically to the historical claims in Part 2 of Dr. Preston Sprinkle’s 3 Part Review of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to my Congregation. In this post, I will be responding to Dr. Sprinkle’s theological critiques in Part 3 of his review. As in the last post, I have little positive to say about the substance of Dr. Sprinkle’s review so I want to begin by appreciating his approach. Dr. Sprinkle writes with both grace and love, and gives every impression of a brother in Christ who, despite some serious disagreement, genuinely respects Ken Wilson and his project in ALtmC. Such respect for and grace towards those with whom we disagree is a rare commodity in the internet age and I very much appreciate this review for its consistently generous tone and approach. Continue reading

A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s Review – Part 1

Dr. Preston Sprinkle has written a three part review of A Letter to my Congregation and it is, in many ways, a remarkably gracious review. Dr. Sprinkle goes out of his way to affirm Ken Wilson’s heart and faith and throughout the review he maintains a courteous, even warm, tone. To be sure, while he appreciates the heart, goal, and tone of ALtmC, he disagrees with much of its argumentation and content. But his disagreement is both respectful and (mostly) clearly stated. Dr. Sprinkle is exactly the sort of person you would want to have a disagreement with. He neither raises his “voice”, nor resorts to the ad hominem attacks which have become so unfortunately common in the Church’s contemporary conversation.
Continue reading