Protection or Exploitation?
interview by Dave Baker
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a pastor, writer and activist. He and his wife, Leah, founded The Rutba House, a Monastic community in Durham, NC. This interview addresses how Christians might respond to a recent law passed in that state legislating that people use the public restroom that corresponds with their biological gender. This bill is considered by many to be a direct attack on the rights of transgender people.
North Carolina recently passed a controversial law that has been dubbed "the bathroom bill." What do you think of this bill, and how are you reacting to it?
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Thanks for asking. The biggest danger of this bill is that it was designed to make the religious community think we know what it's about without asking.
The timing of this bill is important. It was passed in one day during an "emergency" session, because our General Assembly's leadership wanted to draw attention to their effort to, as they said it, "protect women and children." But this bill is not about protecting anything besides political power. It's a strategic effort to rally the "conservative" base in an election year when poor and working people have plenty of good reason to vote out the so-called conservatives who've failed to serve the general welfare.
So I've protested and spoken against it as an evangelical preacher in this state who's offended by the ways politicians are trying to exploit religious conviction to win votes.
Many defenders of the bathroom bill have been framing it as a freedom of religion issue. What do you make of that claim? What fears and passions do you see driving the supporters and opponents of the bill?
JWH: If you read the bill, it's clear that it's not about bathroom safety. It pretends to protect vulnerable citizens from sexual assault by saying that people can only use public restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates. But there is no evidence of transgender people committing assault in restrooms. And if there were, we already have laws protecting all citizens against assault.
What we do not have, unfortunately, is a way of protecting citizens from our representatives, who seem to know their days are numbered. They created a "crisis" in order to push through measures that reduce the rights of workers and the capacity of local municipalities to guarantee protection to workers in their city. So it turns out that it's not a bathroom bill at all. It's an anti-labor bill. And in this case, it's so anti-labor that it's bad for business, which is why hundreds of corporations have decided to petition our legislature and boycott our state until the law is changed.
Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to do their sermon preparation with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in another. What do you think pastors should tell their congregations on this matter?
JWH: We have a responsibility to make clear the distinction between what the Bible and our tradition teaches about our sexual practice as a Christian community and what it teaches about how we pursue justice in the public square. Every pastor has a responsibility in their own tradition to teach the Scriptures to their congregation, navigating the deeply personal pastoral issues around sexuality. Clearly, Christians have discerned various faithful ways to do that. But legislating discrimination and codifying hate is not the way of Jesus. We must not let our religious conviction be exploited for political power. However conservative our sexual mores, we must be equally committed to conserving the "weightier matters of the law"—love, justice and mercy in the public square.
Dave Baker works at Baker Book House where he is responsible for school accounts and diversity initiatives.
Worth reading: "Beauty Policing: The Consequences of Transgender Bathroom Politics" and "Cock-blocking for Jesus: A Modest Proposal for Christian Men Who are Concerned About Trans Bathroom Rights," both by Melinda Selmys