Greg Carey: The Nashville Statement and the Decline of the Christian Right


Recently a group called the Coalition for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood - no, really, they call themselves that - created a small stir by issuing the "Nashville Statement." The statement and the lack of attention it's receiving reveal the degree to which the old religious right has lost its capacity to influence public conversations.

In substance, the Nashville Statement rehearses the familiar tropes of Christian right sexual morality. People should restrict sexual intercourse for marriage, and legitimate marriage requires the union of one man with one woman. Gay sex, queer sex, and transgender identity are sinful. The statement does not address the Coalition's belief that women should be subordinate to men at home and in the church, and it acknowledges both homosexual orientation and gender ambiguity. Basically, however, the Nashville Statement adds nothing new to the conversation apart from a fairly hip web design.

Moreover, the statement's "initial signatories" are the same, worn-out cast of characters. James Dodson and Wayne Grudem? Check. Tony Perkins and Al Mohler? Uh-huh. It's the same people saying basically the same things they've always said. 

So why draft a big statement, and why publicize it? The answer is simple. Pretty much nobody cares what these people think anymore. The day is past when the media seeks out right wing preachers to weigh in on social values. Their public audience shrinking, their public presence waning, and their credibility shot to hell, the Christian right needs attention.

The age of Trump has not been good for the Christian right and its representatives. The Trump administration continually generates storms of controversy, dominating the airwaves and eliminating opportunities for media interviews about church controversies and sexual politics. Christian Right talking heads find themselves in a media environment that no longer needs them. To a significant degree the Nashville Statement amounts to a media strategy, an attempt to gin up controversy and garnish interviews.

The Trump era has also diminished fundamentalists' moral authority. This is especially true of the white men who dominate evangelical politics, the ones usually invited to pop up on CNN or the Today Show. Over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. They somehow overlooked Trump's basic ignorance of Christian theology and piety, his sordid history of demeaning and assaulting women, and his documented track record as an accomplished liar. No longer can the Christian right claim the moral high ground. Folks just aren't buying their act.

One wonders. How many of the Nashville Statement's "initial signatories" have spoken out so forcefully in defense of refugees? How many condemned the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville, and how many held Trump to account for his open support of those white supremacists? I see that John Piper described Trump's post-Charlottesville comments as "deplorable," while Denny Burk called them "morally bankrupt." Those comments took courage. Perhaps others showed similar spunk. Still, only one pastor left Trump's evangelical advisory board in the wake of Charlottesville. So we wonder. If these religious leaders found it necessary to speak out, for about the millionth time, on sexual ethics, why this issue if not the others?

Even when the Nashville Statement attempts to make advances, it remains an empty gesture. The statement acknowledges the ambiguous gender identities with which many people are born, but then it denies the legitimacy of a "transgender self-conception." It acknowledges same-sex attraction and affirms that those who experience same-sex attraction can be saved, but then it condemns homoerotic desire as sinful. Most significantly, the Nashville Statement rules out the possibility of faithful, reasoned debate among Christians: faithful Christians cannot "agree to disagree" on these issues. 

The Nashville Statement puts on the veneer of accepting scientific research and demonstrating compassion, but in the end it's just a bait and switch. "We'll accept that you're not straight," it says, "but if you act out on your sense of identity or express your love to someone, you're out of luck." That's the kind of logic that has chased countless people out of the church, harmed the spiritual well-being of literally millions, and led others - who knows how many? - to take their own lives.

In the end we're stuck with a meaningless document. It adds nothing to the conversation that hasn't been said. If anything, its fake compassion increases the agony of LGBT Christians. All that's accomplished by this document is a little press for the religious leaders who signed it, a whiff of air time for the disenfranchised. The Statement underscores the obvious: in the age of Trump, the Christian Right has lost its moral authority. These guys - they're almost all men - may be have a spiffy website, but nobody's listening.