How does a church community respond when someone comes through the doors who identifies as transgender, or who is struggling with his or her gender identity? What does a response of love look like?
According to author-lawyer John Bursch, the “very first response is accompaniment.”
“Just like anybody who is suffering in any situation, whether it be a physical situation, a life situation, a mental health issue, to love is to accompany someone, to walk with them, to support them,” says Bursch, author of the new book “Loving God’s Children: The Church and Gender Ideology.”
Loving someone “doesn’t mean giving them support without giving them the truth,” he says, because “true love is not just ignoring the deeper stuff and putting a Band-Aid on the surface.”
Bursch, vice president of appellate advocacy and senior counsel at the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the practical ways churches can love those who struggle with gender identity, and what theology and science teach us about human sexuality.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my honor today to be joined by John Bursch. John is vice president of appellate advocacy and senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, and he is author of the new book “Loving God’s Children: The Church and Gender Ideology.” John, thanks so much for being with us today.
John Bursch: Thank you so much for having me.
Allen: John, I honestly think that this could be one of the most important conversations that I’ve ever had on this podcast. We are living in a time when likely everyone listening knows someone who identifies as transgender or maybe they themselves are struggling with their gender identity. And for the church, the question is, what does love look like? How do we love people well who do identify as transgender or who are struggling with their gender identity?
So, I’m really excited to just dive headfirst into this conversation today. But before we really get to asking that big question, I want to begin by asking you to share a little bit about how you got into researching gender ideology. You’re an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom. What started you on this path of researching the gender ideology movement?
Bursch: Well, I can tell you I never set out in my professional career to write a book about gender ideology. I don’t think anybody dreams about that when they’re going to college or especially law school. But for me, it was really a natural evolution in the way that our religious liberty and free speech litigation practice was moving at Alliance Defending Freedom.
If you go back five years, there were just a couple of cases here and there, mostly involving privacy spaces where schools were allowing, in particular, boys who identified as girls to use the girls’ showers and locker rooms and things like that. But things really started to take off in earnest when the Obama administration issued its reinterpretation of Title IX to require that at all public schools and suggested that might also apply to sports teams.
And then you had the Bostock decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, which basically rewrote the common understanding of Title VII to include gender identity.
And now, all of a sudden, it takes up almost all of my religious liberty and free speech docket at the Supreme Court and elsewhere, dealing with compelled pronouns and dealing with federal regulations that require colleges and universities to house people in dormitories based on gender identity rather than their sex. And then it just goes on and on and on. So it was everywhere.
So I was diving into it from a legal perspective, a cultural perspective, and also a science perspective. And I was starting to get a lot of questions from friends at church. And so I started to dig into the theology as well. And soon I was giving presentations at churches and at diocesan events and other places.
So it really was just a natural accumulation of all of that wisdom that I was getting from reading in other places, preparing presentations, that the book just naturally sprang out of that. And here we are.
Allen: What were the questions that were coming up in your own heart and mind as you were starting to do more research on the gender ideology issue?
Bursch: Well, the very first question was, how does the church approach this? How should we think about this as Christians?
And the material that I was reading just kept coming back to the same thing, that God created us as embodied souls. In other words, our bodies are a gift from God and they have something to say about who we are. They expressed something about our personhood.
This is very different than the second century heresy called Gnosticism, that we’re just souls trapped in our bodies. Our bodies are really just cages to be manipulated and ultimately, our greatest good is to get our souls elevated past our body to heaven.
And if that’s your view, then you can do anything with your body that you would like because it doesn’t matter. But if we view our bodies as a gift that are part of who we are, that expresses who we are, then, as Pope Francis has said on numerous occasions, we have to accept that gift because if we don’t do that, then we’re going to be in conflict with ourselves. We’re not going to be able to enter into genuine relationships with other people. And we’re even rejecting God himself because we’re taking control over the gift he gave us and doing what we want with it instead of what he wants with it.
So that was No. 1.
No. 2, I just wanted a better understanding of the science. Where is it that this mental dysphoria comes from and what do we think about the treatments? And as I delved deeper into that, I learned a couple of things that I highlight in the book that I thought were really, really important.
First, there is no scientific study, no medical study that’s ever been done that shows that there is such a thing as a girl born in a boy’s body or vice versa or anything like that. We can’t prove it with science. And so right off the bat, we need to have a healthy skepticism.
Second, that if you look at adolescents, kids growing up, going through puberty, becoming teenagers, 80% to 95% of them who identify as a gender different than their sex, if they’re not affirmed, if you don’t do anything with them, you leave them to their own devices, they will naturally align their mind with their body.
But if you start to affirm them with preferred pronouns and opposite-sex stress and letting them use the opposite-sex privacy facilities and participating on the sports teams, nearly 100% of them will go on to persist in their dysphoria.
And what do we know about that dysphoria? Well, the best long-term studies that we have of adults, those who went all the way through surgery and tried to transition to a different sex that way, that suicide rates actually go up and incidents of mental health issues go up and all kinds of other long-term health problems result, including, obviously, permanent fertility in many cases.
So it turned out that this whole thing was not based on sound science. And in fact, at the end of the road, encouraging someone to pursue a transgender identity left them in a much worse situation than they would’ve been otherwise by almost any way that you can measure it. So in that sense, the theological teachings of the church and the science are in complete alignment.
Allen: When we’re looking at having conversations with folks about the transgender movement and about the gender ideology issue, and we’re asking that bigger question of how do we love this community like Jesus would love them, are there some foundational truths that we need to establish first in those conversations, we need to say, “OK, these are truths that, in order to move forward in this conversation, we all have to agree on X”?
Bursch: Yes. But you actually have to even take one step before that to make sure that you’re in agreement that there is such a thing as objective truth.
One of the difficult things about having a conversation today, not only about gender ideology, but about almost anything, is that more than 90% of young people, this is now including them right up through college, have a moral relativistic worldview. What’s true for me is true for me, what’s true for you is true for you.
And so important issues, like gender ideology, about when life begins for purposes of abortion, about issues like assisted suicide and all that, you can’t even have a conversation about it because it’s all a matter of personal opinion, like my favorite type of ice cream or my favorite place to go out to eat.
So first we have to establish that there is such thing as objective truths that can be discerned through investigations, study, through our reason, and things like that.
So that’s Step One.
And then, Step Two, a premise in your question is to have a mutual understanding of what love is.
Because in our culture, love is portrayed in the movies and on TV and in other places as something that’s just sentimental, a feeling that makes you all warm and tingly and it doesn’t involve choice or will or anything like that.
But the church, I’m talking now specifically about the Catholic Church and its catechism, defines love as always willing the best of the other. So it’s a conscious choice. It’s an action that you do affirmatively and it doesn’t have anything to do with feelings. It doesn’t have anything to do even with affirming what the other person wants, much less feels good, but instead willing their best.
Parents understand this intuitively. If there’s a child and they really want to touch a hot stove and they’re begging for that, it would make them happier than anything, the parent won’t give into that because they understand an objective truth that the child does not, that touching the stove will burn them. And it’s not loving to allow their child to get burnt and so they’ll prevent them from doing that.
So once we establish that there’s an objective truth and we understand a meaning of love to will the best for the other person, then we can start to talk about some of these basic scientific facts. Things like there is no such thing as a person born in the wrong body, that there is no such thing as a sex assigned at birth. Sex is recognized at birth. Or one of the big lies, that it’s better to have a live daughter than a dead son, that’s just not true.
As I mentioned for those in the long-term studies, the suicide rates actually go up when you have adults who have gone through transition. So it’s not loving at all to support someone in that.
So those are some of the basic facts that we need to be discussing, but we really need to set some foundational understandings in place first to even have those types of discussions.
Allen: So then what does love look like when someone walks through the doors of your church and says, “I’m here to be a part of the community and I identify as transgender,” or you have a friend who says, “I’m really struggling with my gender identity and I think that I might be transgender”? What is the response of love?
Bursch: Well, the very first response is accompaniment. Just like anybody who is suffering in any situation—whether it be a physical situation, a life situation, a mental health issue—to love is to accompany someone, to walk with them, to support them.
It doesn’t mean giving them support without giving them the truth. That’s not loving at all. That would be like that parent allowing their child to touch the hot stove or to play in the street because that’s what they wanted. But it is to accompany them.
And again, Pope Francis talks about that. He says that the church is like a field hospital, and when someone comes in and they’re bleeding to death and you need to stop the bleeding, asking them about their cholesterol or about their sugar levels isn’t really a helpful thing.
So first, develop that relationship, show that you’re supporting them, and then gradually you can start to introduce some of these aspects that will shed light on the truth and help them with their situations.
It turns out that many people who are suffering from gender dysphoria have other kinds of mental health issues often because of life situations that happen to them.
I think the statistics show that roughly 60% of those who attempt to transition suffered some kind of child sexual abuse. Well, you can’t move forward in any aspect of your life if you’ve got issues related to child sex abuse that have never been addressed.
So we need to help that person find a counselor and maybe that they had other issues that happened to them when they were growing up.
Maybe it wasn’t sexual abuse, but it was physical abuse. Or maybe you hear from some detransition or they had relatives who dressed them up as the opposite sex, or individuals who had very poor relationships with one of their parents and that influenced them. So we need to get to the root of those problems.
True love is not just ignoring the deeper stuff and putting a Band-Aid on the surface. The way I heard someone describe it recently, it’s like a volcano and putting a Band-Aid over the top and saying, “Look how nice this looks now.” But eventually that volcano is going to erupt and the Band-Aid is going to be destroyed and it won’t have done anything helpful.
So enter into relationship, figure out what those deeper problems are, get help, and speak the truth. And those are the building blocks, not only of a conversation with someone struggling with gender dysphoria, but struggling with any aspect in their life.
Allen: I like that because it’s so practical. We can all do that. We can all say yes to, “OK, I’m going to get coffee with this person once a week and just hear their story.” That’s so good.
Now, I will say, I think for so many folks who have grown up in the church, whether a Catholic Church or a Protestant church, this isn’t the case for all churches, but many churches in general have done a pretty poor job of talking about sexuality and really celebrating the differences between men and women. How do you think that the church should go about course-correcting on this area?
Bursch: Well, No. 1 is just to spend a lot more time talking about it.
As you said, for years, decades, the churches, both that I’ve attended and that I know friends have attended, they don’t like to touch the issues of human sexuality at the pulpit. Maybe in part that’s discomfort because there might be kids present.
I think sometimes pastors or priests think that if they don’t touch those issues, they won’t cause controversy, they don’t have to worry about collections and community harmony and all those things.
But it’s absolutely critical that we do address those because the fundamentals of our maleness and femaleness as God created us is of tremendous importance of being able to understand how we interact with each other and also how we understand God.
So let me touch on each one of those. First, as I mentioned, we’re embodied souls. And so our maleness and our femaleness says something about who we are. And so if we’re going to have an authentic relationship with someone that needs to be part of it, we can all acknowledge, at least we used to all acknowledge, that there are some fundamental differences in men and women.
And that doesn’t mean that we should be making stereotypes or requiring anyone to act a certain way because we expect them to act that way because they’re male or female, but it’s just an acknowledgement that male and female brains are hardwired differently.
And science does show that, that the male and the female brain are different. They respond differently to different stimuli. They are bathed in different hormones throughout the gestation process. Men and women are just different. And if we fail to acknowledge those differences, it’s hard to have authentic relationships.
So, for example, if I was a very religious person, which I am, but I went into all my relationships hiding that aspect of myself and never disclosing it to anyone, then it’s difficult for anyone to really know who I am because they’re missing a whole piece of me that’s an integral part of my life. And so that’s true about our sex, too. We need to acknowledge that.
So then how about that relationship with God? Well, the Bible is very specific about Adam and Eve being male and female, and that when they see each other for the first time, we know that Adam proclaims into Genesis, “At last is the flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” It’s because he’s happy that he found the companion, the azer, the helpmate that God intended for him that he couldn’t find in any of the other creatures God had created.
And he immediately sees in her body someone who was not identical to him, but complimentary, so complimentary that the man and the woman can come together in marriage and express their love in such a way physically that it results in the production of a third person, someone who needs their own name, a son or a daughter.
So what does that tell us about God? Well, when you’re talking about mutual love unconditionally flowing from one to the other and a third person, you start to think, well, where have I heard that before? Well, it’s the Trinity where God, the Father, and Jesus Christ, the son, too, have this mutual exchange of love and from it proceeds a third person, God, the Holy Spirit.
And so, in that way, the family, the domestic church, the building block of all society, which depends on maleness and femaleness, is an icon to help us understand the nature of God himself, this eternal exchange of love.
So when pastors and priests and others aren’t talking about these things in church, we’re missing something that allows us to have healthy human relationships, and we’re also missing something that helps us to understand a little bit more about who God is.
Allen: Such a beautiful explanation. In the book “Loving God’s Children,” you say that those who read the book will learn a new aspect or a deeper meaning of human identity. How so?
Bursch: Well, in this day and age, people associate their identity with lots of different things. And we see many of the conflicts in our society revolving around those identities. It might be our sexual identity, it might be our gender identity, it might be our racial identity. It might even be our religious identity.
Moving away from some of those cultural touchpoints—many people identify with the work that they do. If someone were to ask a lawyer, “Who are you? Tell me about yourself,” likely the first thing they’re going to say is, “Well, I’m a lawyer.” And then they’ll explain what their occupation is, which doesn’t really tell you anything about the person. It just tells you about their occupation.
And we understand that as sons and daughters of God, that we have a different identity. In fact, our identity isn’t even dependent on being in this world because we have a final destiny with God and his heavenly home forever. And when you get that identity right, all those other identities start to fall away and it changes the whole way that you look at things.
The decisions that you make all of a sudden aren’t just for short term, they’re for the long term. How do I make sure I make it to my heavenly home someday? And they’re not decisions that only benefit me, but I start to think about the importance of benefiting those around me, not only my family members and friends, but others, even enemies that I dislike as the Bible calls us to love them as well.
So getting that identity right is crucially important.
And there’s this beautiful story in the Bible about the prodigal son. And I do talk about this in the identity chapter because it’s such a great illustration of identity gone wrong. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story.
The son, one of two, takes half of his inheritance, goes off and he squanderers it. And the next thing he knows, he finds himself feeding pigs and realizes one day that the flop he’s feeding the pigs is actually better food than he’s eating. I mean, he’s just completely lost his identity.
And then he has this epiphany that his identity is as the son to this loving father and that if he would repair that relationship and go back home—he knows that his father has many servants, and even if he could just be a servant of his father, he would be in a much better position than he is feeding slop to these pigs.
So he humbles himself, which is a necessary first step when we’re course-correcting, and goes back home. And of course, his father immediately embraces him and throws a celebration, not only because he’s got the physical proximity of his son again, but because his son has been found, he has reclaimed his identity as a member of the family.
And all of us can do that. We can’t let our identities be tied up by things that have happened to us, even traumas that have happened to us in the past. We need to move past that and remember our identity as sons and daughters of God. And when we do that, then our lives click into place and our path forward becomes more clear.
Allen: The book is “Loving God’s Children: The Church and Gender Ideology” by John Bursch. And it is out and available now. You can get your copy at Barnes & Noble or Sophia Institute Press. John Bursch, thank you so much for your time today.
Bursch: Well, thank you so much.