Just one glimpse into Pastor Dale Walker’s office in Sparta, Tennessee leaves the beholder with a sense of his awe and reverence for the past.
The towering bookshelves and ornately carved desk are scattered with statuettes and figurines of the bald eagle, America’s national bird. Some of the eagles are spread in full flight, one is draped in a tattered United States battle flag, and another appears to perch upon the Holy Bible. I noticed at least two actual copies of the Good Book itself, and the shelves are lined with century-old volumes of scriptural commentaries once belonging to circuit-riding preachers in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.
It’s appropriate: Walker himself is the pastor of a church from the Wesleyan tradition near the rural Kentucky border. Wesleyan and Holiness churches consider themselves the most authentic heir of the Methodist legacy, calling themselves after Methodism’s founding luminaries John and Charles Wesley.
“Americans have always been a people with a sense for nostalgia, and that fondness for the past must be especially strong for historically-rooted religious groups who feel they never really left it.”
Indeed, their worship gatherings have changed very little from the time of the Wesley brothers in the mid-1700s. Plain dress and simplicity are emphasized, and the inside of their unadorned church buildings are devoid of religious imagery or forbidden graven images, the only music to be heard apart from the human voice are the simple notes from an organ or piano.
We can imagine things must have been much simpler back then for those eighteenth-century folks. Americans have always been a people with a sense for nostalgia, and that fondness for the past must be especially strong for historically-rooted religious groups who feel they never really left it.
But Pastor Walker began to feel some time ago that a dedication to the old ways was something which should extend past the church-house doors. So it was that he founded the Tennessee Pastors Network, an organization aiming to do more than merely pray for the state’s and nation’s leaders. They wanted to actively serve as a presence urging lawmakers to respect and restore Christian values.
“Churches must become more involved with pressing issues,” their website says. And for network, those pressing issues are matters of social and home life. In 2015, the group was successful in convincing the state Department of Education to “keep closer tabs on Islamic presence in state textbooks” after concerns were voiced by state lawmakers. In 2017, though, Walker and his network of Tennessee pastors are about to face by far their toughest challenge yet: to revive, and pass, a law on gender and bathrooms which already failed in the past year.
A New Tennessee Bathroom Bill
Less than one year ago, a “bathroom bill” for public schools was introduced into committee which proposed to “require that a student use student restroom and locker room facilities that are assigned for use by persons of the same sex as the sex indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.” It was tabled amid an uproar over similar legislation in North Carolina and concerns about millions of dollars in federal Title IX education funding. But this year, with a Republican super-majority in both houses, Walker says State Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and State Rep. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) have pledged to the Tennessee Pastors Network that they will deliver.
A copy I obtained of the Tennessee Pastor’s Religious Liberty Petition addressed to Governor Haslam and Tennessee elected officials is currently circulating in congregations across the state.
“As elected leaders, you have taken a vow to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of Tennessee.” it declares. “Your responsibility is to the people of Tennessee and not to special interest groups and major corporations representing small minorities who want to force politically-correct personal opinion about human sexuality on the majority of Tennesseans.”
Rev. Walker was only getting started as my questions moved from “What?” to “Why?,” gesturing with both hands for emphasis.
“We’ve created a school environment that hinders learning, rather than promotes it,” he said. “Appearance doesn’t change anatomy, but students are refusing to use bathroom facilities because they can’t have any privacy around transgender students who claim to be something they’re not. To protect our children from these kinds of invasions of privacy is the best thing we can do to restore normalcy here.”
Connor McDonald, a senior Political Science major at Middle Tennessee State University and constituent of Senator Beavers, agreed.
“While liberals label some conservatives as ‘science deniers,’ the fact of the matter is, if someone has an X and a Y chromosome, they are a male and should use the male’s bathroom, regardless of whether or not they feel like a man or a woman or a unicorn that day,” McDonald said. “I can’t think of any issue where the term ‘science denier’ is more appropriate than for people who toss anatomy and basic biology out the window to accommodate for whatever someone feels like that day.”
“Is it worth putting our children at risk just for another ball tournament to come here?”Walker’s emphasis on the children continued to be evident in answering other questions as well. When asked about the potentially devastating economic fallout from a bathroom bill in a state like Tennessee which relies heavily on tourism, noting the Forbes article estimating North Carolina’s economic losses following passage of HB2 to be about $600 million.
“Is it all about the dollar signs? Are we going to sell our morals for money? Is it worth putting our children – our greatest asset – at risk just for another ball tournament to come here?” he said, referring the NBA tournament that was pulled from North Carolina during that controversy
One important note needs to be made here: while Tennessee Pastors and sympathetic state legislators view the imminent fight as one of conservatism vs. liberalism and/or Christian morality vs. secular debauchery, it’s more accurate to say the debate has crossed party lines among those who oppose. There are Christian conservatives who oppose such laws, one liberal activist who has decried the proposed legislation as unnecessary big-government overreach, and a Democratic legislator of more than thirty years stating his support for the idea and hoping that it will become law.
Gregory T. Angelo, a conservative and staunch Republican, certainly fits that bill. Angelo is the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization representing LGBT members inside the GOP’s big tent. He is a self-described gay Christian conservative who sees no contradiction in being all three of those things at once.
“There is nothing ‘conservative’…to exclusively single out one specific segment of the population for special regulation…”
“Where in the Bible do we find Jesus turning anyone away because of their sexual orientation?” he said. “It is preposterous to use children and the Bible as pawns here. People with a medical diagnosis of transgender dysphoria have been created in God’s image, just like everyone else, and deserve that dignity.”
While finer points of theology will always be hotly debated, Angelo reserved his most potent criticisms against the political ideology behind the proposed law.
“There is nothing ‘conservative,’ in fact it is the height of big-government intrusion into private citizens’ lives, to exclusively single out one specific segment of the population for special regulation,” he said. “It isn’t only unconservative but also unnecessary.”
Angelo further said there was no reason for such a law to be written.
“There has been no rash of sexual assaults, in Tennessee or any other state, by trans people in recent years to have even demonstrated a need for this.”
An archival search of Tennessee newspapers confirms this. There seem to be zero cases of confirmed sexual harassment or assault in public school facilities by transgender students from 1990 to 2010. In fact, almost all such offenses were perpetrated by non-transgender, heterosexual individuals.
In this argument, the conservative Republican Angelo has support from liberal Democrat Chris Sanders, Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project.
“Discrimination is simply not a priority of our state’s citizens,” Sanders said. “School districts and local governments have not asked for such legislation [and] Tennesseans don’t want big government in their restrooms.”
So also says Jerry Jones, a prominent leader in the Nashville LGBT community and publisher of Out and About Nashville magazine.
“These bathroom bills are pandering to the lowest form of politics,” Jones wrote to me. “Who notices or even cares who’s going to the bathroom in the next stall? It’s histerical [sic] politics focused on emotion.”
Thomas Waldrop, native Tennessean and current law student at The George Washington University, lent additional perspective.
“The measure is an example of both redundant legislation and the state inserting itself into issues it has no reason to insert itself into,” Waldrop said. “Tennessee state law already requires that restrooms and locker rooms be segregated by sex, and introducing this law would do nothing but create a hostile environment for any transgender or gender-non-conforming students in the state.”
Much like the opponents of their crusade, social conservatives and the Tennessee Pastors Network also find themselves receiving bipartisan support.
“My philosophy on this is really simple,” said one anonymous Democrat state legislator of over 30 years. “Sure, I understand there’s fallout when you stand for the Lord, but the state can’t nullify what God says is wrong.”
As we spoke on the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the longtime state lawmaker discussed the current controversy in words similar to those of Dr. King’s famed Letter from Birmingham Jail. “A just law,” King wrote, “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
“If a bill condoning the transgender lifestyle goes against what God has said, we can’t say otherwise,” says the Democrat representative regularly elected in landslides and multiple times without even opposition.
Granted, he noted debates over LGBT issues have lately been marked by a tragic lack of civility and enemy-making by both camps, and that, “Society has sick people on both sides” who themselves try to play God by dealing in hostility toward those with whom they disagree, rather than neighborliness and Southern hospitality.
The veteran lawmaker predicts current political conversations about human sexuality will prove to be not just a fad, but an enduring point of controversy throughout our lifetimes.
While returning home one afternoon after interviewing Pastor Walker, I put my car radio on scan mode since none of my favorite radio stations would pick up through the unfamiliar White County area. In a local gospel station, I came across one of the most powerful examples of religion in the American South.
The sermon tape from a local traditional African-American church recorded shouts of ecstasy and triumph from the congregation while the brother read from Ezekiel of Judea:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me in the Spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
And he said unto me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, thou knowest.’
Again he said unto me, ‘Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, “O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
‘Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord.”’
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them above… and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
Then he said unto me, ‘Ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have brought you up out of your graves, and ye shall live.’
(Ezekiel, ch. 37, King James’ translation)
In 2017, social conservatism is dead. So say the scholars, the scribes, the political prognosticators. But try telling that to Pastor Walker, Representative Pody, or Senator Beavers.
For someone whose entire human experience and life outlook has been defined by the concept of resurrection, nothing is ever really dead. At least not forever. Their opponents see a political carcass that has already been put to death, but there are a faithful few who remain convinced: these bones may yet live.