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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Anti-Intellectualism and the Rejection of Modernism: Wrapped in the Flag and Carrying a Cross—Evangelicalism and Fascism Part 2

Sinclair Lewis probably never said "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." But he should have because he would have been right.

For Part 1 in this series Tradition and the Mythic Past CLICK HERE.

I want to begin by backing up a little. The project for this series is to examine the intersections between white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and U.S. fascism as a politics. But this is really two projects because it involves both demonstrating that U.S. fascism is a going concern in the present day—a claim which is not at all universally accepted—and also that it is shaped by and intersects with white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism (wAE/F). Because I take Trump himself to be a fascist—by which I mean that "fascism" describes his politics more accurately than any other term of which I am aware—I further take wAE/F support of Trump to indicate if not activeFascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state but it is dangerous nonetheless." thus the fact that the U.S. is not (yet at any rate) a fascist nation does not at all imply that the president is not a fascist.
support of fascism then a tolerance for and/or willing blindness towards U.S. fascism. I want to make it clear though that I do understand that the validity of the the latter argument (that support for Trump = support for fascism) depends on the validity of the former (that Trump is a fascist) and I will be making both of those arguments in parallel over the course of this series as I work to identify the presence of Eco's 14 features of ur-fascism and Stanley's 10 pillars of fascism in both Trumpism and wAE/F.

I think that I demonstrated effectively in the last post that both wAE/F and U.S. fascism share a common national myth, or at least that there is a national myth which is accepted and promulgated by a segment of wAE/F which is perfectly conducive to the purposes of U.S. fascism. I hope to demonstrate in this post that there are significant voices and themes within wAE/F which share the anti-intellectualism and rejection of modernism around which U.S. fascism is able to coagulate. Once more, this is not to say that all white American Evangelicals (or even Fundamentalists) are fascists or crypto-fascists—just because the soil in a garden is conditioned in a way that is especially nutritious for one type of plant does not mean that it cannot or does not host other plants more or less effectively. I do think that wAE/F is especially hospitable soil for U.S. Fascism and there have been U.S. fascists among the ranks of white American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists but wAE/F plays host to other politics as well.

I am basing much of my work in this series off of  Umberto Eco's 14 features of Ur-Fascism from his essay Ur-Fascism together with Jason Stanley's 10 pillars of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them while much (but not all) of my analysis of white American Evangelicalism comes from Frances Fitzgerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America together with my own experience as someone who experienced Christian homeschooling in my elementary and middle school years, matriculated at a conservative Bible College, and who identified as an Evangelical for at least the first 30 years of my life.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Rejection of Modernism

While I intend to treat these two facets of fascism together I should begin by emphasizing that their relationship is more one of resonance than identity. One can be anti-intellectual without rejecting modernism per se and one can reject modernism (even in the very specific mode in which Eco is speaking) without being an anti-intellectual.


Fascism is not alone in anti-intellectualism, it shares that quality with significant leftist forms of totalitarianism as well. The rejection of modernism is, perhaps, peculiar to fascism as a totalitarian politics since most (all?) leftist politics tend to locate their origins in the Enlightenment. Now both of these elements are evident in Trump and in white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism but they tend to manifest in ways that are more or less obvious depending on the context. That Trump and the modern Trumpist(1) movement are anti-intellectual is, on a surface level, fairly obvious in the stock in opposition to "educated elites", attacks on tenure for university professors, regular mockery of intellectuals and academics as functionally useless, and Trump's well known aversion to reading books. But Trumpist anti-intellectualism takes a deeper, and probably more sinister, form as well. Trump and trumpists make a point of casting suspicion on college in general and especially on non-technical college education (mostly sciences and the liberal arts). The tactic involves assertions that universities are functionally little more than indoctrination centers for "liberal" politics and is usually embedded in bad-faith arguments about free speech on college campuses(2).
conservative complaints against public intellectuals, the valorization of white blue collar culture framed

What really strikes me about that second form of anti-intellectualism is the degree to which it parallels a pernicious attitude among wAE/F. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons  fundamentalists and evangelicals often frame "secular" universities as centers of indoctrination to the point that a heavy focus of the youth ministries I was involved with as a teenager was "preparing our faith to withstand college". One friend of mine who attended Summit Ministries (currently advertising itself with testimonials from James Dobson, Josh McDowell, and Eric Metaxas as preparing post-high school students to "strengthen their faith, prepare for cultural engagement, and earn money for college") recounted "an amazing lecture" in which the central figure (a young woman) went to college without "world view preparation" and became successively, a communist, an atheist, a feminist, and a lesbian. Fitzgerald frames the Evangelical and Fundamentalist attitude towards higher education well describing her experience at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church:
For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—was not a moral or intellectual quest that involved struggle or uncertainty. It was simply the process of learning the right answers. The idea that individuals should collect evidence and decide for themselves was out of the question. Once Falwell told his congregation that to read anything but the Bible and certain prescribed works of interpretations was at best a waste of time. He said that he himself read all the national magazines just to keep up with what others were saying, but that there was no reason for them to do so. (Most of his church members seemed to follow this advice faithfully; their weakness, if they had one, lay in the realm of television watching.) He and his fellow pastors attacked the public schools for teaching "immorality" and "secular humanism." But what bothered pious members of his congregation was not just that the public schools taught wrong answers; it was that they did not protect children from information that might call their beliefs into question. When I asked Jackie Gould whether she would consider sending her children to something other than a Bible college, she said, "No, because our eternal destiny is all-important, so you can't take a chance. Colleges so often throw kids into confusion." The progress of education, then, was to progress in one direction to the exclusion of all others.
Notice that technical college and degrees are, in this analysis "safe" in that they exist to teach skills and provide pre-established answers whereas liberal arts and theoretical sciences, which teach students to think critically and engage with a large variety of ideas are viewed as "corrupting" and "dangerous". At the most basic level, the anti-intellectualism of U.S. fascism and of white American Evangelicalism and (especially) Fundamentalism values training rather than education. And this is important because fascism is not, strictly speaking, opposed to all schools or all teaching; fascism is opposed to teaching and schools which deviate from the party line, which teach students to question
authority, teach histories which challenge their nationalist mythologies, develop empathy in students and teach them to broaden their horizons and assumptions about the nature of the world and their (collective and individual) place in it. Fascism requires technical expertise since technology is fundamentally one method whereby humans gain power over one another and our environment but is threatened by critical thinking, and this accords very nicely with the Evangelical/Fundamentalist desire to see people trained towards a specific predetermined set of conclusions and skills without "endangering their faith" through exposure to challenging facts, ideas, cultures, and beliefs.

Before going on I want to say that this is one area in which white American evangelicals, particularly more recently, take some pride in distinguishing themselves from fundamentalists. When I was studying at Columbia International University (CIU), an evangelical Bible college(3), I was told that the key difference between "us" and fundamentalists was that we evangelicals were not afraid of the academy or the intellectual life. While I have since come to believe that there is no hard distinction to be made between white American evangelicals and fundamentalists but that they exist along a spectrum, the distinction made sense to me at the time. The other major Bible college in my state was Bob Jones University, a school so fundamentalist that it did not allow interracial dating until 2000 when it dropped that policy in an effort to shield George W. Bush from national criticism, and which was regularly cited as a foil for CIU in our efforts to prove that we were not fundamentalists. I will have more to say about the "evangelical vs. fundamentalist" distinction in future posts, but here I think it worth saying that in my experience white American evangelicals differ academically from fundamentalists primarily in their levels of confidence. Whereas fundamentalists tend to think that their children will be corrupted by a modern liberal education, white American evangelicals are more prone to believe that, with sufficient training, their children will prevail because they are already correct about all matters of faith. Put another way, the fundamentalist approach to education and the truth is more fideist while the white American evangelicals take a more apologetic approach. Neither, however are fully open to the full and free exchange of ideas or to following a line of questioning wherever it might lead. That is to say that their fidelity is to a pre-defined truth rather than to truth-whatever-it-may-be.

Rejection of Modernism

The rejection of modernism is somewhat more complicated, both as Umberto Eco means it, and as it applies to the Evangelical world. In discussing the rejection of modernism, Eco acknowledges that fascists embrace technology—remember that they champion technique rather than understanding—it is rather the larger philosophy of the Enlightenment (particularly the political and social philosophies which emerged from the enlightenment) that they reject. His exploration of the theme in Ur-Fascism is worth quoting in full:

Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
The desire to parse the Enlightenment in order to critique or affirm it in parts is not, I think, peculiar to fascism though its concomitant rejection of Enlightenment liberal thought is clearly an important element in fascist thinking. Certainly post-modernism, of which many leftists and anti-fascists today are often fans, is more define-able as a critique and rejection of modernism than in any other way. It is the politics of the enlightenment that liberals tend to celebrate and which fascists reject.

Cornelius Van Til
At this juncture it could be tempting to imagine that wAE/F folk must embrace the liberal and antifascist, rather than the fascist critique of modernism. Given the wAE/F boosterism of the United States, and the U.S. history of championing liberal democracy(4) it would make sense that wAE/F people would largely support the liberal politics of the Enlightenment—and in some cases that is exactly how it plays out. However, as I described in my last post in this series, wAE/F (particularly
on the more Fundamentalist leaning portions of the wAE/F spectrum) includes an element of historical revisionism which involves defining "America" not as the first liberal democracy birthed of the Enlightenment (the standard "secular" story of the country's identity) but as a fundamentally Christian (and white) nation. Further, as Fitzgerald makes clear, this anti-liberal democratic outlook is only one element of a far larger tendency on the part of wAE/F which does include a significantly larger portion of the Evangelical side of the wAE/F spectrum.
The apologetics of Gresham Machen and most Princeton scholars, based on Common Sense Realism, sought to prove the truth of Christianity through factual evidence. Van Til, by contrast, held that facts did not speak for themselves but were meaningful only within some presupposed framework of interpretation. The truth, he held, lay only in God's framework as revealed in the Bible. Natural law, or autonomous human reason, reflected only man's fallen state, and the attempt by nonbelievers to create their own coherent interpretation of reality was doomed to failure. (His interpretation of the Bible was nonetheless based on Common Sense Realism.) Rushdoony took this notion farther, arguing that there could be no common ground between believers and nonbelievers. Then, while Van Til avoided the social and political consequences of presuppositionalism, Rushdoony did not. In the 1960s he became an early advocate of home schooling, arguing that education was not theologically neutral, and the state had no business imposing its own truth and its own religion on the American populace. (p.339)
Rushdoony and the christ-fascist re-imagining of the American myth are thus situated as an offshoot of a larger branch (mostly Calvinist—now celebrated largely by the PCA, reformed Southern Baptists and especially the Gospel Coalition crowd) of an Evangelicalism which rejects Enlightenment epistemology—the study of knowing and truth. It is important to recognize that this rejection of Enlightenment epistemology is, in its incarnation in individual thought leaders among these groups, almost always concomitant with a rejection of post-modernism as well. This is, at first blush, ironic since both Van Til and the post-modernists agree both in the rejection of Enlightenment epistemology. What makes sense of this is the fact that Van Til influenced presuppositionalists reject modernist epistemology by a method which is just as much (or more) subject to the post-modern critique as the system they both reject; presuppositionalism amounts to a sort of fideism which responds to modern and post-modern observations, critique, and questions by the simple expedient of refusing to recognize their legitimacy. The presuppositionalist claims to win all arguments by refusing to "see" anything which would undermine their central tenets with the result that they will only really entertain discourse with people who agree with their narrowly defined vision of reality. Again the training vs. education distinction comes into play since any apriori restriction of the realm in which truth is deemed "discoverable" must ultimately be reduced to training by restricting the questions and critiques which can be acknowledges or explored.

Conclusion to Part 2

So do white American Evangelicals/Fundamentalists engage in anti-intellectualism and the rejection of modernism in the same way that fascists do? Clearly there are some differences, the popularity of the new atheism and sort of banal nihilism (as distinct from philosophically informed nihilism) among America's online alt-right communities makes that abundantly clear. However there is much that both groups share in their habits of mind—rejection of both modern and post-modern epistemologies, a preference for technique over theory and question, distrust of liberal education to name a few—which precondition wAE/F individuals and communities to be particularly receptive to fascist propaganda and politics under the right conditions (such as the emergence of a shared and powerful enemy or a sense of threatened identity). There are also, certain stop-gap, beliefs of many wAE/F groups which need to be overcome before they (or the individuals of which they are constituted) can be subborned by US fascism. The Bible cannot be easily interpreted to allow for ethno-nationalism and, at the very least, presuppositionalim does include sufficient intellectual resources to argue against such a politics. So, I am not saying that white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism is tantamount to fascist thinking. What I am saying is that there are major (and increasingly dominant) strains within white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism which encourage habits of mind able to serve as a hospitable environment to US fascism.

As a coda to this post I want to emphasize that these problems in white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism are (so far as I can tell) particular to those specific strains of Christianity and are not shared by the many Christian traditions which are distinct from that particular stream. Within the US Roman Catholicism, for instance, has a profound intellectual tradition which could hardly be farther from the presuppositionalism of Van Til; the so called "progressive and ex-evangelical" movement which has emerged in the US  over the last decade or so, is largely defined by its embrace of doubt—see particularly Pete Enns' bibliography—, of openness to questions and exploration—one defining feature of the late Rachel Held Evans' work—,and sometimes of an almost naif acceptance of modernist empiricism and the authority of the sciences—check out "Science" Mike McHargue. That is not to say that either tradition is perfect by any means, only that they are different and that in those differences they posses greater protections against US fascism in this instance.


(1) I want to begin using Trumpist and Trumpism to distinguish the president and those whose political affiliation seems to be driven by allegiance to his leadership, personality, and political "style" from Republicans or political conservatives whose relationship to Trump may take a number of different forms.
(2) For a good run down on the ways in which trumpists and the alt-right utilize bad faith arguments about free speech generally, check out this video essay.
(3) I am, in retrospect, well aware of how ironic it was that I learned this at a Bible college.
(4) I am not claiming the US has always been a particularly good or effective champion of liberal democracy, only that "championing liberal democracy" on a global scale has been the primary stated raison d'être for US interventionism since WWI. "Being a champion of democracy" is, in the US mind, roughly equivalent to "being a good patriot".

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Wrapped in the Flag and Carrying a Cross — An Introduction to Evangelicalism and Fascism Part 1: Tradition and the Mythic Past

Sinclair Lewis probably never said "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." But he should have because he would have been right.

Introduction: White American Evangelical Christianity and Fascism 

This post will begin a series on the rise of fascism in the US today and the ways in which it intersects with, co-opts, and is suborned by white American Evangelicalism. My goal is to work through what is happening in our current political moment and how it has happened. Umberto Eco's 14 features of Ur-Fascism from his essay Ur-Fascism together with Jason Stanley's 10 pillars of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them are my key texts for the nature of fascism. Much (but not all) of my analysis of white American Evangelicalism comes from Frances Fitzgerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America together with my own experience as someone who experienced Christian homeschooling in my elementary and middle school years, matriculated at a conservative Bible College, and who identified as an Evangelical for at least the first 30 years of my life. I will also bring in additional readings and sources as appropriate and necessary. While this series of essays will take the form of a series of positive arguments informing one another and building towards a final conclusion, I hope that it will be read as an invitation to discussion. To that end I would invite reflection, reaction, push back and suggestions in the comments section of each post.
Recommended reading for this blog series

One important caveat I want to make at the outset is that I am not claiming that all white American Evangelicals are fascists or crypto-fascists. I do not at all believe that to be the case. I do, however, believe that some white American Evangelicals and particularly American Fundamentalists, are functional fascists (by which I mean that they do not recognize or realize the fascist nature of their own politics) and that there are significant historical and thematic strains within white American Evangelicalism which render its adherents particularly vulnerable to fascist ideology and leadership. It is, for instance, importantly true that 19% of the Evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election rejected Trump, but it is equally important that 81% of voting Evangelicals voted for him. Specifically this means that Trump received a higher percentage of the self-identified white Evangelical vote than any previous Republican candidate on record. The most fascist GOP president to date was more attractive to white Evangelicals than any previous GOP presidential candidate. Even that does not mean that the 81% of voting white Evangelicals who voted for a fascist president are themselves fascist, but it does at least suggest they were drawn (reluctantly or enthusiastically) by some degree of fascism. In this series I hope to explore that.

Features of Fascism

In Ur-Fascism Umberto Eco identified 14 common features of "Eternal Fascism or Ur-Fascism" that is, Fascism as a political practice and ideology abstracted from its specific instantiation in early 20th century Europe. Eco suggests that each of these may be present in other forms of totalitarianism "But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." The features are:
  • The cult of tradition
  • The rejection of modernism (but not technology)
  • The cult of action for action's sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Fear of Difference
  • Appeal to social frustration
  • The obsession with a plot
  • The enemy is both strong and weak
  • Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
  • Contempt for the weak
  • Everybody is educated to become a hero
  • Machismo and weaponry
  • Selective Populism
  • Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak
Jason Stanley provides an overlapping "list of pillars" of abstracted Fascism in How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
  • A Mythic Past
  • Propaganda
  • Anti-Intellectualism
  • Unreality: the rejection of truth
  • Hierarchy
  • Victimhood
  • Law and Order
  • Sexual Anxiety
  • Sodom and Gomorrah: heartland values vs. decadent cities
  • Arbeit Macht Frei: portrayal of the out-group as "lazy"
My plan is to combine the two lists where I can but also bring them into conversation with one another and with what I have seen and read about what is happening in US politics and with white American Evangelicalism.

The Cult of Tradition/Mythic Past

Both Eco and Stanley (and pretty much everyone else who has studied fascism) point out that fascism establishes, or reinforces a mythologized past in which the "us" flourished. Now, there can be some value in a national myth, so long as it is recognized as myth and not mistaken for an actual period in real history. A national myth which is known to be a-historical can be aspirational—a dream of what the nation hopes to become—and insofar as the aspirations are good, the myth will serve a good purpose. However when myth is mistaken for real history even good myth is going to corrupt; bad (racist, bigoted, xenophobic, imperialist etc...) myth will not be any better but it might be easier to spot. Contemporary US fascists use bad myth to feed their base supporters while using good-myth-mistaken-for-history as propaganda. Specifically, the myth they feed their base is the myth of northern Europeans "heroically" dominating the continent and "properly" subjugating indigenous peoples (they don't like to think of them as Americans) and African people in the service of a white nation. This myth minimizes all contributions and achievements of non-white (and usually non-Protestant Christian) people as often as possible. The myth that US fascists feed the moderates as propaganda on the other hand essentially erases the genocide and slavery which the first myth celebrates; it focuses on the good that the US has done (always incidentally crediting Euro-Christian folks for those achievements) and minimizes the harms and atrocities the country has committed, blaming them on "liberals", "humanists", "outsiders", and  "socialists" when they can't get away with ignoring them. Of course the two myths are contradictory but that is entirely irrelevant to Fascists. The myths suit their purposes. They are each attractive to their target audience and they each occlude the actual history of the nation in favor of one which will elicit anger and defensiveness on the part of the adherent when it is challenged by factual histories. In the latter effort Fascists have made particular inroads with Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Christians. 

Conservative and Evangelical home school and private school curriculum has long included a false American History narrative claiming that the american founders were Evangelical-equivalent Christians who founded the US as a Christian nation to the extent that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are really Christian documents thinly disguised as secular or pluralist documents. As it turns out, the connection between conservative Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and U.S. Fascism goes back quite a ways. In the words of Frances Fitzgerald's magisterial history of Evangelicalism in US Politics The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
In the early 1930's a number of other leaders, among them Arno Gaebelein, James M. Gray, William B. Riley [whom Fitzgerald credits as the architect of northern fundamentalism] and Gerald Winrod, embraced the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and integrated it into their end times scenarios—uncomfortably, as it sat with their prophetic Zionism....Like the notorious Father Charles Coughlin and his Protestant associate, Gerald L. Smith, some of these fundamentalist leaders became Nazi sympathizers. Hitler, Riley wrote, has snatched his country "from the very jaws of atheist Communism" with "help from on high."(p.144-145)
They also tend to propagate Lost Cause revisions of civil war history, downplaying slavery and emphasizing states rights narratives. Certainly this is something I encountered in the the Christian homeschooling curriculum I grew up with (Bob Jones, and Abecka mostly). In general, the homeschool narrative (one which traditionalist conservatives, dominionist and Christian Reconstructionist thinkers have had a large hand in shaping) teaches a remarkably strident version of the myth of white Christian/Protestant American exceptionalism. Again from The Evangelicals:
A voracious reader and a prolific writer, Rushdoony [a prominent proponent of the Christian homeschooling movement and whom Fitzgerald credits as one of the two "thinkers of the Christian Right" in the second half of the 20th century]  in the mid 1960's wrote two books on American history... he argued that the intellectual roots of the American Revolution were purely Calvinist and owed nothing to the Enlightenment... The Constitution, he maintained, was a secular document in appearance only... The early American Republic, he maintained, was an orthodox Christian nation with an economic and social Protestant feudal system. By 1860, however, only the South had a Christian system, and in the Civil War the Union troops destroyed it. ... The South, he wrote, had a right to defend slavery because the radical reordering of its society by atheists was a far worse alternative.
R.J. Rushdoony a Christian Fascist
Rushdoony discovered the works of Palmer and two other leading Presbyterian defenders of the Confederacy and used them to argue that the Civil War was essentially a "theological war"—and the civil rights movement anti-Christian. Rushdoony found both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments unconstitutional and nothing but an effort to impose the power of the federal government on the states. By his account, it was downhill from there on, with increasing federal power and increasing racial and religious diversity. "Minority groups," he wrote in 1965 "hold the balance of power in many states—Negroes, Catholics, Zionist Jews, pensioners, and the like... Only by restoring localism, by amending the Constitution to require the coincidence of the electoral college and its vote with the structure of Congress, can minority rule, with its attendant evils, hatred and injustice, be checked." Rushdoony's America was white and Calvinist, and at the heart of his politics was not just racism but an all-purpose, full-service bigotry"(p.339-340)
If those don't sound to you like the talking points of "alt-right" today then may I suggest that you have not been paying attention. I think it is important to recognized the myth that conservative Evangelicals and the Christian Right have been promulgating as it does so much to explain the current co-incidence of Evangelicalism of far-right Trumpist Fascism. The Evangelical "myth of America" is a myth of a white and Protestant America which was founded on reformation (rather than enlightenment—I will be addressing the "rejection of modernism" in a future post) ideals, which was most fully instantiated in the Confederacy, and which has been under attack from "liberals" both theological and political (the conflation is a popular and much-exploited one) since the nation's inception. This provides them all the fodder that Fascists need from their Nationalist myths. In the words of Jason Stanley "Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past tragically destroyed."  The Fundamentalist/Evangelical "pure mythic past" which was lost because of the work of "the enemy" (political and theological liberals) but which good members of the "us" group (white, conservative, patriarchalist Evangelicals) can work to reclaim by (re)gaining political power integrates rather seamlessly with that of more readily identifiable alt-right and neo-fascist groups specifically because they both locate the mythic past in a fundamentally white and "Christian" America and both see "liberalism" (though they put different spins on the meaning of the term) as the villainous force responsible for the decline they are trying to reverse.

Further, of course, is the fact that Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism understand themselves largely in opposition to theological liberalism—particularly 19th century German liberalism—and as fighting to reclaim a Christian theological past which only they have preserved. Certainly my own experience with church history classes specifically structure the history of "true Christianity" as one which faded after the fall of Rome (one Church history course from the Reformed Theological Seminary ignores the Eastern Orthodox church altogether, not even mentioning the Great Schism) and was practically resurrected at the reformation. Again, this is not to say that all white American Evangelicals are fascists, but to point to themes within white American Evangelicalism which render its adherents more open to fascist propaganda and red pilling.

From this perspective, it is entirely consistent that the Charlottesville Protests, centered around the "Unite the Right" rally served as the first significant conflict between American fascists and an alliance of Liberal Mainline and Progressive clergy with Antifa counter-protesters. Nor should it be surprising that Evangelicals, in defending Trump for his "both sides" speech, have centered the question of "honoring the Confederate past" rather than the obviously racist intent of the initial rally.
Clearly this is about more than just statues for them

By now the heavy blending of the religious right with the Republican party—particularly the tea-party, freedom caucus, Trumpist arm of the GOP—has resulted in a state level pressure campaign to promulgate the myth of white and Christian American exceptionalism in public schools. Essentially, Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and allied groups (the National Legal Foundation, and Wall Builders in particular) are pushing legislation which would make the Fundamentalist white, Christian revisionist US history of my home schooling days in the late 80's and early 90's the standard curriculum in public education after painting it with a thin veneer of secular pluralism. According to their Project Blitz playbook (they even name it after a Nazi battle tactic) the first focus category in their project is to enact "legislation regarding our Country's religious heritage". 

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that the current president's campaign slogan was Make America Great Again a statement which both references and participates in the creation of nationalist mythology.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Bareface: C.S. Lewis and the Identity Claims of Transgender People

To my best knowledge C.S. Lewis never directly interacted with an out transgender individual or commented on the validity of the identity claims of transgender people. Because he lived and died before much of the current understanding of transgender experiences and identities had been developed it would be anachronistic to claim that he supported (or would have supported) transgender people in their identity claims. And because even the most logical of individuals is likely to be influenced and limited by the prejudices and beliefs of their own context it would be foolish to claim with certainty that Lewis—if he were around today—would affirm transgender people's identities. The "what would this person think of this if they were alive today" game generally not worth playing and I do not intend to take it up here. Instead, what I do think I can demonstrate is that there is ample material in Lewis' work to construct a strong argument in favor of the validity of the gender identities of transgender individuals—an argument which Lewis, if he had been consistent to his own professed assumptions and beliefs—would have been inclined to accept. That is not to say that his thinking is easily compatible with the different models—there are more than one—which transgender people put forth in defense of their identity claims; in fact Lewis' thinking doesn't quite map on to any one of the dominant models today. What his ideas and methods do establish, however, is a model both for conceptualizing transgender gender identity claims from an orthodox Christian perspective, a structure of reasoning which recommends (demands even) trusting the gender identity claims made by transgender people, and a perspective on the denial of those claims which frames them as a particular sort of sin.

Update 4/5/19 [It is probably worth stating here that Lewis did comment on homosexuality generally and on lesbian and gay sex specifically in his published and unpublished writing. While he was arguably less condemning than some of his contemporaries, he was not affirming of gay and lesbian sex and (in That Hideous Strength) did engage in what can, at best, be described as queer-coding at least two of his villains. As I have written elsewhere, I do not intend any apologetic for this view on Lewis part—I believe he was wrong—and anyone who might hope to "recruit" Lewis as a post-mortem advocate for LGB acceptance should be aware of his views.]

Vocabulary, Terminology, and Background Theory

This essay makes regular reference to much terminology which is specific to the contemporary conversation around or about gender, transgender people, and transgender identities. Readers unfamiliar with that conversation, or who just want to review/refresh their understanding of the relevant language will find a helpful glossary HERE. While I will occasionally be nuancing some of the contemporary definitions (particularly the theory behind the word gender) in order to bridge the linguistic gap between Lewis life and our current moment, these definitions should fit my general usage.

Update 4/5/19 [To be clear, I do not at all mean to suggest that Lewis was saying the same thing that contemporary transgender theorists, gender theorists, and queer theorists are saying. I am hoping, here, only to develop a particular argument out of what C.S. Lewis can be demonstrated to have thought based on his published work and which arrives at the conclusion that we ought to affirm the gender identity claims of transgender people. While I certainly do hope that this argument will convince those who share many of Lewis' assumptions and beliefs to take that conclusion seriously, I am not suggesting that transgender people need the affirmation of Lewis' thought or argument structures. Transgender theory and philosophy is already being done effectively by transgender academics, theorists, theologians, and advocates. I have provided links to some of their work throughout and at the end of this piece.]

Some Background on The Identities of Transgender People and Reality Enforcement

In her essay Trapped in the Wrong Theory: Rethinking Trans Oppression and Resistance trans philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher identifies an impulse for reality enforcement as the primary motive behind transphobia generally and anti-trans violence in particular. She claims:
While there are many features associated with reality enforcement, it has four essential ones: identity invalidation, the appearance-reality contrast, the deceiver-pretender double bind, and genital verification. Identity invalidation is the erasure of a trans person's gender identity through an opposing categorization (e.g., a trans person sees herself as a woman, but she is categorized as a man). This invalidation is framed in terms of the appearance-reality contrast (e.g., a trans woman may be represented as "really a man disguised as a woman"). And this contrast is manifested in one of two ways that constitute a double-bind for trans people—namely, passing as nontrans (and hence running the risk of exposure as a deceiver) or else being openly trans (and consequently being relegated to a mere pretender). Genital verification can be a literal exposure (as with Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo, and Angie Zapata) or else a discursive reveal through euphemistic comments like "was discovered to be anatomically male." These disclosures anchor identity invalidation in the notion of genitalia as a kind of concealed reality.
The core problem for trans people here, according to Bettcher, is fairly straightforward and entirely insidious. The on-the-ground fact for trans people is the regular denial of their experiences of themselves, reality as they experience it. Though different trans people articulate it in different ways, the experience of a denied identity is a constant. Reality enforcement as Bettcher explains it is the dynamic by which transgender people experience oppression and opposition in the world. The four ingredients which make up reality enforcement begin with a direct denial of the transgender person's gender identity claim. To use a transgender woman for an example (this would typically be a transgender person who was identified as male at birth and who has since claimed that she is a woman): In the face of the transgender woman's claim that she is really a woman, identity invalidation occurs when someone else (the denier) insists on categorizing her as a man—the denier says, in effect, "no you are not really a woman". The denier explains the situation (using Bettcher's "appearance-reality contrast") by claiming that the transgender woman is really only disguised as a woman. The fact of this assertion and explanation means that the transgender woman is always in the double-bind of either being open about being transgender, which results in deniers labeling her as a pretender, or passing as nontrans, which risks being "found out" having deniers label hear a deceiver. In both of these situations the denier generally references the transgender woman's genitals as "proof" of her "real" status.

Of course there is a danger here that in referring to this dynamic as "reality enforcement" we might give the impression that those who engage in it really are on the side of reality and that the complaint is only that they are being unkind in enforcing it on the affected trans person. But that would be a total misunderstanding of Bettcher's work and of the case of transgender people overall. In Trapped in the Wrong Theory Bettcher begins by acknowledging that reality is fundamentally contested in the interaction between a transgender person and someone who denies the trans person's gender identity. Thus the term reality enforcement does not refer to someone enforcing reality as it is(1) but to someone enforcing what they believe reality to be.

One implication of this for any third party observer is that, like it or not, they are shunted into the position of referee or judge in the case of the transgender person. Short of ignoring the conversation entirely—a choice which comes with its own, fraught, consequences—the  observer, cisgender(2) or not, is left having to choose first which version of reality to endorse and only second whether or not they will enforce it.

C.S. Lewis and Obligation to Reality

Now it is clear to me that C.S. Lewis would have recognized a preeminent duty obligation to reality insofar as he was able to know it. In his essay Man or Rabbit he reflects:
The question [Can't you lead a good life without believing in Christianity] sounds as if it were asked by a person who said to himself 'I don't care whether Christianity is in fact true or not. I'm not interested in finding out whether the real universe is more like what the Christians say than what the Materialists say. All I'm interested in is leading a good life. I'm going to choose beliefs not because I think them true but because I find them helpful.' Now frankly, I find it hard to sympathise with this state of mind. One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing [emphasis mine].
Given that Lewis thought that the drive to know reality is one of the things which distinguishes humans from animals we must conclude that he would have applied this drive to the question of the contested reality between the transgender person and the denier. Thus we can safely conclude that he would have rejected the possibility of simply walking away from, ignoring, or refusing the question. He would also have refused to side with one reality-claim or the other based only on what would have made one or another party most comfortable or even safest. Lewis would have insisted on confronting the question straight on: Is the transgender person who claims to be a woman really a woman or really not a woman? Is the transgender man who claims to be a man really a man or really not a man? Only after answering that question, or deciding that it is finally un-answerable, can we approach the further question of whether or not reality ought to be enforced.

The Core Question

Let us, then, look at the claim through as Lewis-ian a lens as possible: A person (the transgender person) is claiming to be a woman. A second person has denied the claim. When a transgender person makes a claim to a particular gender identity they generally cite their own experience of themselves in relationship to the world. The evidence that the trans person cites (their own experience of the world) is subjective insofar as they are the only person with direct access to it but it is also a claim to an objective reality (they are claim that they really are a particular gender). Against that the denier, depending on their background and inclination, will generally cite the transgender person's body as evidence against them. The irony here is that a transgender person's body is an objective reality which both the transgender person and the denier likely agree on. Their disagreement has all to do with the meaning of the transgender person's body as it relates to their claim.

Lewis clearly outlined his process for thinking through apparently unlikely claims (claims which entail what Bettcher calls the "appearance-reality contrast") in the opening passage of Miracles:
If immediate experience cannot prove or disprove the miraculous, still less can history do so. Many people think one can decide whether a miracle occurred in the past by examining the evidence "according to the ordinary rules of historical inquiry." But the ordinary rules cannot be worked until we have decided whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probable they are [emphasis mine]. For if they are impossible then no amount of historical evidence will convince us. If they are possible but immensely improbable, then only mathematically demonstrative evidence will convince us: and since history never provides that degree of evidence for any event, history can never convince us that a miracle occurred. If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number of miracles have occurred.
Following this outline, Lewis would first want to know is whether the gender identity claims of transgender people are intrinsically possible. If he believed that they were, indeed, possible he would then have gone on to ask how probable they are.

Possibility and the Sex-Gender Distinction

Would Lewis, then, have thought that the transgender person's claim is possible? A person who is claiming that they are five foot eleven inches tall and also that they are forty seven feet three inches tall must be wrong—not because I have never encountered a forty seven foot human before—but because being two different heights at the same time and in the same sense is a contradiction in terms. The transgender person, however, is not making a contradictory claim (here we head off one ridiculous accusation which is routinely directed towards the trans community). The transgender woman acknowledges (though she likely finds it more than a little rude for people to keep harping on it) the fact that, in some aspects, her body aligns more with what most people expect from men than with what people expect from women. Read carefully, the transgender woman's claim is that she is a woman in spite of the fact that her body was identified as typically male back when she was born. Her appeal is to her gender and not to her sex. Therefore, so long as Lewis was willing to grant a distinction between sex and gender, we must conclude that he would have found the claims of transgender people at least possible.

As it turns out, Lewis not only recognized the sex-gender distinction, he positively endorsed it. In his novel Perelandra Lewis explores, among other things, the possible nature of angels. In that context he concludes that angels have a gender but not a sex, and he goes on to theorize about the relationship between the two.

When Ransom, the protagonist of Perelandra, encounters the angelic Archons (referred to in the text as Oyarsa) of Mars and Venus, Lewis describes those spirits (he is very clear that they do not have physical bodies but that "when creatures of the hypersomatic kind choose to 'appear' to us, they are not in fact affecting our retina at all, but directly manipulating the relevant parts of our brain") in a way which reveals much of what Lewis understood about sex and gender. It is well worth noting that Lewis published Perelandra in 1944, well before the contemporary distinction between sex and gender gained any popular currency(3).

Both the bodies [of the Oyarsas] were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try—Ransom has tried a hundred times—to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra [the archon of Mars] was like rhythm and Perelandra [the archon of Venus] like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don't know that any of these attempts helped me much. At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine [emphasis mine]. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity... he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). 
There is a lot here so let me break it down in to three specific observations:

First, Lewis clearly thought that there is a meaningful difference between sex and gender(4). The legitimacy of this distinction forms the core thesis of this passage. While Lewis seems to define sex in nearly the same way that contemporary sex and gender theorists do (as a physical phenomenon linked to reproduction, body morphology, etc...) his definition of gender is noticeably different—so much so that his definition is the subject of my third observation. Still it is clear from this passage that Lewis would have granted the fundamental plausibility of a claim which relied on distinguishing sex from gender.

Second, Lewis insists that gender, rather than sex, is the more fundamental property. Notice towards the end of the passage that he refers to gender as "as reality" whereas he calls [biological] sex "merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity [gender] which divides all created beings". For Lewis gender is a metaphysical property whereas sex is a physical property. Lewis understood humans to be composed of both a material and immaterial/spiritual/metaphysical part. As he says in The Screwtape Letters:
Humans are amphibians...half spirit and half spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. 
The distinction between "spirit" (which Lewis understood to be, among other things, the location of gender) and "animal" implies the possibility that a given individual in a world of imperfect and changeable bodies might very well find that the aspect of them which is body does not correspond, or in Lewis' words "properly reflect" the gender of their immaterial aspect. In an attempt at rectifying that incongruity, Lewis would necessarily have privileged the immaterial gender as determinative and recommended correction of the body. Further, since Lewis locates spirit in "the eternal world" he would not have seen gender-corrective therapy as a real possibility for anyone. Sex, as an aspect of body, is potentially subject to change. Gender is not(5).

Third, Lewis' understanding of gender was unusual both in his own time and today. In broad strokes contemporary gender theory attaches two distinct meanings to the term gender and those two meanings are, in some cases, both affirmed by individual theorists. In the first meaning gender references a socially constructed set of conventions. Here gender means the set of social expectations and roles which a society attaches to women, men (and potential third + genders as well). The whole concept of gender as a performance is rooted in this view and has its origins in second wave feminism. In the second meaning gender is as an identity (in this usage gender is often paired with the term identity forming the two-word term gender identity) or a deep seated sense of self. Here gender or gender identity is something that each person has or possesses and which is rooted in the experience of self. This meaning is a later development, associated more with queer theory and third wave feminism. Lewis' usage is distinguishable from both of these. He understands gender to to be a metaphysical reality which pre-exists sex and is, in fact, something which biological sex must reference in order to find meaning. In Lewis' view, Masculine and Feminine gender are the realities which male and female(6) sex are images of. There is much that could be said about this and it is probably not quite a comfortable stance for any of the major participants in the contemporary discussion over transgender identities. His usage and understanding probably gets closer to Julia Serano's Intrinsic Inclinations model though unlike Lewis Serano locates the property in question (Serano's closest equivalent to Lewis' gender is her coinage subconscious sex) in the psyche or subconscious rather than in any clearly metaphysical or spiritual part of the human person(7). For our purposes the key implication of this is that Lewis clearly believed that a person's gender was something more true, more lasting, and more definitive of that person that their biological sex (organs, hormone levels, body shape, etc...).

From Possibility to Probability

So Lewis would certainly have seen the transgender person's claim—to be really a woman in the face of the denier's claim that that the transgender person is really not a woman—as possible. The next logical question then is: given that the claim is possible, is it probable? Just because a person makes a claim which is possible does not mean that we are under any obligation to accept the claim as true. If someone tells me that it is snowing in June, I can accept that snow is a possibility without having to believe that it is actually snowing in my vicinity at the moment. If I am told that someone has graduated from Yale, I can believe that Yale exists and that people do graduate from that institution without accepting that this particular person has really earned a diploma.

What should stand out almost immediately when we imagine how C.S. Lewis might approach the question of probability is the fact that Lewis was remarkably clear headed when it came to assessing relative probabilities of events insofar as he had a keen grasp on the distinction between something which is uncommon and something which is improbable. It is improbable that a given individual, chosen at random, will be or become the president of the United States of America specifically because there are very particular requirements one has to meet in order to achieve that status; that is to say that being the president of the United States of America is an exceptionally uncommon experience. However, it is not at all improbable that, at any given time, there will be some person who is the president of the Unites States, quite the contrary. Since transgender people generally claim that their experience of their own gender is a minority experience, Lewis would not have seen the fact that transgender claims are uncommon as an indication that they are, in any way, improbable. Again from Miracles:
How could they [miracles] be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? If there ever were men who did not know the laws of nature at all, they would have no idea of a miracle and feel no particular interest in one if it were performed before them. Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.
The overall probability of a particular person being in a situation which runs contrary to the way thing commonly occur in nature would, for Lewis, depends on the particularities of the exceptional situation. Here things become a little more difficult for us. Transgender people do not claim a gender identity on the basis of the miraculous. Rather the claim of a transgender person is that of the minority report. Transgender people specifically claim that the experience of gender incongruity (having a gender identity which is at odds with the sex they are assigned by others on the basis of anatomy) is a natural but relatively uncommon phenomenon. The only way to test this claim would be to have objective third-party access to each transgender person's gender identity. But gender identity, as Lewis understands it, is not available to this sort of empirical observation. As Bettcher and other transgender theorists (notably Julia Serano) have pointed out, the major obstacle/double bind that transgender people face in the realm of reality enforcement is that those who successfully alter their bodies to align more closely with the gender identity they claim are discounted as "deceivers" whereas those whose bodies do not reflect the social-construct expectations of the gender identity they claim (or who claim a gender identity which is not familiar to the popular imagination) are discounted as "mere pretenders". From Bettcher's Appearance, Reality, and Gender Deception: Reflections on Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Pretense
To the extent that it is within the power of a transperson to generate a convincing appearance, then, they will be confronted bu the no-win option of trying to pass (and running the risk of being exposed as a fraud) or else revealing themselves (and coming out as a masquerader or deceiver). And to the extent that it is not within the power of a transperson to generate a convincing appearance or, if it is to control the information that is circulated and available about their status, they may still find themselves represented as a pretender. In effect, because gender presentation and sexed body are viewed in this way (namely as correlated appearance and reality), in all possible permutations, they will have their identity relegated to a mere appearance and find themselves either open to charges of wrongdoing or relegated to somebody who plays at make-believe
Thus both Lewis—who sees gender as a metaphysical reality—and contemporary transgender theorists—who mostly see gender as either a social construct or as a personal identity—end up categorizing gender identity as something objectively real but ultimately only subjectively knowable(8) and therefore un-testable given the current state of our technology(9).

From Probability to Credibility

To recap then, Lewis would likely have seen the reality claim of a transgender person—to be really their identified gender—as possible but he would have been unable to determine whether the claim was probable. This, though, does not imply a dead end to the question. In fact, some of Lewis' most famous material demonstrates the approach he took to claims wherein there was no way for external observers to objectively examine the evidence. He would look to the credibility of the source: In his most famous novel The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis deploys a piece of reasoning (the logical tri-lemma) which mirrors one he uses in Mere Christianity to argue for the divinity of Jesus. In the novel the older Pevensie children (Peter and Susan) approach the professor in whose house they are staying because their little sister, Lucy, has been making claims which run contrary to their own experience and expectation of the world and which they have been unable to objectively verify. Specifically, she has been claiming—accurately as it turns out—that a particular wardrobe in the house is, under some conditions, a portal to another world. To further complicate matters, their brother Edmund has specifically claimed that Lucy was "only making it up" after she asks him to corroborate her claim.

The degree to which this scenario parallels the reality enforcement scenario described in Bettcher's essay is really astounding. Lucy, like the transgender person, has made a claim which, at face value, seems to be contradicted by general experience. Edmund, like Bettcher's denier, has specifically contradicted Lucy's claim. Peter and Susan, standing in for society at large, find themselves engaged in reality enforcement and are initially inclined to enforce Edmund's claim against Lucy(10). In this analysis, we should understand the professor to be a mouthpiece for Lewis' own analysis of the situation. When the children bring their questions to the professor, he asks them which of their two siblings is usually more trustworthy and they respond that they would generally trust Lucy and that the only reason they don't now is due to the apparent implausibility of her claim and their subsequent inability to independently verify her experience. The professor responds as follows:
‘Logic!’ said the Professor half to himself. ‘Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’ [emphasis mine]
Or in Mere Christianity Lewis uses this structure of reasoning to argue that, contrary to popular expectation, Jesus of Nazareth was really God:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this mans was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.
Again we have a situation where someone is making a claim which, at first blush, flies in the face of popular expectation, which is not (at least not anymore) subject to external verification, and which is roundly denied by people who cite popular experiences of the world in defense of their denial. We are, therefore, perfectly justified in concluding that Lewis would have applied this specific logic tool to the question of transgender gender identities and reality enforcement. Specifically he would have told us that there were really only three possibilities: the transgender person is either lying, insane, or telling the truth.

What do they teach them in these schools?
Before I apply Lewis' trilemma to the question though I want to head off one further suggestion that the transgender person may actually be mistaken. I do not think that Lewis would have granted this possibility on the grounds that we are specifically asking about something (gender identity) which Lewis believed people have and which he thought could be perceived directly. Still, even if the possibility is granted (expanding the trilemma into a tetralemma), the fact remains that the transgender person in question—being the person with the most data regarding their own gender—is in a better position to know their own gender than any outside individual. If they are mistaken, then they are more able to know that than anyone else and must therefore be treated as the authority on the subject.

The idea that transgender people are lying about their identities is not one that I think Lewis would have entertained for long. The simple fact of the difficulties trans people face and the suffering they endure in order to live into their gender identities undermine any serious suggestion that they are lying about it. People rarely—if ever—lie consistently, insistently, and persistently when the consequences of being believed is increased suffering on their part. In the instance of transgender identity claims, the claim only benefits the person making it if it is true since the concomitant suffering is only worthwhile if it purchases a deeper, more fundamental, satisfaction.

The suggestion that transgender people are simply insane is suggested more frequently, most often by conservative pundits who most often latch on to the fact that gender dysphoria is often (though not universally) experienced by transgender people, and is a listing in the current version of the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). However, the association of gender dysphoria with insanity—and specifically a form of insanity which would prevent a person from accurately experiencing reality—is misleading, sloppy thinking at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. A person who experiences gender dysphoria is not delusional(11) they merely experience discomfort (sometimes to the point of anguish) based on the incongruity between their gender and the sex they were assigned at birth. As the professor says of  Lucy "ten minutes conversation will tell you she is not mad".

Having ruled out the possibilities of lying and insanity, the inevitable conclusion, given Lewis' beliefs and methods of reasoning would have to have been "For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that [the transgender person] is telling the truth". Regardless of how difficult it might be to believe the gender identity claims of trans people (we cannot really control what we believe after all) Lewis' methods and metaphysics require that we trust transgender people who, after all, are the only ones with any access to their own gender status.  

This gets us most of the way towards an understanding of how C.S. Lewis would have engaged with the reality claims of transgender people but I think there is value in pushing it one step further. Thus far I have been treating the whole business as a purely intellectual question. To leave it at that—as a mere proof in an intellectual "ivory tower"—would be a tremendous disservice to the transgender population who (as Bettcher pointed out) face serious and even life-threatening consequences as a result of popular perceived reality enforcement.  I think that Lewis's writing has a little more to tell us about the ethical and moral nature of reality enforcement when it is used to oppress people whom we have an obligation to trust rather than mistrust. 

The Implications (for Lewis) of Mistrusting Transgender People

Lewis cared about the core of who a person is—the real person—, believed that that core is almost always hidden. In fact becoming who you really are is very much a theme in much of Lewis writings. It is seen best in the transformations he has various characters undergo when they enter (usually through bodily death) into the place where "all the sad things come untrue" and "for which they found they had been longing their whole lives without knowing it"; the place "for which they were really made". In fact Lewis suggests that one important outcome of the Christian life was to become fully what a person, in one sense, already was. He puts this most succinctly in The Screwtape Letters when he has the senior demon Screwtape admit:
When He [God] talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever
Another example would be the man tempted/tormented by lust in The Great Divorce. Lewis describes the man (and his lust) both passing through a process of spiritual death only to be resurrected as beings which are described in near demi-god like terms:
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed on the turf. 
'Ow! That's done for me,' gasped the Ghost reeling backwards. 
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still, and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. It's hinder parts grew rounder, the tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippling with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled. 
The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse's neck. In nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other's nostrils. The man turned form it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness...which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse's back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening.
Thus the transgender person who abandoned identification with the sex they were assigned at birth in favor of their real gender identity would have been moving in the direction of sanctification. The transgender woman who insists "I am a woman" evidences a spiritual breakthrough and spiritual health. It is vital that we not forget that the temptations of security and acceptance all push the transgender person to accept (or at least acquiesce to) the denier's declaimed reality; nobody familiar with their situation ever accused a transgender individual of cowardice for identifying as transgender. Just as important, Lewis would have understood the person who works to prevent someone recognizing and affirming their own real selves (in this case a transgender person living into their gender identity) to be doing the work of the devils—preventing another's spiritual and holistic growth. Bettcher's reality enforcement enacted against transgender people is something Lewis's thinking would decry not only as sinful but as a particularly virulent form of sin; one which he found important enough to devote an entire novel to exploring it.

Reality Enforcement as the Sin of False-Love

Bareface (a reference to being one's true self, denying any mask or veil) was the working title of Till We Have Faces the novel C.S. Lewis considered his best(12). The book is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche told from the perspective of one of Psyche's two older sisters. In the original myth, the beautiful Psyche is sacrificed to the gods but ends up being rescued by the West Wind and carried away to a mansion where she is then married to the god Cupid. The one condition that is placed on her is that she is not permitted to look at her husband (whose identity she does not know). He leaves before she wakes each morning, only returns in the dark of night. Psyche is immensely happy with this arrangement until she is visited by her two sisters who convince her to violate the one rule by waiting until her husband falls asleep and bringing out a candle to look at him. Psyche follows her sisters instructions and is initially delighted to discover that her husband is the beautiful god of love. But in her excitement she spills some hot wax on him waking him up. Immediately he flees and leaves Pscyhe alone in a field. Psyche then undergoes a series of trials and suffering in order to eventually be reunited with her love.

Cupid and Psyche

Lewis' retelling of the myth centers on Orual, the older of Psyche's two sisters. In Till We Have Faces Orual is ugly and lonely as a child. She finds comfort in her tutor (a man she calls "the Fox") and in her little sister Psyche (who calls Orual "Maia") as well as a few other characters whom she loves and who love her in return. At the point in the story where Orual finds Psyche (whom she had thought dead—sacrificed to the God of the Mountain). Lewis introduces a poignant example of reality enforcement. Psyche experiences herself to be living in a palace, but Orual sees only an empty field. In the following, you will want to note Lewis' return to the formula of the trilemma we have already encountered in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Mere Christianity:
For some strange reason, fury—my father's own fury—fell upon me when she said that. I found myself screaming (I am sure I had not meant to scream), "Stop it! Stop it at once! There's nothing there!"
Her face flushed. For once, and for the moment only, she [Psyche] too was angry. "Well, feel it, feel it, if you can't see," she cried. "Touch it. slap it. Beat your head against it. Here—" she made to grab my hands. I wrenched them free.
Stop it, Stop it I tell you! There's no such thing. You're pretending. You're trying to make yourself believe it." But I was lying. How did I know whether she really saw invisible things or spoke in madness? Either way, something hateful and strange had begun. As if I could thrust it back by brute force, I fell upon Psyche. Before I knew what I was doing I had her by the shoulders and was shaking her.
the scene continues with Orual trying to dissuade Psyche and eventually comes to a head when they begin to discuss Psyche's husband
"Oh I can't bear it," said I, leaping up. Those last words of hers, spoken softly and with trembling, set me on fire. I could feel my rage coming back. Then (like a great light, a hope of deliverance, it came to me) I asked myself why I'd forgotten that first notion of being mad. Madness; of course. The whole thing must be madness. I had been nearly as mad as she to think otherwise. At the very name madness the air of that valley seemed more breathable, seemed emptied of a little of its holiness and horror.
"Have done with it, Psyche," I said sharply. "Where is this god? Where the palace is? Nowhere—in your fancy. Where is he? Show him to me? What is he like?
She looked a little aside and spoke, lower than ever but very clear and as if all that had yet passed between us were of no account beside the gravity of what she was now saying. "Oh, Orual," she said, "not even I have seen him—yet. He comes to me only in the holy darkness. He says I mustn't—not yet—see his face or know his name. I'm forbidden to bring any light into his—our—chamber."
Then she looked up, and as our eyes met for a moment I saw in hers unspeakable joy.
"There's no such thing," I said, loud and stern. "Never say such things again. Get up. It's time—"
"Orual," said she, now at her queenliest, "I have never told you a lie in my life"
In the end Orual resorts to threatening Psyche's life and her own suicide in order to compel Psyche to accede to her (Orual's) understanding of reality(13). The result in Lewis' version as in the original, is that Psyche loses everything she had been given and is set a series of impossible seeming tasks in order to get back what she lost. Orual, ultimately separated from Psyche and, eventually everyone whom she loves and who loves her in return, lives out most of her life as the ruling queen of her country. She writes out the account we read in the novel as her complaint against the gods and her primary charge against them is that, by not allowing her to experience reality as Psyche had—that is by keeping the palace invisible to her eyes—the gods are responsible for Psyche's tragedy as well as her own. The novel ends at the end of Orual's life when she is granted a sort of mystical vision or spirit journey to the mountain of the gods where she is given the opportunity to "bring her complaint against" them. But when she begins to speak she finds that the words she speaks against the gods are not what she had originally intended—the story we have read thus far—but a different speech which she acknowledges to be truer than what she had intended. As part of that accusation-which-is-really-confession, Lewis has Orual declaim the following:
But to steal her love from me, to make her see things I couldn't see... oh, you'll say (you've been whispering it to me these forty years) that I'd signs enough her palace was real, could have known the truth if I'd wanted. But how could I want to know it? Tell me that. The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You'll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine. If you'd gone the other way to work—it it was my eyes you had opened—you'd soon have seen how I would have shown her and told her and taught her and led her up to my level. But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I'd not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess... how could anyone endure it? ... Oh, you'll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad for her sake. Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn't given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way?
Notice that the bitterness of Orual is directed, among other things, at the fact that her vision of reality was not the one which would ultimately allow Psyche's happiness (and before this point can be brushed away remember that Lewis understood happiness in Aristotelian terms as ultimate fulfillment of a self—eudaimonia). How closely that parallels and makes sense of the anger and fear we find in the transphobia which is daily hurled against transgender people. The sin here is great and terrible specifically because it is the sin of a twisted love. It is the love which refuses to love another on any but its own terms. Because the denier cannot (or will not) make the move to empathy for the transgender person, cannot (or will not) recognize the validity of the trans person's account of reality; they must make every effort to destroy that which they cannot give and will not share.

The final title comes from a passage near the end of the book where Orual asks "How can [the Gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?". Orual is redeemed in the end only after she sees herself for what she has really been, both truly loving and beautiful and truly ugly and hateful. Lewis ends his last novel reminding us that health, happiness, flourishing are only possible when we know our true selves.

“Yes,” my friend said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” 
“Which?” I asked. 
“The ones you gave away or lent.” 
I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. 
“Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”
- From the essay Scraps in the collection God in the Dock


(1) I suspect, but am not sure, that Dr. Bettcher holds reality to be finally unknowable. Thus she occupies herself in Trapped in the Wrong Theory with an exploration of the power dynamics which are created and exploited against transgender people who operate out of two specif models of trans identity.
(2) Cisgender means only "a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth" or more simply "a person who is not transgender".
(3) It really is vital to keep in mind that this was written in 1944. One hopes to avoid anachronistic criticism of an enunciation of gender theory years ahead of its time.
(4) It is possible that Lewis is one of the first modern authors to have publicly made this distinction. Whereas Perelandra was published in 1944, the research I have encountered to date locates the earliest examples of this distinction in either the 1950's or the 1970's. Here are a few links to that effect but more research needs to be done on this topic. Muehlenhard and Peterson in Sex Roles 2011, Debbie Cameron on the Philology of Gender 2016, Joanne Meyerowitz How Sex Changed Chapter 3
(5) an exception to this rule (that spirits do not change) might have involved the process of sanctification or glorification (though to my knowledge Lewis used neither of these terms). However, Lewis closely followed Boethius in his understanding of time and the mutability of soul so it is entirely possible that he would have denied even this exception.
(6) and, I suspect, Lewis would have included intersex bodies as well.
(7) Julia Serano's coined the term subconscious sex for her first book Whipping Girl. The concept is at the core of her proposed Intrinsic Inclinations model.
(8) with the exception that Lewis would have claimed that the gender of individuals is objectively known by God and possibly by any other being which is able to perceive simple spirit.
(9) The current brain-sex hypothesis, if it turns out to be valid, would suggest that sufficiently high powered and accurate brain-state and brain-structure analysis and observation might eventually give us a method to empirically verify gender identity claims.
(10) the fact that, in the story, Edmund knows that he is lying is ultimately irrelevant to this analysis. Peter or Susan could just as well be stand-ins for the denier, while Edmund works quite well as a example of the (exceptionally rare) "detransitioned trans-denier".
(11) Check out this piece at Debunking Denialism for a thorough run-down on the difference between gender dysphoria and delusion.
(12) Lewis is said to have worked with his wife Joy Davidman Lewis on this book to the extent that some of his friends at the time have suggested that she was almost a co-author of the novel.
(13) Threats transgender people are all too familiar with.

Transgender Resource Recommendations:

  1. Julia Serano: Books and Blog
  2. Austen Hartke Book and Youtube channel
  3. Talia Mae Bettcher: Learningtrans resources and class  
  4. Susan Stryker Transgender History