Why culture’s reaction to the “Transgender Memo” demonstrates deep confusion

October 23, 2018

The New York Times recently published an article under the loaded headline “Transgender could be defined out of existence under Trump Administration.” Intentional or not, The New York Times is engaging in deeply contested debate just from the headline alone. The idea of “existence” must first address whether individuals who desire to live at odds with their biological sex can ever truly be a member of the opposite sex—and they cannot, which I’ll explore further below.

The article goes on to explain how a memo is being drafted within the Trump administration that would define one’s gender for the purposes of federal law on biological and immutable realities, such as genitalia and genetics. This may sound controversial, but it is not. The only stable way to determine what defines male and female are primary and secondary sex characteristics.

The New York Times article itself is rife with ambiguities, but even more revealing, the reaction to the memo by transgender activists demonstrates how confused our society is on what it means to be human and how far ingrained the transgender worldview has become in our thinking.

Speaking to the article itself, the journalists demonstrate little awareness of the moral debate surrounding how sex or gender is determined, or for that matter, even defined. It ignores the philosophical element to this debate, leaving aside deep questions on whether the preoccupation with “gender identity” is even internally consistent. The article uses “sex”and “gender” as synonyms—which they are not. “Sex” speaks to biological realities; “gender” to the cultural expression of how sex manifests itself. The sexual binary expresses itself in gendered norms that culture adopts to witness to this binary.

The article also frames the discussion as a wholly new and revolutionary approach to personhood and federal law. The article acknowledges that the Obama administration “loosened the legal concept of gender in federal programs,” but it fails to acknowledge that the Obama administration did this by contravening written law from the 1972 Education Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They did this by redefining what constitutes “sex discrimination” and allowing one’s “gender identity” to fit within that newly re-interpreted category, thanks to several court opinions (which, contrary to popular opinion, are not settled or binding precedent).

This means, fundamentally, that the administrative coup undertaken by the Obama administration in 2016 is being returned to how it was originally intended. Or, restated: The Trump administration is desiring a classification for male and female on the standard definition that all of human history has, up until recently, acknowledged. This is not revolutionary. To muster outrage at circumstances that simply return us to pre-2016 legal definitions is shortsighted.

As I write about in my book, God and the Transgender Debate, the issue lurking beneath the surface of debates around gender and sexuality is whether we as human beings have the ability to redefine what it means to be human. Are we self-sovereigns capable of razing our bodies to the ground for the sake of self-supremacy? Are we the Creator. Or, are we creations? Are there limits imposed on us by the genetic mapping overseen by a wise God?

Society may try to ignore, downplay, or subvert the male-female binary, but it will never overturn it. That’s because our createdness as male and female is stamped onto human nature (Gen. 1:26-27). We may try, but individuals will never be able to transcend the limits of their embodiment. This is a biblical truth insofar as there is chapter and verse to back up this claim. It’s also a truth of creation itself, born witness in the enduring binary that cultures have embraced and lived in accordance with.

To the deeper worldview and cultural aspects of this news story: In the outrage over “defining people out of existence,” I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument from transgender activists that would convince me that someone’s self-declaration about their gender actually witnesses to something ontologically true. The transgender worldview is irrational. It makes no sense to say that one’s gender identity is fixed, but that gender is also on a spectrum. There is no way to authenticate someone’s “feminine” or “masculine” feelings are truly masculine or feminine apart from their embodiment. Of course, as Christians, we understand this world is broken by sin, and disorder ensues from living in a world that Romans 8 declares is “groaning.” This means we have more compassion, empathy, and hope than what society can offer those struggling with their internal sense of gender. But compassion and empathy do not equate to affirmation of transgender identities.

The Trump administration is not defining people “out of existence.” Rather, it is taking the correct step to define sex based on created reality, not simply self-perception. This matters because law is a teacher. Its pedagogy communicates norms and expectations for how society ought to govern itself, therefore providing stability and order to the community underneath its authority. Society and government should not play fast and loose with its most basic constituency—people. Humanity is not elastic. We are male or female, and no specious “spectrum” argument or endless obsession with “identity” nullifies this truth. Law ought to reflect the truth about human nature and not capitulate to the demands of what ethicist Oliver O’Donovan calls “psychological positivists”—those who would create reality based on psychological perception alone.

No social, hormonal, cosmetic, or surgical augmentation can countermand the male-female binary. As the Psalmist declares in Psalm 100:3, “It is he who made us, and we are his.” This truth means that no activist or surgeon can suppress human nature, that we cannot run from ourselves without, eventually, human nature striking back.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24