It begins with a shaky home video clip. A beautiful little girl with long, soft locks of golden hair plays with her baby sister in a bathtub. I can’t help but chuckle at her glowing smile, her laughter, and her childish clumsiness. Her sweet, rosy face has all the power of innocence to inspire wonder and awe in the most casual passerby.
Her name is Ryland Whittington, she is six years old, and her parents, under the direction of “professional help” in their home state of California, have identified her as a “transgender boy.” Why? Because she said she wanted to be a boy. When she was five.
Months after that sweet, peaceful scene was filmed, the child’s parents added a new clip to their video montage: Their “son’s” appearance at The Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast, where they trotted Ryland out to address an audience of LGBTQ activists. Appearing in suit, tie, and crew cut, and with her parents crouching over her and holding a note card to her face, Ryland reads in a child’s obedient monotone: “My name is Wyland Michael Whittington, and I am a twansgendew kid.” She then reads that she is grateful to the late Harvey Milk for making the world a better place. “I am happiew than evew,” she haltingly concludes.
If you watch the video, you should not expect to remain dry-eyed. As Christians, it’s hard to encounter such unthinkable abuses without reacting unthinkingly. Filled with sorrow and rage, we’re tempted to hate those we should love, and to pray for destruction rather than work for improvement. There is no mistaking it: The culture wars are real, and Christians seem to be on the losing side.
We ought to resist the temptation to retreat into our churches as if they were nothing but buildings that house “our” culture and stop “their” culture at the door. But Christianity isn’t just a “team,” and we can’t simply root for whatever has the Christian logo on it. And even if we “won,” the Church does not exist to win members to itself or to create a society where everyone can be agreeable and live in everlasting peace on earth.
We must not grant the fundamental premise of anti-Christian secularism: the conflation of culture and faith, of custom and truth. To really engage in culture wars, we must remember that our faith is not a culture at all, and that Christians aren’t fit to guide the culture around them unless their loyalty lies with God, and not primarily with their subculture or its leaders. Christianity is more than a culture. At its best, in fact, it serves precisely as the unwavering servant of truth and right morality despite the fallen fickleness of culture.
In the culture wars of the past half-century, pitting the Church against secularism as “good culture” against “bad culture” has done no good at all. It was this mindset that led countless Catholics to defend the bishops who exposed thousands of victims to abuse by moving predator counselors and priests from parish to parish without reporting them. These Catholics identified with the “cultural” leaders of their segment of society rather than standing up for the eternal right morality that bolsters the rights of victims of abuse.
Culture is fallen, sensitive to scandal, adjustable, and determined above all to survive, even if it means ignoring abuses and victims along the way. Christianity, like its namesake, is innocent, conquering, exposes scandals, and is willing to die for the least among us.
Christopher Lasch weighs in when he comments on the works of Philip Rieff in his insightful book, The Revolt of the Elites:
Faced with the story of little Ryland, we can do more than lament that she has fallen into the wrong hands, and that her abuse could have been avoided if only we could return to the days when folks were Christian. We ought to do more than point at her “team” as less functional than our own.
It shouldn’t surprise us to know that Ryland’s presentation at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast was preceded by a benediction from the Reverend Dan Koeshall. As ugly as these proceedings may seem to us, we should take them as a cautionary tale, not just an occasion to celebrate our superiority. After all, while the Reverend Koeshall may defend the abuse of Ryland, I know many “traditional” Catholics who justify the just-as-horrible abuses of guilty priests and bishops who were never brought to justice.
Pray for our Church and for Ryland Whittington. Her story is a sad reminder of precisely what happens among Christians when they fall asleep at their posts.
Stephen Herreid is a Fellow at the John Jay Institute and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits.