Trans rights are human rights. The military kills humans. Let’s not call this progress.

Dear Joel,

Donald Trump tweets that he’s going to ban trans people from the military.

What’s a progressive Mennonite supposed to think?

Trump’s justification–that trans-specific health care is too expensive–is a lie. We can afford to provide health care for all our soldiers. We do a terrible job of it now, but the reason is a matter of will, not money.

The claim that the military budget is too high is also a lie. I mean, it’s true, but Republicans don’t care. Fighting wars costs money, but that never stopped them.

And to the claim that the US military is focused on “decisive and overwhelming victory”…  well, then we would choose to use military power to fight winnable battles instead of throwing soldiers at every problem we see.

It’s clear that Trump’s issue isn’t with military readiness or cost. This hot air isn’t even about Trump’s disdain for trans people. It’s about rallying his bigoted base, as usual. And, as always, decent people must oppose hatred and bigotry.

Which is what makes the threatened ban on trans people so challenging to engage–because the military, in its purpose and its actions–is absolutely about violence to people who are weaker. It’s about emnification, which is the start of the process of hate. And, in practice, the US military kills brown skinned people. It’s violence is not evenly inflicted on the Bad Guys of the world; it’s violence disproportionately harms the most vulnerable.

Should we oppose Trump’s threat because everyone should be free to choose whether they join the military? Fundamentally, I don’t think anyone should be free to choose mass death and destruction for others. I don’t think we have the right to engage in war. I don’t think anyone has the right to bomb another person.

I’ll keep fighting for trans rights and against any effort–including this one–that demeans queer people (because that, not military readiness, is the goal for Trump). But let’s not call it a progressive cause, please.


PS. Readers, if you haven’t seen Joel’s fantastic contribution on this issue to The Week, check it out!


Hope from the Inside

Dear Joel,

When I told our children we were moving from Kansas—literally, the Free State—to Arkansas, a state that spitefully celebrated Martin Luther King Day and Robert E. Lee Day on the same day for years and years, my oldest asked the question I’d already been thinking: Why would we move to a former Confederate State?

As a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I’d grown up reliving the Civil War as much as the students I would come to teach in Arkansas had. For me, though, the stories were of radical bravery in the fight to root out the gravest of sins: the Christiana riots, which predated the Civil War; the white Quakers who moved people escaping slavery north to Canada; the Republicanism of Thaddeus Stevens. And always, the importance of the Mason-Dixon line, which continued to separate the good people of the North from those who inhumanely enslaved others. Of course, I knew that the stories were more complicated, that racism and hate exist in the North (including my beloved rural Lancaster County) just as cruelly as it does in the South (and more, in some cases) and true in the Free State. It is the home of both John Brown the liberator and John Brown the mass murderer, the site of the Exoduster town Nicodemus and a place that treated Langston Hughes terribly, a place where Brown v. the Board was won because, after all, segregation was legal there.

Above left, a historical plaque marking the battle of Jonesboro, an 1862 skirmish that left killed 8 Union soldiers and one fool willing to die to defend slavery. Above right, a historical marker honoring the Christiana Resistance. Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch traveled with a posse to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to retrieve men who had escaped slavery on his farm. Gorsuch met armed resistance from William Parker, a free black man, and others, black and white, who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery. Gorsuch was killed, and nearly 40 people, black and white, including several Quakers, were arrested and charged with treason. Most charges were dismissed.

But still, I had to answer the question. I stressed that the Civil War was over, even though I know it’s just taken new forms. The best part, I told my sweet, white son, is that he’d likely have a sizeable number of African American classmates, which hadn’t been the case in his Kansas public schools, though he had had many friends who were native American (especially when we lived in the Haskell neighborhood in Lawrence) and Mexican and central American.

He looked appalled. “Why,” he asked, “would a black person ever live in the South?” It made even less sense than the descendants of Union soldiers moving there.


Above, though progressive in other ways, Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough responded to the massacre of black Arkansans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919 by rallying whites. 

Below, Exodusters in Nicodemus, Kansas in 1855. 


There are good reasons, of course, beyond the difficulty in picking up your life and moving it to a new region. Racism is everywhere, and perhaps it is easier to navigate in Arkansas or Louisiana or Georgia, which bring the benefits of being in a place with a long history of African Americans. We read up on how so many of our civil rights heroes were Southern and learned about the beauty of the myriad cultures of the African American South.

But still, the question: Why stay in a place built (literally, the infrastructure, the agriculture, the commerce) on your oppression?

I’ve been thinking about the question again with Lawrence Ware’s announcement in the New York Times that he is quitting the Southern Baptist Convention.  The SBC was founded as a defense against abolitionist Christianity; it’s origin is as a theological justification for keeping the captives captive.

Ware is a professor of philosophy and co-director of Africana studies at Oklahoma State, plus a pastor ordained in both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, founded by King. He renounced his SBC membership after those gathered at the recent national conference in Phoenix refused to take seriously the call the reject the racism of the alt-right, racism that the Trump campaign has deliberately fostered. Ware writes:

I want to be a member of a body of believers that is structured around my Christian beliefs of equity, not one that sees those issues as peripheral. The equality of all people should be a fundamental principle that is a starting point of the convention’s existence, not a side issue to be debated.

Ware’s departure brought criticism from those with little sympathy for someone who had spent his life as part of an anti-LGBTQ+, anti-woman organization and only left once he realized it was just too damned racist to be a part of anymore.

I understand that response. It informed by Fannie Lou Hamer’s stirring call: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” It’s the point behind intersectional activism, which requires us to think about the ways that different parts of our identities intersect and how those intersecting identities make us different from each other—even as they require us to collaborate in the movement for justice. Those who seek only their own safety will always lose it.

But I’ve also witnessed the destructiveness of call-out culture and efforts to overcome oppression that have been as much about purity, not hospitality, as are the worst churches. We too seldom have patience for each other’s growth, and we use other people’s weaknesses as an opportunity to show our own strength rather than our grace. Ware knew that the SBC was homophobic as well as racist, and he mentions his long-term grief about the organization’s failure to confront those prejudices in his letter; surely, he also knows of the group’s sexism, including its removal of women from the pulpit. He stayed because he felt that pressure from within was more powerful than pressure from without; he was hopeful.

We shouldn’t mock that, even if we don’t understand it. And we shouldn’t deride those whose process of recognizing the connections between oppressions is unlike ours.


BSA Needs to Apologize

Hi Joel,

The sleeping bag hasn’t yet aired out from my oldest child’s stay at Boy Scout camp last week, and today I dropped my daughter off at Girl Scout camp. Despite some ambivalence about Boy Scouts in particular, our family has benefitted from Scouting in ways I’m very grateful for.

So I say with a lot of love for this organization: saying that you are “wholly non-partisan” after Donald Trump’s crass, inappropriate speech to boys gathered for the National Jamboree is not enough. In fact, it adds insult to injury.


Above, a Boy Scout uniform amid the rubble after an EF3 tornado tore through the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Sioux, Iowa, in 2008. Emergency responders had to use chainsaws to cut their way to the camp as the twister left a path of destruction 14 miles long. Four boys died, and more were injured, but the boys worked hard to put their knowledge of first aid to good use. Donald Trump knows nothing of heroism, sacrifice, valor, or bravery–in fact, he detests those things. He doesn’t deserve to speak before BSA, as his speech proved. 

It’s a lovely tradition that the sitting president of the US is the honorary president of BSA. Anyone who has the character to serve as POTUS should surely be able to handle the duties of honorary BSA president. But, as so many of us yell daily, these are not normal times. The current president could not handle the duties of being a Denny’s hostess or a customer service rep at any of the major telecom companies. He should never be given access to children or families.

And so, that tradition should have been suspended at the election of Donald Trump. The Boy Scouts cannot be responsible for what this vile person said–words that violated the stated values of Boy Scouts of America throughout.

But BSA is responsible for bringing this moral failure to speak before their members. Boy Scouts of America should have seen this coming a mile away. The main problem with Trump’s speech wasn’t that it was “too political” but that it was disrespectful, unkind, and self-centered–as so many of his speeches are.

At some point, we have to hold those who hand this man a microphone accountable. That includes BSA.



If you want to share your concerns about BSA’s failure to vet speakers, you can do so by writing to Here is my letter, in case it is helpful:

Dear Boy Scouts of America,

The tradition of the current president of the United States serving as as honorary president of BSA is a noble one, but it should have been suspended with the election of Donald Trump. However you feel about his politics (and BSA’s effort to remain non-partisan is noble), he lacks character. He made it clear through the election process that he despises weaker people, speaks ill of those who cannot defend themselves, and and violates every single one of a Boy Scout’s values. He’s a promoter of pornography, gambling, sexual infidelity, and sexual violence against women.  While I wish that the current president did follow the Boy Scout law (Certainly America would be a better place if every leader lived out these values!), the current president’s words, actions, and history mock the best of Scouting. You knew that and you endangered the boys entrusted to your care at the National Jamboree.  You were foolish to trust him near children. As a parent of a Scout, I’m not just angry or disappointed–I’m discouraged at your lack of judgment. I didn’t watch that speech and think ill of the children who likely don’t know this man’s history of crass comments, but I was motivated to re-evaluate BSA’s ability to identify role models for boys.

Instead of offering a mealy-mouthed non-apology, change your policy to nominate an honorary president from among the many political leaders we have who do encompass the values of a Boy Scout.  And apologize. (Start with, “We displayed a lack of judgment in inviting a guest to speak who does not understand or embody Scout values.” This is true, and it is not an attack on Trump, as he is quite proud about his lack of values.)  It will cost you the support of Trump voters, but your integrity is worth it.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Parent of X,

Scout Troop XXX

City, State

Call for Mennonite writers!

The Mennonite has an open call for contributors writing about their experiences with Scripture. The call says:

The Mennonite, Inc. welcomes your original submissions and contributions for our October 2017 print magazine issue and corresponding online content focusing on Scripture: Texts that move and shape you.

Submissions are due no later than August 1, 2017.  

We welcome written reflections—personal stories, biblical or theological reflections, poetry and more (800-1200 words), as well as original photographymultimedia products (including, but not limited to, original song or music recordings, music playlists, videos and vlogs) and artwork on the theme.

Submissions could consider these or other questions related to the theme:

  • What is one Scripture passage that was a “theme text” or that has been particularly important to you throughout your life? Can you tell a story of how you discovered this text and what it has meant for you and your community?
  • Can you tell a story of a time when Scripture transformed your understanding? Or when Scripture challenged you? Encouraged you?  Sustained you?
  • From the 16th century on, Anabaptists have emphasized reading and interpreting Scripture in community. How has your understanding of Scripture been shaped by the communities where you have encountered it? What are some of the places, spaces or communities (congregations, friends, neighbors, strangers, family, enemies, Bible study group, etc.) that have shaped your understandings of Scripture?
  • What Scripture passages have you wrestled with or found confusing? Can you tell a story of how you approach and engage these passages?
  • How have your understandings of Scripture evolved or changed over time?
  • Are there regular practices that you engage as you read Scripture?
  • How has Scripture moved beyond simply reading the text into your life and the life of your community?
  • How has Scripture shaped your identity and sense of place in the world?


I hope some of our readers take up this challenge–I’d love to hear what folks have to say!

You can find details here.


Feeling a little lost in discussions about the Bible in America? Help is on the way!


Let me tell you a secret: I’ve got a chapter in a forthcoming Oxford book. [Above, two women, one in a red sweater and one wearing a blue top, face the camera as they drink from coffee mugs. The woman in the red sweater has leaned in close to her friend to share a secret.]

Dear reader:

[Imagine us circled around a table upon which rests two cups of coffee. Soft but serious music plays in the background, like we’re in a commercial for a new pharmaceutical drug.]

You: It’s so hard to keep up with the news these days.

Me: Yes. Things are happening so fast!

You: Like, in Arkansas, state senator Jason Rapert got a new monument to the 10 Commandments installed on the grounds of the capitol–

Me: And then some guy drove his car through it! [Shaking my head.]

You: And what’s with the Kentucky governor supporting a new effort to teach the Bible in public schools?

Me: Matt Bevins? Yeah, he said the the curriculum won’t violate the Constitution but will just present the Bible in historical and literary context. Then out of the other side of his mouth, he said that “even atheists” should be able to get something out of the Bible because its got “a lot of wisdom” in it, which lets us know that he has a religious audience in mind. I’d be cautious if I lived in Kentucky,

You [putting your coffee cup down with frustration]: I wish there was some resource I could turn to for help understanding these debates–where they come from, why they are important, and why we can’t seem to settle them.

Me [reassuringly patting your hand while wiping up the splatters of coffee on the table with a napkin]: It’s okay, friend! We’ll find you the help you need. In fact, I’d like to share a special book with you that might just do the trick! [Reaches into bag and pulls out The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, edited by Paul Gutjahr.]

With 42 chapters examining how the Christian Bible has been produced, interpreted, and used; its role in American art, history, and culture; and how specific traditions, including Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and Mormonism, have approached it, The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America* offers readers insight by top scholars of religion in the United States. You’ll learn about how the Bible appears in the law, education, and politics as well as pop culture and sports.

Authors include evangelical scholar Mark Noll, Paul Harvey, the author, most recently, of Christianity and Race in the American South: A HistoryRandall J. Smithwho, among author books, wrote The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South, James S. Bielo, who is about to release his yet another fantastic book, this one called Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park, and Sue and Bill Trollinger, whose work on the Creation Museum is fantastic.

You: Thank you! Where can I learn more?

Me: You can pre-order your copy at, or tell your local librarian that you think the library should add the book to its holdings. The current projected date is late fall 2017, which will be here before you know it!

You: But will it be soon enough to help me slog through the most current religion news?

Me [with a wink]: Well, friend, that’s why you have me and Joel Mathis at SixOh6!

*Side affects of reading The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America may vary. Talk to your spiritual advisor or a religious studies professor–or just post your questions here–if you have any concerns.

How to Go High?

Dear Joel,

Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.

I’d never heard the term before (maybe you, a native Kansan, have), but apparently the term is used in the central states for these bugs, which appear around the time of the national political conventions.  (This may be the only time I get to use my limited knowledge of etymology and entomology in the same sentence!) But the glee with which my host smashed that bug, then swore at it, let me know that she very much enjoyed thinking about members of the opposing political party as detestable, destructive objects that she could kill.

Image result for boxelder bugs

Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?

I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.

And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.

I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)

Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.

Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?

I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.


Boys Scouts: A Lesson in Plurality?

Dear Joel,

Our family went out on a limb this year.

We let our oldest, who will be 13 soon, join a Boy Scout troop.

[Gasps among our progressive friends.]

It’s a Mormon Boy Scout troop.

[Even gaspier gasps!]

We’ve long been cautious about Boy Scouts, even choosing not to donate to the United Way because that organization dispersed funds to the Boy Scouts during years when Boy Scouts across the board wouldn’t permit gay boys or leaders from joining.

All the reasons we were cautious about Boy Scouts–the organization’s foundation as a response to white anxiety about white masculinity in a globalized world, the nationalism, the militarism, the redface rituals (And, yes, we went to the peer-reviewed literature for help here.)–were major reasons for our resistance. But, after a lot of thought and finding, through our research, that local leadership was really influential in the running of a troop, we found a troop that was a good fit for our son. The troop leader, a neighbor of ours, focused on outdoor survival skills, not selling popcorn. A scary experience he had as a young man of getting lost one winter night in the mountains of Utah convinced him of the need for young people to respect nature, and he was a gentle leader who pushed kids to exceed their own expectations about themselves while being smart about Utah’s wilderness.

We also found that the local troop was enthusiastic about allowing our son to participate in ways that he could adapt to our faith. He could participate without having to perform flag ceremonies, and we’d be skipping any rituals that troubled us. We got ample warning about whether any guest speaker might violate our religious values–even the police officer who came to the group to talk about online safety. Our son was encouraged to talk to about his faith freely and to be able to articulate ways in which our commitment to peacemaking shapes his experience in Scouts. While other faiths have badges for Boy Scouts–so a Mormon kid can earn his Duty to God badge for studying his faith, as can a Jewish child or a Muslim child or a child from all kinds of other faiths– Mennonites have been suspicious about the program and have no affiliation, which was a good opportunity for our son to forge his own path.

Though our son wasn’t the only non-LDS member of his troop (He was one of two), because the local stake sponsored the group and because stakes are neighborhood-based, he got to know boys in the neighborhood (and thus the LDS church) quickly and well. We’ve been so grateful for the opportunities scouting has provided: friendship, a religiously pluralistic setting where he can practice his faith among other people who respect religion, and some pretty serious camping and outdoor experience.


Above, a vintage photo of a Boy Scout looking off into the distance, his right hand over his eye brows as if to shield him from the sun’s glare.  

And now the LDS church has decided to end its relationship to Boy Scouts at the higher levels. While the LDS church has previously expressed concern about Boy Scouts’ acceptance of queer participants, the official reason is that the Scouting program for older boys isn’t meeting the needs of older boys. Instead, the LDS church will organize some kind of outdoor camping program on its own.

Given my initial reluctance and skepticism (and my continued ambivalence about some aspects of Scouting), I feel a surprising sadness about this. While our son could likely still participate, the new program is clearly going to be more LDS-oriented than even an LDS-sponsored Boy Scout troop is. It’s one more way that the new kid in town–one already not going to the LDS church–is cut out of relationships. I know that’s not the purpose of the decision, but it’s the result. And what is perhaps sadder for our family is that this particular way of getting to know our LDS neighbors has been so rewarding.

Part of me is saying, “Well, what did you think was going to happen? You got into the boat with religious conservatives! Of course it was going to sail this direction!” And part of me is feels like a hypocrite for being sad at the loss since these troops were never going to affirm queer kids–a deadly problem in Mormon communities–and we weren’t, even with our patient approach, going to persuade them otherwise, and so maybe I just shouldn’t have gotten involved at all. But I’m also grateful for the sadness, because it reminds me of how difficult these decisions should be.

Thanks for listening,