- 16 Jul 19
US evangelical preachers are not generally known for defending polygamy, befriending pornstars, or describing gender reassignment as a spiritual journey – which is why Brandan Robertson’s speech in Dublin may have shattered some stereotypes.
A new room in an old convent on Baggot Street. Evangelical preacher Brandan Robertson is speaking. The audience, on average, seem old enough to collect a pension. He tells them about intersectionality, cisgender privilege and the fight against the patriarchy.
The crowd, Catholic to a man and woman, nod in agreement with him.
Robertson looks like he could play the fresh-faced lead in a biopic about Ryan Tubridy’s early life. He speaks in an emphatic, American voice. His tone is hopeful. On occasion, he emotes. He’s not quite the manic television evangelist, but he’s too energetic to play the parish priest. Brandan Robertson is a reverend at a progressive San Diego church. From his base there, he regularly courts controversy by espousing the view that Christians should be open to different sexualities and genders.
Recently, he has earned the ire of conservatives by suggesting that polyamory (when three or more people are in a sexual relationship) is regularly mentioned in the bible without being condemned – so maybe religious leaders should be a little bit more accepting of practising parishioners?
During questions at his speech in Dublin, the audience ask for advice on how to build bridges with the LGBT community; about church reform; and about whether coming to terms with being gay makes a person more spiritual. One woman speculates that many of the priests she knew when she was growing up, and before she knew that such things existed, were closet homosexuals.
The group that invited Brandan Robertson to Dublin, We Are Church, are reformist Catholics. They have hosted talks by Repeal the 8th activists and clerical sex abuse survivors. They advocate for the ordination of women priests and the abolition of clerical celibacy. In some ways, Robertson, the radical, was preaching to the converted. He says that, after the speech, a nun warned him: “The church typically reforms by amnesia.”
“The church is causing LGBT people great harm,” Robertson reflects. “Unless we own that, name that and change our ways, the LGBT community has no reason to trust the church. Public apologies are needed, but both the Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals find it very easy to stand up and say ‘We’re sorry for being harsh’. That’s not enough. Repentance means actually changing. When that happens, the church might gain a shred of credibility back in modern culture.”
Other Christian commentators regularly denounce Robertson as a false teacher or a heretic. He doesn’t mind, seeing in their constant criticism a reactionary fear.
“I’m in a long tradition of people who follow Jesus, and Jesus did not play within the lines of the institution,” he states. “Religious leaders were constantly critiquing him. Those that are rabble-rousers, that are on the margins, that are willing to question and call-out authority – those are the truly Christ-like people. And those who are concerned about maintaining power and institutions? The biblical narrative doesn’t speak very well of those people.”
His journey away from his conservative Baptist background began when he was about 12-years-old. Already thinking of becoming a clergyman, he found himself sexually attracted to another boy in his church. He prayed to God to make him straight. Robertson hid his feelings until bible college, where he undertook a form of conversion therapy that included weekly meetings with an “ex-lesbian”, who said that gay men had a mental disorder caused by over-attached mothers and abusive fathers.
While Robertson is strongly against all forms of conversion therapy, he says that what he went through was mild. After a year of prayer, confession and talking through his childhood traumas, Robertson felt more healed and whole than he ever had before. In that wholeness, he says, he knew that his sexuality wasn’t something that could be changed.
His experience led him to a theology that would take into account the broadness and variety of sexual relationships, orientations and gender identities, including those of asexuals and transexuals. Robertson observes that some people say they are blessed to be transgender because they can experience the world in a unique way. Not everyone feels the same.
“For those who experience transgender identity as gender dysphoria, as suffering, as pain, I say: ‘We live in a broken world’,” Robertson says. He doesn’t understand why so many of his co-religionists cannot accept that some people have to go through a process to align with their true gender, an undertaking he sees as “redemptive, holy and restorative.”
“This is what Christianity is all about,” he maintains, “calling us all to our authentic selves. A trans person’s journey is a beautiful picture of redemption. They are born in a way that is less than who they were meant to be, but they come into their true selves.”
After his attempted conversion therapy, Robertson says he became cynical of becoming a pastor. He moved to Washington DC, where he worked as a lobbyist for the Log Cabin Republicans, advocating for gay marriage among political conservatives. Robertson says that during this time, he told people he was straight. When he launched a group called Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, journalists began investigating his background. During one interview, he remembers being asked, point-blank: “What is your sexuality?”
Robertson didn’t want to lie. He told them that he was “questioning”. It would be a while until he finally came out.
Many people in the US think of Ireland as ‘that liberal island off in the middle of the sea’, but Brandan Robertson thinks that the cultures of Ireland and the USA are alike. He believes that while evangelicals and Catholics are usually at odds, when it comes to gender and sexuality, they’re almost identical.
“Especially within the religious communities and the LGBT community, we’re really similar. Most of the LGBT community have some sort of religious background that they’re hurt by, and that they’re reacting against. And a lot of the religious community is just as conservative as in the United States. When I was in Belfast for the first time, I felt like it was Texas.”
Evangelicalism in America shows how religion can be used by conservatives to maintain political power.
“It’s easy to create a bogeyman out of sexuality,” he says. “It’s easy to say trans people are men dressing up as women and going into bathrooms and being perverted. It’s not true. But, in a little town, you’re probably not going to meet a trans person, so it’s easy to believe the lie.”
Robertson says that stoking fear around sexuality and gender cements power: people submit to the church because they feel that it’s the only way to protect culture from moral decline.
Religious conservativess realise they’ve lost the battle on gay marriage, but the battle for trans acceptance hasn’t been won yet.
“That’s why the conservative movement has created a narrative around trans people to scare everyone,” he concludes. “And, if that’s not that way in Ireland now, it will be soon.”