At the Vote Pray Stand Summit, Christian Parents and Their “Rights” Take Center Stage

At the Vote Pray Stand Summit, Christian Parents and Their “Rights” Take Center Stage

At the Vote Pray Stand Summit, Christian Parents and Their “Rights” Take Center Stage

The movement that helped end Roe is embracing a political strategy that wraps the demonization of trans people in the innocuous-sounding catchphrase “parental rights.”


Under the glittering chandeliers and blue stage lights of the Pray Vote Stand summit in Washington, D.C., inside the cavernous ballroom where three Jumbotron screens faced row after row of Christian conservatives, evangelical leader Tony Perkins placed his hand on Amy Atterbery’s shoulder and began to pray. It one of the last sessions on the main stage at the annual political gathering of the Christian right, hosted by Perkins’s Family Research Council. And Perkins was giving his blessing to the movement’s most promising public face: the Christian parent.

Holding back tears, Atterbery read from a printout the tragic story of how she had refused to accept her teenager’s gender transition, prompting her child to run away at the age of 16 and become homeless. The emotional crescendo of Atterbery’s story was her attempt to stop “butchers” from performing the phalloplasty her 19-year-old had chosen to undergo. Her child is now 23 and, Atterbery confirmed in an interview with me, unaware that his mother is sharing his story on a national stage to serve a fast-moving political project whose ultimate goal is to ban transition-related care for adults like him.

The audience prayed for Atterbery, prayed for an end to what Perkins called “one of the most demonic agendas that we see in our nation today.”

In this narrative of good versus evil, of Christians versus demons, of the gender binary versus “gender ideology,” it is not the transgender child suffering from homelessness who is the victim but the parent who rejects that child. The Christian right believes that parents like Atterbery are its greatest hope for political redemption in the post-Roe era. This movement that helped bring about the end of Roe is throwing its energy behind a political strategy centered on wrapping the (literal) demonization of trans people in the innocuous-sounding catchphrase “parental rights.”

“We’re trying to defend our children, their rights, our parental rights, which are being slowly taken away,” Maira Llamas, a first-time conference attendee told me, standing in the exhibit hall, near a booth for a “Biblically Responsible” mutual fund company and a rack of booklets on “Biblical Principles for Political Engagement.” All around us that weekend, speakers were touting the potential of the “parental rights revolution” to bring power to the Christian right.

“Parental rights is the number-one issue on the ballot,” Todd Gathje, vice president for government relations at the Family Foundation of Virginia and part of the Family Research Council’s influential state policy network, told a rapt, packed audience at a panel called “Parents and Policy: The Perfect Team to Stop the Sexualization of Our Children.”

But this is not just about kids. The need to fortify the gender binary—in women’s sports, schools, locker rooms, the military, within marriage—was the drumbeat reverberating through every punch line, every praise line and policy proposal, every political speech at the convention.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. Trans journalists and analysts like Imara Jones and Heron Greenesmith have warned for years that, with Roe’s fall approaching, the religious right has begun to turn the full might of its state-level policy network toward dismantling the rights of trans people. In 2023, state lawmakers introduced a record-shattering 414 anti-trans bills. Twenty states have passed versions of the Family Research Council’s model bill banning gender-affirming care for children. It was still stunning to watch as the leading figures of the Christian Conservative movement ushered abortion, their premier issue for the past 40-odd years, off the center of the stage. It’s not that these groups have stopped working on abortion—but with public support for abortion rights surging, they have good reason to deemphasize it in public.

The rapid evolution was plain to see.

Last year, the first sentence out of Tony Perkins’s mouth was about the Dobbs decision the Supreme Court had issued three months before. This year, Perkins didn’t mention abortion in his opening. Of the 16 themed sessions at the conference, three focused on “the gender battle” and children, while just one focused on abortion. That one panel, “Life: Where Do We Go From Here?” did not answer its own question definitively. Speakers instead focused on the misleading claim that Democratic-led states were allowing abortion up until birth. Ohio state Representative Jena Powell falsely claimed that such abortions would be permitted under the abortion rights ballot initiative that voters in her state will decide on this November, even though the initiative would explicitly let the legislature ban abortion after viability.

Nor did the Republican presidential candidates who came to the conference seem to feel like talking about abortion. Vivek Ramaswamy bemoaned the “cult of gender ideology” and “transgenderism,” but did not mention abortion once. Ron DeSantis touted a litany of achievements in his war against “wokeness” in Florida, but gave his signing of a six-week abortion ban just one line. Even Mike Pence, the most bona fide anti-abortion ideologue of the bunch, issued a commitment to a 15-week national ban, but relegated abortion to the last of his four steps to address what he said was the biggest threat facing America’s future: “the collapse of the traditional family.”

Trump was the one who said the quiet part out loud, acknowledging that in the wake of Dobbs, the 2022 midterms had not gone well for Republicans. He blamed Republican politicians for their poor messaging on abortion, which he said Democrats want to promote even after birth.

“I will say, politically, it’s very tough,” Trump said. “Very, very hard on elections—very, very hard. This was—we had midterms and this was an issue.”

The people I spoke with may have phrased it a little differently, but they acknowledged that abortion’s place in the movement had changed.

“The movement was built around fighting Roe and now we are going to be organizing around something else,” Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow at the Family Research Council, told me. “There are a lot of ideas about what that might be. There are people who, if you ask them, they’ll say it’s going to go back to the states. There are people, if you ask them, they’re going to say we have to have a federal floor…. There’s all that debate, all happening within the movement itself.”

Kilgannon, a Catholic, dressed in a black sweater and pearls, helped set the stage for the current moment when she declared at the summit in 2017: “The LGBT alliance is actually fragile, and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them,” adding, “If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.”

Six years later, as we sat outside the metal detectors, watching people pass through the security screening ahead of Trump’s speech, I asked Kilgannon whether that effort had succeeded. Is the “T” for “transgender” now separated? “I think it is,” Kilgannon said. “I do think people are finally waking up to this distinction.”

Kilgannon said she’s been surprised at the amount of traction the movement has gained on the specific issue of parental notification policies that compel schools to out trans kids to their parents. “That is proving to be what people are coalescing around,” Kilgannon said. The issue does seem to grab parents; a recent Monmouth University poll found that in New Jersey, where some school districts have passed policies to require schools to out children, 81 percent of parents support such policies.

Are you feeling a pull of sympathy toward the idea that parents should be informed if their child confides in a teacher that they are trans? What about if a parent is abusive or might reject the child, rendering them homeless? The Christian right is banking on your discomfort. It is the low end of a wedge toward an agenda that’s much broader than kids.

“We don’t think anybody can change their sex, whether they’re a child or an adult,” Kilgannon acknowledged in our interview. So banning gender-affirming care for trans adults would be the logical end goal, right?

“Right,” Kilgannon agreed, although she said not everyone on the right is working for a total ban. “Because it’s no act of charity or love to indulge that.”

This message—that the existence of trans people should not be indulged—sounds more convincing when it’s wrapped in a coded term like parental rights, or “saving women’s sports.” On Friday, former college swimmer Riley Gaines took the stage, with the nails on one hand painted pink, the other side blue, to tell her story of being forced to compete against a transgender woman—or “fully intact” “male” as Gaines referred to swimmer Lia Thomas. Gaines framed her battle against trans women athletes as a feminist struggle—one that needed male allies.

“We need strong men,” Gaines said to a chorus of applause. “We need men to be willing to fulfill their Biblical role, which is to protect and provide.” That devotion to gender essentialism has always animated the Christian right; what’s new is the intensity with which it is now focused on trans people. And as that focus intensifies, the rhetoric itself is darkening. I lost count of the number of times speakers mentioned demons or the “demonic agenda” they believe is at work on the left. Fred Clarkson, who has long studied the Christian right for Political Research Associates, said that’s a significant departure from five years ago, when you hardly heard about demons at all. He sees it as evidence of the mainstreaming of a fast-growing strain of far-right Christianity called the New Apostolic Reformation. As Clarkson has written, many adherents of this strain believe that nonbelievers are literally infested with demons.

The only way to vanquish a demon, in my rudimentary understanding, is with spiritual war of the kind that was being promoted everywhere.

“We are at war,” Jonathan Cahn, a Messianic rabbi know for his best-selling book that claimed that the Bible predicted Trump, told the gathering. “We are in a spiritual war.”

In the horse race coverage of the 2024 presidential election, in the earnest questions from pundits about whether Trump’s base will abandon him now that he has been indicted, it’s easy to miss that one side of this ideological divide has already declared war. If you are still confused about why the Christian right would support a divorced, criminally charged adulterer to such a zealous extent that 64 percent of attendees voted for him in the conference straw poll, understand that in a war, you need a warrior. Not a “very badly injured bird,” as Trump called DeSantis in his speech at the conference, a line that was somehow so devastatingly apt that even I enjoyed it. Not Mike Pence, who in his bid to exude the kind of masculine strength cherished by his base can’t seem to stop talking about his tractor—“I’ve got a John Deere tractor and a pickup truck,” he said in his address, sounding about as folksy as a boat shoe. Not Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old Indian American whose central point—that racism isn’t a big deal—was undermined when someone in the audience shouted out, “Who is your God?”

In your infinite Christian capacity for redemption, you’ll take a warrior who, in his fifth speech to this gathering, still does not know how to address these people in the terms they use to describe themselves. Pray Vote Stand attendees call themselves disciples, or SAGE Cons—longtime Christian right pollster George Barna’s term for “spiritually active governmentally engaged conservatives”—or when they’re trying to be inclusive, they call themselves Christians, conservatives, or Christian Conservatives.

Trump calls them “religious people.”

“Religious people,” he said, during an hour-and-10-minute address that ended with the intrusion of orchestral music over which Trump spoke for several minutes about electric cars and Venezuela and a nation in decline like a badly edited movie trailer for the apocalypse, “like to win.”

This is how they hope to win: by convincing you that trans kids are our country’s most pressing political and spiritual problem, and by convincing Christian parents to isolate those children from schools and technology. If you are wondering why the Christian right is so focused on parental control, beyond the fact that they think it is a winning political message, consider that it is integral to the survival of their movement. George Barna presented the central problem in his latest polling data: “Very few Americans have a biblical worldview,” he said. And most children in the Christian church will leave by their mid-20s. Adults, he said, rarely change their worldviews, which are “generally fully formed by the age of 13.”

“It’s incredibly important for us to reach children,” Barna said.

To build power, especially now that it can no longer rally the base around abortion, Christian conservatives will not only have to keep hold of their own children; they will have to reach beyond the base. So, in the election to come, when you hear about “parental rights,” know that message for what it is: the latest adaptation of a sophisticated political movement that is coming for your vote.

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