"It ain't over," Pastor Jay Smith told his congregation at a recent Sunday morning service at the Cedar Park Church in Bothell. Smith, a smiling, sandy-haired 38-year-old, projected those words on two giant screens as he preached.
In 2012, Cedar Park Church contributed more than $20,000 to Preserve Marriage Washington, the failed anti-gay-marriage campaign. In 2016, the church is now the largest individual contributor to Just Want Privacy, the statewide effort to repeal human-rights protections for transgender adults and children. Just Want Privacy's I-1515 also goes one step further than repealing existing protections: It would mandate that public school bathrooms are gender-segregated, and then allow schools to be sued for letting trans kids use the bathrooms in which they are most comfortable.
"You know the community that we live in, the culture that there is, that's swirling around today, see all sorts of things happening in our society, and everybody just wants to go nuts," Smith told his congregants. "Everyone's saying, 'Oh man, it's just, the wheels are falling off, things are going crazy, what are we going to do, America as we know it is over, everything is blah blah blah.' Here's what I want to tell you: Shhh. Just breathe deep."
Smith continued: "No matter what you see, no matter what you feel, no matter what you hear, it ain't over. It ain't over when people resist the good news of the Gospel, that doesn't mean it's over. When people just fall on and go pagan and go crazy, that doesn't mean it's over. When it's over, you'll know it. I mean, spoiler alert: I've read the end of the book."
A week after Ted Cruz dropped out of the race for president, journalist Sarah Posner mused on whether Cruz's failure signaled the end times for the religious right's grip on Republican politics. Right-wing evangelical Christians have helped shape Republicans' political agenda for decades, she explained in the New York Times opinion section. Now the rise of Donald Trump—a philandering two-time divorcé who once said that transgender people should be able to use whichever bathrooms they want—has thrown their political power and unity into question.
But if the evangelical movement is in turmoil, you couldn't tell at Cedar Park, which is just a half-hour drive northeast of Seattle. Eight hundred people filled the church's main worship space on the Sunday I attended services. A full band played to an auditorium with three enormous video screens and its own bustling cafe.
The church's $10,000 contribution to Just Want Privacy's cause makes up about a quarter of the anti-trans campaign's overall funding, but Cedar Park stays on the legal side of its tax-exempt status as long as its political lobbying doesn't support or reject a specific candidate or "constitute a substantial part of its overall activities," according to the IRS's tax guide for churches and religious organizations. What constitutes a "substantial part of [a church's] overall activities" isn't clear. The IRS evaluates that on a case-by-case basis—and Pastor Smith's congregation just successfully raised $450,000 for lights and other improvements on its sports field. For a church that can afford to pay $450,000 for sports field improvements, it's unlikely that a $10,000 political contribution violates IRS rules.
Pastor Smith's sermon on the day I attended didn't explicitly reference politics, but he still preached a message that felt relevant to evangelicals' current political reality. Smith took over the duties of senior pastor from 65-year-old Reverend Joe Fuiten in 2015 after serving as lead pastor at Cedar Park Northshore for six years. He uses the word "awesome" often and doesn't shy away from social media. In February, Smith shared the Family Research Institute's video of a "Digital Pro-Life Pioneer Award" being given to David Daleiden, the antiabortion activist who secretly filmed Planned Parenthood officials and has since been indicted. Last summer, Smith also posted an antiabortion meme that attempted to play off the Black Lives Matter movement. It showed a baby with its arms above its head and the words "Hands up, don't crush" along with the hashtag #defundplannedparenthood.
Smith went on to tell his congregation that starting that morning, their church would be participating in a revival. Seventy-five churches, over the next 100 days, are uniting to pray for the greater Seattle area. The prayers would contain seven items altogether, including repentance for the city, redemption of city dwellers, and the "reign of God over our city."
After the sermon, Smith told me that Cedar Park had contributed to the Just Want Privacy campaign because they wanted a voice and believed in democracy. He characterized the state Human Rights Commission's decision to clarify an existing rule to protect transgender people in bathrooms as "just something that's been handed down from the courts."
But what is so harmful about letting transgender people pee where they want?
"I think we want to see good and blessing in everyone's life, but the issue is that it opens doors for other dangerous situations, [with] pedophiles for instance," Smith said. He told me that the church's position had less to do with transgender people and more to do with predators—creepy men he thinks could sneak into women's restrooms in order to prey on children. "Who can stop a pedophile from entering into a bathroom? And so it's really in the mind of safety and propriety. And essentially this is the way that civilization has been for hundreds of years in Western civilization. And this is a new idea, this idea of transgenderism."
When I pointed out that children can get assaulted in any public place, including churches, Smith insisted that bathrooms are "a unique environment."
Of course, the issue has everything to do with transgender people. Trans people face some of the highest rates of violence, including astronomical rates of sexual violence, in the country. Recognizing this, the state Human Rights Commission added language to the state's 10-year-old antidiscrimination code to clarify the existing law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. But groups like Just Want Privacy say that trans rights put children at risk—the same argument that used to be routinely trotted out against gays and lesbians. While antigay activists once insisted on debunked myths that accepting gay people would lead to the acceptance of pedophilia, or that gay parents would molest their children, today, anti-trans activists say that pedophiles would pretend to be transgender in order to assault children in bathrooms. This ignores the fact that preying on children is illegal no matter what, the problem of people pretending to be transgender in order to assault children doesn't actually exist, and grown men already share bathrooms with little boys who are also targets for pedophiles. But the idea of putting little girls at risk is a potent image.
The parishioners I spoke to after Smith's sermon had various feelings about transgender people using bathrooms. One woman who wanted to be quoted by only her first name, Katie, said that she didn't think transgender women using the same restrooms was a big deal "as long as a person is honest." At the same time, she didn't like how the law was clarified to protect transgender people: "I think it's ridiculous. It seems like people have lost their cotton-picking minds. It's a matter of privacy." Another parishioner, Kristy Welles, said she thought being transgender was a choice, a similar argument made about homosexuality: "I believe what you come out of the womb is what you are."
Smith told me he doesn't know what this election season will ultimately mean for the evangelical movement's participation in national politics. "I think primarily it's just a reminder to us that, hey, our hope as Christians isn't in a political system, it's hope in God," Smith said. But until the national political system sorts itself out, Smith's congregation is praying that their God will reign over Seattle.