The RW Interview
Esther Kaplan: On the Trail of the Christian Right
by Sunsara Taylor
Revolutionary Worker #1269, February 27, 2005, posted at rwor.org
The RW Interview
A special feature of the RW to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Esther Kaplan grew up in the only non-Christian family in her hometown of King's Valley, Oregon. Her childhood was deeply intertwined with those of Christian fundamentalists she played with and with whom her family socialized, even as she was often considered an oddity who needed to be converted. Later in life she was touched personally and then compelled into activity by the AIDS epidemic, particularly disturbed by the hateful response of some of the Christian Right who viewed AIDS as a just punishment from God against gays. It is with this intimate familiarity with both the people who make up much of the base of the rapidly growing Christian Right in this country, as well as with the human cost and suffering being inflicted by the political operatives leading this movement, that Esther has approached the subject of the rising role Christian fundamentalism in this country.
Then, as it became increasingly clear that the Christian Right was playing a more open and heightened role in the re-election campaign for George W. Bush, Esther turned her life upside down to finish her book With God On Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House (New York: The New Press, 2004)--an extensive and chilling account of how these forces are remaking the country.
After devouring her book and feeling my stomach knotted up for days while coming to terms with how far this fascistic Christian fundamentalism has gotten, I got the chance to hear Esther speak and then to sit down with her myself. What struck me most was her concern for people--both for people who are caught up in reactionary belief systems as well as for the many people on the receiving end of the hurt and death caused by Bible-based policy. So, on a very cold day in Brooklyn, over cups of hot tea, we talked about what is happening to our society and the world.
RW: What originally made you decide to do this book?
Esther Kaplan: Well, it was really just coming across evidence that this was happening, this Christian Right infiltration of the federal government. The way it happened to me, though there could have been any number of points of entry, was I was working on a piece about what was then the new Presidential AIDS Advisory Council.
I don't know if I wrote about this, but when Bush first came into office he (or Andrew Card, his chief of staff) said, "We are going to get rid of the White House Office on AIDS. We're not going to have an AIDS Council." AIDS just wasn't on his agenda. And there was a huge firestorm--front-page coverage in the major papers and all this. So they kind of retracted it, and Ari Fleisher said Card had made a mistake.
In mid 2002 they finally appointed this council that they promised to appoint. So POZ magazine sent me down to cover it, and I went to a couple of the meetings. The first one I went to was in June 2002, and I walked into this room--all-day, two-day-long meeting. I was the only member of the press there.
There were almost no AIDS advocates there at all except during the small public comment period at the end of the second day, and two or three showed up, maybe. And the council was just packed with these completely crazy people. You know, like evangelical proselytizers, professional virgins. I mean, just all these people who knew nothing about AIDS, who were making openly anti-gay remarks.
The people who'd been on the Clinton council were the serious people in the AIDS world, like the head of the National Association of People with AIDS, one of the top AIDS prevention researchers in the country at University of California, San Francisco, which has a prestigious prevention program. I mean, the heavyweights. And, I mean, this was just crazy. So, I covered that. I covered some other AIDS-related stuff. And I got a bee in my bonnet that this was probably happening throughout the administration and also getting basically no press attention. Nobody else was watching them.
Since I started working on it.and now, of course, with the election this is all sort of out in the open all of a sudden, but bits and pieces started happening. SIECUS and Advocates for Youth and Planned Parenthood launched a project challenging the abstinence-only money, and the Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report about the politicization of science. And bits and pieces of the story started to be pushed into the news by advocates. But when I first began working on it, people were talking about the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan in particular and eventually Iraq. Maybe people were talking about the economy. But this issue of the infiltration of the hard- right evangelicals was just not, almost not, covered at all.
RW: In your book you trace through the military to science and policy, to the whole arena of research around AIDS and drug addiction and teen pregnancy--you walk through all these different realms of society. Could you talk a little bit about why you say in the beginning, "Yes, It's a Holy War?"
EK: Well, I guess for a few reasons. One is that it is widely and openly discussed as a holy war by the Christian Right movement, by key leadership on the Christian Right. There's been a horrible demonization of Islam as a religion by, again, top leaders: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham (the rising star, Billy Graham's son) and so on. And when Bush has really been pushed to distance himself from this holy war idea, from the idea that Islam is "evil," he's declined to do so.
Secondly, people in his own administration are echoing this stuff. I think the most atrocious example is Jerry Boykin, who is deputy undersecretary of defense--a general who has both a military role and a civilian role in the war on terror. He's a counter-insurgency expert and someone you might want to look into. He was involved in Central America, Somalia--his track record is a whole other thing that needs to be investigated. But he was given a civilian post in the Department of Defense. He was specifically charged with hunting down what were then the top public enemies in the war on terror--Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
And Boykin, simultaneous to having this job, was going around to evangelical churches in the northwest giving these speeches--one of which I saw on tape, courtesy of Gary Bauer who was sending it out to all his supporters for free--where he actually shows on slides pictures of Kim Jong-il, pictures of the Taliban, pictures of Osama bin Laden, and so on. In each case he says, "Is this the enemy? Is this the enemy? Is this the enemy? No." And he says the enemy is Satan, and that we need to join God's Army to defeat this enemy. So, here's the guy who is actually supposed to be capturing Osama bin Laden, but he's saying in public that Osama bin Laden isn't the enemy.
Now, there was a huge uproar about this, and again, the Christian Right came to this guy's defense. They think he's a national hero. They put tremendous pressure on the administration to support him. And the last I checked, there was word that he was going to get something incredibly mild, like a letter of concern, which is almost the mildest response they can make. But he still hasn't gotten that, last time I checked, a couple of weeks ago. So you begin to connect the dots and say this is a worldview the administration is either fully supportive of, or at least is willing to be tacitly supportive of, in order not to alienate their Christian Right base.
But then on the ground, there are other issues that are really concrete, like the fact that they've really allowed Christian evangelizers to move in on the heels of American troops and used this as an opportunity for targeting Muslims for conversion, which is a top priority for most of the evangelical missionary outfits. We've seen members of the U.S. military pushing Christianity on their own soldiers. In the book I mention a piece that appeared in a Florida newspaper that was quickly denied--and no other reporters followed up on it--about a chaplain that was actually forcing soldiers to get baptized if they wanted the chance to dip in a bath while there was this incredible water shortage among U.S. troops.
I reported that this article had come out, along with the administration's denial. But just a few weeks ago I actually met one of the soldiers who had come back from Iraq who was on that base with that chaplain and who confirmed to me that was what had gone on. So, if it's not a holy war, it sure smells a lot like it.
RW: There's been a lot of protest against the Iraq war and a lot of people feel it is unjust and immoral. So what difference does it make that it's being cast in terms of a crusade, or a holy war? What difference does it make here, and what difference does it make to the people in the Middle East who are actually seeing the face of this on the ground?
EK: Well, in the Middle East and in South Asia I think it's been incredibly inflammatory that that is how it's been framed. I mean, famously, one of the many inflammatory remarks made by Christian Right leaders was when Jerry Falwell called Muhammed a "terrorist," and it set off these riots in India that left several people dead. Stuff that barely makes it into the American media. But these statements by the Christian Right against Islam are huge news in the Muslim world. That's dangerous in and of itself.
And, of course, when Bush, again, refuses to criticize and distance himself from these remarks it's really seen as something that's reflecting the administration's views. Especially when it comes from someone like Franklin Graham, who delivered the benediction at Bush's inauguration and is a frequent guest at the White House.
On the home front, I imagine you've seen some of the data showing how impervious Bush supporters seem to be to the actual facts about Iraq as they began to be revealed: no WMD's, no connection to al Qaida, and so on.
I think that's the place that I see the influence of this whole holy war worldview, which is that you don't really have to concern yourself with the facts, that there's something cosmic going on in which America is identified with God, and Iraq, Afghanistan, whoever the latest target is, are identified with Satanic forces. And the battle just has to go forward, it's somehow part of God's design.
This is reflected in other parts of U.S. foreign policy, like towards Israel and Palestine and elsewhere. I think that's where it gets really dangerous. And this is an issue in the sciences and other areas, but when you stop caring about the facts because you believe in a project for cosmic reasons, then you're immune to the kind of democratic give- and-take that really should be shaping policy. Whether that happens through street protests, through investigative journalism, or whatever, this is how we should be debating our national policy: what's really happening, what do we really think about it, and what are we going to do about it?
But we have a sector, which is a minority of the country--around 20% of the country but 40% of Bush's electorate--who are more or less immune from any actual information that surfaces. Now this is a problem because then how do we make corrections? How do we move forward? How do we learn from mistakes in responses to 9/11 or anything else if a huge chunk of the country and a huger chunk of Bush's base is not going to engage?
RW : This relates to the last question asked to the panel I saw you on recently: "Why do the facts seem to matter so little?" Everybody answered it, and a couple of people before you answered it with an important part of the answer, pointing out that a lot of people don't get the facts because the way the major media works.
RW: You agreed with that, but added that there's a whole section of people for whom the facts don't matter. I am just curious.in this divide with the red states and blue states, I know it is not that simple, but in some of these concentrations of blue areas, have you found that people understand what's actually happening with this section of people who don't care about the facts?
EK: Well, like I said, I think there was a tremendous amount of oblivion about it before the election. Which is a bit curious, given that this movement has been building for a good 25 years or more, and given the past political impact on previous administrations. But nevertheless, I think people maybe thought their day had come and gone or something and just had not clued in to the way that there is a real powerful synergy between this movement and Bush.
My concern, now that the issue has popped into the public, is that people are looking at it in a depoliticized way, which is to say, they are just taking on face value that there's this constituency who is deeply concerned about homosexuality and abortion and that they're driven by these moral values and so on. Which to some extent is true, but I think that it's really important that we as a nation wake up to the presence of this constituency and grapple with it, because it's a very serious thing to grapple with, that we really understand that these folks were organized politically.That they were organized by right-wing operatives who really went into these congregations, these organizations, and helped consolidate them as a political movement around this list of hot-button social issues. If these average community members or churchgoers were asked in an open-ended way what they're concerned about in their lives and what are their struggles with their kids, their spouses, I'm not sure that they'd be listing things like gay marriage, to be honest.
But the scare tactics around it--that this is going to be the fall of civilization and so on--they've really been organized around this stuff and including, I think, to bring some of the millennialist worldviews more directly into the realm of politics.
I mean, it's one thing to have a set of beliefs where you think that you know the world story is unfolding according to some divine plan. But to bring that into the political realm, that took a lot of organizing over a long period of time. And I think it's important for us to see this as a political outcome--that people are now viewing something as concrete as a war on Iraq in biblical terms. I don't think it had to be that way.
RW: One of the things that I found striking in your book is your discussion of science and what's being done to science. This is a realm that the majority of people in this country aren't on the inside of, and especially the people who are suffering the most from the Bush regime are not in the science world. And yet, there is a whole chill being put through the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control. I found it very harrowing, this stuff about people having to censor their grant proposals and not being able to put certain things in writing, and this McCarthy era in this whole world of science.
EK: What you're talking about is a lot of the researchers I talked with--particularly in the areas of HIV and gay sexuality, family planning, drug addiction and so on--feeling like they had to censor the titles of their grants and censor their email communications with the Federal Finance Agency.
One thing I will say is--a lot of it is self-censorship. Self-censorship in response to huge and very intimidating actions by the U.S. Congress and the federal government that have sent a very strong message that "if you are dealing with these hot-button issues you'd better look out because we're going after your funding." This is in the form of amendments proposed on the floor of Congress, threatening phone calls made by NIH.
But nevertheless, the way most researchers have responded is to be very careful about trying to protect their research, protect their programs--which is a completely reasonable and in many ways admirable response because they are working on issues about saving lives. How do you do HIV prevention among high-risk populations of gay men where infections are now on the rise--this is a life-and-death issue.
But on the other hand, I really do hope, in the months and years to come, that we see more researchers speak out and really begin to protest this publicly and not just suffer silently and individually. That they begin to mount a collective response.
But yeah, there's a tremendous amount of censorship going on and intimidation leading to self-censorship. In terms of overt censorship, there's data just being pulled off government websites if it offends the moral sensibilities or political proclivities of the Christian Right.
One classic example is there was data posted on the National Cancer Institute website showing that there's no connection between having an abortion and risk for cancer, which is a scare-tactic that anti-abortion activists have been using for years. You know, "If you have an abortion, you're going to get breast cancer." They hated that this debunking information was up on the government website, and it was pulled down. The National Cancer Institute convened some bogus conference to re-review the data, even though there'd been no significant data on this front since the original analysis was put up there. And a year and a half later they finally reiterated the earlier statement. But in the meantime, two different states passed statutes mandating that women seeking abortions be told that they'll be at risk for breast cancer. So we have this strange situation where completely false scientific conclusions are now mandated into state laws and so on, and this has been aided and abetted by what's going on in the Bush administration.
RW: At one point you say in your book, basically, if progressive people don't recognize how much these little scientific rulings have to do with impacting people's lives, the anti-abortion movement certainly understands that acutely, and this is sort of what you are describing. Maybe you could talk about the connection between some of the science censorship and what the impact is on people. How does this influence policy and filter down to the ground?
EK: Yeah, I think two of the issues that have the most sweeping impact are the promotion of abstinence-only education at home and abroad, and the various efforts to de-fund international family planning groups. Both the Mexico City Policy, which has been called the "global gag rule," and subsequently a lot of other efforts to de-fund United Nations Population Fund, and then a number of other individual family planning groups.
If you look at what's happened with that internationally, there's a couple of really disturbing things. One, in places like Romania that have really depended on abortion for family planning, a lot of what the family planning clinics do there is when a woman comes in for an abortion they try to counsel her about engaging in other family planning methods, whether it's birth control pills or barrier devices or whatever, so that they don't have to depend on abortion for family planning. And the only way that they can engage in that conversation, which can have the net effect of actually reducing abortions in those countries, is to talk about abortions and to offer abortions.
So in a place like Romania, in the early analysis, it actually seems to be causing abortions to rise there. Or it's poised to do so, because all the organizations that offer abortions have to lose all their support from the United States for family planning methods, so they no longer have the support to supply family planning methods. And the other ones that have to completely stop offering abortions, they aren't reaching those women. So that's absurd.
Even more concerning is all the organizations and family planning clinics that have begun to offer integrated HIV prevention and HIV testing and HIV care. AIDS is still very stigmatized in the developing world and in Sub- Saharan Africa where the epidemic is at its most intense. You just can't have a free-standing HIV clinic and expect people to walk in and get tested and get services. They are not going to do it.
So family planning clinics had really become the place, in many cases, where that would happen. So right at a time when Bush is launching his global AIDS initiative and we are supposedly scaling up our response to AIDS worldwide, all the clinics that are best positioned to respond to the AIDS crisis and offer counseling, testing, care, etc., are cut off of all their grants from the United States, the biggest family care funder in the world.
Many of them had to close down or lay off staff. They became these crippled organizations if they survive at all. And even though technically the AIDS-related grants that the U.S. is giving out right now don't have to comply with the global gag rule, for people I've spoken with, family planning providers on the ground, they know full well the stigma created by the gag rule is going to make it almost impossible for them to get an AIDS grant. Even though technically they can, it's just not going to happen. So it's just an enormous lost opportunity, and it will absolutely be counted in lost lives.
I think in terms of the abstinence-only, which is based on completely bogus science and bogus assumptions, the limited data we have so far shows that people who are taught abstinence-only--and in the U.S. system that means no mention of birth control or condoms, except to describe their failure rates--is that it actually puts young people at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases and for pregnancy.
They may delay having sex the first time for a few months, or maybe as many as eight months. But once they do have sex, they're just so unprepared. They don't get screened for STDs. They don't use condoms. They're really just putting themselves at risk. And it's way too early to have any data about what's happening in this country with STD rates among youth and pregnancy rates as a result of the abstinence-only, but it's frightening to consider what that impact might be.
And the fact that that's now being exported to Africa is really criminal. I mean, when you're working in a country where there is like a 25% infection rate, and you're going provide them abstinence-only education that disparages the efficacy of condoms--that's really criminal.
RW: You document how the whole faith-based initiative is taking money out of a lot of the secular social services and putting the money into these Christian programs. Some of them are just shocking to me, including the stuff that you are talking about where you can't even mention condoms. But they make it almost sound nice-- "We're gonna stop discriminating against the religious services that want to do good things for Americans and the poor and all this."
EK: Very beautiful. Well okay, a few things are happening.
One is that groups that define themselves as faith-based are being privileged over secular social service providers who, in many cases, may have a lot more experience to go on. A group called OMB Watch, a government watchdog group, reported that there was a veterans group that had been funded consistently in the past, but then once this faith-based initiative started, they were turned down for funding for their veterans' program. They then re-defined themselves as a faith-based group and got funding the next year.
The patterns of who among the religious groups are getting funding also indicates discrimination. As of this summer, and there may be some new grants I haven't seen yet, not a single faith grant that went out of the initiative to a faith-based group went to any religion except for Christian groups.
When I spoke to the director of the program about this, I said I am not seeing Muslim charities or Jewish charities, or any charities that aren't Christian, why is that? He gave me what I thought was a very disrespectful remark about minority religions, which was, "Well, Jews and Muslims only want to serve their own kind, so they aren't really interested in getting this money." Which, you know, one could turn around and say that about the evangelicals.
And then, the last important pattern is that a lot of the money is going to overtly political Christian Right programs.
Some of this is abstinence money, some of this is faith-based money, but a lot of it is going to these things called crisis pregnancy centers, which you probably know about. Storefronts that try to present themselves as clinics, but they're really little kind of propaganda outfits to get young women to not have abortions and often they use scare tactics like the "threat of breast cancer" and showing bloody pictures of fetuses and so on. Many of them have been sued, actually for falsely presenting themselves as clinics when they have no medical personnel on staff. Anyway, they are getting a huge proportion, millions of the abstinence-only funding.
Major players on the Christian Right, like Franklin Graham's group Samaritan's Purse, just got a huge multimillion-dollar grant to do abstinence-only education in Africa through the Presidential Emergency AIDS Initiative. Pat Robertson's group, Operation Blessing, got approved for $1.5 million. Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries got a $2 million grant to do job training for ex-offenders.
So some of the really big players, the politically connected players on the Christian Right, are just raking it in. They're increasing their staff. It's really an injection of taxpayer money right into these Christian Right groups to help them hire staff and do what they do, which is not really service provisions so much as ideological work.
RW: You talk in your book about a "broadcast" and a "narrowcast" that Bush uses when he speaks that plays on the fact that there are different audiences that listen with different ears. What do the Christian fundamentalist base of George Bush hear that many of us don't when he speaks--the "narrowcast" in terms of "End Times" discussion of Palestine and international policy, morality based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, etc?
EK: Well, you have to be careful not to extrapolate too much from your own anecdotal encounters and so on, so part of what I also depend on is some fairly deepened opinion research that has been done at places like Beliefnet and the Pew Center on Religion in Public Life and some of these places that have really been following these belief systems for a while now.
I think that the core--if you look at the evangelical organizations, whether it be Association of Religious Broadcasters or the Southern Baptist Seminary, these organizations that have a "statement of belief" that they ask people to subscribe to in order to be a member--the common denominator is personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior, belief in the literal truth of the Bible and a few other obscure, doctrinal things about Jesus' resurrection. And a commitment to be sort of "guided in life by one's walk with Jesus, walk with God."
So I think that a lot of the details about your exact stand on gay marriage, your exact interpretation of the End Times and so on.there's certainly a lot of doctrinal debate about interpretations of the End Times, and I think on some of the other newer issues, there's still kind of shaking out what exactly the consensus is. And I think there's probably some movement there.
But in terms of what are they seeing in George Bush that they really respond to? I think, number one, it's really that he's so open and explicit about his religious faith. They really like that he talks about it publicly. That he talks about it to other heads of state, which has been seen internationally as quite a scandal. I mean the fact that he seems to have spent time praying and studying the Bible with Tony Blair is a scandal in the UK.
You know, we just kind of accept that about him, I guess. But they love that he talks about his experience of being born again, that in the presidential debate of 2000 he talked about Jesus as his favorite philosopher. All that stuff is, number one, what they really respond to in him.
The second is a sense that more or less he's lined up with their positions on this moral values agenda. You know, they had some doubts at times and they've really pushed him. They were extremely frustrated that he took so long to throw his weight behind the idea of a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He spent a lot of months trying to do other things--dumping marriage promotion money into the welfare program and doing all this other stuff-- to avoid taking that position. But he finally kind of got his back against the wall.
So sometimes, they have their doubts. But when push comes to shove, he's going to sign any anti-abortion bill that comes across his desk, and he's going to support the strategies to block gay marriage. He's going to support religious, well I should say Christian, approaches to everything from pregnancy prevention, STD prevention, drug treatment. He's going to say that he thinks the Christian solution is the best.
I think that on that level they just fundamentally feel that they have an ally, even though they may feel that he needs a little pushing here or there.
And they've developed a belief that has been encouraged by Bush administration officials and certainly by their own leadership within the Chritian Right movement, that there was divine intervention in Bush being president. They weren't even sure, many of them--people like James Dobson who's head of Focus on the Family, one of the most powerful Christian Right groups, he didn't support Bush in 2000. He didn't think Bush was sufficiently pro-life. He wasn't enthusiastic about him. But once 9/11 happened, there was this thing that happened on the Christian Right where they looked back at the fact that Bush became president without winning the popular vote, that this huge crisis emerged coming out of that "evil" religion, Islam, and they developed this idea that God had put Bush in the presidency. That we Americans weren't aware how much we were going to need Bush's leadership, but God knew. And even though we didn't vote for him and put him in there, God knew and he put him in to lead for "such a time as this," as General Jerry Boykin likes to say, quoting the Bible.
So, when Bush weaves into his speeches--particularly post-9/11 around the War on Terror or whether it's around combating AIDS, or whatever the issue is--when he weaves in these biblical references and these moral references, it really feeds that idea that in some sense God is working through Bush. Bush is happy to be in the hands of God. He's happy to be doing God's work. So supporting God, standing with God, walking with Jesus, you know, all these things that are so central to them, and supporting Bush are really all tied up together. Because Bush is sort of an agent of God.
When I was at a Christian Coalition event in late September, in the lead-up to the election, and Jerry Falwell spoke at it, he was saying things along these lines about how Bush won in 2000 and then he said something like, "And this time around we want him to win the popular vote so decisively so that we'll know and the Republican Party will know that Jesus did it." And I'm sure that's how they feel now--that, again, somehow God is working through the electorate, working through the American people to have a godly leader like George Bush.
RW: I feel like some of the people, like Viguerie and Dobson, actually have their own double-speak where they are telling their constituency one thing and meanwhile in the New York Times the day after the election they're saying: now we're calling for our revolution. And they are making these very calculating demands on the other hand, and you have Viguerie saying openly that abortion is the door we'll get people in through and from there we take on secularism and from there.he ends up with people backing an aggressive international posture against the rest of the world. But a lot of the people who are buying this don't really understand where it leads and what it is all serving.
EK: Right. But with that ideology of the active hand of God in the world, which is different than just a general faith in God which most Americans have, but the evangelical idea of the active hand of God expressing agency in the world, I don't know that they feel like they have to understand where it exactly is all going. They kind of have to have faith that it is going in the right direction. There's a lot of forgiveness there--whether it's deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, or the economy being in trouble or whatever--there's a lot of forgiveness because there is some sense that there is a divine presence somewhere.
RW: There's a big irony that struck me even more powerfully as I was reading where the Christian Right always postures like they're under attack. And meanwhile, actually ever since Constantine, Christianity has justified the Crusades, the Holocaust, the African slave trade, the genocide of the Native Americans.all the way down, you have all this history, and today they are highly positioned all throughout government, military and finance. Yet they still are portraying themselves like they are the victims. And this frames the national dialogue too. It really has made a lot of progressive people hesitate to challenge something that is very dangerous because they actually believe that on our side we should be tolerant because on their side they are very intolerant and that's what we don't like. So we have this very ironic, and dangerous, situation.
EK: Well, in Europe, where secularism is so much more prominent despite the fact that many of those countries have official state religions, ironically it's easier for them to challenge this sort of thing from a secular viewpoint.
No matter how one views what happened in France, for example, around their decision to not allow Muslim students to wear the headscarves in class (which could easily be read as an attack on minorities), to the extent that it was talked about in religious terms, it was really openly like, our schools are secular and you can't have religious displays there.
That kind of thing is much harder to pull off in this country because this country is so overwhelmingly religious. I think it hovers around 10%, the number of people in this country who call themselves secular or atheist or agnostic or something like that. And maybe there's another 10% or so that is religious minorities. But then there's the 80% of the country that's Christian believers.
So, strategically, what are the implications of that for countering the Christian Right? It's complicated. Certainly what I've been encouraging people to do who are concerned is to first of all be really unafraid to articulate their values as values, whether those are secular values or religious values.
Something like the debate over abstinence-only, the typical way it's framed right now is on the one hand there's the "morality-driven people" who support abstinence and then there's science-oriented people who support comprehensive sexuality education, including information about condoms and so on. But that's suppressing the fact that there is a value behind comprehensive sexual education as well. That value is saving lives. That is a value.
And the people who I speak to who are working to combat abstinence-only and are working to get decent HIV prevention information out there are deeply moral-values-driven people. They are deeply concerned about saving lives in Africa, about saving young people in this country from HIV infection.
And so I think that--this doesn't go to your question about tolerance, but I do feel, because we believe in science, we tend to allow our side to be seen as the scientific secular side versus the values side. As opposed to saying: You have a value, which is to lay down these moral lines in the sand and just dare anyone to cross them or pay the consequences if they do. We have a value, which is to save lives. At any cost. Damn the ideology. You know, we're gonna do what it takes to save lives.
And you can apply that to questions of whether the war on Iraq is just or unjust and to a whole huge realm of policies where I think there is a lot of room for critics of the Christian Right values agenda to critique it not only based on bogus science and based on religious fantasies of End Times and all that, but also to say, well, we have a different value system . This is what our value system is. I think there is a way to articulate values that aren't exclusive in the way that the evangelical Christian Right does.
I went to an event the other night at Riverside Church, which was an interfaith dialogue in response to the elections. Very strong Christian religious voices there, talking about the dangers of the link that's been made between Christianity and empire and really trying to return Christianity to something that is primarily about protecting the poor and the disenfranchised. Very strong Jewish statements. Manning Marable was also on the program, and he's, as far as I know, a secular socialist in his leanings. There was an imam there. And there was really a sense that there could be some joint moral values that were articulated from an interfaith place and also from a religious-secular place, that there are some shared values that do drive people.
I think that, at least provisionally, one of the solutions at this moment is to really be saying, we're opposing your policies from a values perspective also. We value human life and human dignity and so on.
RW: I think that is really important. I think it is true.we are concerned with the facts, we are concerned with a lot of the different issues, and people go and think about them and spend a lot of time researching them and organizing around them and this sort of thing. But somehow, I think there is something about people, if you look at human societies, people need to understand the world and they need to have meaning in the world, they need to understand what it means to be human in whatever environment and social setting they are in. And if we don't speak to that from whatever perspective--on a progressive or a radical or revolutionary perspective, secular or religious--then we cede all that ground. And there's a lot of turmoil in people's lives these days, especially. And we're either speaking to it or we're giving all that ground to these people who will be very happy to offer very absolute views on that. So I guess I am mostly agreeing, not really asking something here.
But just to round things out, and also out of curiosity before closing, you knew that there was a problem that you were going to go investigate. But what was the most surprising, or the thing that you keep thinking about them afterwards, that stood out?
EK: Well, there were a couple things, experiences I had, that really affected my thinking. One, which I do recount in the book, which was very striking to me, was an encounter I had with one of the abstinence educators in Tennessee who confessed to me at one point that several of her friends who'd been teaching their children abstinence for their whole growing up now had pregnant teenage daughters. You know, I really thought she was confessing to me that there were some faults in the abstinence approach when she told me this. But then she said that they really didn't regret it at all. That they felt actually very good that they'd given a clear moral message throughout, even though they hadn't been effective with their own daughters.
I just turned that over and over in my mind, for weeks afterwards. That's when it really hit me that their approach to all these public health issues, whether drug addiction, HIV infection, teen pregnancy, is not actually about results. That's not what they're actually trying to do. That's what public health people are trying to achieve, but that's not what they are trying to achieve.
What they're really trying to achieve is setting a clear moral standard, and they really care that it is clear and strong and that it is clearly communicated. And that people hear that and if they cross the line they will pay the consequences, but at least they really know what that standard is.
I see that reflected in the evangelical Christian perspective, which is that it really doesn't matter how much you've sinned-- you know, the amount of generosity they feel towards George Bush who spent decades being just a complete drunk and probably drug addict and womanizer--but as long as you get to that point where you embrace what is correct, you embrace Jesus, you embrace their moral code, then all is forgiven. So it's okay if someone gets pregnant as a teenager, as long as they get to that point where they acknowledge they were wrong or they sinned or made a mistake and correct their way and embrace Jesus and they'll have a beautiful afterlife.
I think that's a really important thing to keep in mind in a lot of these public health debates in particular. No matter what kind of smokescreens they put up, they are not really interested in results. And if you try to interpret it that way, you kind of get confused about what they're really saying.
The other thing that was pretty surprising to me, I guess, because I think of the administration as so much more savvy than this, is that they really had only given the faith-based grants to Christian groups. You'd think they would be smart enough to have given out some of the grants to Muslim or Jewish charities or something to cover their tail. But to me, that was really revealing of just how bald their approach to all of this is.
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