The Christian Taliban
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During the Taliban rule of Afghanistan the world got a good look at what happens when religious zealots gain control of a government. Television images of women being beaten, forced to wear burkas, and banned from schools and the workplace helped build strong public support for the President's decision to invade Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
But even as President George W. Bush denounced the brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime in Kabul, he was quietly laying the foundations for his own fundamentalist regime at home. For the first time far right Christian fundamentalists had one of their own in the White House and the opportunity to begin rolling back decades of health and family planning programs they saw as un-Christian, if not downright sinful.
Since 2001 dozens of far-right Christian fundamentalists have been quietly installed in key positions within the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Drug Administration and on commissions and advisory committees where they have made serious progress. Three years later this administration has established one of the most rigid sexual health agendas in the Western world.
It began immediately. One of George W. Bush's first acts as president was to issue an executive memorandum reinstating a global abortion "gag rule." The rule was first implemented under Ronald Reagan but revoked during the two Clinton administrations. The rule prohibited federally funded family planning providers from even discussing abortion with their clients.
Bush's order reflected the views of those at farthest reaches of the Christian right, zealots who saw any means by which women controlled reproduction as unbiblical:
"I would like to outlaw contraception...contraception is disgusting -- people using each other for pleasure." -Joseph Scheidler, Pro-Life Action League
"I don't think Christians should use birth control. You consummate your marriage as often as you like -- and if you have babies, you have babies." Randall Terry, Operation Rescue
Over the next twelve months the administration moved quickly to install similarly-minded Christian fundamentalists to positions of authority and influence over all matters relating to reproductive and sexual health.
Dr. Alma Golden: appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs. A Texas pediatrician, she is a longtime proponent of abstinence as the only acceptable means of birth control. Dr. Golden declared that henceforth the department would stress "abstinence-only" as the solution to unwanted pregnancies, not just for teens, but unmarried adults as well.
Tom Coburn: Former Republican congressman and anti-condom crusader. Appointed co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. While in congress Coburn tried to force condom manufacturers to label condoms as "ineffective" against the spread of sexually transmitted infections. "I will challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV," Coburn said upon his appointment.
Dr. Joseph McIlhaney, Jr.: Appointed to Coburn on the HIV and AIDS advisory council. McIlhaney has a long and well-documented history of disseminating misleading data on condom failure rates. He was appointed in spite of the fact that in 1995 Governor George W. Bush's own Texas Commissioner of Health openly denounced McIhaney's anti-condom propaganda and his professional credibility.
Dr. W. David Hager: Appointed to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Dr. Hager served as spokesperson for the Christian Medical Association. He authored the book, As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now , and co-authored a book that recommended scripture readings and prayers to relieve the symptoms of PMS. Dr. Hager opposes prescribing contraceptives to unmarried women and spearheaded a petition drive by the Christian Medical Association to revoke the FDA's approval of mifepristone, the so-called "morning after pill."
Dr. Joseph B. Stanford: Also appointed to the Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Dr. Stanford is on record for his belief that the only acceptable form of contraception, besides abstinence, is the all-natural "rhythm method." Dr. Stanford refuses to prescribe contraceptives, stating that "(modern) medicine is permeated with attitudes toward sexuality and fertility that are incompatible with Christian values of the sanctity of life, marriage, and procreation, attitudes that both reflect and perpetuate the recreational approach to sexuality found in our secular culture."
Susan A. Crockett: The third Christian fundamentalist appointed to the same FDA committee. Crockett served as a board member of the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She co-authored, "Using Hormone Contraceptives is a Decision Involving Science, Scripture, and Conscience" in the book, The Reproductive Revolution: A Christian Appraisal of Sexuality, Reproductive Technologies and the Family . The book was edited by Dr. Hager.
When the hot issue of stem-cell research came up, President Bush dismissed two members of his Council on Bioethics who had each strongly supported the use of embryonic stem cells in research. They were replaced by three new members who, as the pro-life Family Research Council reported, "fall more in line with the President's pro-life views."
Information became a prime target of the Christian Taliban. President Bush says he respects "good science," when making public policy. But, the crux of the matter apparently hinges on the definition of "good," especially when it comes to family-planning issues. When good science clashes with Biblical fundamentalist beliefs in this administration, science loses every time.
Early in 2001 Bush's Christian Taliban began scrubbing federal information sources of offending materials. The censorship campaign prompted Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) to send a letter to o HHS Secretary Thompson demanding an explanation for the removal of information from the HHS Web site of scientific findings by the National Cancer Institute that, contrary to anti-choice propaganda, abortions do not increase the risk of breast cancer. Thompson never responded but the "cleansing" continued.
- Scientific data on condom use, long available on government health Web sites, was removed and replaced by sermons on abstinence and alarmist propaganda that exaggerated the risks of condom use.
- The phrase "reproductive health" was expunged and replaced with the vague terms "related clinical preventive health services" and "related preventive health services."
- Links to non-governmental family planning resources were deleted.
- Web sites at the Centers of Disease Control and National Institute of Health were cleared of scientific studies and materials relating to abortion and condom use.
- At the CDC results from a peer-reviewed study showing that education about condom use did not result in increased sexual activity or sex at younger age, were deleted from the Web site.
- The NIH's Web site was cleaned of FAQ's on condom effectiveness and a sexuality education curriculum called "Programs that Work."
Good science was disappearing from government publications and Web sites at such a pace that the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in early 2004 documenting and condemning the Bush administration.
There is significant evidence that the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented... There is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies. These actions have consequences for human health, public safety, and community well-being." (Union of Concerned Scientists, report, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking. 2004.)
So, even as the Bush administration denounced and battled Islamic religious zealotry abroad it was and is nurturing a fundamentalist Christian version here at home, much to the delight of radical right-wing Christians.
"Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not neutral about what kind of government we should have," states Dr. Mark Allen Ludwig, author of True Christian Government .
"God gave governments responsibility only for infrastructure and defense," according to an article by Rev. Bob Enyart, pastor of Denver Bible Church. "If government limited itself to its two just functions, thereby getting out of education, health care, farming, etc., it could better defend America. ... Christians who carefully study the Bible are best qualified to teach the world how it should be governed."
One of the oldest and best-established forces in the Christian Taliban attack on secular government has been the Christian Coalition. Recently the group threw its full weight behind the President's push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The Christian Coalition has been conducting a "Let's Take America Back" national petition drive over the last several months, which now also includes support for the so-called Federal Marriage Amendment. The Christian Coalition mission statement states:
We are driven by the belief that people of faith have a right and a responsibility to be involved in the world around them. That involvement includes community, social and political action. Whether on a stump, in print, over the airways the Christian Coalition is dedicated to equipping and educating God's people with the resources and information to battle against anti-family legislation.
What is remarkable is that this was accomplished without significant public outcry. The reason is that America's Christian Taliban are more public relations savvy than their Islamic counterparts. No American women are being forced to cover up, beaten for appearing in public wearing make up, or barred from the workplace. The changes being made are more subtle and less visibly shocking. They are incremental, technical, administrative -- but far-reaching.
They have also gotten away with it because we Americans like to consider ourselves tolerant and respectful of religious beliefs. Openly criticizing someone's religious beliefs ranks right up there with racism and bigotry -- a fact the Christian Right has used to stifle opposition to its agenda.
Mainstream Christians share secularists' concern over workings of Bush's Christian Taliban. Speaking at the National Press Club last year, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice President Rev. Carlton W. Veazey condemned the "back-door attempts by the Bush Administration to radically alter policies and practices concerning abortion, family planning, and sexuality education to conform to extreme views."
So, it may be time to admit that our tolerance of Christian fundamentalists is turning us into a nation of chumps. By claiming it is they who are being persecuted, the Christian Taliban have cowed mainstream Christians and secularists into silence, even as they impose their own faith-based governance upon us.
We need to reconnect with a fundamental ingredient of America's strength: the separation of church and state. That wall of separation has for over two centuries spared Americans ftom the kind of religious strife witnessed in Bosnia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan.
Mixing religious dogma and public policy always creates an explosive compound -- and it always blows.