Erecting the 'wall of separation between church and state'...is absolutely essential in a free society.
- Thomas Jefferson, 1808
Religion has a way of taking over debates in this country and clouding the central issues. According to the First Amendment and an array of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, there is supposed to be a separation of church and state. While that theory might be applied in explicit incidents involving prayer or religious symbols, religion is at the heart of numerous policy decisions made by the Bush administration.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent out an email on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee today in which he urged people to oppose President George W. Bush's threatened veto of a bill that would lift Bush's restrictions on stem cell research. The proposal has passed in the U.S. Senate and, according to Schumer's email, will pass the U.S. House of Representatives this week.
There will be lots of rhetoric from the Bush administration as to why this is bad legislation, but at its core, the issue is really quite simply the placing of his religious beliefs ahead of the good of the country. While no medical research path is guaranteed to produce results down the line, there is close to uniform agreement that stem cell research could potentially lead to treatments for conditions ranging from Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis and paralysis. The American Medical Association has supported stem cell research, including the cloning of stem cells for research and treatment purposes. So, there is no objective reason to oppose the proposed legislation. Unless, of course, your religious beliefs tell you that stem cell research is wrong.
What's happening is that the religious views of a vast minority of Americans are holding up a promising course of medical research. (According to the Schumer email, surveys show that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans support stem cell research.) Or, more accurately, the religious views of one man, the President of the United States, are dictating policy to the country in violation of the beliefs of a vast majority of the citizens. Remember, the limits on the federal funding of stem cell research targeted by the legislation Schumer was writing about were not enacted by Congress, but instead resulted from a Bush executive order. In a society with a barrier between church and state, the religious beliefs of one man standing in the way of potential medical breakthroughs is appalling.
The notion of a President imposing his personal religious beliefs on the country is not a good precedent to set. What's next? A Jewish or Muslim chief executive banning ham and bacon because it's not kosher or halal? Bush's actions on stem cell research are no less ridiculous, but far more damaging.
Any doubt that the country, by and large, disagrees with his stem cell stance can be seen as states scramble to fund their own stem cell research programs, trying to fill in the gap left by the federal government. But that very fact shows the failing of the Bush administration. On important problems, we are supposed to look to the federal government to lead the way, not to throw up roadblocks for states to maneuver around.
Bush has injected his right-wing religious beliefs into virtually everything he has done as President, from making policy to appointing judges and government officials. (As I wrote about in an April 16 blog article about competency in government, 150 graduates of Pat Robertson's university, ranked in the bottom quartile by U.S. News and World Report, work in the U.S. government.) And, Bush is still going strong. Today, a Yahoo!/AP article related that Dr. James Holsinger, Bush's nominee to be Surgeon General, the highest-ranking medical official in the government, has some disturbing views on homosexuality. According to the article, Dr. Holsinger wrote in 1991 that homosexual sex is unnatural and unhealthy, and that he helped found a Methodist congregation that believes that homosexuality is a choice that can be cured. Not surprisingly, in addition to being a medical doctor, Dr. Holsinger holds a master's degree from the Asbury Theological Seminary.
Just as someone can believe that stem cell research is wrong, Dr. Holsinger has the right to hold any beliefs on the nature of homosexuality that he desires (no matter how disgusting, narrow-minded, self-righteous, and illogical someone like, say, me, might find those views to be). But, we're not talking about Dr. Holsinger's private beliefs. Dr. Hoslinger has been nominated to serve the American people as Surgeon General. And, like with the stem cell issue, his religious beliefs clash with reality. While Dr. Holsinger might believe that homosexuals can be "cured," the American Medical Association believes the exact opposite, stating in its Official Statement Concerning Homosexuality that it "opposes, the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."
These two recent news stories illustrate Bush's continuing insistence on forcing his religious beliefs on the country. For the minority of Americans that agree with him, they are being well-served. But, for the vast majority of U.S. voters who disagree with the President's policies, it is important for them to keep in mind this increasing trend of religion in government. At a recent debate, three of the ten Republican Presidential candidates declared that they did not believe in evolution. Americans need to stand up and say, "If religion clouds your judgment to the point that you turn your back on objective facts and conclusions in favor of dogged faith in unprovable beliefs, you are not fit to lead this country." A country, again, with a constitutional directive separating church and state.
It's time for U.S. voters to stand up and demand that its leaders act based on the evidence in front of them and the desires of the electorate, not the religious dogmas that they subscribe to. The Bush administration says they are fighting Islamist extremists in the war on terror. It's time for Americans to fight religious extremists in this country who are carrying out a war on common sense.