Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Vitter Shows GOP Is Holier Than Thou, But No Better Than Anyone

Two seemingly unrelated news stories yesterday, taken in tandem, offer a clear illustration of everything that's wrong with the religious right's control over the President of the United States and the Republican party.

Senator David Vitter (R-La.) admitted that he was a customer of the so-called "D.C. Madam." Now, personally, I do not think prostitution should be illegal, nor do I think the consensual private sexual activity of politicians (or anyone else, for that matter) is anyone's business. When it comes to senators, I am only concerned with what they say about policy and how they vote on legislation. I do not care who they like to have sex with, where they like to have the sex, and what props they use when having the sex.

I do, however, care about senators imposing their religiously influenced views on the governing of this country, and I absolutely care when they are busted as flaming hypocrites. You see, Vitter isn't just any senator, but a conservative who rode a family values platform to his election. He also had previously denied being involved with a brothel. The Louisiana Weekly accused him in 2002 and 2004 of visiting a madam in New Orleans, but Vitter denied the claims.

Vitter's hypocrisy is appalling enough on its face. But what really gets me angry is that politicians like Vitter legislate policies that, often, are at odds with the beliefs of the majority of the American people, and then they can't even live up to the standards in which they supposedly believe. Consider that Vitter was helping Bush block stem cell funding while he was regularly engaging in the services of a prostitute.

Which brings me to the second news story, that former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona said that while he served under President Bush, administration officials censored what he could talk about, especially on issues relating to the science on stem cell research, contraceptives and sex education. "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Carmona said in a Yahoo!/Reuters article. Carmona went on to add, "The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science, or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party."

Carmona has nailed the problem on the head.

I have written many times in this space (most recently on June 7, "Bush Needs to Remember He Is President, Not Pastor") about how Bush's religious beliefs have driven policies that fly in the face of science and, even more importantly, go against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans (such as his stance on stem cell research). To hear that Carmona, the chief medical official of the United States, was not allowed to give scientific opinions or advice that went against Bush's religious beliefs is horrifying. It makes us sound like a third world theocracy, more like Iran than Europe. And, when we read of the behavior of individuals like Vitter, pushing a religious agenda while frequenting a brothel, it makes the religiously influenced policies all the more repugnant.

Vitter is not the only hypocrite to emerge in the past year. Let's not forget conservative Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a crusader against child exploitation, who resigned after it came out that he was sending sexually explicit messages to teenage boys. Or, Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, who railed against homosexuality, all while, in turns out, he was regularly visiting a male prostitute (and buying crystal meth). After the Foley scandal broke, The Nation reported that a memo was leaked to Christian conservatives containing the names of closeted Republican Congressional staffers, and at that same time, Bill Maher told Larry King on CNN that then Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, was gay.

Isn't it time for Americans to turn to policy and reason when selecting candidates, instead of looking for the one that is the most religious? You might think so, but Emory University professor David Westen would disagree. Westen, the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," is, according to a profile in yesterday's New York Times, the hot strategist of the moment. He argues that while Democrats have traditionally relied on logical arguments to make their points, voters make their decisions based on emotion, often without the voter realizing that he/she is doing it.

In this way, the article points out, Westen takes the opposite approach of books like "What's the Matter With Kansas?" by Thomas Frank or Al Gore's "Assault on Reason," which try and track the analytical decision-making process of the electorate. Westen says that voters don't make choices based on self-interest or factual analysis, but react to emotional responses triggered by the candidates. He gives as an example the different images that occur in the brains of urban and rural people when presented with the word "gun" (crime and violence for city folk, family, nature and rights for country folk). No wonder, he ways, that the phrase "gun control" has such negative connotations for voters outside of cities.

I'm all for any strategy that will help keep Republicans out of positions of power. If changing the conversation from "gun control" to keeping arms out of the hands of terrorists (as Westen suggests) will help, that's fine with me. The bottom line is that it's time to take the country back from religiously driven politicians who put their beliefs before science and the best interests of the country.

Hopefully, the more hypocrites like Vitter get caught indulging themselves in activities that they have attacked in their campaigns, the less voters will vote based on the religious or moral stances of candidates. If that happens, everyone wins. A government based on science and logic that serves the true needs of the American people? It would be nice for a change.