Saturday, July 22, 2006


By William Fisher

As rockets rain down on Lebanon and Israel, and the world stares into the abyss of a catastrophic Middle East conflagration, it was comforting to note last week that members of Congress refused to get depressed about the scary state of world affairs.

Instead, they busied themselves by concentrating their attention on some of the really crucial domestic issues facing our nation.

Like a Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage. Even though the Senate resoundingly rejected action on this dangerous “values issue” – and even President Bush couldn’t really work up much public enthusiasm for it – the House of Representatives persevered.

Or at least the God Squad wing of the Republican Party persevered.

"It's part of God's plan for the future of mankind," explained Rep. John Carter of Texas, while Rep. Bob Beauprez of Colorado found "the very hand of God" at work, adding, "We best not be messing with His plan." Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana weighed in with "It wasn't our idea, it was God's."

And Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, apparently fresh from a personal conversation with The Higher Power, told his colleagues, “I think God has spoken very clearly on this issue." The gynecologist-legislator referred critics to the Holy Scriptures.

But other House members evidently weren’t connected to Gingrey’s conference call. They defeated the measure, 236 to 187.

The truly religious were more successful in their effort to strip those pesky activist federal judges from ever hearing cases challenging the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. These so-called social conservatives approved the measure, 260 to167. It now faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

"We should not and cannot rewrite history to ignore our spiritual heritage,"
intoned Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican. "It surrounds us. It
cries out for our country to honor God."

Supporters argued that the "under God" phrase, added to the pledge in 1954, was intrinsic to the nation's heritage and traditions and must be shielded from
unelected judges. "This is an issue that clearly resonates to what we are about
as a country," said House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Rep. Todd Akin, another Missourian and sponsor of the measure, said that denying a child the right to recite the pledge was a form of censorship. "We believe that there is a God who gives basic rights to all people and it is the job of the government to protect those rights."

Never mind those quaint notions of judicial independence and the rights of religious minorities.

From among the many ironies in the “under-God” debate came a cautionary note from conservative Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. He said the effort to strip courts of authority could come back to haunt his fellow conservatives if liberals gain control of Congress in the future. Congress, for example, could then prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on a state's decision to ban guns.

Then there was the Mt. Soledad cross issue, to which learned authorities on foreign policy and geopolitics have devoted many hours.

The cross at issue is a concrete edifice that has stood on public land at the center of San Diego's Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial for more than 50 years. The American Civil Liberties Union, nemesis of social conservatism, has been challenging the constitutionality of the cross for more than twenty years.

In May, a US District Judge ordered San Diego to remove the cross by Aug. 2 or face fines of $5,000 a day. But Rep. Duncan Hunter of California – the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who seems to moonlight as a spokesman for the haute cuisine and luxurious accommodations at Guantanamo Bay – came up with a solution. Congress would enact legislation transferring the cross from city management to the Federal government, which would designate it a Federal war memorial and thus prevent it from being removed.

"Removing this landmark would send a message to our nation's veterans that their service and sacrifice has gone unnoticed," Hunter said. "This is the wrong message, especially when so many of our brave men and women are committed to the operational theaters of the global war on terror."

What a no-brainer for Congress in an election year – an issue that wrapped religion inside patriotism inside the Global War on Terror.

Dutifully, 379 courageous members of the US House voted to approve Hunter’s legislation. Only 74 demurred.

Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, one of the groups that has defended the cross in court, said the overwhelming support for Hunter's bill demonstrates that "the liberal judges who support the ACLU’s anti-Christian agenda" are out of touch with America.

"No doubt, the ACLU will return to its liberal judges to try to undo, once again, the democratic process and the will of the people," Thompson said. "However, an effective coalition of veterans groups, political leaders and public-interest organizations is developing to stop them."

An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate by that stalwart champion of the Constitution, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, whose aim is to bring it to the Senate floor before the Congressional summer recess.

Needless to say, the White House strongly endorses Hunter’s legislation.

Meanwhile, over at the White House, President Bush followed through with his threat to issue the first veto of his administration: The stem cell bill passed by Congress to expand Federal funding for research on a greatly enlarged community of embryonic stem cells – cells due to be destroyed by fertility clinics as “medical waste.”

Self-styled religious conservatives pulled out all the stops to defeat this legislation before it got to Mr. Bush’s desk, but were defeated not so much by an agitated pro-choice lobby but by most of our most distinguished scientists and physicians.

When the religious right-wing is in full-throated opposition, it is highly effective in conveying the impression that it speaks for every religious soul. The white noise of its rhetoric tends to drown out all other points of view and maintains that other points of view don’t exist at all.

Not so. Thankfully, there are thousands of religious leaders who believe that it is right-wing fundamentalism that dishonors God and science. They are still less visible and a lot less well-funded than the James Dobsons and Tony Perkins’s of the world. But the more the Bush Administration continues to pander to what it still calls its base, the more these other voices grow both in numbers and in influence.

One of the most articulate of these voices is Rev. Tim Simpson, who heads a relatively new organization known as The Christian Alliance. What he had to say about President Bush’s stem cell veto is worth our attention.

The president’s use of his veto authority, Rev. Simpson said, “will result in the early deaths and unnecessary suffering of millions of Americans. It is one of the most stunning, irrational decisions of an administration with a reputation for such and the most telling piece of evidence yet that America is under the sway of theocrats whose obsession for ideological purity outweighs their concern for America's, and the world's, sick and dying.”

He continues: “The most illogical aspect of this debate is that the embryos which were to be used had the legislation passed will be thrown away! The twisted moral framework that would allow the embryos to be discarded rather than used to heal and save lives goes hand in glove with the pseudoscience that has become the hallmark of the Religious Right, to which this administration gives its highest loyalty.”

And he asks, “How long will Christians in this country stand for such outrages?”

Rev. Simpson tells the story of Jesus the Healer in Mark 6. “The text says that Jesus had compassion for the crowd because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Into the midst of the chaos of the people's lives, Jesus' compassion manifested itself in the healing of their bodies, as the crowds brought the sick to him to make them whole. Tens of thousands of American churches whose pastors follow the lectionary will hear this text this Lord's Day in congregations all across the country. How sad that this is to be the text in so-called Christian America, on the Sunday after the Christian President of the United States threw the sick under the bus. Talk about sheep without a shepherd.”

Rev. Simpson assures us, “This is not a partisan issue. There isn't a Democrat, Republican or Independent who doesn't know someone who is suffering from diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, paralysis or a host of other diseases and ailments that could be ameliorated or cured through the use of stem cell therapies. Forget the Red State-Blue State clash. Polls indicate that better than 7 out of 10 Americans approve of federal funding for stem cell research. Even someone as conservative as Bill Frist, anxious to help mainstream America forget his embarrassing role in the Terri Schiavo affair, demonstrated that even he had not taken complete leave of his senses by supporting the bill. But the President threw a sop to the radical fringe in his party, so the entire nation has to suffer.”

Throwing the sick under the bus is likely to be a big part of the “compassionate conservative” legacy of George W. Bush. And we will probably never know whether his veto was borne of genuine conviction, however misguided, or of Karl Rove’s need to mobilize his flock to get to the polls in November.

But November is not an opportunity only for Mr. Rove. It is a chance for the nation’s flock to show that it’s a lot smarter than our president and our craven Congress thinks it is.

Let us pray.