Saturday, August 27, 2005

Pagan Values

One of the little annoyances surrounding the great big annoyance of November 2, 2004, was all the media chatter over the exit polling that purported to show that “values voters” had gone overwhelmingly for Bush. The implication that Kerry voters somehow lacked concern for “values” was, of course, enthusiastically received on the Right, where people had been saying this for years anyway; on the Left, it occasioned no small amount of breast-beating over the Democratic Party’s need to “reclaim God”, as though religious values were the only ones worth having.

Yale biblical studies professor Wayne Meeks, in his study of the morality in the early Christian Church, points out that early Christians were, in moral terms, largely indistinguishable from the pagans among whom they lived, and that in fact the differences among various Christian groups were at least as great as the differences between Christians and pagans. The only areas where the Christian moralists really differed from their pagan counterparts were in their definition of religious offenses (i.e., “idolatry” tended to replace “desecration” or the like) and the fact that “perhaps in general references to sexual misdeeds are more common on the Christian lists [of vices] than in the ordinary ones.”

Today’s Christian Right presents us with a slightly different picture: though the emphasis on sexual misdeeds is still there, it’s not as a supplement to such basic moral values as love and compassion, but instead of them. Case in point: Tom Coburn (R-OK), who rode the 2004 values tide to a seat in the U.S. Senate. Coburn, an obstetrician who styles himself a rakish “Dr. Tom” on his web site, has an obsessive concern with sexual behavior that in the past has revealed itself in some very strange ways:

  • He objected to a network telecast of Schindler’s List on the ground that it would “encourage irresponsible sexual behavior”.
  • He has claimed that lesbianism is “so rampant in the some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom”.
  • He has called for the death penalty for abortion providers.
Now the New York Times reports that Coburn may have been involved in the cutoff of U.S. funding for programs to slow the spread of AIDS in Central America. Lotería is a bingo-like game that teaches prostitutes, many of whom are illiterate, about the dangers of HIV and the use of condoms; Noches Vives distributes condoms in bars and brothels. Shortly after Dr. Tom wrote to President Bush demanding that the U.S. cease its support for these programs, the U. S. Agency for International Development did just that.

Coburn’s rationale? USAID shouldn’t be “misus[ing] funds to organize and sponsor parties and dance contests to exploit victims of the sex trade.” Instead, apparently, it should save its money and let the prostitutes—and their clientele—die. For that’s the only real alternative: the U. S. couldn’t stamp out the world’s oldest profession even if it tried, and Coburn (to the best of my knowledge) isn’t proposing to spend a single American dollar in the attempt. Without condoms, prostitutes will inevitably catch and spread HIV. And, many of them, die.

So this Senator with a 100-percent rating from the Christian Coalition is essentially proposing to rescue victims of the sex trade by making them victims of disease and death. Apparently he finds the thought of a prostitute being spared, through condom use, to continue her sexual misbehavior more distressing than the thought of her dying from AIDS.

If this is Christian morality, I’ll take the good, old-fashioned pagan values, thank you.