Onward Christian "Science"
An earlier generation of Christian right activists wore their faith much more openly. But conservative strategists know that Americans place great faith in science, and are often turned off by overt religiosity. Beyond the one-quarter to one-third of all Americans who identify as conservative Christians, faith-based arguments can go down like a lead balloon.
Enter "stealth" religion, which uses the discourse of science and health to make faith-based arguments. Creationists in Lab Coats
Perhaps the most visible organization hawking "stealth religion" is the fifteen-year-old Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, which was founded to "confront the materialistic bias in science" and replace it with "a sounder scientific dispensation" based on biblical principles. While "intelligent design" steers clear of words like "creation," "creator," or "creationism," its advocates are savvy conservative Christians who are charting a new, secular-sounding course.
A similar strategy is evident in campaigns against gay/lesbian civil rights, where public health messages have all but replaced the old claims that homosexuality is "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." In the 1990s, states like Colorado and Oregon became testing grounds for national Christian right initiatives against gay rights. These initiatives were consistently voted down, with public opinion polls indicated declining levels of homophobia.
Then Christian conservatives began to retool their message. When speaking to their own flock, they declared their faith unapologetically, but to the public at large, they described homosexuality as an "unhealthy lifestyle choice," packaging their disapproval of those who stray from "God-given" roles as expressions of "concern."
One of the more curious examples of this rhetorical strategy comes from the Family Research Council, which warns of the health effects of same-sex marriage (http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=IF04G01). Taking a page out of conservatives' playbook against welfare moms, the Washington DC-based advocacy organization invokes biology to warn of the dire consequences for daughters without fathers: "A father's pheromones influence the biological development of his daughter," it suggests. "A strong marriage provides a model for girls of what to look for in a man, and gives them the confidence to resist the sexual entreaties of their boyfriends." Since lesbians place their daughters at great risk of premarital sexuality, the story goes, sanctioning same-sex relationships through marriage poses a public health risk.
The strategy worked. In 2004, campaigns against same-sex marriage swept eleven states and helped George W. Bush win reelection.
That the religious right is skilled at the framing game, using science to make its case for moral positions, doesn't make it inherently suspect. All savvy political players use language to their advantage. Metaphors, linguist George Lakoff suggests, make language meaningful. The strict, finger-wagging father who imposes discipline on his wayward children, creating a strong, hierarchical family structure, is the operative metaphor for religious conservatives and capitalist boot-strappers alike.
That image might appeal to many people of faith, particularly those who believe that daddy knows best, but it's less convincing to those whose image of the family is less punitive--and moderate voters who are none too fond of Bible quotes. For this audience, "compassionate" conservative strategists emphasize the positive "health" consequences of a particular policy, or the superior "science" embedded in another. Homosexuality isn't immoral: it's unhealthy. Evolution isn't Satan's work; it's simply bad science.
What deserves close scrutiny are conservatives' efforts to play fast and loose with the facts, flouting scientific methodology, and passing religious ideology off as objective truth.
Antigay activists, for example, have long called upon psychologist Paul Cameron, chairman of a Colorado Springs group called the Family Research Institute. In the early 1980s, Cameron conducted a series of studies claiming that homosexuals threaten public health, social order, and the wellbeing of children--research that has buttressed campaigns against same-sex marriage.
Because these studies used highly irregular sampling techniques and revealed clear homophobic biases, they enjoy little credibility among social scientists. At least two national academic professional associations, including the American Sociological Association, censured Cameron and expelled him from their ranks for "consistently misinterpret[ing] and misrepresent[ing] sociological and psychological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism." A California psychologist has even dedicated a website to debunking Cameron's research (http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_cameron.html).
Yet Cameron's claims--that homosexual coupling undermines its participants' health, has the highest rate of domestic violence, shortens life, and is a poor environment in which to raise children-- continue to buttress campaigns against same-sex marriage, and make their way into journalists' accounts.
Other faith-based "findings"--that women who have abortions are more likely to develop breast cancer, and that condoms don't work, to name but two--have also flown under the radar, making their way into abstinence-only education curricula and web sites linked to the Federal government, according to a report released by California Representative Henry Waxman in 2004 (www. politicsandscience.org).
Killing the Scientists
As Christian conservatives mobilize their own counter-facts, counter-studies and counter-experts, they're also placing pressure on elected representatives to de-fund research they believe is at odds with conservative religious principles. Sexuality-focused research has been a major focus of attention.
Steven Epstein, writing in the March 2006 issue of Sexuality Research & Social Policy, notes that in July 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives came within two votes of revoking the funding previously granted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to four research projects on topics related to sexuality and health, including HIV/AIDS.
Within a few months, a "hit list" of 157 sexuality researchers--compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition, renowned for its attacks on "the gay agenda"--made its way through Congress and the NIH, and a fact sheet on condoms mysteriously disappeared from a CDC web site. While the NIH managed to protect the researchers named on the "hit list," conservative efforts to defund so-called "frivolous" research projects, especially those dealing with sexual issues, have proven successful on a number of occasions. The indirect impact of such attacks, by steering researchers away from politically controversial areas, may be even greater.
Religious conservatives don't like to fund research on sexuality, among other subjects, because they believe that by its very nature scientific knowledge is a liberal, secularizing force. They're partially correct: scientific research can call into question faith-based truths and encourage a more skeptical view of the world.
By making informed debates about issues of national importance more and more difficult, Christian "science" is fostering faith in ignorance.
Arlene Stein's latest book, The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (Beacon Press), is a study of one small community swept up in a bitter battle over gay/lesbian rights. A collection of her essays, Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture, will be published by New York University Press in July 2006. She has written about culture, religion, and social movements for The Nation, The Oregonian, The Forward, and Newsday. She teaches Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.
Onward Christian "Science" | 26 comments (26 topical, 0 hidden)
Onward Christian "Science" | 26 comments (26 topical, 0 hidden)