Political Hay

Religious Need Not Apply

Senate Democrats are working overtime to exclude orthodox believers from the Surgeon General's office.

By 6.13.08

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More than a year after his nomination, and ten months after his confirmation hearings, President Bush's nomination of James Holsinger as U.S. Surgeon General remains stalled because the physician has publicly supported his church denomination's traditionalist stance on homosexuality.

The recent governing convention of the United Methodist Church, in which Holsinger has served in prominent offices over the last 20 years, strongly reaffirmed its stances affirming marriage only as the union of man and woman, describing homosexual practice as "incompatible" with Christian teaching, and prohibiting ordination to persons sexually active outside marriage.

The UMC's position is hardly extraordinary. It resembles the teaching of virtually every major Christian church. But Holsinger's public role in upholding that stance has been the chief obstacle to his confirmation by the U.S. Senate's Democratic majority. His potential recess appointment has also been blocked by brief, pro forma sessions convened in an empty chamber by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"America's top doctor should be a doctor for all Americans," Senator Barak Obama warned about Holsinger last year. "I have serious reservations about nominating someone who would inject his own anti-gay ideology into critical decisions about the health and well-being of our nation."

Teddy Kennedy, who chairs the Senate committee that would confirm Holsinger, likewise shared his concern about whether Holsinger could put "public health first and leave politics and ideology behind."

SPECIFICALLY, HOLSINGER has been attacked by gay groups, Senate Democrats, and the New York Times for a 1991 paper he wrote for a United Methodist study committee on homosexuality called "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality." The brief document avoided Scriptural arguments and instead made health and natural law arguments against moral approval for homosexual practice.

Senator Kennedy pressed Holsinger during his July 2007 confirmation hearings about the study paper, which Kennedy decried as, "ideological and decidedly not an accurate analysis of the science then available on homosexuality."

Holsinger vaguely responded that the paper "does not represent where I am today...without describing any specific disagreement with it now. "And should I be confirmed as surgeon general of the United States, I pledge to you today that I will continue that commitment to serve all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or any other personal characteristic," he continued. Evidently, that assurance was not enough for Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, a fellow United Methodist who has criticized Holsinger's nomination.

Holsinger's long medical career with the Department of Veterans Affairs and more recently with the University of Kentucky's medical center has been distinguished. Few of his critics have questioned his professional credentials, instead focusing nearly exclusively on Holsinger's church background.

Oddly, few prominent defenders of Holsinger have publicly decried the bigotry that would seemingly exclude any publicly orthodox Christian from serving as U.S. Surgeon General.

THANKS TO HIS publicly articulated defense of his church's teachings, Holsinger has been denounced by liberals in the public square and within his own denomination. Having just completed eight years on United Methodism's top church court, he has presided over several cases involving enforcement of the church's prohibition against actively homosexual clergy.

Liberal caucus groups within United Methodism targeted him and other conservatives on the church court. One gadfly critic even asked the church's governing General Conference, which met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, to censure Holsinger.

The proposed censure motion went nowhere. Holsinger, now age 67, did not run for election for the church's court, which involves an 8 year term. Other conservatives on the court were defeated for reelection. But the denominational convention by fairly strong margins reaffirmed the church's policies on homosexuality.

A proposed "compromise" that would have declared the church to be of two minds on the issue was defeated by 55 to 45 percent among the nearly 1,000 delegates. The church's prohibitions against active homosexual clergy and same-sex unions were upheld by larger margins, including the church's support for laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Remarkably, the affirmation for traditional Christian ethics by the 7.9 million U.S. member denomination, America's third largest religious body, was unreported by nearly all national media. But the United Methodist votes were largely a vindication for Holsinger's position, and significantly so, since his church is still "mainline" and fairly liberal.

That vindication does not seem to have reignited Holsinger's prospects for a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate. With only months left to serve in an expiring Bush Administration, perhaps most supporters do not see battling on Holsinger's behalf worth the political capital.

But a very qualified medical professional is being politically disqualified from serving as U.S. Surgeon General primarily because he affirms, within his own church, generic Christian ethical teachings on homosexuality. Such a precedent seems potentially dangerous to all traditional religious believers.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.