Special Report

Can a Methodist Be U.S. Surgeon General?

Democrats have guns aimed at Dr. James Holsinger, alleged holder of "abnormal views."

By 7.12.07

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Today Senate begins hearings on the nomination of Dr. James Holsinger as U.S. Surgeon General. Unusually, several U.S. senators already oppose him, including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd. Another presidential candidate, former Sen. John Edwards, also opposes Holsinger. The New York Times has denounced his views as "abnormal."

Their reasons are based exclusively on Holsinger's activities in the United Methodist Church. The 7.9 million member denomination, like nearly all churches, officially disapproves of homosexual practice. Homosexual groups, like the Human Rights Campaign, have denounced Holsinger as "unworthy" to be "America's doctor" because of his "anti-gay ideology."

Interestingly Clinton and Edwards are also United Methodists. (For that matter, so are President Bush and Vice President Cheney.) But Holsinger's unacceptability to the homosexual groups and to some Democrats is based on his current role in the denomination's top court and on a church study committee about homosexuality on which he served 16 years ago.

Like all mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., United Methodism has been debating homosexuality since the early 1970s. But unlike the Episcopal Church and others, the Methodists have moved in a more conservative direction. According to the denomination's Book of Discipline, "sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond." Homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Practicing homosexuals and others who are sexually active outside marriage may not serve as clergy. Pastors and clergy may not celebrate same-sex unions. Church funding for pro-homosexuality advocacy is prohibited.

The church's governing General Conference meets every four years, and in 1988 it once again affirmed the church's traditional teachings about sex. But in typical bureaucratic fashion, as a consolation to the defeated liberals, a study committee on homosexuality was appointed, a majority of whose members disagreed with the church's stance. Holsinger, then a political appointee in the U.S. Veterans Administration and Lay Leader of the church's Virginia Conference, was part of the committee's traditionalist minority.

Holsinger's critics have focused most strongly on a short paper he presented to the committee in 1991. "The structure and function of the male and female human reproductive systems are fully complementary," Holsinger wrote, in contrast to sex between men. "The varied sexual practices of homosexual men have resulted in a diverse and expanded concept of sexually transmitted disease and associated trauma," according to Holsinger, who described the health consequences from "anal eroticism."

"It is absolutely clear that anatomically and physiologically the alimentary and reproductive systems in humans are separate organs," Holsinger wrote, noting that this understanding is common to all cultures. "When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur." According to the Human Rights Campaign, Holsinger had cited biology and anatomy to argue against "considering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality in his denomination."

When the church study committee clearly was resolved to oppose the official church stance on homosexuality, Holsinger resigned in protest. At the 1992 General Conference, the church affirmed Holsinger's position and rejected the committee's recommendations. In 1996, in what was probably the high water mark for homosexuality advocates, 16 bishops publicly urged the General Conference to change United Methodist teachings on sex. First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the convention, and, with little subtlety, urged the delegates to "throw open the doors of our churches," repeating the "open the doors" slogan of pro-gay activists that year. But once again, the church declined to change its position.

In 2000, the General conference elected Holsinger and other conservatives to eight-year terms on the church's highest court, the Judicial Council, which is charged with upholding church law. By this time, Holsinger was now chancellor of the University of Kentucky medical center in Lexington, Kentucky. Two cases involving lesbian pastors who had come out of the closet came before the court during Holsinger's tenure.

A local church court in Washington state found that Karen Dammann was a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" but refused to defrock her because of its disagreement with church policy. The Judicial Council, including Holsinger, ruled that pastors whom a church court has identified in such a way may not be appointed to a church. But Dammann left the pastorate before her bishop was forced to respond.

The second case involved Beth Stroud, who came out as a lesbian at her liberal Philadelphia church while cameras from PBS were present in 2004. A local church court defrocked her but a regional ecclesial body overturned her conviction. The Judicial Council, again with Holsinger's support, affirmed that the local church court had complied with church law in defrocking Stroud, who now works as a lay employee for her congregation.

In the most recent controversial church case cited by Holsinger's opponents, small town Virginia pastor Ed Johnson was counseling a homosexual man active in the church choir but not yet a church member. Johnson decided that the man, who was publicly involved with another man, was welcome in the church but not yet ready for church membership vows. Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer put Johnson on leave without pay for not granting immediate church membership to the homosexual man. The Judicial Council, again with Holsinger's support, ruled that local church pastors have discretion about who is ready for church membership. Johnson was restored to his pastorate. The church court did not directly rule on homosexuality and church membership.

Since his election to the church's Judicial Council in 2000, Holsinger seems to have avoided public comment on homosexuality. His role in enforcing church law has largely followed the denomination's Book of Discipline, whose positions on homosexuality have been debated at nine General Conferences of the church over the last 35 years.

Homosexual groups have also denounced Holsinger's role in helping to found a United Methodist congregation in Kentucky, Hope Springs Community Church, which allegedly targets homosexuals for reparative therapy. The church's pastor denied the charge, saying the church offers ministry for various addictive behaviors, including pornography and other sexual compulsions. The Human Rights Campaign lamented that "this type of 'ex-gay' conversion therapy has been condemned by almost every major, reputable medical organization."

But Hope Springs Community Church is not a "medical organization." It is a church that, like most churches, understands its role to include helping sinners overcome their sin. The still relatively liberal United Methodist Church, like all but a small number of denominations, regards all non-marital sex as sin. The homosexual groups, and the Democratic politicians who are following their lead, seem to regard anyone who actively supports traditional religious beliefs about sexual mores as automatically disqualified from public office.

"His writings suggest a scientific view rooted in anti-gay beliefs that are incompatible with the job of serving the medical health of all Americans," the Human Rights Campaign insisted about Holsinger. "It is essential that America's top doctor value sound science over anti-gay ideology."

This summer, the U.S. Senate will decide whether the Human Rights Campaign and other homosexual groups should have a veto power over presidential nominees.

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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.