Sitting alone in a classroom at a Catholic all-boys high school this weekend (don't ask), I passed the time by browsing through the health textbooks stacked on the window sill. Sure enough: no discussion of contraception (condoms are mentioned, but not described, in connection with people who have HIV); abortion, still legal here in the United States, isn't even listed in the glossary. Sex itself is discussed only in the vaguest terms, with emphasis on how to avoid it. This wasn't a special Catholic-boy textbook, either -- "Health: Skills for Wellness" is one of the bestselling health texts in the country.
Think about that when you read that "moral values" voters will get no payback for helping Bush to victory. Tom Frank, whose much-discussed "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is a colorful guide to the wing nuts of the Sunflower State, is the chief exponent of this view. Year after year, says Frank, working-class voters fall for fire-breathing crusaders who promise to crack down on abortion, gay rights, porn, Darwin and so on, but once in office all they do is cut the taxes of rich people and shovel favors to corporations. Not only do these right-wing radicals vote against their own economic interests, Frank argues, they're suckers, too.
Has the Christian right really so little to show for its self-sacrifice? "John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding," Frank Rich argued in his "New York Times" column recently, "it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide." So you might think if you watch a lot of TV, where, as Rich often points out, hedonism, vulgarity and excess flourish more lavishly with each passing season -- and nowhere more so than on Fox, the right's own network. It's probably true that when humongous amounts of corporate money unite with the national longing for wardrobe malfunctions of every kind, the mores of small-town Kansas don't stand much of a chance.
It may also be true that the radical right will never achieve its stated legal goals -- the overturning of Roe v. Wade, passage of the Human Life Amendment, a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage, the reinstatement of prayer and Bible reading in the schools -- much less such dystopian dreams as making Christianity the national religion, abolishing public schools and banning the Pill and divorce. But that's like saying the left got nothing from FDR because it didn't get socialism. The fact is, anyone who thinks the GOP is stiffing its "moral values" backers hasn't been paying attention: George Bush, for one, has been paying them back for the past four years. He's promoted a raft of anti-choice legislation -- including the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and a law making it easier for health professionals to deny women abortions and even birth control for "reasons of conscience." He's packed the federal bench with antichoice reactionaries, and he's seeded the federal bureaucracy and the government's international agencies with hard-line social conservatives like the faith-healing Dr. W. David Hager of the FDA reproductive health panel. These people wield immense power over regulations and funding and the flow of information. It did not take a Senate majority to keep emergency contraception from being sold over the counter; all it took was compliant Mark McClellan, willing to overlook the recommendation of his own expert panel and the overwhelming weight of medical opinion.
Bush has flat-funded Title X, which pays for birth control for poor women, while heaping federal dollars on abstinence-until-marriage programs, $138 million in fiscal 2004 and a requested $272 million for the next year. He's appointed delegates to UN conferences who have done their best to wreck global consensus on reproductive health, the rights of women and children, and AIDS. Fully one-third of the $15 billion budget for his international AIDS initiative goes to abstinence-only programs, cutting out established workers in the field in favor of Christian groups with zero experience. Even though his faith-based initiative tanked, Christian entrepreneurs -- pastors, counselors, creators of "educational" materials, inspirational speakers, anti-sex impresarios -- have gotten loads of federal money, with more to come. As a bonus, if you visit the Parks Department gift shop at the Grand Canyon, you can now buy "Grand Canyon: A Different View," a creationist volume that claims that the earth couldn't possibly be more than a few thousand years old.
The cultural right may eventually find itself stymied at the federal level -- although it may also luck out with Bush's upcoming Supreme Court appointments, and with such Talibanesque new senators as Tom Coburn, who wants to execute abortion providers, and Jim De Mint, who doesn't want gays or unmarried mothers teaching school. Most of government happens in the states, though, and in some the right is doing quite well. Eleven states passed gay-marriage bans. Four states -- Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- are poised to require that evolution be taught as an unproven hypothesis, with Kansas, where creationists just won back control of the school board, probably to follow. Florida is the proud home of a faith-based prison. In Mississippi, women who want abortions must be told, falsely, that there's a link between abortion and breast cancer. In Texas, due to a little-noted regulatory change reported in this space last spring, there is now exactly one clinic where a woman can get an abortion after sixteen weeks. I could go on and on. Some of these victories for the radical right may seem minor, or bizarre, or symbolic, but they add up.
I too believe that in the long run equality and tolerance and liberal sexual mores will win out over repressive Christian "moral values." After all, civil union, which no one had even heard of a few years ago, is now supported by two-thirds of the population. But before the tables turn on the Christian right, how many biology classes will be clouded with creationist nonsense? How many young people will suffer STDs and HIV and pregnancy because they learned in school that condoms "don't work" -- or didn't hear about them at all? How many women will carry disastrous pregnancies to term? It's not much comfort that Pat Robertson can't ban "Trading Spouses."
"Subject to Debate" columnist Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including "The New Yorker," "Harper's Magazine," :Ms." and the "New York Times."
By Katha Pollitt
Reprinted with permission from The Nation