Sunday, June 10, 2007

Wading in on the Holsinger Controversy

By now most people interested in religion and politics know that Lexington, KY doctor and United Methodist James Holsinger has been nominated by President Bush to be the next Surgeon General of the United States. What you probably don't know is that I grew up in the same church as Dr. Holsinger, before he left to be part of a start-up congregation and I moved to Louisville. Because of our connection - though we are by no means close - I have been following his controversial nomination with great interest.

Frank Lockwood, the Bible Belt Blogger, religion editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, formerly of the Lexington Herald Leader has been fanning the flames of this controversy for some time. His blog is the best place to quickly catch up on what all of the fuss is about.

To briefly sum up the situation, Dr. Holsinger is, in addition to being a professor at the University of Kentucky's medical school, a prominent figure in the United Methodist church. It is his church work that has drawn the criticism to his nomination. He served on a church committee that studied homosexuality before withdrawing from that committee when he thought that it might change church teachings on homosexuality. In 1991 he published a paper for that committee titled the Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality, in which he argued that gay sex was pathological, both unnatural and unhealthy. You can find the text of that paper here, at Frank Lockwood's Bible Belt Blogger blog.

Additionally, as a member of the United Methodist Judicial Council, he was involved in two decisions which, while in accordance with the Book of Discipline, pained me and other advocates for full acceptance of gays and lesbians. As part of the Confessing Movement, he has consistently pushed the church in a more conservative direction. He may or may not be involved with a group called Good News which, based out of Wilmore, KY, has pushed for the United Methodist church to split over the issue of homosexuality.

What is not in doubt is that Dr. Holsinger is a conservative evangelical Christian, part of a movement to reform the United Methodist church (in a way that I wholeheartedly disagree with), who feels that the Bible unequivocally condemns same-sex sexual relationships. The question is whether or not these positions should disqualify him from serving as U.S. Surgeon General.

Focus on the Family has supported Dr. Holsinger's nomination, rightly arguing that there should be no religious test for office. However, I fear that it is not Holsinger's critics (a long list of prominent Democrats, including Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Christopher Dodd, along with the Log Cabin Republicans), but rather the Bush administration that has in this case applied a religious test. While James Holsinger may be a talented physician of some renown and distinction, I suspect that he came to the Bush administration's attention not primarily because of his medical work, but because of his religious and political views. For that reason it seems to me that his views are fair game.

However, as this article from the Louisville Courier Journal notes, Holsinger's religious views only tell part of the story. In it you find this passage which challenges the notion that his moral and theological views of homosexuality will impact his positions on public policy:

But more than a dozen Kentuckians who have worked with the former secretary of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and chancellor of UK's Chandler Medical Center say he is not bigoted and is deeply committed to providing health care for all.

"He never expressed anything but acceptance and fairness in the workplace," said Maria Kemplin, a lesbian who worked as a budget and policy analyst for Holsinger when he was chancellor.

As a cabinet secretary, Holsinger championed causes at odds with some conservative religious views, including stem cell research.

And as chancellor, he once faced down two conservative state senators who threatened to withhold funding from a lesbian health-care seminar at UK in 2002.

"He was unflinching in his support," said Phyllis Nash, who organized the conference and was then vice chancellor.

Personally I am deeply conflicted. While I disagree with Dr. Holsinger's position on homosexuality and many other cultural, ethical, and theological issues, and while I view him as having a decidedly negative impact on my denomination, making us a less welcoming and less compassionate church, I don't think that his religious views should automatically disqualify him from serving as Surgeon General. I am deeply concerned about his apparent view (at least as of 1991) that gay sex is pathological, and that homosexuality is a disease. That would call into question his ability to educate the American public on matters of health. But there is some reason for hope that, despite his religious views, he still values fairness, and is able to tolerate gays and lesbians despite his opposition to their lifestyle.

I wish that the Bush administration would base their nominations for important positions on ability rather than world-view. Then perhaps we would be able to fairly access whether or not James Holsinger has the ability - despite his world-view - to do the job of Surgeon General.


Anonymous said...

I don't think that his religious views should disqualify him from serving as Surgeon General; I think that it's his finding about homosexual sex (a finding that isn't widely borne out by other available research) that should disqualify him from serving as Surgeon General. Although his finding is related to his religious views somehow, it's the (quasi-)scientific finding that is a matter of public interest and concern, not the religious point of view that contributed to shaping it.

Try out this analogy: Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions, or so I am told. So if a Jehovah's Witness were to become Surgeon General and suddenly recommend that in the interest of public health hospitals should stop transfusing people, shouldn't that raise a red flag? I think so; it's one thing for a person to have a religious view, but for that view to contribute to the formation of medically and scientifically dubious policies is quite another.

Also, you come close to seeing the real issue at the very end. Much of the debate, even in your account of it, seems to be driven by the notion that Holsinger is somehow entitled to be Surgeon General, barring some "disqualification" or other. But that mischaracterizes the situation. Shouldn't it be the case that no one is especially entitled to be Surgeon General, but that some candidates might be more qualified than others (even given a very generous notion of the relevant qualifications)?

This seems like a subtle distinction, but really it isn't. If Congress refuses to confirm Holsinger, they haven't applied a religious test, necessarily, so much as refused to give the president his way. (Whether Congress should always give the President his way on nominations is a matter of some debate; Republicans say this now, but if a Democrat gets elected in '08, expect their tune to change.)

There are certainly plenty of other candidates for Surgeon General that Bush could have nominated, even religious ones, that don't come with Holsinger's baggage. The fact that Bush (really, Rove, methinks) picked Holsinger has nothing whatsoever to do with any concern with the office of Surgeon General, but instead with keeping Dobson and his followers happy and distracted from the war. To these folks, the only reason offices like the Surgeon General exist is to provide token support to elements of their political coalition or reward personal loyalty. Don't get me wrong; the Democrats do this, too, although perhaps not in a way that (re: Gonzales) simultaneously threatens the rule of law and principles of sound governance.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Note also that Holsinger's controversial report claimed that MALE homosexual sex was pathological. Haven't read the report, but if the title is accurate, it has little to say about female homosexual sex. Maybe that's because the Bible says nothing, or next to nothing, about lesbians (unless you think that Leviticus was referring to them when it condemned witches).

Interesting that the two LGBT persons to testify to Holsinger's equanimity and justice were... you guessed it... lesbians.

Sandalstraps said...

Good point on the distinction between male and female homosexuality. However, on the UM Judicial Council he ruled against lesbians seeking ordination, arguing with the Book of Discipline that the homosexuality (without respect to gender) is incompatible with Biblical teachings.