Governor Rick Perry of Texas has thrown his hat into the presidential contender ring, and his nascent campaign has quickly came to demonstrate why the blurring of the distinctions between church and state are so dangerous, especially to women. His campaign has surprisingly been even more of a demonstration of this than that of Michele Bachmann’s, even though the mainstream media consensus is Bachmann is more of a theocrat. Part of the reason is that Perry has been the governor of Texas for over a decade now, and his experience and power as an executive has simply given him more chances to blur the lines….and more reasons to be called out for it.
The incident that got the most attention was Perry’s prayer rally in Houston, TX, where Perry, in what many (including myself) consider a flagrant violation of the First Amendment, led 30,000 evangelical Christians in a day of prayers for the state and the nation. Perry’s contempt for constitutional restrictions on government establishing an official religion throws into stark relief how much the anti-choice movement, to which he is currently pandering as hard as he can, is basically just one arm of an overall theocratic movement in the U.S. to wed state to a very particular interpretation of the Bible.
To begin with, Perry did show some sign of willingness to separate church and state while governor, when he issued an executive order requiring girls in Texas entering the 6th grade to be vaccinated against HPV. This is how it should be. Regardless of one’s personal religious convictions about female sexuality, when you’re the governor, your job is not setting the religious dogma for the state, but prioritizing the public’s health. HPV is a public health issue (just because you personally may feel contracting HPV is just desserts for having sex, the people you pass it to may not be burdened with such anti-sex superstitions) and Perry acted like an executive handling this public health issue, and not a theocrat foisting his own sexual judgments on his citizens.
Of course he had to take it all back, claiming it was all a mistake and that he should have left the decision to the legislature, knowing full well the fundamentalist-heavy state legislature would have killed the requirement. The fact that Perry feels he has to apologize for putting the health of Texas girls ahead of fundamentalist over-the-top hatred of female sexuality–hatred that now runs so deep that they support letting 4,000 women a year die of cervical cancer rather than do anything that could be construed as accepting that sex happens—is just one example of how much the theocrats have taken control of our political process. And how they intend to flex that power by attacking the very concept of a healthy sexuality.
Also indicative of the problem was Perry’s response to a question about sex education in light of empirical evidence that abstinence-only doesn’t work. Perry, unable to deal with the conflict between the demands of fundamentalists that secular government promote their dangerous views of sex as deeply sinful and the demands of public health, flubbed the question. Paul Waldman of the American Prospect explained the flub:
Liberals may think that conservatives support abstinence education because they believe it will reduce teen pregnancy, when the truth is that stopping teen pregnancy is at best a minor consideration for conservatives. If there’s going to be any discussion of sex in school at all, they believe it ought to express the categorical moral position that sex is vile and dirty and sinful, until you do it with your spouse, at which point it becomes beautiful and godly (you’ll forgive a bit of caricature). The fact that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex-ed isn’t something they’re pleased about, but it doesn’t change their conviction about the moral value that ought to be expressed……
So while it’s true that Rick Perry is not a particularly smart guy, the difficulty he has here comes from the fact that his stance on sex education is about 95 percent moral and 5 percent practical.
Waldman’s right, but the problem runs even deeper than liberal empiricism vs. conservative “morality.” (I question a “morality” that hates something as life-affirming as sex, and believes that it’s so sinful it should result in disease, life destruction, and even death for people who engage in it outside of their incredibly strict parameters.) The problem goes right to the separation of church and state. The belief that sex is “immoral” isn’t a standard-issue moral belief shared across cultural or religious differences, unlike other moral beliefs such as the wrongness of murder or stealing. This is a question of religious freedom, and whether or not religious beliefs that sex is wrong should be imposed on minors. Standing with religious freedom means standing with comprehensive sex education and mandatory HPV vaccines, on the grounds that people who get these things will still be free to believe sex is wrong. In fact, whether or not your religion teaches that sex is dirty, you still benefit from vaccination and education—that way, if you slip up and have sex, you can have a clean, pure guilt trip of self-hatred without having a bunch of unnecessary health problems. And if you ever get over your commitment to such a misanthropic, sex-phobic faith, you will be able to start your new, sex-positive life with a clean bill of health.
But even more for the rest of us, we should have secular, evidence-based policy instead of fundamentalist faith-based policy not just because it has better health outcomes for everyone, but also because the belief that church and state should be separate was baked into our Constitution right from the beginning.