Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Open Letter to Senator Blanche Lincoln: I Elected a Democrat, Not a Republican

One of my Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln, voted this week with Republicans to defeat both Senator Rockefeller and Senator Schumer’s amendments to the health-care reform bill. Both contained versions of the public option.

I emailed Senator Lincoln today to let her know my thoughts about her recent votes. Here’s the email, as a public statement to one Democratic senator from one Democratic voter who intends to hold his senator accountable when she votes against policies that serve the common good, and which voters elected her to defend.

Dear Senator Lincoln,

I'm emailing to tell you I strongly support the public option in health care. We have a moral obligation to provide access to affordable, quality, basic health care for all citizens.

If you continue to oppose the public option, I will definitely select another candidate when I vote in the next senatorial elections.

Please do what is right, and what a majority of those who placed you in office want, re: health care reform.

Senator Lincoln also voted this week to restore funding to abstinence-only education, despite solid evidence that this approach to sex education does not deter teen sexual activity. I do not support the failed faith-based abstinence-only approach to sex education in American schools.

And I happen to have a tiny bit of experience with that program, which convinced me even more than I might have been convinced by study, that this program is a waste of taxpayer money. Several years ago, I was hired temporarily to help a faith-based organization that depends largely on federal abstinence-education funds to sustain its ministry.

The organization was founded by a Catholic women’s religious community with the primary mission of offering support to unwed teen mothers. The group backed into abstinence education as its mission because, frankly, under the Bush administration that was the only show going. Funding was more or less lavishly available for abstinence education. It was not available for groups offering support for unwed mothers.

By the time I found myself associated with this ministry program, it had put all of its eggs into the abstinence-only basket—with seriously destructive results. Results that were destructive to the organization, both in terms of its primary mission and its funding base . . . .

Like many small faith-based non-profits (who do more and more of the grunt work of federal programs, as the government shifts responsibility for social assistance programs away from the government and to faith-based groups), this non-profit had permitted funding opportunities to drive its mission, rather than vice versa. And so the group was caught in a downward spiral when federal funding dried up, and when the process of obtaining abstinence-only funding became highly competitive and frankly political, with the governor’s office playing a key role in vetting groups that would be funded. (Guess which ones got the funding: those that happened to have strong ties to the Republican governor of the time.)

When the ministry group could not obtain a renewal of the one and only grant on which its life had come to depend—the abstinence-only grant—it tanked, or appeared to do so, though it does have the institutional and financial support of the Catholic women’s religious community that founded and sponsored the ministry. It went out of business for a period of time, only to re-emerge mysteriously with renewed funding from the religious community that had been strangely unable to find funding for the group when its abstinence-only funds dried up.

There are a number of subtexts to this story, clearly. One has to do with the folly of allowing funding sources to drive the mission, in small faith-based non-profits. The other is about the government’s (both federal and state) deliberate decision to use faith-based funding in overtly political ways to reward conservative groups and projects, and punish left-leaning groups and projects. Another is about the lack of conscience of many faith-based groups that seem willing to take government money at any price, even when it is a political bribe, so to speak, designed to tie that faith-based community and those it serves to a particular political party.

And yet another is about how hidden channels of influence in the Catholic church assure that who gets hired and what an organization tries to do will always be controlled by the hierarchy, whenever possible. I strongly suspect that the temporary dissolution of the non-profit for which I worked a short period of time had much to with behind-the-scenes pressures on the religious community in question, whose mother-house happens to be in St. Louis (where Archbishop Burke was commander in chief at the time)—pressures to toe the party line of right-wing Catholics and hold onto the abstinence-only focus, and get rid of dissenters who question that party line.

Once the organization had purged itself of those who appeared to be questioning the abstinence-only focus and/or to have nebulous Catholic credentials (namely moi), the organization came back to life, magically. With chatter from some of the religious women involved in this process about how blessed it is to follow their vows of obedience, when their consciences struggle with decisions that they know are motivated entirely by church politics and not the gospel . . . . I think if I ever hear a Catholic religious say again that he/she is blessed to follow the vow of obedience as he/she inserts the knife into someone’s back, I’ll seriously lose it, right on the spot.

During my period working with this group, I had many opportunities to observe close-up the effects of the abstinence-only program the group was operating. To my way of thinking, it was a dismal failure.

The young women in this program and their children did not need abstinence education. They needed education, period. They needed access to health care for themselves and their children. They needed good jobs to support themselves as they sought to complete their high-school education. They needed good educations to obtain those jobs.

They did not need silly lectures about the irresponsibility of sex outside wedlock. They do need and they enjoy Senator Lincoln’s support, but they do not need that support for abstinence education. They need her advocacy for all the things I have just listed.

The nuns who set up this ministry know all of this. It is not to their credit that they have let themselves be gulled by the abstinence-only approach, because it happens to be the only paying show in town. And it is decidedly not to their credit that they allow pressure groups within the church and hierarchical bullies to force them to silence and marginalize people of conscience who want to assist them in achieving the admirable goals for which they originally set up their ministry.

But that’s where we are, this 1 October AD 2009. It’s where years of neocon politics from both Republicans and Democrats like Blanche Lincoln have brought us. And I wanted to tell this little story to give testimony to what is happening in the real lives of real human beings—in this case, teen mothers, most of them African-Americans—as we waste money on the abstinence-only nonsense and kowtow to religious right groups who don’t really care about those real lives and real human beings, no matter how much rhetoric they spout about responsibility and hard work.