Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, has finally come out with something other than give me money, honey. Yes, he has taken a position. He has come out in favor of sexual abstinence until you are married.
He not only favors sex education programs that teach only abstinence as a way to prevent teenage pregnancy and the transmission of sexual disease, but he also wants to increase federal funding for these programs from $50 million to $135 million. That's every year, for a program that is close to the hearts of the right-wingers but is as close to the hearts of teenagers as the Hula Hoop. We are living in an era in which the average age of puberty is 12 and the average age of marriage is 26. That's a long time to be abstinent, even by Texas Republican standards.
Bush's reasoning is that teaching abstinence and safe sexual practices at the same time "sends a contradictory message." He must be hanging around some pretty dumb teenagers. One of the lessons that hard-headed adults are often very slow to learn is that teenagers are a lot smarter than we think. Young people who can operate a computer, do research on the Internet, drive a car and play video games that stop adults in their tracks are more than capable of sorting out the difference in messages about sexual practices. What they need is sound information, delivered by a knowledgeable person they trust who can communicate effectively about choices that can alter their lives. They do not need to be used as pawns in the social agenda of the far right.
Bush's comments came as he opened his campaign in South Carolina. He said he also wanted a role in these programs for faith-based institutions. How he plans to square that with our historical hangup about mixing church and state wasn't clear. We've gotten around such concerns in the past with day-care facilities, so we may be able to get around it with this. I, for one, have no problem with subsidizing day care at a religious facility. I have a big problem with my tax dollars lining the pockets of some purple-faced Elmer Gantry preaching abstinence to a group of teenagers and their Bible-pounding parents.
I am not the one dragging the Bible into this. In a story about Bush's day in South Carolina, Washington Post reporter David S. Broder noted that Bush had previously endorsed abstinence at a "True Love Waits" rally sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Texas last April. Bush called upon the young people to forgo sex until they are in "a biblical marriage relationship."
This kind of terminology has eerie overtones of the Promise Keepers, who briefly captured a great deal of attention with the message that couples should follow a biblical model of marriage in which the wife obeys the husband. In return, he will honor, respect and protect her. Maybe yes, maybe no. But however you butter those parsnips, make no mistake about it: In the biblical version of marriage, the wife is subservient to the husband. Robert Ingersoll, a 19th-century lawyer who was attorney general of Illinois and an outspoken atheist, put it most succinctly: "As long as woman regards the Bible as the charter of her rights, she will be the slave of man."
Not a promising prospect, and not a notion that will be popular with women voters. But Bush is clearly out to win the hearts and minds of the evangelicals and the hard-line right-wingers who control the national party apparatus and most of the state Republican machines. Without them, he can't win. They show up at the polls with the unstoppable zeal of the true believer. They controlled the social agenda in the Reagan and Bush administrations and are likely to control the social agenda in any GOP administration that comes to power in the next few years.
They are noisy and powerful, and they are out of step with the American people on many of their issues, sex education being no exception.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates did a poll for the Children's Research and Education Institute last February that found the majority of Americans want to increase the effort to teach age-appropriate sex education classes in public elementary schools. Voters said they were concerned about the spread of AIDS and the number of teenage pregnancies. Support was found among people who identified themselves as conservative, Republican and even evangelical Protestant. Among evangelical protestants, 57 percent were in favor of increasing such education in the elementary schools. Twice as many voters said that it is important to provide scientific information to young people regarding sex and health in the schools as said that sex education belongs in the home and should be done in accordance with the parents' own values.
A poll released this month by Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States found deep and widespread support for sex education programs.
According to the poll: More than eight out of 10 people believe young people should be given information to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases, as well as about abstinence. By the same proportion, they reject the idea that providing sexuality education encourages sexual activity. More than 90 percent support including abstinence as a topic in sex-ed courses for high school students, but 70 percent oppose the federal law that funds abstinence-only education and prohibits the spending of federal funds to distribute information on contraception use for the prevention of pregnancy and disease.
The day of the "True Love Waits" rally, Bush was asked by reporters whether he had abstained himself. Good question, and here's his answer: "I think the thing that baby boomers have to say is not, `Did we make mistakes?' but `Have we learned from our mistakes and are we willing to share the wisdom?' "
Sounds a lot like someone who didn't inhale.