Religious Right Wrong on Public Opinion

Politicians of both parties keep a weary eye on the religious right. Republican officeholders fear a challenge from the right in their own primary if they cross religious conservatives, and Democrats worry about the effect of the religious right in the general election.

The religious right legitimately speaks to the concerns of many voters on issues such as abortion and gay rights, issues that trouble people of faith in both parties. However, in two key instances this year, leaders of the religious right have taken such extreme positions that they may jeopardize the long-term power of their own movement.

Those two issues are federal government intervention in the Terry Schiavo case and the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. In both cases, leaders of the religious right are out of step with the views of many people of faith in this country.

Let’s start with the Schiavo case. Leaders of the religious right pressured Congress to pass special legislation attempting to intervene in a very personal family decision -- the question of extending life for someone with no significant brain function. Congress acquiesced and passed legislation giving the federal courts the right to intervene in this matter. Ultimately, the courts refused to force medical personnel to reattach Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

From the very outset of this wrenching family tragedy, majority public opinion in the country was opposed to intervention by the federal government. In fact, some political observers have suggested that the recent drop in approval ratings for Congress came as a direct result of attempted congressional involvement in the Schiavo matter.

Virtually all of us either have faced a similar decision or know someone who has faced a similar decision involving medical treatment for a loved one. The government simply has no business interfering in this type of situation.

This brings us to the current controversy over use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Sen. Bill Frist recently took a very principled stand in favor of additional federal funding for this type of research, which could hold the key to curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or a myriad of other medical conditions.

Sen. Frist, a prominent cardiac surgeon before entering Congress, made it clear he was only talking about embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics because they were no longer needed by the families that created them. He also called for clear ethical guidelines for such research.

For his trouble, Sen. Frist was roundly criticized by the leaders of the religious right. This is in spite of the fact that public opinion clearly supports this type of medical research and that many members of his own Republican Party share his view.

Take, for example, the reaction by the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, who said, “He (Frist) cannot be pro-life and pro-embryonic stem cell funding. Nor can he turn around and expect widespread endorsement from the pro-life community if he should decide to run for president.”

During my last campaign for Congress in 2004, numerous people (Democrats and Republicans) approached me and urged additional federal funding for stem cell research. This was particularly true among senior citizens who are very concerned that they may one day fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease.

By taking positions on the Schiavo matter and on stem cell research that are so clearly out of the mainstream and not even held by many of their own followers, leaders of the religious right risk diluting the influence that they may have on the political process generally.

There is a clear role for people of faith in politics, but that doesn’t mean that deeply religious individuals will follow their leaders to the end of the earth when they are wrong.

CORRECTIONS: Readers have pointed out errors in two recent columns. I misspelled the name of Congressman Artur Davis and put Congressman John Boozman in the wrong state (he’s from Arkansas and not Arizona). Also, some readers felt I should have mentioned that I was one of the six Democratic congressman who lost his seat as a result of Texas redistricting. I was, but that doesn’t affect my view about the Supreme Court and political gerrymandering.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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