“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…. The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.” C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General 1986
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I have mentioned that I have been reflecting on many things over the past few weeks and months. Of course if you follow my writings you know what I think about public officials who refuse to do their duty to follow the law and protect the rights of other citizens, even of those that they happen to disapprove. This came to a head recently with the case of the anti-marriage equity county clerk, Kim Davis. I am not going to revisit her case as I have been worn out by it and have no need to waste any more time on her.
That being said I can point out the case of a public official, a conservative, pro-life, Evangelical Christian who served as Surgeon General under President Reagan, Dr. C. Everett Koop. In an era of extreme intolerance and hatred for those infected with HIV, Dr. Koop became one of the leading proponents of compassionate and responsible care for victims of HIV/AIDS, most of whom were homosexual men. He met opposition within the administration, where despite his impressive credentials he was marginalized and was vilified by conservative Christians.
Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.
They marginalized the Surgeon General; Dr. C. Everett Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:
“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”
Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”
Despite the opposition and attacks on his character by leaders of the Christian Right, Dr. Koop was undeterred and had no problem taking on these men and women. Some of these supposedly Christian leaders still are with us and spout the same hatred for homosexuals that they did in the 1980s. Dr. Koop realized that many of his fellow Christians really didn’t care about people, and believed that HIV was God’s judgment against people that they already despised and had in their theology condemned to Hell. He also realized that many of these leaders would resort to poor scholarship and even inflammatory statements to influence public opinion.
For doing so Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”
Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schlafly, who in my view is one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schlafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”
Dr. Koop understood the oath that he took as a physician and the oath that he took when he became Surgeon General; sadly Mrs. Davis and many in the Christian Right will never understand that. In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even the most partisan political preachers should abide: “I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”
Dr. Koop’s words should be heeded by any Christian in public office, but sadly, those who do will be treated with the same scorn and hatred as Dobson, Kennedy, Bauer, and Schlafly heaped on him.
I can understand Dr. Koop’s plight. I have been set upon by some of the disciples of Bauer, Dobson, Schlafly, Kennedy and others for simply defending people’s rights under the Constitution and obeying the oath of office that I took in 1981 and have continued to affirm since. Sadly, the truth is that many so-called Christians will attempt to destroy the lives, reputation and careers of other Christians who do not tow their ideological line, and sadly this has become much worse than it was in the 1980s.
I will write more about this but for now I will wish you a good day.