Criticism of O'Donnell misses the mark

Her views on sexual morality should be off limits, but she advocates policies that would hurt the poor

September 20, 2010|By Janet Rosenbaum

Much has been made of Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's views about sexual abstinence, including that masturbation is against evangelical values. However unrealistic her views on such matters, these statements alone don't preclude her from being a good senator. Unfortunately, other statements of hers do.

Abstinence is unrealistic and cannot be the basis for federal policy. Federal data indicate that fewer than 10 percent of Americans abstain from sex before marriage. My co-authored study of church-going Southern Baptists found that only a quarter of the most active members who attend Sunday School every week abstained from sex until marriage. Abstinence promotion is a decidedly unwise policy position, especially because no sex education programs eligible for the current $50 million in annual federal abstinence funding have been proven effective. Meanwhile, the only effective abstinence program is ineligible because it doesn't criticize condoms. Advocating abstinence as public policy ignores the consistent failure of this approach even with devout church-goers.

Ms. O'Donnell made her pro-abstinence (and anti-masturbation) statements as part of her work with an evangelical organization, and they seem to be well within my understanding of mainstream evangelical abstinence views. Some critiques focus on Ms. O'Donnell's status as a 41-year-old single woman and the irony that someone with such a traditional, idealized view of marriage has herself never married, and even speculate on her personal history. That is unfortunate. Ms. O'Donnell is entitled to her beliefs and certainly entitled to her privacy.

What is more noteworthy is that, despite their religious claims on social issues, Ms. O'Donnell and many of her fellow Republicans advocate economic policies that are explicitly condemned in the Bible. A common Republican view says that increasing the deficit in order to give tax breaks to the rich helps the economy because the rich are productive, but giving relief to the unemployed hurts the economy because the poor might be encouraged to become even more unproductive. According to this view, helping the poor risks overrunning the federal budget. Yet the primary reason that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed was because they were rich societies that did not support the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). The people of Sodom believed that helping the poor would turn their wealthy city into a welfare magnet, and cause their rich city to be overrun by poor people (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a), similar to the common Republican fear that unemployment benefits and the like will consume the federal budget.

Candidates are entitled to their personal moral views and should not be ridiculed for them. But conservatives' religious claims have too often been accepted without question, even when they advocate "punish the poor" policies explicitly condemned in the Bible. Ms. O'Donnell advocates policies that punish the poor, for which she should rightly be criticized.

Janet Rosenbaum is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland at College Park School of Public Health. Her e-mail is

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