Sunday, February 26, 2006

Religious Program's Tax Funding Stopped

There is a program called the Silver Ring Thing that has as one of its goals promoting a reduction in teen pregnancy through abstinence. That’s all well and good.

In communities such as Edinburgh, teenage pregnancy has become epidemic. In some schools, being pregnant is almost a status symbol.

And, of course, there’s show-and-tell time when the pregnancy is over and the new teen mom brings her bundle of joy to school to show to her classmates.

The Silver Ring Thing is a nationwide Christian-based program that goes into churches and puts on shows that include music, comedy skits, and messages about staying abstinent. Participants are given silver rings and are asked to make a pledge to remain abstinent from sex until they are married.

The rings are inscribed with a Bible verse encouraging Christians to remain holy and refrain from sexual sin.

Well, that’s all fine a good, unless your belief system doesn’t identify premarital sex as a sin. And even if it doesn’t, I think most of us can agree that young teens that are still in school should not be having sex.

There really isn’t anything wrong with the Silver Ring Thing program, except for the way that it has been funded. The Bush administration has given the program more than $1 million over the past three years to fund its proselytizing activities. Teens who attend the program are invited to testify for Jesus.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government for misuse of public funds. Last week, the Bush administration agreed to stand down and put an end to taxpayer funding of the program.

“Public funds were being used to fund a road show, really, to convert teens to Christianity,” said Julie Sternberg, an ACLU attorney.

The ACLU has no problem with the program itself, as long as taxpayers don’t have to pay for it. And now, the program can continue with private donations as its source of income.

The Alliance Defense Fund represented the Silver Ring Thing program in court. It is a religious organization that represents its clients rights to, “hear and speak the truth,” as its Web site proclaims.

Also on its Web site, the Alliance Defense Fund states, “We rely solely upon God's redemptive grace for our existence, our vision, and our sustenance, trusting in His sovereignty as we seek to convey hope to all we serve.”

Promoting teen abstinence is laudable, whether it’s done using prudish religious dogma or encouraged with less formal pragmatism. But if public funds are used to fund teen abstinence programs, those programs should be strictly secular in nature.

The Alliance Defense Fund lawyers say that teens could choose between a religious program and a secular one. But since the programs are held in a church environment, and since the organization itself is Christian in nature, there was probably very little actual choice involved.

The ACLU victory is a tiny step in the battle to keep Bush from turning this country into a theocracy run by Christian fundamentalists like him. But it was a victory, nonetheless.

Americans who value true religious freedom need to keep plugging away to thwart further efforts by Bush to indoctrinate America with his own brand of morality.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bill Would Make School Snacks Healthier

Many years ago, when I was in school, our cafeteria served a single line of food. A student could either eat what was on the line, or bring his own food from home. And our drink choices were even smaller. We had milk, white milk.

We had no vending machines until my second year of high school. And then our only choice of food product was yellow apples or red apples. We couldn’t purchase soft drinks, candy, cookies, cakes, chips, or flavored milk.

Today, students have a wide variety of food choices, both in and out of the cafeteria. Many schools have soft drink vending machines scattered throughout the building. Other vending machines sell potato chips, candy, and other sugar-ridden snacks.

Cafeterias offer a la carte items, including French fries, fruit flavored drinks that are not much more than flavored sugar water, and ice cream.

There is a growing problem with childhood obesity in this country. Not everyone believes that kids are getting fat because of what they eat at school, but it does contribute.

For that reason, the Indiana General Assembly is prepared this year to finally pass legislation that will help address the issue of what kind of junk food school children are allowed to purchase.

The Indiana Senate last week passed Senate Bill 111 that would place restrictions on what kind of snacks qualify as healthy and what percentage of unhealthy snacks vending machines are allowed to contain.

The bill is a good first step, but it is far from perfect.

For example, the bill requires that only 35 percent of snacks sold at school be of the more healthful variety beginning this year, going up to 50 percent in 2007. When given such a choice, which side of the vending machine will students be more likely to spend their money on?

A better bill would outright prohibit the sale of unhealthy junk food during school hours from vending machines and from the cafeteria. But such a bill would be unlikely to pass since it would be opposed by the snack food companies.

The Indiana Vending Council and Hoosier Beverage Association both support the bill in its current form. That should send up a red flag that maybe the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Still, it’s better than nothing. And it does present kids with better options than they might otherwise have.

But even the so-called healthier snack foods may not be all that healthy. The guidelines provide that the healthier options must not provide more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, or 10 percent from saturated or trans fat. There is a 210-calorie limit as well as a 20-ounce limit for beverages, which do include the sugar-laden sports beverages.

In addition, to qualify, a snack cannot contain more sugar than 35 percent of its total weight. That still could add up to more sugar than what should be considered “healthy.” Caffeinated beverages and sugar-sweetened soft drinks are also not on the healthier snacks list.

Realizing that snack foods by themselves have not made our children obese, but that lack of exercise has also played a role, state legislators also added a physical activity clause to the bill. It doesn’t actually mandate any kind of activity, but it does require schools to provide time for it.

The bill still needs to be passed by the full House and then be signed into law by the governor. But since every group that might have opposed it seems to support it, most lawmakers see no problem for the bill in the House. And a governor’s office spokesperson said the governor agrees with the bill in its current form.

So, unless something unexpected happens, school kids will have some healthier snack choices come September. We can hope they choose to take advantage of them.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

What Does it Mean to be Christian?

I'm a Christian.

The above sentence is not only a declaration of what I believe, it also should raise a red flag. If someone starts off a sentence with "I'm a Christian," especially when in a confrontational situation, it could be that they are trying to not only convince you of their moral superiority, but that they are attempting to assuage their own doubts about their position.

More typically, a person who calls himself or herself a Christian does so with the intent of evoking superior moral character, so that whatever comes after must be weighed against not only their personal opinion, but the collective opinions of God and the Christian community. So why bother to debate at all, since in their minds, they have already won.

I'm a Christian, but not in the same sense that most Christians, especially fundamentalists, might imagine when they hear the word. In other words, I am not a bible-thumping, proselytizing, Jesus freak.

I'm only a Christian for lack of a better word. I believe that Jesus was a great man and I believe it would generally be a good idea to base one's life around his teachings, as long as those teachings are applied to the maturation level of present-day society, and not necessarily to the agrarian, and sometimes barbaric, society that existed in Jesus' day.

Is Jesus the son of God? In one sense, perhaps we all are children of God, so that makes Jesus one, too. But he had, arguably, a much better understanding of God than most of us do even today. He was one of those very few special people who got it. And he was trying to teach it to the masses who didn't.

Jesus is a path to Heaven, if such a place exists. And I believe it does, but not as depicted in the pages of the bible. I also believe that Jesus is but one path to enlightenment. There may be many others.

The bottom line is, with my brand of Christianity, which I assert is no less bona fide than what might be considered mainstream Christianity, nobody knows the mind of God. Maybe Jesus came close. But possessing that knowledge is a rare gift that Christians, Jews, Muslims, or other persons of religion have not acquired.

The difference between most other Christians and me is that I will readily admit to not knowing anything about what God wants of us, if anything. I do not know the nature of God, and therefore, cannot base my life around what I think he might be like.

I believe that Jesus is a conduit to eventual enlightenment. And in that sense, he is a conduit to salvation. I believe to be "born again" is to become enlightened. And in that sense, most of those who profess to being born again are just the opposite of my definition of the phrase.

Most born-again Christians have given their lives and souls over to their image of Christ, and in doing so have given their minds as well. When you give up your mind to a cause or conviction, you've given up the search for enlightenment, because in your own mind, you've already achieved it.

So, yes, I'm a Christian. But I'm an agnostic Christian, using the term's root meaning of "without knowledge." And being without knowledge one cannot, and should not, judge others.

But Christians, by their very nature, are judgmental. Maybe they don't mean to be, or maybe they don't even realize it, but they are. Otherwise they would never see a need to profess "I am a Christian."

Since most churches have a doctrine based on their interpretations of the bible, they are by nature exclusive. By embracing a doctrine, they have taken up a position that this is what they believe and others may, and probably will, go to hell (although none are likely to say that with the possible exception of the extremely fundamentalist Pentecostals or Jehovah's Witnesses).

And that's why I do not attend any church. I am not a religious person, but a spiritual one. And spirituality is a very personal and private thing to me. I don't believe in the merits of public prayer, nor do I want anyone to volunteer to pray for my soul, as if they held some power over it. That offends me.

It has been said that the greatest threat to Christianity is a Christian thumping the bible. I believe that to be true with all my heart. Christianity may one day self-implode. That wouldn't be such a bad thing. If it would mean an end to the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world, it can't be all bad.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Republicans Divided Over Stem Cells

In the long run up to the next presidential election, the vanguard signifying the long-awaited removal of the most inept administration in memory, the Republican Party is finding itself deeply divided over one hot-button issue. And, although it’s still early, that does not bode well for a repeat of the 2004 election results.

The issue is stem cell research. But, unlike a few years ago when Pres. Bush unilaterally placed a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Republicans are not united on the issue.

Last year the Republican-led House of Representatives handily passed a measure that would permit funding for therapeutic cloning research. But due to the hurricane disasters, the Senate got sidetracked on its version of the bill.

But the issue will likely arise in the Senate this year, where it has the support of Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, who once opposed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Surveys continually indicate that the vast majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. The research holds promise of eventually leading to cures for grave illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

As a result of the presidential order restricting funding, the government has taken itself out of the equation, allowing the research to be done by private individuals or sending scientists in the field to other countries that have not banned the research.

A prohibition on government funding makes it more likely that over-zealous researchers working on their own will fudge results of their research, such as what happened late last year in South Korea. Such bogus results can set bona fide research back anywhere from six months to five years.

But Bush’s restriction on funding has a silver lining if you’re a Democrat. Most Democrats favor funding for stem cell research. But Republicans are split. So it becomes a wedge issue that divides the party. And that’s good news for those seeking to reverse the trend that started in 2000 when Bush was first elected.

Personally, I don’t care which party wins an election because I belong to neither. I am far more concerned with the issues than the organization.

I would be more than happy to support a Republican for office as long as he is in favor of scientific initiatives such as embryonic stem cell research, and as long as he leaves whatever personal moral convictions he might have out of public policy-making decisions that would affect the public at large, many of whom may not share his convictions.

Republicans like that exist, but they are a rare breed. There would be more of them, except that they are loathe to alienate their more conservative constituents.

But the more pragmatic Republicans may be starting to come around. Frist has done so already, and he brought others with him.

Two elections coming up this November may be test cases for stem cell research. In Missouri, supporters are gathering signatures to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that would protect certain types of stem-cell research.

And in Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is running for the open seat of retiring Democrat Paul Sarbanes, changed sides and now conditionally backs stem cell research.

Stem cell research is opposed by conservative Republicans who equate it to abortion because the embryo that supplies the stem cell is destroyed. But many anti-abortion Republicans support stem cell research because of its potential to lead to life-saving therapies.

It doesn’t hurt that most voters support stem cell research. Republicans who might otherwise vote their conscience may see the writing on the wall, and vote to keep their position instead.

In either case, the good news is that Bush’s days in the White House are numbered, and so are the days of his ill-conceived, self-righteous ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Low-Fat Diets Not Healthier

You know the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid that graces the nutrition pages of every school child’s health textbook? Well, even though it has been modified lately to include more specific recommendations, the results of an eight-year study show convincingly that the pyramid was wrong. Eating low-fat foods do not decrease heart disease or cancer rates.

The party-line experts from the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and other organizations were so smug in their perennial recommendations that Americans would be healthier if only they would eat a low-fat diet. Let’s hope that crow is low in fat, because now those experts are going to have to eat a large helping of it.

The federal study, part of the Women’s Health Initiative, cost $415 million and involved 49,000 women over a period of eight years. Dr. Michael Thun, who directs epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society, called it the “Rolls-Royce of studies,” because it cost so much and lasted so long.

And for that reason, most experts believe it should be taken very seriously. The results are definitely not preliminary. Some say it should be the final word on the matter.

Of course, those like Dr. Dean Ornish who has been a low-fat cheerleader for years and who has developed a diet around low-fat eating, say the results may not mean much because the amount of fat consumed was still not low enough.

It hardly matters. The women in the study, who were mostly obese or overweight, barely managed to keep their fat intake below the USDA recommended limit of 30 percent of total calories. They were still far below the control group’s intake of fat, which was 37 percent of total calories.

Ornish recommends no more than 15 percent of total fat from calories. That is clearly an unreasonably low goal that very few Americans would be able to reach, even if studies proved it would help make them healthy. But no such study exists.

A five-year study is currently being conducted on the once popular low-carbohydrate diet. Preliminary results indicate that low-carb beats low-fat in weight loss results as well as blood chemistry profiles. But, like the low-fat diet, people tend not to stay on it for long.

Health experts disagree on what we can take from the low-fat diet study, but most agree that doctors should stop recommending a low-fat diet alone to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

But most health professionals are still recommending a diet reduced in saturated fats and especially trans fats. They point to the Mediterranean style diet which is generally high in total fat, but low in saturated fat. Most people who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to have a low incidence of heart disease and cancer.

Monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, and fats rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, are thought to be particularly healthy. Saturated fats, such as those in beef products, and trans fats like those found in most baked goods, are generally considered bad fats.

So the new USDA food pyramid, while still recommending a limit on the amount of total fat, differentiates between types of fats and between types of carbohydrates. It recommends a diet high in carbohydrates, but it specifically recommends whole grains, fruits and vegetables rather than sugar and flour products.

The new pyramid is a shade better than the old one, but it still should not be considered the last word in nutrition advice. It may work for the average healthy American, but it is still too carbohydrate-rich for diabetics and those with insulin resistance.

The bottom line is that each individual should follow a diet that has been fine tuned specifically for them. If a doctor gives you a photocopy of a standard diet, it should send up a warning flag that perhaps more thought should be put into your personal diet recommendation. Seek a second opinion.

The study results clearly show that, at least when it comes to nutrition and health, what might seem to be an obvious recommendation might turn out to have no relevance. The lesson learned should be to wait for the final results before making sweeping nutritional recommendations.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Intolerance and Islam Go Hand in Hand

America is basically a tolerant nation. There are individual Americans, and some groups, who are less tolerant than the norm. But, overall, Americans tolerate a wide range of individual choices, as long as those choices do not bring harm.

Even most religious people in America are tolerant of other religions. Sure, there are those Pat Robertson disciples who reek of intolerance for anyone who is not a Christian fundamentalist. But even they aren’t calling for the destruction of an entire nation.

No, unlike the Muslims in many Middle Eastern countries who are up in arms because of some newspaper cartoons, Americans of all religious persuasions, even Muslims, are rather tolerant.

And that’s why it is so difficult to understand what’s going on in the minds of those Middle Eastern Muslims. Muslims in America claim their religion is one of peace and most do not condone violence, let alone terrorism.

But violence is often encouraged as a matter of course for many everyday people in Islamic nations. That became readily apparent last week as tens of thousands of Muslims swarmed in protest of a Danish newspaper cartoon that depicted a caricature of the profit Muhammad.

Islamic law prohibits any depictions of Muhammad, even positive representations. So the caricatures, one of which showed Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, really provoked reaction.

The cartoons appeared late last summer in a Danish newspaper, but were reprinted recently in other European newspapers. They were, admittedly, in poor taste. And it is understandable how those of the Muslim faith would view them as blasphemous.

Perhaps that’s why one Muslim worker in the West Bank called for an execution. “Whoever defames our prophet should be executed,” the worker said.

And you see, that’s what separates Middle Eastern Muslims from the religious people in America and most other civilized nations. The Muslims over there don’t care that other people in other countries may not share their faith. Other faiths are irrelevant to them.

If Muhammad is blasphemed, the perpetrator must be dealt with harshly, even if he or she doesn’t believe Muhammad was anybody special.

Several years ago, there was an epidemic of church fires in this country and in Northern Europe. The fad of burning churches actually began in Norway as a protest against Christian encroachment on the ancient native belief system of that country.

And, although the church burnings were illegal acts of arson and quite deplorable, American Christians responded with prayer and pleas for justice through legal means. There were no widespread calls for the overthrow of Norway or for vengeance against pagan groups.

But, in the Middle East, the streets are crowded with thousands of everyday Muslim citizens calling for vengeance and executions. They’re boycotting Danish goods, and that’s fine. But their pleas for vengeance go well beyond boycotts.

The Danish prime minister said he had no power to stop his country’s news outlets from publishing the cartoons. He said he does not, himself, approve of them. But his country has freedom of the press and of speech.

The Muslims in the Middle East have no sense of how important freedom of speech is to us in the West. Nor do they care. Their world is small and isolated, but their voices are loud and far-ringing, and sometimes scary.

They are calling for limits on freedoms of the press and speech. They say if such freedom results in what they consider blasphemy, it should not be tolerated.

And that’s another reason why one of the other guarantees of our First Amendment is so precious. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in America. That includes the freedom to worship whatever god you want, or not to worship any at all.

In America, some of us don’t like it when our religion is attacked or made fun of, but unlike those in the Middle East, we generally tolerate it as an act of civility. It’s unfortunate that so many millions of people in the Middle East have not learned to be civil yet.