C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. surgeon general who died last week Monday, was an evangelical Christian who helped launch religious right opposition to Roe v. Wade. Despite sharing the right's opposition to both abortion and homosexuality, he refused to let ideology distort scientific facts or undermine the public health. As a result, he leaves behind not only the legacy of a committed public servant but also a compelling blueprint for Christian political engagement.
In the late 1970s, Koop teamed with theologian Francis Schaeffer to produce the book and film series, "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" With Schaeffer providing the theology and Koop the medical perspective, they argued that legalized abortion commodified human life.
The book and film, popularized on a tour across America, is often cited by Christian right activists as the single most influential factor in convincing them to take up arms against abortion.
Naturally, then, evangelicals were thrilled -- and liberals horrified -- when Ronald Reagan appointed Koop to be U.S. Surgeon General in 1982. Both groups expected him to support conservative causes and continue his crusade against abortion.
But both groups turned out to be wrong.
In case after case after case, to the dismay of erstwhile allies, Koop demonstrated that his moral convictions required him not only to oppose the sexual revolution but also to tell the truth.
His first battle with anti-scientific ideology took on big tobacco. Despite facing political pushback from both Democrats and Republicans under the lobby's sway, he issued reports documenting the negative health impacts of second-hand smoke and addictive potential of nicotine.
When the AIDS epidemic surfaced during his tenure, a dominant impulse among conservatives was to stigmatize those affected by the disease. One 1988 poll of Christian fundamentalists found that 57 percent believed, despite evidence that HIV was not spread by casual contact, that AIDS sufferers should quarantined from the rest of society.
In 1986, Koop issued a report on AIDS that advocated abstinence as the ideal way to stop spread of the disease. But he also recognized that as a general public health strategy, abstinence only would not work in a pluralistic society. In a move that sparked outrage from the evangelical community and consternation from the Reagan administration, he also advocated early sex education and condom use.
While the most vocal voices for biblical morality were shunning the sick in a desire to protect their communities, Koop's advocacy on HIV embodied Christ's commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. While many evangelical leaders wanted the sexually promiscuous to face consequences, Koop's concern for their welfare embodied Christ's demand to love even your enemies.
The final coup-de-grace for his relationship with the evangelical right came with abortion. Motivated by his life's work fixing congenital malformations in infants, Koop vehemently opposed the procedure, even likening it's widespread use to the Holocaust.
But despite his moral convictions, he also believed in compromise and cooperation, leading to disillusionment with the movement he helped found. Lamenting pro-life intransigence, he remarked that "they had an all-or-nothing mentality. They wanted it all, and they got nothing."
"[I] told both the pro-life and the pro-choice forces that I was dropping out of this controversy until they talked to each other," he remarked.
Later in his tenure as Surgeon General, the Reagan administration prompted him to issue a report saying that abortion had negative mental health consequences. After immersing himself in public health research on the subject, he concluded that he could not issue such a report because it wasn't true.
Koop's death occasioned glowing obituaries in liberal news outlets ranging from the New Yorker to MSNBC to the New York Times.
Evangelical leaders have recently lamented that the broader culture is against them for their commitment to Christian morality. But such fond remembrances of an avowed Christian conservative suggest an alternative cause for the community's increased stigmatization.
It is not because the community is too committed to Christian morality.
It is because the community is not committed enough.
When it privileges ideology over scientific accuracy on topics like global warming, associations between abortion and breast cancer, or the validity of evolution, it has abandoned the Christian commitment to stand for the truth.
When it shows more concern with not being held accountable for past condemnations of homosexuality and hearing the words "merry Christmas" during the holidays than with the bullying of gay children and oppression of racial minorities, it has abandoned the Christian concern to care for the least of these.
When it insists its perspective on topics ranging from healthcare to debt reduction to gay marriage are the only viable ways to approach an issue, it has abandoned the Christian belief in human fallibility.
C. Everett Koop will be remembered fondly, not because he compromised his commitment to Christian morality, but because he refused to compromise on some Christian commitments in service to other ones. In doing so, he provided a model example of Christian political engagement.
May he rest in peace.
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