Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Religion

Contraception and women's rights -- it's still a man's world

President Obama offered a compromise Friday on health insurance coverage for contraceptives

When it comes to contraception, it's still a man's world.

President Obama offered a compromise Friday on health insurance coverage for contraceptives. (For a thoughtful take on how that's likely to work, read my colleague Jon Healey's post, "The White House wishes away the cost of contraception coverage.")

Really, though, this issue isn't about health insurance, or healthcare costs, or even religious freedom and the 1st Amendment. This is about power.

It's about men telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies.

And that's ridiculous.

The Roman Catholic Church is dominated by men. So, for that matter, is Islam. And so are a number of Christian churches -- the Mormon Church, for example.

Which is why we find ourselves, in the 21st century, with these faiths -- and the men who run them --  dictating to women on that most vital issue: the health of their own bodies.

It's a very old story: Men have power over women, and they certainly don't seem to want to give it up.

No, no, it's about religious freedom, you say. That's what the Catholic bishops argue, anyway. You could ask their female peers in the church what they think, but -- oh, that’s right, they don't have any female peers!

Huh.

No. This is about women's freedom -– the freedom too many women don't have.

If a woman chooses not to use birth control, or chooses not to have an abortion, that's freedom.

If a man, whether a religious leader or a pandering politician, tells her what she's able to do, that's, well, it's certainly not freedom.

These same religious leaders and politicians often talk about respecting women. 

Respecting women isn't telling them what to do "for their own good." And hiding behind religion to deny contraceptive coverage is simply another way to perpetuate that abusive, illogical and antiquated notion.

Want to respect women?

Then make sure they have the freedom to decide for themselves.

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Photo: President Obama on Friday announces revamping of the policy on health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is at left. Credit: Susan Walsh / Associated Press

The White House wishes away the cost of contraception coverage

Birth control pills
The Obama administration announced Friday that it's not backing away from the mandate that employers affiliated with religious institutions include contraception in their health insurance coverage. Instead, it's relying on magical thinking in the hope of making the political firestorm disappear.

The administration said it has come up with a win-win for employers affiliated with religious groups that object to contraception (such as Catholic universities and hospitals) and their female employees who want free access to birth control. It plans to revise its health insurance rules to exempt those employers from having to provide coverage for contraception. At the same time, however, it will require insurers to restore the dropped coverage at no cost to those employers' workers.

Sounds great, right? Churches won't have to subsidize contraception, and their workers won't have to pay for it! That's a considerable savings -- birth-control pills can cost $600 a year.

Except that the money has to come from somewhere. This is the point that advocates of contraception coverage routinely gloss over. The Affordable Care Act required insurers to cover preventive services with no out-of-pocket costs, on the theory that it would promote better public health and save money in the long run. It left a federal task force to decide what those services should be; the group later included contraception on the list. As a consequence, the cost of every preventive service will be buried in every policyholder's monthly insurance premiums. In other words, what appears to be free to the user is actually being paid for by everyone.

Here's where the magical thinking comes in. The following is from the fact sheet the White House released Friday:

Covering contraception saves money for insurance companies by keeping women healthy and preventing spending on other health services. For example, there was no increase in premiums when contraception was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefit System and required of non-religious employers in Hawaii. One study found that covering contraception lowered premiums by 10 percent or more. 

Making everyone in a pool carry coverage whether they need it or not spreads the cost, saving money for those who really do need it and who'd choose to carry it if it were merely optional. But costs faced by the insurer are the same -- and when the care is provided with no out-of-pocket costs, the insurer's costs are likely to go up because more people will use it. Such is likely to be the case with contraception.

The administration's bet is that the cost of all those birth-control and morning-after pills, among other forms of contraception, will be more than offset by a reduction in other healthcare costs. A report by the Institutes of Medicine backs up the White House; it found that contraceptive use would save $19.3 billion a year -- far more than the estimated $5 billion annual cost of unintended pregnancies.

But whether this particular mandate produces that kind of result is something only time will tell. Although 28 states require insurers to cover contraception, the new federal rules are the first to require that contraceptives be available at no cost. The only certain result is that more women will get prescriptions filled for contraceptives. There will be a short-term cost to that, unquestionably; the administration's hope is that there will be long-term savings.

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Credit: Bettmann / Corbis

Rick Santorum's 'verbal ooze' inspires new adjective [Most commented]

Rick Santorum
"[Rick] Santorum's near-victory in the Iowa caucuses last week raised the volume on some of his more paranoid kvetchings about the moral breakdown of society -- gay marriage being a slippery slope to marrying your pet, "Christendom" being under attack, birth control being "not OK" even for married couples, writes Meghan Daum in this week's column about Santorum, the "weird, pious wackadoo" running for the Republican presidential nomination.  She continues:

Sure, the wind that Iowa put beneath Santorum's wings was roundly knocked out from under him in New Hampshire. But the fact that pundits spent the preceding week pretending to take seriously the notion that Santorum could end up as the nominee shows the degree to which the Christian right has taken on an almost mythic quality in GOP politics.

Here's a sampling of comments from our discussion board.

New word: Santorumonious

WORD FOR THE DAY

Santorumonious -- maintaining an extreme and unreasonable belief in the piety or righteousness of one's own actions or opinions, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

--HiVeloCT

Santorum doesn't speak for all Christians

Implying that Santorum speaks for all Christians is like saying that Al Sharpton speaks for all African Americans. It is offensive and just plain wrong. There is a tiny fraction of Christians to whom Santorum appeals, and yes, they vote.

Most Christians are not wackadoos, thank you very much. We are well-educated and came to our beliefs after much study and life experience. We are tolerant of other belief systems but are vocal in defending what we believe to be justice and fairness, particularly when it comes to children and the family. We are deeply protective of the innocence of children and the defenseless unborn. We promote and practice adoption as an option to abortion in unplanned pregnancies. We promote contraception but prefer abstinence in the case of unmarried people.

Frankly, we are tired of the vocal minority getting so much media attention when so many of us are working daily in the trenches of reality at our churches and in community organizations with people, feeding them, finding them homes, helping single moms, mentoring youth, and providing alternatives for pregnant women on a daily basis. The media ignores the day-in, day-out charitable work of Christian organizations because it doesn't serve their agenda of screaming-meemie crazy people with picket signs. So we quietly continue to do what we do and know that what we do serves people where they need it most.

--califmom

Santorum's verbal ooze

It would give me some pleasure to see Mr. Santorum deprived of some of his supposedly righteous ammunition against liberal causes. One of the "jewels" in Santorum's thinking concerns the meaning and purpose of marriage. It seems to me, if we were just to "unhitch" marriage from religion, arguments over it would gradually begin to disappear. Perhaps I touched a nerve, but I cannot see the connection between these two. One is a philosophy, the other is a practical arrangement invented by our society with nothing "philosophical" intended.

Over many years, I have seen Mr. Santorum spill his verbal ooze in the House Chamber. His outlandish revelations of the "truth" as he sees it have caused many a Congressman, and no doubt not just a few TV viewers to gently nod off into sweet dreams. The reason why I avoid mentioning specific Santorum rantings is the same as Darwin's unwillingness to arbitrate "Evolution;" it is totally pointless and it fits the remark: "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts."

--ragmaniac

*For clarity purposes, spelling errors in the above comments have been corrected.

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Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters during a campaign stop at the Springdale House and Gardens this week in Columbia, S.C. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Orange County's fix-it judge -- and his pastor

It's bad enough that an Orange County judge was fixing tickets for friends and family -- he's been ordered to resign -- but perhaps the most interesting part of the whole story is that one of the beneficiaries of his misdeeds was his pastor.

According to a state panel, Richard W. Stanford Jr. diverted at least nine traffic cases to his court in order to help people he knew avoid fines. Stanford fully deserves to lose his job, and authorities also should be looking into filing charges. But now that everyone at his church will know about this, it's also hard not to wonder whether they will view their spiritual leader as someone who can lead them away from temptation -- or model taking responsibility for one's actions.

But then, the flock could decide this is the perfect chance to show that it knows how to forgive.

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Santorum's defense of bigotry fails on all counts

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I will say this for Rick Santorum: He's one of the more well-spoken bigots I've heard in a while. His defense of his absolutist position on gay marriage, delivered in front of a largely hostile crowd of college Republicans in Concord, N.H., was concise, logical and delivered with the rhetorical flourish of a seasoned attorney. None of it hadn't been expressed by same-sex marriage opponents before, but Santorum's gift is to make his morally and legally untenable position sound reasonable.

Boiled to its essence, his argument has three parts: First, the burden of demonstrating that same-sex marriage should be legalized falls on its supporters rather than its opponents, because the former group is the one that wants to change the law. Fair enough. Here's the reason, Rick: Because discriminating against a class of people by failing to grant them the same rights enjoyed by everyone else is unfair and unconstitutional.

The second part of Santorum's argument is that many of the legal benefits of marriage, such as the right to visit a hospitalized spouse, can be obtained via legal contract, so why should gays insist on marriage rights? This is monstrously disingenuous, as Santorum the lawyer well knows, but it seemed to confuse the crowd, so apparently there weren't any law students among them. Santorum is correct that property and inheritance rights can be transferred to another via contract -- gay partners can leave their houses to each other in their wills, for example. But, as Oakland attorney and author Fred Hertz explains, public benefits -- tax advantages, health insurance and so on -- can't be transferred via contract, except in states that recognize domestic partnership agreements (and most states, including Santorum's native Pennsylvania, don't). Even in the domestic partnership states, no federal tax, Social Security or other benefits apply to such partners because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Finally, there is Santorum's third argument, which by now is pretty familiar to anyone following the same-sex marriage debate: If you allow same-sex couples to marry, why not allow polygamy? This one's tougher to refute because it gets to a truism that gay-marriage proponents don't like to discuss -- there is a social-values component to marriage. Religious conservatives see no distinction between same-sex marriage and incest or polygamy, because to them, all of these things represent sexual sins. Yet there are obvious differences.

Setting aside the ick factor of incestuous marriage, sexual liaisons between family members can lead to offspring with terrible genetic abnormalities. Polygamy is slightly less objectionable on its face, but in practice it causes enormous social problems -- polygamous societies inevitably create a surplus population of young, restive males who end up on the streets or fuel upheaval because they can't find wives, most of whom have been snapped up by powerful older men. Underage women are frequently forced into marriages with much older men, and there is an innate power imbalance built into any relationship between one man (or one woman) and multiple partners of the opposite sex.

But more important than any of these distinctions is the fact that the entire comparison is irrelevant. There is no mainstream political movement in this country to legalize polygamy or incestuous marriage; when and if there is, we can debate whether it's appropriate. By dragging these things into the debate over same-sex marriage, Santorum and his ilk are simply playing reductio-ad-absurdem rhetorical games. This technique can be used to discredit nearly any position on anything: If we allow same-sex marriage, what's next, people marrying dogs? If we allow people to drink alcohol, why not let them snort cocaine? If we guarantee the right to bear arms, why not guarantee the right to build thermonuclear devices in one's garage?

The answer: Because it's ridiculous. Let's stick to the matter at hand -- whether consenting adults of the same sex should be allowed to marry. It's OK to agree with Santorum that they shouldn't, but let's not drag the cast of "Big Love" into the discussion.

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Should the crosses at Camp Pendleton come down? [Most commented]

Cross Camp Pendleton
The crosses at Camp Pendleton erected to memorialize fallen Marines are a sensitive issue. On the one hand, the religious symbols are a way to honor people who scarified their lives for our country. On the other, there's the constitutional issue of separation of church and state.

The editorial board weighs in on this issue in Wednesday's pages, putting it bluntly:

The military, like any other government agency, cannot allow people to install large religious symbols wherever they want on public property. Once in place for any length of time, those symbols (and usually that means a cross) tend to be seen as established markers, and proposals to remove them are wrongly viewed as anti-religion and, specifically, anti-Christian.

But the board also offers a compromise:

One course of action that would allow the new crosses to remain would be to invite Marines of other religious beliefs to add their own symbols to the hill. That would ensure the separation of church and state while also being sensitive to the sense of loss suffered by those in the armed services. It would create a place where all people in uniform can remember the sacrifices made by so many.

The majority of readers debating on our discussion board are less flexible. In between commenters calling The Times a communist newspaper and The L.A. Slimes, there are passionate arguments that share a range of perspectives. Some respond directly to the editorial, while others are responding to the debate generally. Here's a selection of comments.

A note from a Marine

You know, I hear a lot of whining and complaining from outsiders who will never see this memorial on the base. We Marines fight to protect American freedoms -- which includes the freedom of religion. You decry these individuals who have gone out on their own time with their own resources to honor the fallen in their own way. Instead of complaining, then step up to establish other memorials, but do not ask others to conform to your views. I and my brother/sister Marines fight to protect the rights of ALL Americans, not just a vocal minority that want it all their own way instead of learning how to live with others and respect the fact that there are many divergent views in this country.

-- an old Marine

The casualties overwhelmingly borne by Christians

The casualties in these latest wars are overwhelmingly being borne by Christians -- active or nominal. The Jewish weekly 'Forward' did a profile of all the Jewish casualties they could find, there were something like 35 -- less than three quarters of one percent of casualties.  I suspect similar figures for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, etc. If there are to be other religions represented, then the proportionality of casualties should be represented also.

--JohnDrakeSloat

Soldiers' rights

Since when do soldiers have the right to set up personal monuments on military bases?  It seems to me that it is more of a military discipline issue than a Constitutional issue ...

-- Songquo

A mission to destroy our Constitutional government

God please save us from Christians. They will not rest until they destroy our Constitutional government and replace it with a religious-fascist state.

--GaryRath

In favor of equal access

I don't recall anything in the Constitution that specifically addresses such things as Miranda rights, bi-racial marriage or segregation in the schools, but every one of these were Constitutional issues that were decide by the Supreme Court.

But personally, I say just allow others to erect memorials using their respective religious symbols and presto; equal access and no Constitutional issue!

-- HiVeloCT

*For clarity purposes, spelling errors in the above comments have been corrected.

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Scott Radetski, 49, a retired Navy chaplain, staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, 31, and gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, 32, both Marines, erect a cross on top of a mountain on Veterans Day that overlooks both the Pacific Ocean and the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Camp Pendleton's other big cross

Baptismcross
The two large crosses erected on a hill at Camp Pendleton have led to the predictable debate about whether the symbol of one religion -- albeit the dominant religion in the United States -- should rightly have a sole and prominent place on public land. The crosses were erected without the permission of the Marine base, and there are legitimate concerns on both sides. Though the crosses were originally planted to honor four Marines who died early in the Iraq war, the site has become a sort of shrine for honoring fallen comrades with trinkets, written messages and the like. Such spots have tremendous meaning for those in uniform who have given so much; on the other hand, Camp Pendleton can't just allow people to set up gigantic religious symbols wherever they want on base.

It's interesting, though, that the crosses have engendered so much controversy, when most people aren't even aware of another large cross toward the base's northern end -- this one visible to the public, if hikers know where to look. Even many Marines have no idea it's there. The blufftop cross marks the spring where the first baptism took place in California, in 1769.

As the Portola expedition came up from Mexico with the intent of setting up bases in Alta California before the Russians could do the same, it came across the 350 or so residents of Panhe, a Native American village at the border of San Diego and Orange counties that was continuously occupied for 9,000 years. Two young  sisters of the village were dying, and one of the priests with the expedition baptized them at a spring near the river, directly below the cross, after telling their mother that this would allow their souls to ascend to heaven.

The event gave the canyon its name -- Cristianitos, or the little Christians.

A set of stairs leads down to the spring, which has been encircled with stones. Probably, the location on base is what has preserved the site this well. The public cannot gain access and few Marines even know it's there. Most of the main village of Panhe, closer to the ocean, is the site of a campground in San Onofre State Beach.

It would be foolish to think of removing the cross, if anyone dared to suggest it. History and religion are interwoven -- very tightly at times -- and in this case the site is only historic because of the religious event that took place there.

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Ron Paul learns what happens to candidates who embrace religious extremists

--Karin Klein 

Photo credit: Karin Klein / Los Angeles Times

Ron Paul learns what happens to candidates who embrace religious extremists [UPDATED]

Rp

Updated, 2:10 p.m., Jan. 10: A spokesman for Pastor John Hagee says I mischaracterized his views on the holocaust and Israel. His response is posted at the end of this piece.

Where have we heard this before: A presidential hopeful lacking electoral cachet with hyper-religious voters awkwardly promotes his connection to a well-known firebrand reverend, only to get burned when evidence emerges that there's a reason why said reverend is a well-known firebrand? Happened to John McCain in 2008; likewise with Barack Obama.

Add to the list Ron Paul in 2011:

A prominent supporter of Republican presidential aspirant Ron Paul has advocated for capital punishment for homosexuals.

The Reverend Phillip Kayser, pastor of Dominion Covenant Church in Omaha, Neb., who recently announced his support for the Texas congressman, wrote a paper a few years ago which claimed the Bible allowed for the murder of gay people, according to Talking Points Memo (TPM).

"Difficulty in implementing Biblical law does not make non-Biblical penology just," Kayser wrote. “But as we have seen, while many homosexuals would be executed, the threat of capital punishment can be restorative. Biblical law would recognize as a matter of justice that even if this law could be enforced today, homosexuals could not be prosecuted for something that was done before...."

Notice of the Kayser endorsement has since been removed from Paul's official campaign website.

Yes, I know there's evidence to suggest that Paul is a homophobe, but his votes on rolling back "don't ask, don't tell" and against the Defense of Marriage Act suggest he's fine with checking his squeamishness with gays at Capitol Hill's door. And judging by the swiftness with which his campaign distanced itself from Kayser, it's likely that Paul was unaware of the minister's ghoulish anti-gay fanaticism.

But the lesson here isn't that candidates should do better background research. Famous religious sophists build their dedicated audiences largely by articulating the unspeakable beliefs their followers harbor silently. Whether it's the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. (Obama) declaring "God damn America" or John Hagee (McCain) postulating that Hitler fulfilled God's will by perpetrating the Holocaust -- or Kayser wondering aloud how the biblical command to execute homosexuals could be incorporated into modern criminal law -- these people have a track record of producing deservedly embarrassing soundbites. It's practically their job.

Presidential candidates would do well to exercise caution in selecting which religious fanatics to embrace -- or not to seek their endorsements at all. My vote is for the second option.

Update: Ari Morgenstern, spokesman for John Hagee Ministries, responds:

In this piece, Pastor John Hagee, senior pastor at San Antonio's Cornerstone Church, is called an extremist and is unfairly placed in the same inauspicious league as the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright. To substantiate the assertions, the author of the piece writes that Hagee once "postulat[ed] that Hitler fulfilled God's will by perpetrating the Holocaust." This is an unfair oversimplification that does not capture the sermon's true intent.

The author's allegation stems from a years old sermon Hagee gave in which the pastor interpreted elements of the book of Jeremiah to foretell the message of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and the eventual creation of the State of Israel; in making his analysis, Hagee was informed by the teachings of noted Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal who, writing before his murder at the hands of the Nazis, concluded: "Furthermore, the sole purpose of all the afflictions that smite us in our exile is to arouse us to return to our Holy Land."

In the 2008 presidential campaign this sermon's message was grossly misrepresented in the media. And while it was never Hagee's intent to offend, when it became clear to the pastor that his sermon had offended the very people he had devoted his life to supporting, he quickly sought reconciliation with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the leading American organization combating anti-Semitism. The ADL not only welcomed this reconciliation, but noted, "We are grateful that you have devoted your life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel."

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The bigoted presidential campaign

KargerFunny that Fred Karger, gay rights advocate, founded the group Californians Against Hate, since his most recent campaign seems to be about spreading bigotry. For those who haven't heard of Karger -- and that's a lot of people -- he's a Republican candidate for president, listed on the ballot of the New Hampshire primary, who took on a more active political identity after California voters passed Proposition 8 in 2008. Karger is an openly gay candidate who was angered and dismayed by the role that the Mormon Church and its followers took in getting the ban on same-sex marriage passed. 

Negative campaigns and ugly smears might be the stuff of politics these days, but within this category, Karger gets a special space all his own after launching an attack website against Mormonism that purportedly reveals the 10 "craziest beliefs" of Mormons, lest voters consider voting for Mormon candidate Mitt Romney. The site doesn't actually have such a list; it's more a place where anyone can anonymously post any sort of canard about Mormonism. Perhaps rational people could also try inserting some truths, if those are actually allowed.

On the site, Karger writes:

We simply want to help understand Mormons and their beliefs, and have created this web site and blog to help enlighten you and us on the Mormon faith and it many ceremonies and rituals.

This web site is by no means meant to harm anyone or any faith.

Sure it isn't. That's why its title is so balanced.

Karger has his reasons for being at odds with Mormons and their religion; he also has reasons to seek out publicity at any cost, even the cost of religious bigotry.

But during the Proposition 8 campaign, he saw and heard plenty of hateful and false garbage spewed by some of the ban's supporters about and against gays and lesbians, their relationships and their children. Obviously, the lesson he drew from that wasn't what people thought when he founded Californians Against Hate, a phrase that apparently means something different to Karger than to most of the rest of us.

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Photo: Fred Karger, photographed in 2006. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times

God and the creation of dysfunctional democracies [The reply]

Prayer
Michael Shermer's Friday Op-Ed disagreed with Congress' decision to reaffirm as our national motto "In God We Trust." He said that the real foundation of trust for a nation isn't God but the social contract established by humans with elements such as the rule of law, property rights, economic stability and a viable legislative system. Many commenters disagreed, arguing that God and faith are primary sources of such social goods. Here is Shermer's response to one of them:

Price Speck is incorrect when he writes that "laws do not grow trust" and that "real faith" does. Consider many of the South American countries where real faith in God and religion (Catholicism in this case) are as high as, and in some cases even higher than, they are in the United States, and yet the level of trust among citizens in many of those countries is in the basement. Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, Peru and Brazil take up half of the bottom 12 countries on Claremont Graduate University economist Paul Zak's international trust scale.

Although Speck is right about " 'Enlightened' Europe" having much lower rates of belief in God and religiosity than those here in America, its economic woes are clearly the result of a euro weakened by the potential bankruptcy of Greece and other countries, along with social unrest therein as a result of the imposition of austerity measures. Nevertheless, and contrary to Speck's claim that "real trust cannot be found without real faith," levels of trust between the citizens of European countries are among the highest on Earth, with atheistic Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany filling up four of the top five spots on Zak's trust scale.

Finally, Speck claims that "faith begets stability," adding that religious applicants are preferred candidates for police forces. I don't know if that is the case (and would such a practice be legal?), but when it comes to societies, faith doesn't demonstrably beget stability. 

For example, a 2005 study by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies.

Paul concluded: "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

I do not believe that religion is the cause of these social ills, but if religion is such a powerful prophylaxis against immoral behavior, then why does it fail so spectacularly here in America?

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--Michael Shermer 

Photo: Main Place Christian Fellowship Church pastor Martin Mosier talks with Stella Dodge, 75, of Tustin, after praying with her at the church's drive-through booth in April 2003. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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