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Unhealthy debate

Politics | Half-truths and whole falsehoods cloud discussion of Bush's surgeon general nominee

Issue: "All heart," July 14, 2007

In June, as major media were turning surgeon general nominee James Holsinger into a piñata, Rev. Keith Boyette's telephone rang. The caller was a producer from Paula Zahn Now: The CNN news magazine wanted to do a show on Holsinger, the producer said, and had been told that Boyette, pastor of Wilderness Community Church in Spottsylvania, Va., knew Holsinger very well.

The Zahn producer's interest in Holsinger, Boyette told WORLD, had little to do with the doctor's distinguished record as a Kentucky cardiologist, cabinet secretary for the state's health services department, and former chief medical director of the Veterans Administration. Instead, she wanted to focus on rumors that had dominated public discussions of the man President Bush nominated in May to be the nation's top doc: that Holsinger is anti-gay.

By the time Boyette got the Zahn show call, reporters and pundits across the nation had already written that Holsinger had "founded a church" that believes homosexuality can be "cured" (the Associated Press) and that attempts to cure homosexuals through "ex-gay conversion therapy" (Human Rights Campaign).

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In 1991, the storyline went, Holsinger wrote a "needlessly cruel" paper (Louisville Courier-Journal) on gay sex while serving as president of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The doctor's paper painted gay sex as "unnatural" (San Jose Mercury News) in contrast to "current scientific medical studies" (Memphis Commercial Appeal).

Further, Holsinger was a "homophobic zealot" (Salon) who had voted on the judicial council "to support a pastor who blocked a gay man from joining his congregation" (Los Angeles Times) and "to boot a lesbian from her post as a minister" (Washington Post).

Boyette has known Holsinger for 25 years. They serve on the UMC judicial council together and have spoken by phone almost daily since Holsinger was nominated. Boyette told the Zahn producer how well he knew Holsinger, then gave her "information that showed the wild statements being made in the press couldn't stand the light of day," he said-but rather than broadcast that information, "they canceled the show."

Now, as Holsinger awaits confirmation hearings scheduled to begin July 12, fuzzy reporting and outright fiction about his religious views have eclipsed his record as a doctor. Senators and presidential candidates such as Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John Edwards have already denounced Holsinger's nomination. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs the health committee that will conduct the hearings, said Holsinger's record "appears to guarantee a polarizing and divisive nomination process."

Such characterizations grieve those who know Holsinger well. "Nothing I have seen in the 10 years that I have known Jim personally even suggests that he would ever be prejudiced to any group or any individual," said Douglas Scutchfield, a University of Kentucky physician who, with Holsinger, helped to establish the school's college of public health: "It has been upsetting to those of us who know Jim that he's being portrayed as some sort of right-wing homophobic nut. It just ain't so."

Events seem to bear that out. Phyllis Nash, a professor of behavioral medicine, said that in the late 1990s Holsinger helped two gay men deal with the terminal cancer one had. In 2002, according to Nash, Holsinger defended the university medical center's intent to hold a panel on lesbian health. "We have an absolute responsibility to help health-care practitioners meet the health-care needs of lesbian patients," Nash recalls Holsinger saying.

Such events suggest that Holsinger's personal views on homosexuality do not translate into anti-gay discrimination in his practice of medicine. Still, those hoping to defeat his nomination point to the church he "founded," the 1991 paper, and the two judicial council votes as evidence that it might.

The real story behind Hope Springs Community Church is this: Holsinger didn't found it, or any church. The UMC tapped Rev. David Calhoun to plant a church in urban Lexington. Calhoun recruited interested lay people from UMC churches in the area, including Holsinger and his wife.

As for the church's gay-curing "conversion therapy"? No such thing. The church does host a 12-step program that follows Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life model. Once a week, about 80 people meet to work through struggles ranging from alcoholism to drug addiction to sexual addictions. A subset of the group, about eight men, according to Calhoun, struggle with the latter problem. Three of them have told him they are homosexual and want to change.

"We don't try to 'fix' anybody. Nobody's told how they have to live," he said. "We just work through the 12 steps. If some guy comes to me and says, 'I have a problem and I want help,' I'm going to help him." He said Holsinger is not involved in the 12-step program and never has been.

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