It's a big day for science and medicine. President Obama has removed the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush had banned the funding, kissing up to those who believe every fertilized ovum deserves a Social Security card. The Bush ban was -- not surprisingly -- based on a poorly thought out argument; that we shouldn't be destroying life to save life. But, even if you believed that a mindless collection of frozen cells constitutes "life," Bush's ban did absolutely nothing to save any of them. The embryos were created for in vitro fertilization and unused embryos are just discarded. All Bush managed to do was to keep those embryos from being used in research, not from being destroyed. Bush's ban didn't "save" a single embryo.
During a signing ceremony reversing Bush's executive order, Obama also signed a pledge to "restore scientific integrity in governmental decision making." Clearly, this is the first step toward an anti-human dystopia ruled by the cold hand of science.
When the controversy over stem cell research began, Republicans quickly took the position of the religious right. Embryonic stem cell research was the worst thing ever, the wanton destruction of human life by medical science gone mad. Some still believe this. "If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes," wrote Sen. Sam Brownback in a statement.
But other Republicans are taking a different angle to criticize Obama. Speaking to CNN's John King this weekend, House minority whip Eric Cantor said, "Why are we going and distracting ourselves from the economy? This is job No. 1. Let's focus on what needs to be done."
That's right, what was once tantamount to widespread, state-sanctioned murder is now a distraction, Never mind that the time it takes away from "job No. 1" is roughly equal to the time Cantor took away from the same job to go on a CNN talking head show. This isn't some lengthy legislative process; Obama signs the order and it's all over with. This is really stretching the definition of "distraction."
I commented on this at the time. Allow me to quote myself.
[H]ow powerless has the evangelical right become that a top Republican can basically say, "Stem cell research? Pffft! Who cares about that?" It wasn't that long ago that Republicans were saying that the research was pretty much equal to a second Holocaust. Apparently, the Republican party no longer feels the need to kiss up to the religious right.
And Cantor isn't some pro-choice Republican. His pro-life voting record is as perfect as it's possible to be, earning a 0% rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive rights Action League and -- at the other end of the spectrum -- 100% from the National Right to Life Committee. But, at this moment in time, federally funding the destruction of embryos is just a "distraction."
In fact, if you think about it, you would've expected a GOP power vacuum to be filled by a religious leader with a flock of millions of guaranteed Republican voters. But that hasn't happened with this vacuum. That empty space has been filled by Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh talks the religious nutjob talk, but you get the idea that it's peripheral to him. He's a money Republican, the stereotypical fatcat -- complete with a big cigar and a mansion. The only reason he doesn't wear a top hat and spats is because it hasn't occurred to him. Rush Limbaugh tries to portray the image of the moneyed interests, the corporate boardroom, the wealthy bigwig. He's like the rapper who displays as much of his wealth as he can -- he's not just selling the entertainment, he's selling a lifestyle.
The power vacuum was filled by Limbaugh, not some religious figure, because the religious right is in disarray. And a new study shows that they're steadily losing their "culture war" against the forces of secularism.
A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the Roman Catholic population has been shifting out of the Northeast to the Southwest, the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all.
Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.
"No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state," the study's authors said.
The largest bloc of what is usually called the "religious right" have traditionally been Baptists, yet there are now barely more Baptists in the US than there are those who claim no religion -- 15.8% of respondents said they were Baptist. "No religion" also outnumbered Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Eastern Religions combined.
There is a steadily growing bloc of voters out there for whom all the God talk doesn't do a damned thing. As this group grows, the percentage of the nutjobs shrinks. And -- up until now -- it was the nutjobs that the GOP relied on most.
With "the base" steadily eroding, the Republican party is scrambling to find some footing. But they don't seem to have any idea who these people are. They oppose everything Obama and the Democrats propose and they do it in the hope that one of these issues will resonate with some new set of nutjobs -- this "Obama's a socialist" message clearly isn't getting the job done and the God talk doesn't work anymore.
Cantor can declare embryonic stem cell research a "distraction" all he wants, but it's a distraction that's already come and gone. He's going to have to find another one to complain about.
And don't bet against them finding something new to complain about. They're going to complain about everything in the hope that one of those complaints will get a big round of applause.
But they know that complaint isn't going to be religion-based. Those days seem to be over.