Is there a war on women’s rights? NOW examines the claims of pro-choice advocates that Washington has instigated a well-orchestrated campaign with the goal of taking away women’s reproductive rights in POLITICS OF CHOICE.
Next, political columnist and best-selling author Molly Ivins talks with Bill Moyers about politics, and her unique view of the news, from the Texas Democrats holed up in Oklahoma, to the hunt for WMDs in Iraq, to the state of our Democracy today in America.
Then, Bill Moyers interviews scholar and best-selling author Elaine Pagels on what matters most about spiritual and religious exploration in the 21st century and what she learned from the secret words of Jesus. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. As we’re constantly being reminded, there’s no more divisive or passionate political and moral issue in America than abortion. It’s long been a fight over language: pro-choice vs. pro-life. But now the war of words has taken a new turn.
Just this week, Governor Jeb Bush called for a civil court in Florida to appoint a legal guardian for a fetus. The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates for reproductive rights quickly asked the court to deny the request on the grounds that a fetus is not a person. In Congress last week, House sponsors of pending legislation are using the high profile murder of Laci Peterson in California to gain public favor for the idea of calling the death or injury of a fetus a separate crime from the assault or murder of the mother.
All of this is part of the evolving strategy of opponents of abortion who understand that changing the legal and political language is essential if ultimately they are to change the landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Their strategy has picked up momentum during the administration of George W. Bush. My colleague Brenda Breslauer has been investigating the new developments, and here’s her report.
BUSH: I will lead our nation toward a culture that values life, the life of the elderly and sick, the life of the young, and the life of the unborn.
BRESLAUER: That statement from George W. Bush at the 2000 Republican convention didn’t include the word abortion. But pro-choice advocates say he was sending a message about what was to come.
BRITELL: There is a serious and very well orchestrated effort that is underway right now to completely take the reproductive freedom away from women. And I think everyone is living in denial saying it will never happen. Well, the anti-choice groups control the House, they control the Senate, they control the White House.
BRESLAUER: This new political agenda — apparent in everything from executive orders, to regulations, to proposed laws — is simply part of an overall pro-life strategy that is taking hold in policy, say pro-choice advocates. They cite these prominent examples coming from the White House alone: Cabinet appointments of vocal abortion opponents such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson; rejection of funding for research with new lines of stem cells derived from embryos; and the Administration has allocated tens of millions in additional funding for Abstinence-Only sex education. To pro-choice advocates like Frances Kissling, this is all part of a strategy to get at abortion.
KISSLING: If the anti-abortionists were to attempt to directly ban abortion, people would be ready to say, “No, we don’t want that.” So instead, they’ve developed a stealth strategy in which they start by trying to codify or put into law regulations that make the fetus the equivalent of people.
BRESLAUER: Kissling runs the non-profit advocacy group, Catholics for a Free Choice. She says that anti-abortion activists have been pushing a series of laws and regulations that would grant rights to fetuses. Their goal, she says, is to create legal precedent that will eventually help overturn Roe versus Wade.
KISSLING: The cornerstone of the Roe v. Wade decision is the recognition by the Supreme Court that we simply do not know when the fetus becomes a person.
BRESLAUER: That 1973 Supreme Court decision did say that the word “‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.” But Roe versus Wade is vulnerable, according to Kissling.
KISSLING: If they could prove to a more sympathetic court that there is now a body of law and a body of moral reasoning and culture that does recognize the fetus as a person, it becomes much easier to say that, indeed, the Constitution can indeed protect the fetus.
BRESLAUER: For years, anti-abortion activists have taken to the streets to argue the Constitution should protect the fetus. Now, Kissling says, they’re taking action inside the halls of power.
KISSLING: They want women to have to seek death certificates when they have an abortion. They want fetuses in state laws to be declared as persons from the moment of conception. They want fetuses to be able to get government benefits in order to be treated as if they were healthcare patients.
BRESLAUER: One case in point: the federally funded State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to families who can’t afford it. Last fall, Health and Human Services, which oversees the program, extended it to include pre-natal care. But rather than offer that service to pregnant women, the new regulation granted it to, quote, “unborn children.”
BRITELL: So if the pregnant woman is needing healthcare and it’s not related to the fetus, the zygote, the embryo, she may not get it. That is unconscionable. How can we do that to pregnant women? How can we do that to any women?
BRESLAUER: Maureen Britell runs Voters for Choice, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice candidates. She too has been monitoring what advocates call the personification of the fetus campaign.
BRITELL: It’s outrageous that they are constantly working at every angle to place “unborn child” in there, because they want it in the American psyche that it’s a child, it’s a child at every stage. Because they believe it’s a child from the time of fertilization.
BRESLAUER: Britell also cites another example, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a bill introduced in Congress this year. The proposed law would make it a separate offense to cause the death or injury of an “unborn child” or fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked. On its face, it makes sense: stiffer penalties for assailants.
BRITELL: They say, “Oh, we’re trying to prevent acts of violence against pregnant women.” We want that too, but that’s not what this bill does.
BRESLAUER: James Bopp is in favor of the bill. He is the General Counsel and principal legal strategist of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest pro-life organization. Bopp says there is no hidden agenda behind the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
BOPP: The problem here is that the pro-choice side are fanatically obsessed with one thing. And that is abortion. They look at protecting the unborn from criminals as implicating abortion. And therefore, don’t want to penalize criminals for a separate crime of killing the unborn.
BRESLAUER: But Pennsylvania Congressman Jim Greenwood doesn’t consider himself a fanatic. He’s a pro-choice Republican who says this bill is actually an assault on abortion rights.
GREENWOOD: So once we say it’s a crime if you assault a woman and it causes a miscarriage, then you, now you are guilty of murdering her child. Okay, we wanna apply that to someone who performs an abortion.
BRESLAUER: Greenwood says the key to understanding the political agenda here is to look at who’s pushing the bill.
GREENWOOD: The people who are pushing this issue are the people who spend all of their lives thinking about abortion, not all of their lives thinking about what’s good for women.
BRESLAUER: James Bopp says his organization is also thinking about what’s good for women.
BOPP: Our long-term goal is to have an abortion-free America. We do agree that abortions may be performed to preserve the life of the mother. But beyond that, we don’t think that there are justifications for abortion. And that is our goal.
BRESLAUER: That goal, says Kissling, is gaining ground. She believes the plan is to have this new legal precedent in place by the time President Bush has the opportunity to appoint new Justices to the Supreme Court.
KISSLING: He is faced with a bunch of very old Supreme Court Justices. If he survives into a second term, he will have an opportunity to appoint two or three Supreme Court Justices. That will mean that there are enough Justices to overturn Roe.
BOPP: Well, it’s not that easy to overturn Supreme Court decisions. There are only three justices that have indicated they would. And even if we had changes in the court of at least two judges, or perhaps three, it would still be substantial legal obstacles to overturning Roe v. Wade. We hope that that will occur. But it’s difficult.
BRESLAUER: In the meantime, President Bush is willing to challenge the law at its margins. The issue: so-called Partial Birth Abortion.
BUSH: I ask you to protect infants at the very hour of their birth and end the practice of partial birth abortion.
BRESLAUER: The Partial Birth Abortion Bill has been considered in the Congress seven times since 1995, and was vetoed twice by President Clinton. Now, with President Bush’s support, it seems destined to become law.
SANTORUM: These are little babies and they are asking us to help them.
DEWINE: What it really is is the killing, the killing of a baby.
BRESLAUER: The term “partial birth abortion” was invented by the anti-abortion community to describe a procedure in which a fetus is partially delivered outside the womb. Doctors don’t even use the term. The closest medical procedure to so-called partial birth abortion, accounts for less than one quarter of one percent of all abortions in this country. So why such impassioned debate?
GREENWOOD: This campaign, this partial birth abortion is all about politics. It’s not about the real world.
BRESLAUER: Congressman Jim Greenwood supports the President on most issues, but disagrees with him on abortion policy, and is one of the few Republicans fighting the bill. He says his opponents are playing political hardball.
GREENWOOD: It’s about stimulating the base. That is to take the most conservative members of the Republican party and giving them some red meat so that they rush out to the polls. And it’s also about trying to marginalize, and then make appear extreme those members of either the Democratic party or the Republican party who still want to stand up for the right of women to make these decisions for themselves and don’t want abortion part of politics.
BRESLAUER: In March, the Partial Birth Abortion bill passed in the Senate. It’s about to be introduced in the House. If the bill passes, it will mark the first time the United States Congress has banned a specific medical procedure.
BLUMENTHAL: What’s being removed is my ability to work with my patient. And solely with my patient, to direct, to counsel her, to develop a plan of care that she and I arrive at. Not a legislative body, not a regulatory agency. My patient and me.
BRESLAUER: Dr. Paul Blumenthal is a practicing OB-GYN at Johns Hopkins University, and the former medical director of a Maryland Planned Parenthood chapter.
BLUMENTHAL: I think women justifiably are walking around thinking, “If I have a problem I’ll be able to go to my doctor well trained, well educated. And that my doctor will make the best clinical decisions that they know how to make with me in mind.” Now that’s a justifiable state of mind on the part of a patient. What they don’t know is that that’s about to end.
BRITELL: I’ve been there, I’ve had to make the difficult decision. I don’t want my physician’s hands tied. I want them to be able to do whatever procedure is best for me and my family.
BRESLAUER: Maureen Britell went from pro-life to pro-choice when she felt she had no choice. Raised a Catholic, she was anti-abortion, even demonstrating outside abortion clinics.
BRITELL: I mean we were really committed to being anti-choice, because that’s all I ever knew. I only knew that those other kinds of girls had abortions.
BRESLAUER: But when Britell was five months pregnant with her second child, a sonogram revealed a fetal anomaly called anencephaly. Her child would have no brain and never survive outside the womb. She consulted with her family and with her priest.
BRITELL: We decided to end the pregnancy because it was condemning me to a death watch, which made no sense to me as a mom for Samantha, to me as a wife, to me as a mom of the baby I was carrying. It just sounded so cruel.
BRESLAUER: Her husband explained what was happening to their 4-year old daughter, Samantha.
BRITELL: I heard Andrew run and grab her and then I could hear him in the room telling her that we think our baby was meant to be an angel, and that we may be giving her the baby wings. How else do you describe it to a four year old?
This was Sammy’s rendition of what happened to me. This is Dahlia in my belly, and then Dahlia becoming an angel. And you know she got it, obviously.
BRESLAUER: Now Britell is lobbying against the Partial Birth Abortion ban because she fears it would outlaw abortions like the one she had.
BRITELL: And if it could have happened to me, it could happen to anybody’s neighbor or sister, or cousin.
BRESLAUER: But what’s important to women like Britell has taken a back seat to politics, says Frances Kissling.
KISSLING: This isn’t about health. This isn’t about morality. This debate, this war on women is about the Bush Administration’s political desire to pay back the conservative Christian Right and conservative Catholics for their support for the Republican party.
BRESLAUER: Kissling says that payback began only two days after President Bush took office. One of the President’s first acts targeted international family planning organizations. He re-instituted a policy often called the Global Gag Rule. First announced during the Reagan Administration in Mexico City in 1984, the Rule prohibits “taxpayer funds from going” to any organization overseas that has anything to do with abortion.
That’s not all. Last July, the U.S. took aim at the United Nation’s agency that provides family planning by withholding $34 million it had promised.
FYFE: The change that we have witnessed has been the closure of centers that we were working in because we benefited from U.S. funding. And also, the AIDS pandemic is going up, because we can’t reach the people that we needed to reach.
BRESLAUER: Hilary Fyfe directs the Family Life Movement of Zambia. She’s pro-life. She advocates sexual abstinence before marriage. But she also believes in condom distribution as a way to prevent AIDS. One quarter of the adult population in Zambia is HIV positive but the local Planned Parenthood Association faces a condom shortage. Why? Because the group refuses to sign on to the Global Gag Rule—and U.S. government support has been cut off.
MUSONDA: In this booth there was an attendant in there who provided information to young people as well as distributed condoms to young people.
FYFE: We don’t even have, you know, shops around the corner, where you can just pick up a condom. You can’t do that. So if Planned Parenthood are not gonna offer condoms, we are dead. We are killing the young person.
BRESLAUER: Organizations like Planned Parenthood could continue to provide quality family planning overseas, says James Bopp. If only they would cut off all links to abortion services.
BOPP: The blame is on International Planned Parenthood. Because they insist upon promoting abortion and providing abortions, even though that will result in the denial of federal funds.
BRESLAUER: In fact, International Planned Parenthood uses only a tiny fraction of its budget for abortion services — less than 1%, according to the group. Most of its resources go to conventional family planning, like contraception. Advocates note that if clinics in developing countries cannot provide contraception, the result will be more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions.
FYFE: I think America is being very insensitive to the rest of the world. A woman’s right is a human right. And they’re taking it away.
BRESLAUER: Taking rights away from women overseas is a prelude to taking them away at home, say pro-choice advocates. But James Bopp says the government is merely doing what we elected it to do.
BOPP: It is the first duty of government to protect human life. And we have biologically have a human life in the womb. And therefore in our view it should be protected. That’s not a religious view. That is a view about the proper role of government.
GREENWOOD: I believe that a country that has a first amendment that guarantees freedom of religion, I think that means you don’t get to take your religion and put it in a law book and make my daughters or my neighbor’s daughters believe, conduct themselves as if they were a member of your religion. That’s not America.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. Philosopher Elaine Pagels and the secret words of Jesus.
MOYERS: We turn now to the great escape in Texas or, as some would say, the great escapade. I grew up in Texas when there were more Democrats than people. There were even more Democrats six feet under than there were Republicans walking around above ground. We couldn’t even be sure reportedly dead and departed Democrats would stay put because some of them came back every election to vote posthumously.
Sometimes the same resurrected Democrat would vote four times in the same election in four different precincts. Come Election Day, you see, every Democrat was expected to do his duty dead or alive. That meant voting the straight party ticket. And since there was only one party and one ticket, even the dumbest, deadest Democrat knew what to do. But politics have changed.
Now Republicans run Texas. Last January, they took over both houses of the legislature for the first time since reconstruction — that’s a long time. And they’ve wasted not a minute getting revenge or as they would say, justice, for all the things Democrats used to do to them. Most recently, the Republicans threw out the plan to redraw the Congressional districts in the state in a way that would give them five to seven more seats in Washington at the expense of, guess who, Democrats.
And that was the straw that broke the donkey’s back so to speak. Before the Republicans’ coup, more than 50 Texas House Democrats did a drastic thing. They headed for Oklahoma to hide out there until the clock ran out on the legislative session. There the Texas Democrats were this week holed up like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at a Holiday Inn across the Red River where legally the Texas rangers sent by the Republicans in Austin couldn’t reach them. Well, it worked. Without a quorum, the Republicans couldn’t pass their redistricting plan.
Molly Ivins is here to bring us up to date on this story. Molly Ivins is one of the country’s most popular syndicated columnists writing from her home base in Austin, Texas. Her columns have sold several best-selling books and brought her a following all over the country.
Welcome to NOW.
IVINS: Thanks, Bill.
MOYERS: You have been covering politics in Texas since God made little green apples.
IVINS: That’s right.
MOYERS: Have you ever seen anything like this?
IVINS: No, not quite. We did have some legislators on the lam about 14 years ago. But this is the biggest bolt ever. It’s a heart-rendering saga. The last living elected Democrats in Texas forced to flee their native heath from the terrible oppression of the Republican majority. It’s just a dreadful situation.
MOYERS: Quite a blow to the reputation of Oklahoma. I mean, to have fugitive Democrats think they’d feel comfortable there. That’s—
IVINS: I can see that they would be alarmed. Well, the governor of Texas, governor of Texas, Rick Perry, he requested that all the neighboring governors should they see these guys would bust them and return them.
MOYERS: There was even a published report this week that the Homeland Security Department was called in to try to track them down. Do you think that’s true? I mean, I’m not making this up — that appeared actually in print. If it appears in print it’s gotta be so, right?
IVINS: Apparently there is some truth to that. When it turned out that the Texas rangers couldn’t go across the state line and arrest these guys up in Oklahoma. Tom Delay, who’s behind the redistricting plan to begin with—
MOYERS: The House Majority Leader in Washington… IVINS: Right, in Washington. Tom Delay wanted to send in the U.S. Marshals and the FBI to get them. And— But I thought these guys were supposed to protect us from foreign terrorists. Does a Texas Democrat become a foreign terrorist the moment he crosses over the line in Oklahoma?
IVINS: You know? That could well be. I have not thought through the implications of this. But, you know, if you’re not with Tom Delay, you’re supporting the terrorists. So this could well be.
MOYERS: You mentioned Tom Delay. He is a national Republican. Not a state Republican. What’s he got to do with this?
IVINS: Well, he just inserted himself into the process in a rather obtrusive way. And that’s part of what got the Democrats so upset. Tom Delay drew a map. And I have seen redistricting maps that were real works of art before in my time. I mean, I’ve seen maps with districts that looked like coiled snakes. And districts that looked like giant chickens.
MOYERS: Done by the Democrats.
IVINS: This one is a masterpiece. I think it’s really in the Salvador Dali school of the Dadaist absurdity. I mean, this is a map that’s got districts 300 miles long that are two blocks wide in places. It is just a beauty.
MOYERS: Designed to give Republicans an advantage in all the districts, right?
IVINS: Exactly. Now, Texas is a majority Republican state. But we still have a 17 to 15 Democratic versus Republican Congressional delegation. But that’s because Republicans like to vote for these old conservative rural Democrats like Charlie Stendholm and guys who have been there for a million years.
Republicans are perfectly comfortable to vote for them. Well, Tom Delay drew this map to root all those guys out and replace them with Republicans.
MOYERS: This has come across, this fugitive flight of the Democrats, as some kind of, you know, Larry King’s BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS meets the Texas legislature— it’s sort of cornpone. But there are some serious issues here. I mean, you’ve got a $9 billion deficit down there. That’s bigger than the budgets of many countries around the world.
IVINS: I know. And it’s actually probably bigger than nine billion. And the Republicans because they have all got elected saying, “No new taxes. We’ll never vote for new taxes.” Now we’ve gotta try and take… basically $10 out of the state budget that’s tighter than a tick to begin with.
I mean, you know, Texas prides most is that sometimes we’re ahead of Mississippi. It’s not as though there were a lot of fat in Texas government to begin with. And our state’s motto has always been, “Low taxes, low services.” And that’s just the way we do it.
We barely tax people in Texas and they barely get any services. And Governor George W. Bush went off and, first of all, he did two huge tax cuts when he was governor. And then he walked off to Washington and left the state broke with no money in the Rainy Day Fund. Now, if we’d had six or seven billion in the Rainy Day Fund which is what states set aside for exactly this kind of economic downturn, we’d be a lot better off. We wouldn’t be in such real pain. But getting $10 billion out of a state budget is real pain.
MOYERS: Whose pain?
IVINS: Poor children. Old people. Handicapped citizens. And I mean, I wish I were exaggerating. But this is the weakest, the poorest, the most frail, the youngest and the oldest Texans are the ones who are being hurt here. And I really think that if Texans knew exactly who was getting hurt and how much, they’d be willing to pay some more in taxes.
And there are ways to pay taxes, increase taxes. The Republicans should know this. You know the old joke is, “Let’s don’t tax you. Let’s don’t tax me. Let’s tax that man behind the tree.” Where there are lots of men behind trees in Texas. That is to say lobbyists over the years have inserted so many loopholes into tax laws that they look like doilies. I mean, you wouldn’t have to introduce a new tax. All you’d have to do is close the loopholes in some of the old taxes and you could raise enough revenue.
MOYERS: But the guys behind the tree who benefit from those tax loopholes have made the big political contributions to the politicians who are supposed to find the money.
IVINS: That’s right. They make the big political contributions. They come to the legislature and lobby. And the whole system becomes more and more corrupt by the year.
MOYERS: In fact, even as we talk here, the President, President George W. Bush, former Governor of Texas, is getting his second tax cut in three years. There are people who say that Texas under George W. Bush was the blueprint for the nation under George W. Bush. Do you think that’s an apt comparison?
IVINS: I think the whole country’s been turned into Texas. And Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government. I mean, if you want to see a bad idea tried, we’ve tried it. Texas public policy is kind of like Hungarian wine. It does not travel well. You should not try taking it across the Red River.
MOYERS: I want to put this on the screen, so our viewers can see it. And then you tell me if it’s true or not. These are the words of a state representative from Houston named Debbie Riddle. Quote: “Where did this idea come from, that everybody deserves free education? Free medical care. Free whatever? It comes from Moscow. From Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” Now, do you know that that’s true or not? Or is that just a work of fiction?
IVINS: No. That’s absolutely true. That’s one of our finer state representatives, not fully au courant on where the idea of free public education comes from.
MOYERS: You’re talking about people who won the election. Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas now. They wouldn’t be acting like this, would they, if they didn’t have popular support?
IVINS: The Texas Republican party has been completely taken over by the Christian right. You’re not looking at any kind of old-time Republicans. You’re not looking at like, Poppy Bush Republicans, or people you would think of like that.
These people really believe that public institutions should be destroyed. They’re trying to destroy the schools. They’re trying to destroy the welfare system. They don’t think government should be used to help people.
And it’s really not because they’re mean. They really think that government is bad. And that we should be doing all this on our own, through the churches. Well, the fact that that’s not doable, that it’s impossible, that it’s an absurd proposition, is not something you can talk to these people about. It’s like trying to talk to followers of David Koresh.
MOYERS: The cult leader, who—
IVINS: They’re like people in a cult. They are so convinced of their own rectitude that they are not open to reason or fact or persuasion.
MOYERS: Things have changed since you and I were younger in Texas. I mean, there are a lot of people who do oppose more taxes. There are a lot of people who do believe government’s become obtrusive. These people are reflecting something that’s happening in your state, my state, and across the country.
IVINS: Well, part of the difference is, we’ve had 30 to 40 years of Republicans saying, “Government is bad government, can’t do anything right. Government could screw up a two-car funeral. Everything they do is wrong. Blah, blah, blah.”
And you know, before that, most people remember from the Depression, when their lives were just in dire chaos and misery, it was the government that came and helped. It was the government that got them WPA jobs, and got them on food allocations, and stuff like that.
There was a memory, that the government did good. And a distrust of big corporations. And now that’s gradually eroded over time. And you add to that, just a deliberate attack on the very concept of government. What has been lost here, I think, is our sense of us-ness. That people— the Republicans talked about government as though it were them. “Those people in Washington.” “Those people in Austin.” Look, this government is us.
You own it, I own it. Everybody owns it. We’re the Board of Directors. We control this thing. They work for us. And we’ve lost that sense that it’s ours. When you talk to people about government now, they talk about it as though it were something that they could look at, like a picture on a wall. And say whether they like it or not.
“Well, you know, I just don’t care much for politics.” “Oh, it’s boring.” “Well, they’re all crooks anyway. I mean, there’s nothing I can do.” I mean, we have no sense of ownership about it.
MOYERS: You have described the people in power in Texas as the perfect unpoliticians. Unpoliticians. What do you mean by that?
IVINS: Well, you know, there’s such a contempt for politicians in this country any more. That I almost feel embarrassed sometimes, to stand up and say — right in front of God and everybody — that I actually like politicians.
MOYERS: So do I.
IVINS: And good politicians compromise. And they work together to get things done. They try to move the ball. And it really doesn’t matter much whether you’re on the right or on the left.
Real politicians, you know, Republicans, Democrats, they work together all the time, then go out and have a beer together. That’s been the way it’s been done. But now what we’re getting is people elected to public office who have no sense of compromise. Who are so possessed by their certitude, and their sense of self-righteousness, as though they were on a mission from God.
And much of it is related to religion. That they feel entitled to run over other people. They feel that they have absolutely entitled to impose their views on other people, not only without compromise, without discussion, Bill.
MOYERS: And they have, though, but they have the power. They don’t need to accommodate.
IVINS: At all. That’s right. But it’s not the smart way to play it. As I think real politicians understand that.
MOYERS: Molly Ivins, thank you for joining us on NOW.
IVINS: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: a shocking revelation. Inside the Federal Communications Commission, America’s media barons pay to stack the deck.
WILLIAMS: The agency itself seems to view the industry almost as its customers.
ANNOUNCER: A special investigation. How mega-media giants try to pack the FCC in their pocket, and what it means for democracy. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online, at pbs.org. Track the battle over reproductive rights, state by state.
In God we trust? Facts and figures on how Americans express their religious beliefs.
Texas columnist and satirist Molly Ivins: an archive of her wit and wisdom.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: Back in 1945, a Bedouin peasant in Egypt wandered into a cave and made a stunning discovery. There, in an earthen jar, were ancient manuscripts that had been hidden for centuries. Some of them shed new light on early Christianity. One of them was the Book of Thomas, the witness of one of the lesser known disciples of Jesus.
Thomas’ depiction of Christ, including the secret sayings of Jesus, goes to the heart of an old question: is religion what we believe — a set of doctrines on high to which we pay fidelity — or is it what we discover for ourselves through personal experience?
The scholar of religion and historian Elaine Pagels has taken the Gospel of Thomas and interpreted it through the prism of her own life and wisdom in a remarkable new book, BEYOND BELIEF. Educated at Stanford and Harvard, Elaine Pagels first came to wide public attention with her book THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. Her other books include ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT and THE ORIGIN OF SATAN. She teaches at Princeton University and has been a frequent guest of mine.
Welcome to NOW.
PAGELS: Thank you.
MOYERS: The subtitle. BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS. What is the secret Gospel of Thomas?
PAGELS: The Gospel of Thomas is a quite amazing text. It consists of just— it starts with the words, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke. And Thomas wrote them down.” And all it is, are sayings of Jesus. But unlike the Gospels in the New Testament, like Matthew and Luke, this one has not public teaching, but secret sayings. It speaks about a Jesus who speaks about every one of us coming from God’s primordial light. It speaks about all beings coming from God. The New Testament Gospel of John says Jesus is the light. Everything refers to Jesus. Jesus teaches you have to believe in Jesus, you have to follow Jesus. This Gospel is not about that.
Here Jesus says— he talks about a way. And says, “You have to find your way. You can find the divine light within yourself. Within everyone. Within all being.”
MOYERS: How did it go so long unknown? Undetected? Unobserved?
PAGELS: Well, this gospel has a mystery behind it. Because apparently, this and many others were circulating among Christians very early in the movement. But they were disliked by some of the church authorities. So, one of the archbishops, in the year 367, wrote a list to the monks in Egypt. He said, “Get rid of all those illegitimate secret books you like so well. And keep these.” And the ones he said to keep are the ones we call the New Testament.
All the other books, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, many others, were burned, thrown away, and so forth. But somebody disobeyed the Archbishop. And instead of, you know, burning these Gospels, buried them where they were found in 1945.
MOYERS: So, do you think the Gospel of Thomas, which lay hidden for all these years, may well have been written— likely was written by somebody close to Jesus, or who knew someone close to Jesus?
PAGELS: We don’t know who wrote this Gospel, any more than we know who wrote any of the others, actually. They’re all attributed to disciples. But we don’t know.
It’s not unlikely — or, put it differently — it’s likely that some of the sayings here are sayings that Jesus spoke. In fact, many of the sayings are the same as you’ll find in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. And some of them are quite different. They’re not simple. They’re kind of puzzles. They’re koans. They’re meant to be struggled with.
MOYERS: Koan — that’s a Buddhist term, isn’t it?
PAGELS: It’s a Buddhist term. It means it’s not a clear saying. But it’s a puzzling saying. It’s powerful. In these sayings, Jesus says things like, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Now, when I heard that saying, I thought, “I don’t have to believe that. I just know that’s true.” And that could be true on a psychological level. And I think it’s also true on a spiritual level. That we need to find spiritual resources within ourselves. And according to this kind of source, the reason we can find it within ourselves, is that we come from that source.
MOYERS: Why isn’t the official Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas?
PAGELS: That would make a very interesting Bible. But I think that the people like the Archbishop, who called books like this illegitimate secret Gospels, thought that it was dangerous to say, “Well, you could go off and find God on your own. You don’t need the beliefs that the Church establishes. You don’t need the Bishop, you don’t need to go to church. You don’t need to be baptized.” I mean, to say that might make the church less important. And he was not an Archbishop to take that lightly.
MOYERS: So, this was about what year?
PAGELS: That was the year 367. It was after the church had become the religion of the Empire. It was the beginning of the establishment of Imperial Christianity.
PAGELS: And it was at that point that the New Testament as we know was shaped. So, this book is about how Christianity as we know is shaped. It’s quite a remarkable tradition. But there’s so much that was left out of it. And that’s what I’m writing about.
MOYERS: What does this tell you, this Gospel of Thomas, about the story of the Christian movement?
PAGELS: What fascinates me here is that so much of Christianity has turned into a set of beliefs like, if people say, “Are you a Christian?” And if you then say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” They’ll usually say, “Well, do you believe that Jesus is— whatever— the son of God.”
Christianity becomes just a set of things you believe in. It’s almost an intellectual kind of abstract issue. But these texts don’t talk about what you believe in. They talk about what you experience, what you know on the level of the heart.
MOYERS: Did you ever have an experience like that?
PAGELS: Yes. I think for anyone who has a sense of discovering another reality in this ordinary reality that we share, these texts speak deeply about that. MOYERS: The poet Rilke talks about, “every angel is terrifying.” That this experience that we have, that we cannot define, is one that turns up upside-down. Tears us apart. Shatters our world. Shatters our identity. Shatters our loyalties. Is that what you’re talking about? PAGELS: Well, I just have a sense that, you know, I’m curious about what is religion about, you know? Why do some of us still engage it? It’s not because it’s a set of old beliefs, or old ideas. Or even particularly the view that this is the only true religion. Many of us no longer accept those views. But this speaks to the heart of our experience, when we’re trying to deal with our lives. At least it speaks to me that way.
MOYERS: In the opening of your book, you tell a story. I’ve marked— it’s a cold February day, right?
PAGELS: That’s right.
MOYERS: You’re out running, in New York. And you stop to warm yourself, and to take a breath in a vestibule of a church. Read this for me.
PAGELS: This is on a morning jog in Central Park. I came into the back of the church just to warm up. I was startled.
“Standing in the back of that church, I recognized uncomfortably that I needed to be here. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears on a child. And here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control, or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope. Perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before.”
MOYERS: What did you feel the day before? What was going on?
PAGELS: The day before, my husband and I had been at the Babies Hospital up at Columbia Presbyterian. And we heard that our only child had a lung disease that was untreatable, incurable, invariably fatal. He was two years old. And we were devastated.
MOYERS: And this was on your mind, obviously, when you were out running. And you— it was a coincidence you stopped in this church.
PAGELS: I was out running in the morning. I couldn’t sleep well. I happened to stop in this church because it was cold, and I was startled at how moved I was by the worship in progress. And the thought that came to me was, “Here’s a family that can speak about death.”
MOYERS: The church family.
PAGELS: Many families don’t, you know? And mine was not very different from many others, which death is hardly spoken about. But I realized that in that community, one could deal with the terrible needs that we have, when we face that kind of vulnerability.
MOYERS: But why was this new to you, Elaine? Because you had joined an Evangelical Church when you were a teenager, if I remember the story, then a couple years later one of your closest friends had died.
PAGELS: Yes. This was a friend of mine, he was 16 years old. Killed in an automobile accident. And I went back to the evangelical church, I guess looking for comfort. And the people there said, “Well, was he a Christian? Was he born again?” And I said, “No.” And they said, “Well then he’s in hell.” And I thought this does not make sense to me. This is not a community in which I can worship. It didn’t make emotional or intuitive or religious sense to me.
MOYERS: So there was no room for discussion? They didn’t want to talk about other possibilities?
PAGELS: There was no discussion in that kind of group. So I decided to strike out on my own and try to find out, what is it about religion that’s still compelling? I mean, it has to do with the way we feel, and the way we dream, and the way we experience our lives. So that just as, you know, we dream the way people dreamed thousands of years ago, we dream about our hopes and fears. I mean, Sigmund Freud says dreams express our deepest and most instinctive wishes.
And he thought those wishes were all illusions and fantasy and delusion. And he thought religions born of those dreams were also, you know, fantasy and illusion. We should grow up and give it up.
So I was brought up to think that, too. And what I discovered is that we still have those kinds of visions, those kinds of hopes and dreams. And religious tradition is an enormous reservoir of ways to deal with reality. Not just, as Freud says, to avoid it, or hide from it. Or fool ourselves. But actually ways that people cope with the painful realities of our life. And actually can transform them.
MOYERS: And is this what was happening, confronting the painful realities, when you stood in that vestibule, at the back of that church?
PAGELS: Indeed. I mean, in that context, there’s a way to deal with even the possibility of losing one’s only child, which is what we were facing. And yet there was a kind of hope. I mean, these ancient stories in religion speak to our desire. But they move us toward hope.
You take the Passover story, which is, you know, celebrated every year in Passover. It’s about a people in bondage and oppression, moving out of bondage and oppression to deliverance and freedom. Or you take the story of Jesus. It’s about a man who suffers the worst things one can imagine, you know? Arrest on a false charge. Torture, abandonment by his friends. A terrible, painful death. And yet, that story goes on to speak about hope. And that, in some ways, speaks to what we need to hear, sometimes.
You know, if you look at the image of a mother and child, for many people this will remind us of Mary and the child Jesus. Two thousand, 3000 years ago, it would have reminded people of the Goddess Isis and her son, Horus. But before it was Isis and Horace or Jesus and Mary, it was any mother, and any child. So anyone who had been a child, or anyone who had been a parent could identify with that very powerful and simple picture. What is more fundamental? So, that picture is one in which, anyone can see his or her life played out.
MOYERS: And yet your son, Mark, subsequently died.
PAGELS: Indeed. I mean, people suffer that, and there is no magic resurrection there. Nothing at least that we can see in that way. And yet, there are means there that people have used for thousands of years, to go on and to engage our lives with the lives of each other. And—
MOYERS: But if you have hope, and yet your son dies, what does that do to your hope? I mean, if this experience is the experience of human beings, isn’t it invented? Aren’t we inventing it, then? I mean, aren’t we inventing hope?
PAGELS: Well, we may be inventing hope. But hope actually invents itself, you know, in our lives. And it isn’t just a fantasy and a fallacy. Because yes, in this case, that child died.
And yet, one has to go on living. And there are ways to do that, and have hope. And many people know that. I mean, many people engage that in different ways. But I found these ancient traditions have resources that can actually engage us on that level.
MOYERS: After the death of your son, your husband Heintz fell to his death in a climbing accident in the Rockies. I mean, what did that do to your beliefs?
PAGELS: It shattered my beliefs.
PAGELS: And beliefs were not for me any more the point. It’s, how do you live, you know, with your belief shattered? And I discovered that these traditions are more than beliefs. They have paths and ways to go more deeply than, for me, than any beliefs could.
MOYERS: So, you’re reading the secret Gospel of Thomas not merely as a scholar, or not exclusively as a scholar. But because you find something in it that speaks to your life.
PAGELS: I find in it the capacity— I mean, maybe we do invent the meanings, you know, with which we continue. But actually, that’s what human beings have always done, and probably need to do. And I think we do find meaning in that way. I mean, my late husband and I went on to adopt two other children. And to love those children, and those children were part of our lives. And they’re still very much part of mine. And part of a new family. So, it’s astonishing how people move and transform. And the ancient words in that marvelous text do speak to that.
MOYERS: Do you have sympathy for people who stay with tradition? People who have lost loved ones find consolation in what they believe. Do you have sympathy for those people?
PAGELS: I have sympathy for anyone who finds consolation anywhere we can. And many people do find it in religious tradition as it has been. I mean, I love much of that tradition. But somehow, that just didn’t speak to me in the way that it does to some. Maybe they’re lucky. But it impelled me to find what I think of as something more than that.
MOYERS: You write, “Most of us, sooner or later, find at critical points in our life, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists.”
PAGELS: Yes. I think many of us find traditional religions will take us perhaps part of the distance we need to go, and not the whole distance. And many people, of course, have given it up altogether, and think it’s completely useless. And so, however we approach that, I mean, I think many of us have to try to bushwhack, so to speak, on a spiritual level.
MOYERS: With no road map.
PAGELS: Exactly. Or with only the vaguest of road maps. And try to find paths that may be different for each of us. And for people of different traditions. There are so many people who both— I’m thinking Jewish and Christian, people who’ve given up religious belief altogether, who for example, find themselves doing meditation in a Buddhist style. Or in any other kind of way. And yes, I think spiritual exploration takes many forms. It often engages many traditions. And some people make fun of that, and say this is convenient, or this is cafeteria-style religion. I think this is simply the kind of exploration we need to do in the 21st century.
MOYERS: What is the difference between faith and belief?
PAGELS: Faith is a quality of relationship. Right? One has faith. And faith can be verified in experience. If I have faith in you, or you have faith in me, it can be betrayed, or it can be verified.
Belief can be a system. It can be, but many people say Christian tradition traditionally said, “Well, believe in this. You have no verification, but you’re just supposed to take it on somebody else’s word.” That’s very different from verifying in experience the faith that comes through relationship with another person, or with a divine source.
MOYERS: So, faith requires practice to validate?
PAGELS: It requires practice and experience and intuition.
MOYERS: Intuition, which is?
PAGELS: A kind of spiritual intuition. Many of these sources talk not about believing in God, but about a human capacity. Which here is described as something each of us has. To experience a connection with God, that happens just because of the nature of our being.
MOYERS: It seems very risky, when you’re out there alone without any belief system to hang on to deal with what life does to you.
PAGELS: I think that mourning is the most difficult time to have any sense of belief. And—
MOYERS: The period of mourning a loss.
PAGELS: For some people, they do manage to, as they would say, strengthen their belief in that time. That was not the case for me. I mean, it just seemed that belief systems were shattered. And were very superficial, compared to the depth of that kind of emotional experience.
MOYERS: When you walked out of that church, that cold February day, what did you do differently?
PAGELS: Well, for one thing, I walked back in sometimes. And I gathered with people there, and I found that there were resources in that tradition and in those kinds of community, that become enormously helpful. And when we had to face our son’s death, it was there that we went to gather with our friends for a service that could bridge what had seemed to be an absolutely impassable abyss — you know, losing one’s only child at that point.
MOYERS: And it was the experience, more than what anybody said, or what the Apostle’s Creed offered?
PAGELS: I found words at that point quite inadequate, and quite distant. And anyone who’s been in the depths of that ocean knows what that’s like. And so there, one has to find something, I think, that goes beyond it.
MOYERS: Elaine Pagels, BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
PAGELS: Thank you.
MOYERS: That’s it for NOW. I’ll be going over the weekend to pbs.org to read your emails. Thanks for watching, and writing.
I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 10, 2015.