Standing at the entrance to Louisiana’s state capitol building on a sunny morning in April, Dee Burbank paraphrased Jesus. “It’s been said that if we know the truth, the truth will set us free,” Burbank declared, pausing for effect as more than 1,000 teenagers gathered on the stone steps below her fell into a round of whooping. “But I add to that, if you follow a lie, the lie of the sexual revolution–if you follow a lie, you may die.”
A small woman with glasses perched professorially on her nose, Burbank railed against sex outside of marriage in a cadence that brought skilled politicians and pastors to mind. “It’s a privilege to be here with our greatest treasure, our young people–and our legislative officials, our other governmental officials, to celebrate the truth that will set us free!” she boomed. As Burbank reached a crescendo–shouting that “Ignorance, stupidity can only reign so long because the truth will emerge like the phoenix and rise and light the skies!”–one blond, ponytailed girl in the audience leaned over and marveled to her friend, “Wow, she could be a preacher!”
Dee Burbank is neither politician nor preacher. She is a doctor on the payroll of Louisiana’s Governor’s Program on Abstinence, or GPA–and one of many people whose zeal for eradicating sexual activity among young people has helped elevate a certain “truth,” as she and many other advocates call their complete censure of all extramarital sex, into an official statewide message trumpeted by politicians, teachers and budding teen political advocates. The fact that Burbank and others were holding a rally to promote abstinence, which she calls “the age-old practice of self-government,” at the seat of actual government speaks to the murky political territory that abstinence-only education has come to occupy.
Using money that flows from Washington through the governor’s office, GPA leaders presented an award to Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who inherited the program from her Republican predecessor. Then the hordes of teens in matching blue GPA T-shirts lunched on chicken and biscuits at the governor’s mansion. As Curtis Lipscomb, a 17-year-old who served as membership director of his high school’s GPA club in Ouachita, Louisiana, pointed out, “There’s not many clubs that the government backs and supports with all its power.”
That’s high school clubs Lipscomb is talking about, and he’s right. In fact, while federally funded programs for children, from school lunches to childcare, are being slashed, abstinence-only education is expanding. In 1996, when Congress approved the Social Security Act, one of several sources of federal funding for abstinence education, Washington put just $4 million toward such programs. Since then, more than $700 million has been lavished on programs that discourage sex; and President Bush has requested a total of $206 million for the next fiscal year.
Louisiana’s program has come under fire for its religious content. In 2002, in response to a suit brought by the ACLU, a Louisiana district court found that the program violated the separation of church and state. This past June the same court ruled that the program had sufficiently changed itself so that even though its materials still contained religious references, its main purpose wasn’t to advance religion. Even now religion clearly underlies the program’s teachings, and it continues to function as a vehicle for funneling government cash to key figures on Louisiana’s Christian right. But to discourage teens from having sex, the program has shifted its emphasis away from God’s punishment and more squarely onto the dangers of STDs. Meanwhile, barred from religious proselytizing, the program devotes much of its energy to a somewhat less predictable but equally unsettling purpose: political recruitment and advocacy.