Ayelish McGarvey

(WOMENSENEWS)–Sitting in the den of a church parsonage in southern Georgia with both her tape recorder and an I-Pod voice recorder going, Ayelish McGarvey felt right at home.

This, even though she was interviewing a woman twice her age about painful sexual abuse in her 32-year marriage, since ended, to Dr. W. David Hager, a star among the Christian conservatives and within the Bush administration.

“The night before we ate at Jimbo’s Log Cabin, which is pretty much the only restaurant in town, and people kept stopping by the table. I feel comfortable being in a really small town,” said McGarvey, a 26-year-old journalist living in Washington, D.C.

McGarvey had followed a slight lead and her instincts to reach the woman, remarried to a pastor, and convinced her to do this interview in January 2005. While researching a pre-election story on attitudes and religion, McGarvey had picked up a second-hand account of spousal abuse that belied a doctor’s pronouncements of Christian righteousness. She began to piece information together, understanding the acute sense of betrayal that religious people can feel when public piety masks deplorable private behavior.

“I’m a Christian. I go to church. I was raised in a Christian home. It’s an important part of my life. That’s what I am. It’s a framework for what I do,” said McGarvey.

Hager’s former wife described years of emotional and physical abuse prior to her divorce in 2002. She decided to speak up after hearing Hager deliver an address from the pulpit at Asbury College, a Christian evangelical school in Kentucky, in October 2004. Hager, who is affiliated with the Christian Medical and Dental Society and Focus on the Family, described how God had called him to stand up to moral decay, but that this Christian duty had caused him to neglect his marriage. His former wife roiled at what she saw as sins of omission.

Hager Immediately Controversial

In the next months, McGarvey learned more.

Hager, a pro-life Kentucky gynecologist and obstetrician who opposes emergency contraception, had stirred ongoing and unsuccessful e-mail protests when President Bush first appointed him to a reproductive health advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration in 2002.

In December 2003, Hager voted against over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the “morning-after” pill, even though 23 of the 27 expert panelists supported it. In a rare move, the FDA agreed with Hager in its final decision and overruled the majority.

McGarvey obtained a videotape of the Asbury talk that Hager’s former wife had mentioned. In the same talk, Hager also bragged that the FDA denial of Plan B was sealed by a behind-the-scenes “minority report” he wrote after the vote, something quite apart from normal public procedure. Hager said God “used this report to influence the decision.” The FDA later denied that it had asked Hager to write a minority report and Hager refused to comment further.

McGarvey was spurred on by the apparent duplicity.

Nervous About Her Own Family’s Values

By the time “Dr. Hager’s Family Values” was set for a May cover story in The Nation magazine, McGarvey felt confident about her work. She was less certain about how it would play in Mattoon and Arcola, the rural towns in Central Illinois where her family still lives.

The progressive Nation printed an uncharacteristic editorial comment, warning of disturbing content. The two-pronged story detailed Hager’s claim about the minority report on the morning-after pill and descriptions by his former wife of nonconsensual sodomy and forced sex, potentially amounting to marital rape. Hager’s wife has never pressed charges.

“My grandparents are conservative Christians. I worried that they would think the story was too graphic,” said McGarvey. “My grandmother left me a message. It choked me up. She said it was an immensely honorable thing to see the truth in someone’s story and tell it in a compelling way,” said McGarvey.

The Hager story made splashes elsewhere. The Washington Post and National Public Radio cited it, questioning the propriety of the back-channel memo that Dr. Hager said the FDA had requested.

Two senators demanded an explanation. None has been offered so far. Hager’s continuing participation on the FDA committee seemed in doubt, with his appointment expiring on June 30. On July 1, FDA spokeswoman Laura Alvey told Women’s eNews, “Dr. Hager will not be serving another term.”

Seeing the Significance

“She understood the significance of the story that she had,” said Betsy Reed, senior editor at The Nation. “She understood how to tell it as one story, but that there were two components.”

Reed said McGarvey was relentless in pursuing sources.

A 2001 graduate of Northwestern University in Chicago, McGarvey majored in social policy with a concentration on ethnographic poverty research.

After a stint at Child Trends in Washington, D.C., where she researched welfare and family concerns, she snagged a two-year writing fellowship at The American Prospect magazine in Washington in 2003. There she took assignments on prisoners, early education for children of low-income families and the effects of global trade on U.S. sock manufacturing.

But with her unconventional wisdom about religion, she soon created an unofficial beat: evangelical America.

“I said at a staff meeting that there was a small group of liberal evangelicals who could flip the election,” said McGarvey. To the incredulous looks of her colleagues, she added: “And I am one.”

She challenged the facile translation of “Christian evangelical” into “conservative Republican” in a story, “Reaching to the Choir.” In it, she described “freestyle evangelicals” who champion social justice, the environment, economic equality and those on the margins of society.

“Secular liberals have long misunderstood the kaleidoscopic diversity of American evangelicalism,” she wrote. “But they should be studying the nuances.”

It was working the evangelical beat that she began what turned into the expose of Hager and the FDA.

At Home in Her Beat

McGarvey is at home in her beat.

Her father is a seminary graduate and filled in as pastor at the Christian Missionary Alliance in Champaign, Ill. Her schoolteacher mother quietly helps neighbors in need.

She ascribes the success of contemporary evangelism to its upbeat, self-help language, sped to far-flung audiences by cable television. Her own theological view holds that gay marriage is a civil issue and religious distraction. She favors female pastors. While uncomfortable with abortion, she doesn’t think it should be illegal. Mostly, she objects to the manipulation of deeply-held religious beliefs for political and financial gain.

“It’s politics, not faith,” she said. “It’s disappointing to me.”

In August, McGarvey heads to Cambodia on a year-long cultural exchange as a Luce Scholar and will work on an English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh. She says that she is young, that she is still learning, that she suffers long nights when the words won’t come and days when fresh ideas are dry.

Then she mentions wanting to write about evangelical Christian enclaves in Southeast Asia. Or the rural America that she knows, where small towns that are sinking in the wake of manufacturing losses do not comport with the phony “heartland” talk she hears from politicians. “It’s a story that needs to be written,” says McGarvey.

Reed at The Nation also sees a need, and it’s for McGarvey’s continuing reportage.

“We have too few women who do political reporting,” Reed says. “Young women in journalism have a tough time. It’s a problem, and helps to explain the lack of women’s voices in political punditry. It’s all of our responsibilities to cultivate them.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York.

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