What Keeps Me Up at Night

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The paragraphs have the nice measured tone of a University of Chicago law professor, but they are of the same cloth as the recent allegations that American politics is listing toward theocracy. There are many such accusations, with some of them now bloated to book-length. The most popular of these books is Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy. These types of arguments have all kinds of built-in assumptions that the authors know better than to reveal. But if you reflect, or even merely linger, over the paragraphs above, you quickly can see how ludicrous the concerns are.

Please excuse the following lengthy quotation from the University of Chicago Law faculty blog, but it’s worth reading:

Perhaps you noticed an interesting confluence of events on Wednesday, July 19. On that day, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have authorized the expanded use of federal funds for stem-cell research, the House of Representatives voted to enact legislation depriving the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear any case challenging the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the House voted to purchase a municipal park in San Diego on which a 29-foot-high cross stands.

What these three acts have in common is a reckless disregard for the fundamental American aspiration to keep church and state separate. In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a “conflict between science and ethics.” But what, exactly, is the “ethical” side of this conflict? Clearly, it derives from the belief that an embryo smaller than a period on this page is a “human life” – indeed, a human life that is as valuable as those of living, breathing, suffering children.

The paragraphs have the nice measured tone of a University of Chicago law professor, but they are of the same cloth as the recent allegations that American politics is listing toward theocracy. There are many such accusations, with some of them now bloated to book-length. The most popular of these books is Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy. These types of arguments have all kinds of built-in assumptions that the authors know better than to reveal. But if you reflect, or even merely linger, over the paragraphs above, you quickly can see how ludicrous the concerns are.

According to the author, those three acts he mentions “have in common … a reckless disregard for the fundamental American aspiration to keep church and state separate.” There you have it. That reckless disregard for the separation of church and state is the theocrat’s move. And of course (though it’s not said) the problem is not that the state assumes priority over the church, which some of us might fear portends totalitarian aspirations, the problem is that these guys think the church has assumed or is assuming priority over the state. In the early twenty-first century, just a half-century after middle Europe’s fling with nationalistic totalitarianisms and less than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union’s chokehold on Eastern Europe, both of which involved the suppression of the churches by the state, books are being published to warn us that a new age of Constantine may soon be upon us because President Bush exercised a constitutionally granted executive power and because the House of Representatives bought a park. Excuse me if I don’t seem alarmed by these dire events.

I am alarmed, however, by two things in the paragraphs. First, the author blithely invokes the kind of thinking that has allowed men to enslave each other, and second, he thinks the conviction that the embryo is a human being is a religious conviction. Neither propositions is true. A human embryo the size of the period at the end of this sentence is a human being. That is a scientific and incontrovertible fact having nothing to do with religious conviction and, I suspect, the more we learn from science about embryos, the clearer this will become. Indeed, it would take a seriously confused conviction to hold otherwise. (And, I have no idea what authors who compare the embryo to a period regard as the force of that comparison. Wasn’t Dr. Seuss right, that a person’s a person, no matter how small?)

The exclusion of embryos from the protections the rest of us receive doesn’t really rest on the unscientific denial of the fact that they are human beings. It rests, as the sentence above makes plain, on the denial that embryos are the same kinds of human beings as the rest of us. So, the author states (bearing my emphasis): “Clearly, it derives from the belief that an embryo smaller than a period on this page is a “human life” – indeed, a human life that is as valuable as those of living, breathing, suffering children.” The author cannot really deny that the embryo is a human life: it is. It is an individuated and fully human being that, given the proper environment will mature into a more recognizable member of our species. Instead, however, the author’s complaint that there’s no ethical quandary in embryo destruction rests entirely on a comparison of the different beings involved. Breathing children outweigh embryos. The suffering stuff is just sentimental, thrown in by the author to cloak himself in the humanistic compassion he will then turn against the embryos who do not suffer.

Living, breathing, suffering, intellectual human beings like the author of this quotation have long advanced positions that pit one class of human beings against another. He therefore steps into a distinguished heritage that includes slaveholders and aristocrats and eugenicists. Let us be clear about what’s going on: we have chosen to sacrifice some human beings for others and are doing so not in the name of religion, but science. I do not fear theocracy. It is science unbound that spooks me, and were I older I would be frightened, for, in line after the embryos and fetuses stand the elderly.
 
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.

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