In what has become a tradition, the nation’s newsweeklies recently released Christmas cover stories featuring a predictable parade of deconstructionist biblical scholars debunking the Gospels. But in a twist, this year’s Newsweek article featured some real news: a poll showing that 82 percent of American adults see Jesus “as God or the son of God,” 79 percent believe in the virgin birth, and 67 percent think the biblical Christmas story is historically accurate.
Such widespread belief is startling when one considers its consequences. The doctrine of the Incarnation as revealed in the Gospels declares that God began his life on earth in the same form as we did. He started as a human embryo, one like us in all things but sin. No earnest believer can escape the implications that follow from this central mystery of the Christian faith: If God took on human flesh in its earliest stages, then the human body in its earliest stages must have intrinsic dignity and surpassing value. And human life must deserve not only respect, but reverence.
Of course, more Americans profess belief in the Incarnation than seriously ponder its consequences. Consider public attitudes about stem-cell research that requires the destruction of human embryos: Polls show that Americans support it by a margin of two-to-one. The $3 billion ballot initiative that allows the cloning and destruction of human embryos for stem-cell research in California passed with flying colors last month, and similar pushes for state-funded stem-cell research are underway in Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
Supporters often justify the killing of human embryos by citing the highly speculative claims that stem-cell research will cure everything from Parkinson’s to diabetes to Alzheimer’s–rewards they see as too good to resist. When it comes to deciding the morality of embryonic- stem-cell research, Americans seem more faithful to their utilitarian impulses than to their incarnational theology.
The utilitarian arguments are compelling. Michael Kinsley argued in a recent issue of The New Republic that the decision about supporting embryonic stem-cell research boils down to a decision between “you–versus that microscopic dot.” Not surprisingly, Kinsley predicted a lopsided loss for the human embryo when its rights are pitted against the self-interest of the American voter.
Considered in Kinsley’s terms, opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research is indeed a tough sell. But the debate changes when we consider that each of us began life as “a microscopic dot.” If the 82 percent of Americans who affirm Jesus’s divinity thought more carefully about the implications of their religious beliefs–that when God himself began his life on earth, his human body was no larger than a “microscopic dot”–public opinion on killing embryos might change dramatically.
It is no coincidence that the churchgoing Catholics and evangelical Christians are leading the fight against the cloning and destruction of human embryos. These “values voters” make a direct connection between their private faith in traditional Christian doctrines like the Incarnation and their public defense of the sanctity of life–especially life in its most vulnerable stages, the very stages through which Jesus himself passed.
Committed Christians are not the only ones who object to the destruction of human embryos, of course. They are joined by people of many other faiths, and of no faith at all. Yet faith plays a particularly powerful role in this debate: An ABC News/Beliefnet poll taken last summer found that 42 percent of Americans who object to embryonic stem cell research do so because of their religious beliefs, making religion “the most significant factor in this opposition by a wide margin.”
A religious faith that declares the inviolability of every human life may be the last, best defense against the egocentrism that tempts us to create life in order to destroy it. If more Americans considered the consequences of the Christmas story–or the implications of the broader Judeo-Christian principle that the human person, body and soul, is God’s creation in God’s image–our bioethics quandaries might not seem so confusing. We might even rediscover the radical truth that our Founding Fathers enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: that the right to life belongs to every child of God, no matter how old, how sick, or how small.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.