Like so many other things, religious absolutism just isn’t
what it used to be. Back in the old days, reigning clerics would pass down the
word on controversies in science or sexuality, and anybody who disagreed too
boldly would be burned at the stake. Modernity has made life more complicated,
even for the simple-minded-as George W. Bush discovered during his recent
inquest into the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research.
Few events in public life are as funny as this President
trying to sound profound. His televised ruminations announcing his stem-cell
decision meandered ineluctably from his “deeply held beliefs” and “respect for
life” to his unstated but unshakable worship of political convenience.
What else could be expected from a statesman who had
casually announced his total opposition to such research last year, before
bothering to learn anything about the matter? Suddenly it was obvious that he
took his original position solely to placate fundamentalist constituencies-and
that now this posturing would no longer be so easy. Mr. Bush may not know much
about biology, but Karl Rove has informed him that the great majority of
Americans-including more than 60 percent of Catholic voters-favor a liberal
approach to this issue.
If the President’s
performance was amusingly transparent, the reactions to his decision were
likewise revealing. Prominent right-wing clerics were
evenly divided between cheerleading and condemnation, which suggests that they
are no better prepared to dictate scientific ethics than Dubya.
In one corner are the
divines who complain that Mr. Bush has betrayed their trust by permitting
federally funded research on embryonic stem-cell colonies or “lines.” These are
many of the same people who thought they were colluding with him to mislead the
public during the Presidential campaign, when he presented himself as a
moderate conservative rather than a theocratic extremist.
Recall how he winked and nodded at the likes of Jerry
Falwell and Ralph Reed, and how they winked and nodded back at him and to each
other. Implied by each little gesture was the message that the religious right
would achieve unprecedented power when this born-again Bush reached the White
House. If they now feel deceived, who can say they don’t deserve it?
In another corner are
the worthies who praise Mr. Bush’s wisdom, even though his Solomonic compromise
will enable scientific activities they supposedly abhor. These pragmatic,
politically reliable preachers predictably cheer a Republican President when he
does precisely what they condemned his Democratic predecessor for doing. To
them, “abortion” is essentially a direct-mail category and “murder” is merely a
Yet if disarray among the self-anointed encourages cynical
speculation about their motives, it is also a sign of the declining appeal of
absolutism. For decades, intellectual and emotional authority has accrued to
the so-called pro-lifers despite their political frustration. They looked pure
while their opponents seemed selfish.
Suddenly, in the debate over stem cells, the pro-lifers have
run aground on their own rhetoric. They are finding it hard to explain why the
“pro-life” position values a few frozen embryonic cells over a potential cure
for Parkinson’s disease or paraplegia, let alone to persuade anyone that this
preference makes sense.
That’s why Mr. Bush flinched from adopting the absurd position
he had once endorsed so unconditionally. He knew he could get away with a
flip-flop-not only because so many of his supporters on the religious right are
morally and politically pliable, but because his conservative advisers had so
much trouble sustaining the absolutist argument themselves.
Both the Los Angeles
Times and The Washington Post have reported that an outline of
the eventual Bush compromise was floated several weeks ago by those same White
House advisers, including Princeton professor Robert
George. When their tentative acceptance of the compromise was first mentioned
in the press, the advisers hastily withdrew any public support. By then,
however, the breach of orthodoxy had widened too far to be completely closed.
Mr. Bush clearly followed their counsel even after they had disowned it.
They still feel obliged to deny an intuitive perception
frankly admitted by more thoughtful religious conservatives: There is an
important difference between removing stem cells from a frozen embryo and
performing a late-term abortion on a healthy mother and fetus.
This distinction has
been acknowledged implicitly by church and anti-abortion leaders, who have
mounted no real effort to shut down the clinics performing in-vitro
fertilization. They may regard that procedure as disrespectful of human life
and possibly sinful, but there has been no mass movement against in-vitro
fertilization or the research its byproducts have made possible, and there
never will be-because even the most extreme ideologues cannot convincingly
equate them with murder.
Nor, in the end, could Mr. Bush. We should be thankful that,
for once, his opportunism has provided an occasion for reason to prevail, at
least for now. It won’t happen often, and he’s already having second thoughts.