Democrats need to get religion, or so say political analysts in the wake of the 2004 election cycle. And little by little we’ve seen Democratic politicians, one after another, begin to proffer moral and religious foundations for their particular public policies. Chris Bell, Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the state of Texas, is the latest in this line.
Bell has found Jesus’ bold position on stem-cell funding inspiring. Jesus, you see, is pro stem-cell research.
"When Jesus healed the lepers, he didn’t consult the Pharisees," Bell said during a state-wide conference call . "I believe God gives us the tools of science and technology to help our fellow man. We cannot let politics stand in the way of curing disease and healing the sick. It’s the right thing to do, and now is the time to do it."
"What would Jesus do?" Bell continued. "He would not let political objections stand in the way of healing the sick. Stem cell research isn’t just a good idea; it’s a moral imperative."
There is good reason to suspect that Bell has misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. Consider a modern retelling of a familiar parable.
"You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself."
Chris Bell, because he wished to be elected governor, asked, "And who is my neighbor?"
Consider the Parable of the Good Soccer Mom: An embryo fell into the hands of ambitious scientists after she was left over in the freezer of an in vitro fertilization lab.
A molecular biologist happened to be journeying through the lab. Seeing that the embryo was very small and didn’t look like other human beings, he decided that it was not a human being. And he passed to the other side of the lab and left the embryo for his colleagues.
Likewise a moral philosopher came to the place and launched into an exposition of human embryology and developmental biology. He concluded that the human embryo was a whole human being at the very beginning of her life. The embryo possessed all of the internal resources necessary to guide herself¯by a self-directed process¯through further stages of development toward the maturity of organismic life. In doing this, the embryo integrates herself so as to keep her unity, identity, and determinateness all intact. No mere part of some other organism¯as the sperm and egg cells whose union brought her into existence were¯the embryo is both functionally and genetically distinct from any other organism, a whole and complete (though immature) human being. The term embryo is just a way of classifying the early human being, just as the terms fetus , newborn, infant, child, adolescent, adult, and octogenarian all refer to human beings at other stages. These terms, he concludes, refer to the same self-developing, unitary organism: the human being.
While the molecular biologist got the science wrong, the philosopher got it right. But the embryo could feel no pain or pleasure and exhibited no consciousness of any type, and so the philosopher concluded that the human embryo had no moral status and possessed no rights. And he, too, passed to the other side of the lab and left the embryo to the tender mercies of the scientists.
But a Soccer Mom who came upon the embryo was moved by both scientific fact and right moral reason. Aware of the humanity of the embryo as established by modern embryology, she wondered what was owed to the human being in the embryonic stage of life. She thought that whatever was owed to human beings at other stages of life was owed to them at the embryonic stage. For age and stage of development certainly are not morally significant. Older people do not have greater moral status; neither do the more fully developed. All human beings are of equal moral worth, she reasoned, because they are equally human. So, what is owed to human beings? Why, human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, possessing free will and rational natures that make them entities of intrinsic¯and not mere instrumental¯worth. They are to be treated as subjects and not as objects. Hence they are owed protection, support, and aid. In a word, they are owed love.
She summed up her findings: A human embryo is a whole member of the human species. Each human being entered life as an embryo. And all human beings are subjects of profound, inherent, intrinsic worth in virtue of what they are, not what they can do. And if they are subjects of worth in virtue of what they are, then they bear this worth from the moment that they first come into existence.
The Soccer Mom then rescued the embryo, transferred her to her womb, and cared for her.
"Mr. Bell, which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the embryo?"
It is not clear what Bell’s answer would be. In the parable as Jesus told it, the lawyer answered, "The one who treated her with compassion." And Jesus responded to the lawyer, "Go and do likewise."
It is not for us to dictate what Jesus would say to Mr. Bell, but keeping these words of his in mind would do us all well: "Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."
Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things .