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From the Fall, 1997 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>The Small Voice, Still by James Hitchcock

The Small Voice, Still

The commission appointed by the White House to study the cloning of humans took testimony from various religious leaders. Predictably, those opinions were by no means uniform, although all the religious voices expressed reservations about the practice.

One might think this was a textbook civics lesson. The nation is faced with an extraordinary and unprecedented issue with unimaginable implications for the future. It badly needs guidance. Historically, morality has been closely linked to religion, and the various religions thus have much to say.

Not so, in the minds of some people, who appear to think that the religious voice should be excluded from such deliberations. That appears to be the view of the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, for example, writing in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books.

Lewontin himself appears somewhat ambivalent about the prospect of cloning, admitting that there are reasons for doubt, even as he dismisses some of the arguments against the practice. Towards the end of his essay he muses, almost wistfully, that religious believers can dispense with doubt in order to arrive at clear answers.

Lewontin notes that the commission did not invite religious leaders from fundamentalist Protestantism, and the speculates that the only reason “mainstream” theologians were invited was to forestall the claim that religion was being excluded.

Lewontin’s argument is interesting for the way in which he openly states assumptions about which secularists are often not candid.

He fears, for example, that the involvement of religious groups in national dialogues “threatens the secular nature of the American polity,” the sort of statement that leaves the reader scratching his head. The history of the United States shows that religion has been a major element in all national discussions about moral questions. The “tradition” of a “secular polity” at best applies only to direct government support for religion.

Lewontin practices a common secularist sleight of hand. Does the Constitution forbid the government to support religion directly? Then that must mean that believers do not have a legitimate voice in national discussions. Not even the most secular of the Founding Fathers entertained that thought.

Lewontin knows enough history to recognize that religion has played a major role, with regards to slavery, segregation, and the Vietnam War. But here he unveils his second assumption—in those instances the churches were playing a role which was “liberatory and representative of a wide-spread sentiment that did not ultimately depend upon religious claims.”

How do we determine which moral positions are “liberatory”? Lewontin thinks that opposition to abortion is not. But what if it is precisely the kind of activity he extols—intervening to defend the weak against the strong?

The term “widespread sentiment” especially caught my eye. Lewontin appears to think religious believers are marginal people whose beliefs occasionally coincide with those of the rest of the society. But in reality it is precisely secularists like himself whose positions are in the minority, as every poll shows.

Secularists have a skewed view of American society precisely because they fail to understand (or do they?) that most people make moral judgments according to religious belief. It is those who do not who are oddities. Hence to exclude religion from the national dialogue about cloning would be to exclude most of the citizens.

Being a university professor allows one to live in a kind of bubble, as in the often quoted remark of the professor who said he could not understand how Ronald Reagan was elected, since the professor did not know a single person who voted for him.

Religious believers are in the vast majority, but we still have to wage constant battle even to make our voices heard.

James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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