And yet, every so often it is possible to catch a glimpse of a surviving moral wisdom in the American people, at least a majority of them. The opposition to cloning that surfaces in Thursday's ABC News/Beliefnet poll offers one such glimpse. Sixty percent say cloning animals should be illegal in the United States; 60% oppose "therapeutic cloning," the cloning of a human embryo to produce medical treatments. And 87 percent say it should be against the law to produce a child through cloning. The opponents told pollsters that they are guided by their religious beliefs.
White evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to oppose all cloning-and 95% of them are opposed to human cloning. Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants are slightly more in favor of some forms of cloning-but the numbers who oppose it are nevertheless overwhelming. Among those who oppose cloning, 40% who oppose human cloning cited religious beliefs as their reason. The numbers were even higher for those opposed to cloning animals (48%) and those opposed to "therapeutic cloning" (49%). (Click here for complete results at ABCNews.com)
Why would religion be such an important factor on this particular issue?
Some moral theorists have concluded that most people feel an intuitive "yuck," and that elegant moral theories are really just ways to articulate that feeling of skin-crawl we all know.
But there is a better way to make sense of moral revulsion. Catholics would locate it in the concept of natural law-the original moral sense given at the creation to all people that enables us to discern right and wrong even apart from biblical revelation. Reformed Protestants use the language of common grace to get at the same idea. The concept includes the belief that God makes knowledge of his will available to all people through a variety of means, including the witness of an uneasy conscience.
A mere sense of moral revulsion is hardly conclusive evidence that an idea, practice, or technological innovation crosses an important moral boundary. But in my view, the intuitive sense of moral revulsion demonstrated in this poll-against animal cloning, therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning--is well-placed.
The role of religious conviction in opposing cloning is critical. It's not that evangelical Christians, among others, are overwhelmingly opposed to all forms of cloning because there is some particular Bible verse that bans the practice. It goes deeper than that. Religious opponents of cloning would differ in the particulars of their stance, but what almost all have in common is the sense that human (and perhaps even animal) cloning transgresses the boundaries that God assigned to the human family.
Those who believe that the Bible is authoritative and truthful come at these discussions from a frame of reference deeply shaped by the account of a primordial human overreaching. The Bible offers an account of how the very first man and woman, Adam and Eve, impatiently transgressed the one limit their Creator placed on them by eating from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil"--and in doing so brought disaster to the world. Made aware of this human tendency by the Bible's first narrative, thoughtful Christians notice numerous other examples of the same pattern. Whether it is the spouse who transgresses the boundaries of fidelity or the ruler who seeks world empire, humans routinely disregard moral scruples to reach for that tantalizing prize which ultimately brings not good but harm.
There are certain things human beings just simply should not do. Cloning is one of them. It marks a prideful overreaching that will inevitably, if it is permitted, bring dreadful consequences, only some of which can be anticipated now. For now at least, this stubborn conviction, born of instinct, religion, or both, prevails by a modest majority in our nation. For this we should be truly grateful.