Three Chickens Over Easy with Toast

How many chickens did you have for breakfast?

At any opportunity, the righteous send letters to my local paper, lamenting the murder of children. They aren’t concerned with the high school students who are getting their limbs blown off in Iraq, or ten year olds who are being handed machine guns by warlords in Africa, or toddlers who are needlessly dying of dysentery in back rooms in Cambodia. They are talking, of course, of abortion.

At an outdoor rally at Westlake Mall in Seattle, Evangelical women took turns in front of a microphone, lamenting the babies they had murdered. They choked on tears, savored God’s forgiveness, and envisioned the day when they would come face-to-face in heaven with the people they had killed and could ask them forgiveness.

Across the street a thin line of men and women held signs. Familiar, forgettable ones said things like, “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal” or “Hands Off of My Body.” They seemed flat and superficial in the presence of the women’s painful personal stories. On another corner, a small cluster of signs expressed a different sentiment. “An Acorn is Not an Oak Tree,” read one. “A Blueprint is Not a House.” “An Egg is not a Chicken.”

The sign holders were telling the women, “You didn’t kill a person.” They were saying that a fetus is not a child, that personhood is something that emerges. It grows. It becomes. It is solidly present in the opinions of a twelve year old, delightfully emergent in the curiosity and defiance of a three year old, and sweetly latent in a newborn. But if we move back in time far enough, back to conception (the acorn stage), personhood exists merely as potential. Like the house that is conjured by a blueprint or a freshly poured foundation, it exists only in the imagination of someone who has seen the real thing – a full-fledged person or a finished home – and can picture what is possible if things move forward.

I was one of those sign holders. But as a former Evangelical fundamentalist, I should have known better.

Not that the signs were wrong. Personhood --the feeling, thinking, self-aware, intentional part of us that values life-- does come into being gradually, and it often leaves in bits. Religious traditions acknowledge this. Rituals of identity (the Catholic christening) or of covenant (the Jewish bris) often are postponed till after the neonatal days or weeks. Ancient legal codes like the one in the Bible placed monetary on persons and various forms of sub-persons; a fetus was not a person.

These traditions and laws reflected a reality that is visible today in our emotional response to grief and loss. Imagine hearing that your dear elderly aunt has dementia and will soon lose the ability to talk or even eat. Now imagine hearing the same thing about your dear niece, a college student. As people age, we somehow find their infirmity less troubling. Loss of mobility, cognition, or even life seems less grievous when it strikes the nursing home crowd.

Cross cultural research on bereavement suggests that people typically experience the greatest sense of loss when a youth dies just before the child-bearing years. Biologists propose that this is because we are wired to leave a genetic legacy, a little bit of ourselves carried forward in future generations. By adolescence, parents have invested years of their lives in nurturing their offspring. All of that investment, from laundry to love, comes to naught when a young person dies without children of his or her own.

Whatever our genes may value, we are intelligent, self-conscious beings, and we embrace an intelligent and self-conscious sense of personhood independent of our reproductive prospects. We intuitively value life less at both ends because this personhood—the unique sense of ourselves as ourselves-- is first coming into being and then fading.

The pre-natal period is a part of this continuum. Is an infant less valuable as a person two days before it is born than two day after? Not by much. It is true that a sudden death two days after birth is likely to cause even greater grief than a death two days before. But this has little to do with objective substance, the value of the neonate as a latent person. Only the most rabidly dualistic defender of abortion rights would argue otherwise, and I have yet to meet such a person. Conversely, only the most rabid conceptionist would argue that destroying a beaker full of six million fertilized eggs is a crime on scale with the Holocaust. (I have met such a person; in fact, I am related to one.)

Cognitive scientists study something they call “naïve psychology.” Naïve psychology is the values and beliefs that actually govern our perceptions of other people, not the ones that we say do. As the philosopher said, “Tell me what you do, and I’ll tell you what you believe.” At the level of naïve psychology, Evangelicals, just like the rest of us, believe that the value of a fetus grows over time and that it is different than the value of a child.

Consider: Those letter writers who carry on about our “child murder” problem, don’t spend much time lamenting the sixty percent of fertilized eggs that God or nature aborts. By contrast, we might expect them to be horrified if sixty percent of American children were falling dead sometime between their third and fourth birthdays. They would stand beside the rest of us in demanding better medical research and care. We also might expect them to do something other than squawk and work the political process if millions of three year olds were being killed with state sanction. I certainly would.

Consider: Evangelicals don’t pray over old tampons and panty liners the way they pray at the funerals of deceased children. But if they really believed that fertilized eggs were people, they would. A high percentage of pregnancies self-abort before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. Consequently, if women are having unprotected sex, that menstrual discharge frequently contains little spherical people.

Consider: Middle aged Evangelicals grieve their dead children more than they grieve their dead elders. The loss of a child is more likely to provoke a divorce or a crisis of faith than the loss of a bed-bound demented parent, however well loved.

The point I am making is this. At an emotional level, fundamentalists assign different values to different points along the life span, just like the rest of us.

So why do I say that it was a waste of time to carry the signs at that protest? Why not try to remind those tearful “murderers” of what they know subconsciously to be true? Because too much was at stake, both for them and for their Evangelical community. This isn’t about child development. It isn’t about biology. Here’s the bottom line: Unless fundamentalists want to risk their whole precarious Jenga-tower of beliefs, they cannot afford to consciously admit that personhood exists on a continuum.

Evangelical fundamentalism demands that most everything that matters be divided into tidy categories. It is a world of black and white, with no gray-tones.

There are the male roles and “complementary” female roles. An age of innocence and an age of accountability. One perfect sacred text and a bunch of dangerous fakes. God’s chosen people--the stars of His screenplay-- and millions of Hollywood extras. The saved and the damned. Heaven and hell.

In this dichotomous world, anyone who is not on the side of Yahweh is on the side of Satan. Committing adultery in your heart is as damning as committing it in a back alley at knifepoint. Someone who cheats the paper boy is slated for the same eternity as Hitler.

And sex . . . Well sex. Born-again believers are good marriage material; marrying an outsider makes a believer “unequally yoked.” Whether a sex act is beautiful or vile depends entirely on a marriage certificate. We’re all either straight or disgusting. And that first coital act magically establishes a woman’s virtue and value as an intimate partner.

In this world, all prayers of fundamentalists are answered; no others. Being “born again” trumps any other qualification for public office and being an atheist is an absolute disqualifier. The wisdom of insiders is wisdom indeed; the wisdom of outsiders is foolishness. (For some reason, this doesn’t apply to the office of cardiac surgeon or stock broker.) Money given to Christian ministries goes to God; money invested in secular mercies is a waste. In sum, the whole social, political, moral and financial structure of fundamentalism requires a dualistic world view.

Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. After all, I was nursed on dichotomies, and my own ability to think in shades of gray ought to be in question. In the real world, labels and categories tend to fall short. The tribe of Evangelicals is a fuzzy group, like most others, and a few who call themselves Evangelical are not fundamentalist at all. But if you push past the hazy liberal edge into the Evangelical heartland, you will find yourself surrounded by the kind of fundamentalism I am describing. Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literally perfect and complete revelation of God to humankind. This belief is the cracked granite from which the whole Evangelical movement flows.

One of the root problems with fundamentalism in any religion is that it abhors shades of gray. That is why fundamentalists, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim cannot accept a developmental sequence in which a blastocyst is a hollow ball of cells, and a twelve year old is a person, and we can’t quite pinpoint when exactly the change happened because it was happening for twelve years straight.

This is also why unending arguments over abortion are only a small sign of a much bigger problem. The really big problem is that the fundamentalist mindset distorts a believer’s perspectives on everything from international relations to science education. Living in a world of dichotomies means that there are good countries and axes of evil. It means that the answers to important questions are static, and that any evolving body of knowledge (aka science) is suspect, especially when it has moral or social implications.

Ultimately, this mindset threatens not only our pluralistic society but also our economy. To the extent that we Americans have earned our prosperity, we’ve earned it largely because our culture values free inquiry. We follow our curiosity where it leads; and then we poke, prod and ask hard questions; and then we innovate based on whatever we discover through this messy process. The unfettered pursuit of “why” and “how” and “what if” has caused our country to flourish. But it is fundamentally at odds with fundamentalism. The heart of America and the heart of Evangelical fundamentalism are at best unequally yoked and at worst hopelessly incompatible.

Around the world, groups that cling to received “truths,” whether religious or secular, tend to be economically delayed. Can we alone close the doors of our minds and somehow avoid this fate? Those who care about the future of American innovation should worry about the growing hunger of fundamentalists in this country for theocracy. As a bumper sticker points out, “One nation under God” is the motto of Iran.

Our stagnant battle over fetal personhood may portend a more ominous stagnation. Together we face global challenges of our own making: climate change, resource depletion, and mutually destructive military capacity. We are up against questions about the future of living, breathing, self-conscious, opinionated twelve-year-olds. Unless we can find a way to challenge the growing appeal of fundamentalism, questions about emerging personhood may become obsolete.