Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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Dobson has proved that he shouldn't be pitching in the major leagues of public discussion


(from today's Wall Street Journal Opinion Page)

Dobson's Choice

August 10, 2005; Page A10

Last week, James Dobson of Focus on the Family proved that he lacks sufficient control to be pitching in the major leagues of public discussion and ought to be sent back to the minors. He compared embryonic stem cell research to Nazi death-camp experiments. I too (and millions of others) oppose broadened federal funding for stem-cell research, but Dr. Dobson has damaged rather than helped this cause. He has made conservatives look bad by suggesting that some are just as incapable of moral distinctions as the Howard Dean left -- and just as unable to treat their opponents like human beings and not wicked moral dwarfs.

Meanwhile, those who popped up on cue to demand an immediate Dobson apology -- such Jewish groups as the Anti-Defamation League, political groups like ProgressNow.org and many individuals -- look silly and childish. Rarely has one wild pitch knocked so many people on the head. Thank you, Dr. Dobson; you can sit down now.
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Dr. Dobson's analogy is grotesque. It's not just that embryos (as he himself noted later) feel no pain when they are destroyed. Not just that they leave no grief-stricken survivors in the sense that full-fledged human beings do, and rip no comparable hole in the community and the universe when they are murdered. Just as important is the gaping difference in the actors' motives. Stem-cell researchers want to help "mankind," defined to exclude embryos. Nazi experimenters wanted to help "mankind," defined to exclude Jews. If the first definition is wrong, it might nonetheless be proposed by morally serious persons. No morally serious person would go anywhere near the second, which epitomizes Nazi evil.

In arguing for the rightness of our war in Iraq, I often encounter left-wingers who insist that Saddam killed Iraqis and America's war does so, too -- so what's the difference? It's tragic when any part of a national community grows incapable of moral distinctions. Drawing moral distinctions is what human beings are for. But Dr. Dobson's analogy is far more simple-minded than the pacifist position on Iraq.

Another Focus on the Family spokesman has said (after the first round of the Dobson-on-stem-cells affair) that "if anyone should be sensitive to the types of atrocities that are going on" in stem-cell research, "it should be the Jewish people." But maybe "the Jewish people" are exactly as sensitive as Dr. Dobson and his colleagues to the fate of embryos, and more sensitive to the suffering of human beings. Some Americans support expanded stem-cell research because they are frantic for science to find new cures for desperately ill friends or family members. Is Dr. Dobson so small-hearted that he can't cut such people a little slack? Can't concede that they are acting out of love, even if their conclusions are wrong?

But if Dr. Dobson's insistence on seeing his opponents in the worst possible light is perverse and sad, the ADL and its friends have behaved in essentially the same way in demanding that Dr. Dobson apologize. For he (it seems clear) had no intention of belittling Jewish suffering. He sought only to convey the unspeakable criminal enormity, as he sees it, of destroying embryos. You might reject his conclusions and his methods. But he does not deny the Holocaust or attempt to excuse or extenuate or forgive or explain away any part of it. He mentioned it, instead, as an example of absolute evil where his own worldview required such an example. He spoke foolishly, but in a context in which too many culture leaders don't even seem to grasp the existence of moral problems in the destruction of embryonic human life.

Besides which, the whole business of demanding apologies is out of control in modern America. The constant clamor for apologies suggests young children demanding the Mommy-kiss that magically heals. Those who think Dr. Dobson wrong should concentrate on explaining why he is wrong, not on extracting a worthless, grudging "I'm sorry." An apology ripped loose by the tightening rack of public opinion is worth exactly what any extorted concession, compliment, confession or retraction is worth.

At any rate, Dr. Dobson's analogy shows incomprehension, not malice. In generosity and human sympathy for his opponents, he has grossly failed; his opponents have failed, too. The Jewish view is clear. The great Pharisee Rabbi Hillel says in the Talmud: "Do not judge your fellow-man until you have been in his place." The Talmud says also that one must "judge every man generously," "from the standpoint of innocence." Neither Dr. Dobson nor his opponents have proved equal to these difficult and beautiful ideals. All we can do is keep on trying to conduct this serious debate in a serious way -- and not get beaned by wild fastballs.

Mr. Gelernter is a senior fellow in Jewish Thought at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a professor of computer science at Yale.

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