Evangelical scholars can’t stand on the sidelines while public policy is being made.

While Christians have been struggling over how to address such public policy issues as abortion and rights of homosexuals, a new area of responsibility has suddenly been thrust upon them: what concept of life society should uphold and to what extent humans should manipulate life forms.

The specific issue of “genetic engineering” is not new, but society’s role in it was put on center stage by the Supreme Court. The court agreed that a scientist could patent an oil-eating bacterium, which, strictly speaking, was not the product of gene splicing. This “narrow” ruling (narrow in the sense that the Court did not rule one way or the other with regard to changing an organism’s genetic instructions) was nevertheless made with the explicit warning from the court that in the future society must decide what it wants to do about scientists’ creating of new forms of life.

How will “society” (that’s all of us, Christians and non-Christians together) decide? According to the way our country works, the people choose legislators who decide. Chief Justice Warren Burger said: “The choice we are urged to make is a matter of high policy for resolution within the legislative process after the kind of investigation, examination, and study that legislative bodies can provide and courts cannot.”

In effect, the Court judged itself incapable of deciding. Many scientists, ethicists, and philosophers had hoped the Court would pronounce on profound moral and social issues. The judges heard powerful arguments that genetic experiments pose a serious threat to humanity. They heard what Chief Justice Burger called “a gruesome parade of horribles,” which he admitted the judges didn’t know what to do with. “Whatever their validity,” he wrote, “the contentions now pressed on us should be addressed to the political branches of the government, the Congress, and the executive, and not to the courts.”

Having witnessed how Congress has handled, or mishandled, abortion, the energy crisis, the post office, Amtrak, and the economy, one is not given to much optimism about how our legislators will do with biotechnology and a definition of what constitutes “life.” There is no doubt that the lines of battle are already being drawn. Those who were not alarmed by the Supreme Court’s decision played down fears by noting that the oil-eating bacterium was not life, but matter. The invention was a manipulation of matter, not the creation of life in a godlike sense, they explained.

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On the other hand, a strong cry of protest arose from others in both science and philosophy (not necessarily Christians, by the way), who warned against a dangerous “foot in the door” situation. Their argument is that genetic engineering makes no distinction between life and matter. They warn that the ultimate conclusion is that all of life’s properties can be reduced to the “physico-chemical.”

There is sufficient merit in the protest to conclude that the recent decision involves more than a narrow point of patent law. Despite the fact that the justices refused to judge on the basis of both technological and philosophical considerations, those considerations loom larger in our thinking than the short-range implications for business and industry. Beyond the fact that industry can now go to work on hormones, vaccines, and a new low-calorie sugar, society (that’s us) will have to decide whether “life” continues to be defined basically in material terms.

What to do about splicing genes, it seems to us, will be decided on the same basis as abortion and euthanasia. If “life” is purely material, then anything goes; there are no moral boundaries. The trend in public policy in recent decades decidedly has been away from a definition of life as something special and sacred and toward a definition that is “physico-chemical.” We agree with the alarmists on this point.

We doubt that the majority of our citizens want public policy to be made according to a metaphysical bias against a Christian view of life. While we may be pessimistic about how Congress will resolve a metaphysical issue, we cannot lapse into a do-nothing attitude. Christians have been effective in the past in raising issues of morality and ethics as they relate to public policy. In recent years, however, evangelicals all too often have forfeited any leadership and simply reacted to the decisive direction of the secular world.

Leaders of the National Council of Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the U.S. Catholic Conference have asked the President and Congress to be sure that moral, ethical, and religious questions are dealt with when genetic enginering policies are debated and formulated for legislation. Evangelicals, too, should have a voice in the hearings. Therefore, the best minds among evangelical scholars in biblical studies, ethics, and theology need to get to work immediately. For example, this would make an excellent topic for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Evangelical Theological Society. The judgment of Christian biochemists and biophysicists, some of whom are involved in genetic research, is also needed.

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Evangelicals must be dead sure of all the facts before they say this is “the” Christian position on genetic engineering. They need the best informed, most judicious Christian opinions before attempting to influence public policy. They must be as sure as it is humanly possible to be that wherever they draw the line, this is indeed where God draws the line. Granted the scientists’ abilities to alter life on a very elementary level, when should Christians say, “Thus far and no further”? To answer that, we need carefully ascertained scientific, biblical, ethical, and theological facts.

In the matter of genetic engineering, as with other public issues, evangelicals must face the dangers of two extremes. One is a refusal to take a stand and speak up; the other leads to proclamation of hasty, premature positions without first doing sufficient homework to be sure the declared position is sanctioned both biblically and factually. As of now, we disagree with the geneticists who claim there is no great moral significance to what they are doing—and certainly no need for laws to control their work—and we support religious leaders who ask, “Given our responsibilities to God and to our fellow human beings, do we have the right to let experimentation and ownership of new life forms move ahead without public regulation?”

Musician John Lennon compared the Beatles’ rising popularity to that of Jesus Christ during a reckless moment at a 1960s press conference. That comment about finished him in the eyes of many churchmen, who just knew that the four Britishers’ on-stage vibrations, long hair, and “yah, yah, yahs” had to be a bad influence on America’s youth.

But whether Christians criticized and turned off the Beatles, or burned their records, they couldn’t deny that the group started a musical and cultural revolution, the effects of which continue. Who can gauge exactly how much the Beatles’ early flaunt-the-establishment lifestyles and their “do it if it feels good” lyrics contributed to contemporary attitudes toward authority and interpersonal relationships, to say nothing of musical styles and tastes?

Lennon’s crooked smile and cynical comments portrayed a hardness, but his music sometimes showed a sensitivity to something more. The Beatles moved from wry romanticism, to social protest, to the escapist “magical mystery tour.” Lennon asked us to “imagine there’s no heaven … it’s easy if you try,” but also confessed in the moving, “Let It Be,” that, “When I find myself in time of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.”

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Lennon’s tragic death makes us reflect on the amazing impact of the entertainment medium, especially pop music. When that medium turns vertical, as it did for folk-rock musician Bob Dylan, we see tremendous inroads for the gospel. At the same time, there is a strong apologetic for conversion in Lennon’s song, “Help, I need somebody,” which describes the condition of fallen man. Alert, sensitive Christians recognize that culture itself often cries out—even as creation does—for the day when it “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Who knows what would have become of young evangelist Billy Graham 30 years ago without Walter Bennett? The popular notion is that it was newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst’s dictum to his editors to “puff Graham” that launched him as a national figure and attracted thousands to his early crusades. However, it was Christian advertising man Bennett who really convinced Graham that national radio and television was the way to go in the late 1940s, and thus gave impetus to the crusade movement.

We say this not to establish a point for future church historians, but to acknowledge Bennett’s significant role at a time when Christian leaders are feeling the loss of this Chicago layman’s contribution to the cause of evangelism and the church. Bennett’s death on December 5 at age 65 served to remind us that God often uses gifted, dedicated persons in various fields to pioneer new ventures of faith and outreach.

Historians might also note that Bennett was one of the few remaining bridges between evangelists of an earlier era and those of today. He decided to use his advertising skills and experience on behalf of the Graham crusades because of his previous work with evangelist Homer Rodeheaver. Bennett saw the powerful potential in radio, and used that communications medium effectively for the cause of Christ. For Graham, he started radio’s “Hour of Decision” broadcasts in November 1950, as part of an Atlanta crusade. During the 1957 crusade in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the first live crusade telecasts were put on the ABC network. Studio TV shows were done in 1951.

Graham opposed the idea of national radio. “We had too much to do and we didn’t have the talent, ability, nor the gift of radio evangelism,” he said after Bennett’s death. “But Walter and Fred (Dienert) believed otherwise. They would not give up. God used these men and their company to start us in a great evangelistic adventure.”

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Neither Walter Bennett, nor his family, friends, and business associates Would desire a glowing tribute. But the church has lost a great Christian talent. Dedicated as he was to parachurch evangelism, Bennett was a churchman, a faithful Lutheran layman. No one could accuse him of being slothful in business, or of neglecting his family.

Above all, he was keen enough to sense what God could do through communications technology. He combined his foresight with a deep commitment to evangelism and a burden for people to come to Christ. In a sense, Billy Graham was Walter Bennett’s voice. In ways he never knew, he touched millions.

We are forced to recognize not only one man’s persistence, intelligence, and zeal, but also that in Christ’s work even something as badly maligned as advertising can be put to good and holy uses, with eternal profit and blessing. Walter Bennett epitomized Christian obedience to the apostle’s injunction: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

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