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03-17-07, 10:32 AM
Evangelical Bioethics and the Web
Manassas Man's Religious Blog Takes Up Debates on Stem Cells, Abortion

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007; B09

When Joe Carter was little, the preacher at his "small, backwoods fundamentalist congregation" in East Texas knew who the antichrist was, and named names: New England senators, Chinese communists, secular humanists.

But no one was worse, the preacher warned, than the pope.

Three decades later, the chasm between evangelical Protestants and Catholics has narrowed as conservatives from both denominations have teamed up on issues from religious school vouchers (pro) to gay marriage (con). And perhaps nowhere has that relationship change been more apparent than in the realm of bioethics.

Carter, now 37, is a good example of the shift, having become something of a name in the blogosphere as author of http://evangelicaloutpost.com. On the blog, which is about one-third bioethics issues, Carter rails against embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and in vitro fertilization -- causes commonly taken up by Catholic bioethicists and the Vatican.

The fresh-faced former Marine blogs primarily from his Manassas home once his wife goes to sleep. Launched in 2003, his blog is racking up kudos: best religious blog in the 2005 Weblog Awards (one of the most prestigious prizes in webland); one of the "coolest, most interesting" spiritual blogs, according to spirituality Web site http://beliefnet.com; and 27th this week out of thousands on the weblog ranking system http://truthlaidbear.com.

"For nearly 30 years, evangelicals have been working to catch up to our Catholic brothers and sisters on issues of the sanctity of life," Carter wrote this week in a post, "What Evangelicals Owe Catholics: An Appreciation."

Carter's persona on his blog is similar to his in person: mild-mannered, wholesome, mostly polite. He typically posts once a day, a medium-length essay on serious subjects. Socially conservative enough to work as the blogger for the Family Research Council, a Christian advocacy group, Carter is not an exuberant partisan.

"When you read it, you get the sense that this is someone who has thought this out," said Matthew Eppinette, assistant director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, an evangelical bioethics think tank in Illinois that hired Carter in 2005. At the time, Carter was based in Fort Worth, repairing computer systems on fighter jets by day and blogging by night. Eppinette read the blog and called Carter in for an interview.

Glenn McGee, director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, N.Y., and editor of the mainstream American Journal of Bioethics, said he checks Carter's blog not for scholarly reasons -- "most people in this field don't read blogs and are incredibly luddite" -- but more as cultural research.

"I'll go to his site to see, 'What are evangelicals saying about [the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus]?' I think he's a good mirror of what people are saying; he's plugged in," McGee said.

Just before retiring in 2003 as a gunnery sergeant after 15 years in the Marines, Carter was feeling an expanding sense of purpose, but sensed a wall. His mother had just died, a general-interest local newspaper that he and his brother started folded, and he was wondering whether it was possible to become a voice for what he sees as Christian values without storybook credentials: the Ivy League degree, the big-name connections. One day he stumbled across a book called "In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition," by popular conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt. The book lays out practical things Christians can do to become influential, including keeping a blog.

"I wasn't going to get a Harvard PhD, but I thought: This blogging thing might be something I could do," he said last week.

In 2005, he went to work for the Center for Bioethics, and one year later to the Family Research Council.

Joining the council has increased his visibility, at least at inside-the-Beltway places such as the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank where he attends a weekly briefing for bloggers.

By some measures, the change among evangelicals has been dramatic. A generation ago, leaders rarely spoke out against abortion; even the Southern Baptist Convention voted in 1971 to support making it legal under conditions including rape and "severe fetal deformity." Today, Americans who identify themselves as evangelical are the most opposed of any faith group to abortion -- far more than those who identify themselves as Catholic -- even in cases of rape or danger to the mother's health, according to a new survey by Baylor University.

The Catholic Church's position -- as opposed to that of many Catholic laypeople -- aligns with conservative evangelicals on many bioethics issues. Most prominent religious Christian bioethicists are Catholic, as are key religious research institutions, experts say.

Evangelical Christians -- particularly those who identify themselves as charismatic -- also oppose embryonic stem cell research and physician-assisted suicide in higher numbers than do Catholics, according to the Baylor survey.

Bioethics and religion experts attribute this increased conservatism among evangelicals in part to the rise of conservative advocacy organizations such as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition, all founded in the past 30 years. In 1994, a group of evangelical and Catholic leaders drafted a statement emphasizing areas of theology where they agreed and noting shared areas of policy interest, including opposing abortion.

Yet what will happen next is unclear. Other surveys show that evangelical Christians are very divided on other related issues, such as contraception, in-vitro fertilization and the death penalty. And religious conservatives in general have been a minority force in the bioethics field.

Some leading evangelical bioethicists are not hopeful about the future, populated with debates not only about embryonic stem cell research and abortion but also about organ farms and artificial intelligence.

"Christian bioethicists are uninfluential -- even on religious people," said Nigel M. de S. Cameron, director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Cameron said he now focuses his efforts on untraditional allies, such as "radical feminist and mainline pro-choicers," with whom he finds common ground on issues such as global trafficking in women's eggs.

Among those watching the landscape is Joe Gigante, a Catholic political strategist who works with pro-life groups and praises Carter for "reaching across the aisle."

"I think you'll just see more teaming up, more organizations joining together," he said. "As time goes on, those barriers from the non-Catholic world are wearing down."