The Case of Francis Collins – Kiowa County Signal
By Dr. Jan F. Dudt Professor of Biology at Grove City College and Researcher in Medical Ethics at the Institute for Faith & Freedom
There is always a dilemma for Christians in how best to handle and respond to the positions and advice of Christian leaders. They are often people we have come to trust and respect as followers of Christ. Their beliefs are sometimes consistent with Christian principles and biblical wisdom. They defend appropriate positions and defend causes from a historically Christian perspective. They gain popularity and respect even among cultural, political and religious opponents due to the consistent strength of their arguments and their seductive and graceful demeanor.
And yet, it is impossible for a fallen, sinful person to be right all the time. Likewise, it is entirely possible—and regularly demonstrated—that the unregenerate are not always wrong.
As an example, compare Dr. Francis Collins and President Donald Trump.
Trump, not a convincing born-again Christian, became president in large part because he promised to represent conservative Christians and their concerns. His appointment of quirky judges to federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as his participation in events like the annual March for Life while in office (which was unprecedented for a president), have been encouragement for many Christians. Yet his behavior has always been labeled as unchristian. It may well have cost him his re-election. Christians and conservative political analysts will debate for decades whether he had a net positive or negative influence on America. Obviously, both cases can be done. Different Christian voices have spoken out on the issue. Many Christians, even conservatives, felt Trump was using them for personal gain and prestige.
In some notable ways, it could be argued that the Francis Collins situation at times echoes the Donald Trump debate among Christians.
Dr. Francis Collins, the famous geneticist, was and is vocally Christian. He clearly identified himself as such, and he took it to heart. For example, in the summer of 2009, after President Barack Obama appointed him director of the NIH, avowed atheist Sam Harris attacked Collins in The New York Times as unsuitable for the position because of his religious beliefs.
Collins became known to many Americans during his leadership of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. In February 1998, Scientific American featured Dr. Collins with the title “Where Science and Religion Meet: The American Project Leader of the human genome, Francis S. Collins, strives to keep his Christianity from interfering with his science and politics”. This article quoted Dr. Collins saying he was “extremely uncomfortable with abortion”. He said he was not advocating changing the law and was “very careful” to make sure his personal feelings on abortion did not affect his political position. The article goes on to say, “Researchers and scholars familiar with Collins’ work agree that he separated his private religious views from his professional life. He shows no influence of religious beliefs on his work other than a general sensitivity to ethical issues in genetics. Basically what these people were saying is that Francis Collins is such a good scientist because you can hardly tell he’s a Christian from his work.
As a much younger biology teacher at the time, I was appalled by this. A Christian separated his religious opinions from his personal life. Why is this a good thing?
I emailed Dr. Collins at the time, asking if Scientific American was right. Maybe the article misunderstood Collins? My email never got a response. Not that I expected that to be the case, given my obscurity, his position, and his responsibilities. Still, the article troubled me, as I was still left with the lingering question.
Dr. Collins then launched the BioLogos Foundation, a Christian/science interface organization that advocates for the reconciliation of modern science and Christianity. The idea is that nature and scripture both come from God and are ultimately not in conflict. This reflects Dr. Collins’ Christian beliefs and his love of science, the study of God’s physical world. Give Dr. Collins credit for leveraging his popularity, leadership qualities and evident pastoral instincts for the noble cause.
Ultimately, I met Dr. Collins several years ago at a conference and heard him speak. There’s no reason he should remember our quick contact in an elevator any more than he would remember my email. However, one cannot help but be impressed by his genuine humility and concern for the spiritual health of those around him. He has made it clear that he believes Jesus Christ is incarnate and divine and that humans are made in the image of God (although he rejects the historical Adam), and that salvation is real.
However, inconsistencies remain. Dr. Collins seems to allow his science to overly arbitrate biblical truth, or at least when the two are portrayed as being in conflict. As his professional life unfolded, it became clear that the Scientific American article was very much right. It is fair to say that he remained uncertain as to the beginning of human life. He admits the fertilized egg is alive at conception, but thinks it may not be quite human. Therefore, in his 2010 book, The Language of Life, he argued for experimentation using surplus human embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) that are stuck in cryogenic storage with an uncertain future, “in order that good may come out of it”. He has never publicly disavowed research on the human embryo because he sees its potential fruitfulness. In fact, just last summer, experiments involving human and mouse embryonic cells were supported by NIH funding at the University of Pittsburgh.
There are continuing ramifications of Dr. Collins’ acceptance of abortion as the law of the land. The 1998 Scientific American article mentioned that Dr. Collins was concerned that embryonic genetic testing could lead to fetal abortions under less than disastrous conditions. The article did not suggest what he would consider “less than disastrous”. For example, would my great-nephew’s Down syndrome be considered less than a disaster? Princeton bioethicist and jurist Dr. Robert George presented a clearer case in his 1998 speech to the American Political Science Association convention, saying, “Once I was a child, once I was a baby, once i was an embryo, i can’t say i was once an egg or a sperm. However, it is clear that the viable sperm and egg are alive and well. Also, it is good to remember what we say in the Apostles’ Creed. “He was conceived…was born…suffered…died…and…was resurrected.
What human is not on this trajectory of life and death? The Bible teaches that we all are.
That leaves many conservative Christians convinced that Dr Collins would rather go along with a quote from his former boss, President Barack Obama. In March 2009, Obama signed an executive order that lifted President George W. Bush’s 2001 ban on federal funding of human embryo research. “Today…we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research,” Obama said. “We will strongly support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it may one day bring. Obama continued, “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it’s also about protecting free and open research. It’s about letting scientists like the ones here today do their job, without manipulation or coercion, and…that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.
Obama insisted, “I’m going to let the scientists do the science. I will remove politics, religion and ideology from this.
Of course, the reality is that such a thing cannot be done. The president’s policy and ideology were clearly stated and inserted.
One would hope that Dr. Collins would be more comfortable with the principles set out in President George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address. “A hopeful society has scientific and medical institutions that don’t cut ethical corners and recognize the incomparable value of every life,” Bush said. “Tonight, I call on you to pass legislation banning the most egregious abuses of medical research – human cloning in all its forms…the creation or implantation of embryos for experiments…the creation human-animal hybrids…and the buying, selling or patenting of human embryos Human life is a gift from our Creator – and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or offered for sale.
These are all ethical questions that Dr. Francis Collins faced as a man of science and faith. More recently, issues have included COVID masks and vaccine mandates. For many in the evangelical community, his pro-life appeals for mandates have sounded increasingly hollow, and his apparent inconsistencies have been embarrassing.
Os Guinness, in his book, The Magna Carta of Humanity, highlights a principle that every intentional Christian should keep in mind: “The notion of arguing in the name of the true, the just and the good lies behind biblical principle of correctness. .” Guinness quotes Hebrew-Jewish scholar Jonathan Sacks: “We are all open to challenge. No one is above criticism, no one too lowly to administer it, if done with grace and humility.
This requires knowing the Scriptures and applying its logical conclusions, consistently. Otherwise, our ability to be salt and light is diminished and we can be played. Francis Collins needs to add salt and light. Many of us have admired him, and we expect more from him in his Christian witness to science.
—Dr. Jan Dudt is a professor of biology at Grove City College and a medical ethics researcher at the Institute for Faith & Freedom. He teaches in the college’s required core course, Studies in Science, Faith and Technology, in which students, among other things, study all major theories of origins and are asked to measure them against biblical authority. .