Season 4 of Orphan Black gave us a bigger taste of Alison’s religion. Alison is the stereotypical suburban soccer mom, a “type A” personality decked out in pastels. She’s a W.A.S.P. who stands in great contrast with her darker and edgier sisters Cosima, Helena, and Sarah. It’s no wonder that Alison is the clone with the most pronounced religious beliefs. Sure, Helena was raised by harsh Ukrainian nuns, but their religion hasn’t really been delved into by the show. Alison, on the other hand, wears a golden cross necklace and is often shown attending a Mainline Protestant church with her family. Her religion was involved in many minor scenes of this season, and she could be the doorway to a very different kind of religious representation in our scifi media.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. “Christianity doesn’t need more representation!” Hear me out. Alison Hendrix belongs to an unnamed Christian denomination. It’s not likely she’s Catholic, because that comes with a different set of cultural signifiers and stereotypes. The Hendrix family probably belongs to a Mainline Protestant denomination, probably Evangelical. Evangelicals are some of the most harshly criticized groups of people in science fiction. Their beliefs are almost always the ones parodied by the “science vs. faith” tropes. Not only does it make sense that Alison would belong to an Evangelical church community, but taking some time to explore those beliefs would bring a new dimension to the themes and questions the show tries to explore.
First, a very condensed history lesson. Christianity began as one big group for its first thousand years, with small groups occasionally splintering away from the status quo (“heretics” according to the establishment). Generally speaking, it was pretty clear that there was one set of “official” beliefs, even if reality was a lot messier. Then in 1054, western Christianity and eastern Christianity split in two, formally excommunicating each other. The patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem made up the east while the patriarch of Rome (the pope) became the west. Fast forward another five hundred years, and the Protestant Reformation happens in the west. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Wesley, and others rebelled against the western Church (now called the Roman Catholic Church). With the help of the printing press and a few powerful politicians, these people and their respective followers became what we now know as many of the major Protestant denominations: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others. But groups still kept splintering off from these, to the point where there are thousands of “denominations” in the US alone and many churches aren’t really affiliated with a particular denomination, other than how their own community leadership interprets the Bible.
Today, we say that Mainline Protestants are those denominations that make up the “main” core of Protestantism. Generally speaking, they believe the Bible is true but not literal historical fact. They believe Jesus is the way to salvation, but focus more on the whole of one’s life lived rather than a personal moment of conversion. Politically and socially they might be liberal or conservative. The primary focus of Evangelicals, a subset of Mainline Protestants, is on evangelization, or spreading the “Good News” of Jesus and converting people. They tend to believe in the inerrancy of scripture, sometimes to the point of literalism. They focus more on having a particular moment of conversion, where one chooses to accept Jesus into their heart, or the person won’t be saved. They can be conservative or liberal, often within the same congregation. Because Evangelicals are especially motivated to go out and convert people, they tend to be the loudest Christian voices in politics. Conservative Evangelicals are very easy to turn into the big scary, ignorant, powerful majority in the heartland of America. It should be no surprise: believing the world was created in seven days, that any sex but heterosexual married sex is a sin, that men and women have divinely defined gender roles; they’re some of the most counter-cultural people out there.
Orphan Black deals with lots of issues that can be huge points of contention in the Christian community. It was only a decade or so ago that the subject of human cloning was in vogue, and there were all sorts of questions about whether cloned humans would have souls. Christians had lots of creative answers to that question (some more horrifying than others). Finding out she’s a clone could have been a traumatic experience for Alison, and it all happened before we met her. But I’m not so sure Alison is a conservative Evangelical, or even a true believer. Alison clearly doesn’t have a problem with buckling down and doing what needs to be done to get what she wants: breaking and entering, drug dealing, covering up murder, all kinds of things that, juxtaposed with her tightly-wound nature, are a regular source of comic relief in the show. This season we saw her turning to her faith in desperate prayer for her family’s safety… and it seems to work. Or, at least, the coincidence is left open to interpretation. She consults with her pastor about what to do to help Donnie, and he gives her the great advice of no advice except to pray to God for insight. The people at Alison’s church seem a bit shallow and happy-go-lucky, but they’re good people.
Giving them a bigger role in Alison’s life would have added to this season’s themes of identity. Cosima creates a miraculous cure using cells from a human zygote created from Sarah’s eggs. In the same season, Helena gives her frozen embryos a loving (and comical) burial in the Hendrix backyard. Embryonic stem cell research doesn’t get a lot of press these days, but it was only a few years ago when it was one of the most hotly debated topics. Is it moral to use stem cells from embryos to research potential cures for diseases? What if they’re left over from IVF clinics? What if you think IVF is immoral in the first place? It’s complicated. But the question, I think, at the heart of this issue and at the heart of Orphan Black‘s fourth season is “What makes you human?” As I said in my review, it’s the women of Orphan Black that get to decide. Evie doesn’t want to work with clones because she thinks they’re second class. Sarah decides her zygote is a cure and Helena decides her embryos are babies. Rachel demands a position of power and self-determination but envisions a world where clones are property of corporations.
It seems that there’s no universal basis at all for determining human dignity. Humans seem to only count as humans if the most powerful person in the room says so. Or, possibly, if you can say so yourself, if you can stand up and be counted among the human race. This makes humanity entirely subjective. The problem this season has is that the show lets this assumption stand, unchallenged, when it’s not unchallenged in real life. Many people believe objective reasons exist that support defining humanity. Christians, particularly Evangelicals, passionately believe that human worth comes from God. Many religions teach that all human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of your ability, color, culture, or identity. The writers failed to hint at any objective basis for determining human worth, and thus not only left the argument one-sided but also didn’t give us a reason why Rachel is wrong to want to enslave clones to corporate interests. Sure, it’s scary, but that’s not good enough. And yet, we already have Alison, a character who is shown to have some kind of faith, who is regularly involved with her (probably) Evangelical church. Including authentic representations of Evangelical Christians would be a way to bring one more perspective to the table.