Science and Religion in American Politics
Few topics cause more controversy than the discussion about science vs religion. Here Thomas Dixon of Queen Mary, University of London examines the way the debate has been played out in the American political sphere in recent times.
Thomas Dixon is the author of Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, which publishes here in the UK next month.
During a televised debate last year between the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the host asked if any of them did not believe in evolution. First one, then a second, then a third raised his hand. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee later elaborated on his opposition to evolution, mocking those who ‘believe they are the descendants of a primate’ rather than ‘ the unique creations of a God who knows us and loves us, and who created us for his own purpose.’
Although to most educated people – especially anyone unfamiliar with the historic strength and depth of creationist beliefs in the United States – these remarks may seem to reveal a shocking level of scientific ignorance, Huckabee knew what he was doing. He is just the latest in a long line of populist American politicians keen to tap into grass-roots religious beliefs. Huckabee, in short, was seeking the approval of that fifty percent of the American population who opinion polls consistently find believe in creationism and not evolution.
The most famous moment in the history of American anti-Darwinism came in 1925 in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. A local school teacher there, John Scopes, was prosecuted for violating a recent law banning the teaching of evolution. The Scopes ‘monkey trial’ became the focus for a circus of pro- and anti-Darwinism in Dayton that summer, avidly reported by the world’s press. The prosecution case was led by the Democrat politician William Jennings Bryan. Bryan spoke up for the ordinary Christian folk of America against the perceived arrogance and infidelity of the intellectual elite. ‘Does it not seem a little unfair,’ Bryan asked, ‘not to distinguish between man and lower forms of life? What shall we say of the intelligence, not to say religion, of those who are so particular to distinguish between fishes and reptiles and birds, but put a man with an immortal soul in the same circle with the wolf, the hyena and the skunk? What must be the impression made upon children by such a degradation of man?’
Although William Jennings Bryan was a Democrat and Mike Huckabee a Republican, they are from the same political stock, and both aspired to become President. Bryan was the (unsuccessful) Democratic candidate for the presidency on three occasions. Known as the ‘Great Commoner’ because of his belief in the absolute sovereignty of the people, Bryan predicted that local school board elections would become more important than national elections, because parents would care more about the education and morals of their children than about foreign policy or economics. Huckabee’s anti-evolution stance appeals to just the same kinds of populism and localism. Like Bryan eighty years before him, he suggests that the only proper policy is for taxpayers and parents to decide what their children are taught in public schools. What could be more democratic, or more reasonable, than that?
And here is the heart of the liberal dilemma about evolution and creationism. Those who would identify themselves as progressive, enlightened, and liberal, usually consent to the proposition that school curricula should be set in a way that is open to the democratic process rather than being handed down by an autocratic intellectual elite. It seems right that the voters should have a say. But, what when those voters are creationists? Does the liberal instinct in favour of democracy then give way to some more powerful desires – to preserve the division between church and state enshrined in the First Amendment, for instance, or to give due weight to scientific expertise?
Finally it is worth noting that something else that Mike Huckabee has in common with William Jennings Bryan is that, despite his popularity, he is not going to be President. And neither of the men who might in fact be the next President of the United States is likely to provide the kind of encouragement to creationists and proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ that Huckabee would have offered.
John McCain, during the same debate in which Huckabee indicated his support for creationism, was asked for a yes or no answer to the question ‘Do you believe in evolution?’ McCain looked momentarily uncomfortable, no doubt thinking of that hefty fifty percent of the electorate who would answer ‘No’, before giving a pretty confident ‘Yes’ to evolution. McCain has given some indications that he is happy for ‘Intelligent Design’ to be taught alongside evolution, but it is clearly not a cause for which he has any enthusiasm. Barack Obama has generally avoided the topic too but, when pushed in a recent interview, stated that religious instruction should be provided by parents and that it is ‘a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry’, by which one can assume he meant creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’.
So, although the next incumbent of the White House is certain to be someone who, unlike Bryan or Huckabee, believes in evolution (as well as God), the fact that the question is still asked of presidential hopefuls speaks volumes about the historical role of Christian fundamentalism in shaping American political culture.