Sarah Posner reports from the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of the theocracy-in-waiting. Various GOP presidential candidates spoke, as did Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association:
Fischer followed Romney’s speech with an ugly anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-liberal speech. Although he did not mention Mormonism, he did emphasize, repeatedly, that the president of the United States “needs to be a main of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith.”
In the rest of his laundry list of presidential prerequisites, Fischer veered from there to discuss the “mythical separation of church and state,” the need for a president to “reject the morally and scientifically bankrupt theory of evolution,” and to believe in “the same Creator” as the founders– the “creator revealed in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.” That led him to an extended anti-Muslim rant
After which he declared that we “haven’t had any attacks since 9/11 because we started singing ‘God Bless America’ in the 7th inning stretch.”
I don’t highlight this just to make fun of Fischer. I’ve written (as have other science bloggers) about why candidates’ views on evolution matter, but this is a peek into the reasons that anti-evolution conservatives think it’s an important question.
The question, I emphasize again, is not about policy. A president won’t enact policies that change how evolution is taught; those choices happen in local school boards. The question is about the values a candidate would bring to the Oval Office.
For folks like me (as I said in the previous post):
Precisely because evolution is so distant from presidential policy, it makes a useful way to evaluate a candidate’s openness to evidence, to scientific expertise (or professional expertise in general), and to empirical testing more broadly.
For Fischer and others in the radical religious right, the issue isn’t about openness to evidence, and the importance of respecting science. It’s about the supposed moral problems of evolution. To someone like Fischer, and for creationist groups like the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis, evolution is a gateway to a whole host of social ills. The illustration here is a colorized version of a graphic attributed by to R. G. Elmendorf in Chris Toumey’s excellent God’s Own Scientists, an anthropology of creationism in 1980s North Carolina. Elmendorf’s figure is from a pamphlet issued by the Pittsburgh Creation Society which argues:
Evolution is not just a “harmless biological theory” – it produces evil fruit. Evolution is the supposedly “scientific” rationale for all kinds of unbiblical ideas which permeate society today and concern many people. Evolution “holds up” these ideas, and if evolution is destroyed, these ideas will fall. …
What is the best way to counteract the evil fruit of evolution? Opposing these things one-by-one is good, but it does not deal with the underlying cause. The tree will produce fruit faster than it can be spotted and removed. A more effective approach is to chop the tree off at its base by scientifically discrediting evolution. When the tree falls, the fruit will go down with it, and unbelieving man will be left “without excuse” (Romans 1/21). That is the real reason why scientific creationism represents such a serious threat to the evolutionary establishment.
From my own experience and these sorts of documents and data, I agree wholeheartedly with Toumey’s assessment:
Creationism is a moral theory that evolution is intimately involved in immorality, as cause or effect or both. This view also implies that one can repudiate immorality by adhering to a literal belief in creation.
As Toumey points out, this plays out differently for different religious groups, with what he calls “the New Religious Right” seeing the issue “according to its ultimate implications for moral order,” conservative Baptists (the old Religious Right) focused narrowly on a scriptural critique of evolution “so that their understanding of evolution lacks the broad moral critique of U.S. culture that the New Religious RIght attaches to the idea of evolution,” standard evangelicals wanting to skirt the entire issue so as not to dull their popular appeal.
This moral aspect of creationism is a key part of its rise as a movement in the 1920s. Through the earlier part of the century, the nascent fundamentalist movement took various positions on evolution, with some essays in The Fundamentals (the series of edited volumes which gave fundamentalism its name) defending evolution, or defending some parts while rejecting others. It wasn’t until William Jennings Bryan – no fundamentalist himself – tied evolution to immorality – to German militarism in World War I, the Leopold and Loeb trial, and other social ills – and until the pitched battle of the Scopes trial, that fundamentalism came to define itself as antievolution.
Bryan Fischer’s comments, and indeed the creation/evolution struggle in general, cannot be understood outside that context. Fischer and others in his wing of the conservative movement agree that evolution is a shibboleth, but with a different nature than I (and probably you) attach to it. For these voters, evolution is an excellent way to test a candidate’s morality because it is so abstracted from actual policy (unlike abortion, say), but to their eyes it bears directly on the sorts of moral stances that they want to guide a policymaker. If a candidate rejects evolution, it signals that he (or she) will vote the right way on abortion, terrorism, gay rights, women’s rights, and if the figure above is to be believed, hard rock.
In trying to talk to people about evolution, it’s crucial to understand that context, and not to simply dismiss those concerns if they bring them up. While I certainly don’t see evolution as a moral issue, or one which dictates the values and ethics which guide me, it’s important to be able to explain why that’s so, and why others need not fear that accepting evolution will have such pernicious influences on their own morality. That empathic step – seeing the issue through another person’s eyes – is crucial to helping them see the evidence for evolution in its own terms, and not through a glass clouded with unrelated questions of religious and moral implications.
And doing so might even turn around some votes.