What Goes On in Medical School?

HT: MM

It’s probably nothing. But the latest in-your-face conservative pick by President Trump adds one more leg to the stool. Is there some reason why so many prominent radical creationists are medical doctors?

mark green

Creating a modern military….

Tennessee Senator Mark Green is only the latest. He is awaiting confirmation hearings to become Secretary of the Army. He’s already taking some heat for his official proclamations about gender and sexuality. In 2015, he delivered a fiery creationist sermon to a Cincinnati church.

For those of us who keep track of such things, Senator Green apparently emphasized two favorite notions of twenty-first century creationists. He insisted that the second law of thermodynamics militated against evolution. Since entropy increases over time, the argument goes, things won’t get more organized over time, but less.

As Green put it,

If you put a lawn mower out in your yard and a hundred years come back, it’s rusted and falling apart. You can’t put parts out there and a hundred years later it’s gonna come back together. That is a violation of a law of thermodynamics. A physical law that exists in the universe.

Green also embraced the “irreducible complexity” argument beloved by today’s intelligent designers. As articulated by biochemist Michael Behe, this argument points to some organic systems such as blood-clotting. If the entire process needs to be in place in order to confer any evolutionary benefit, the argument goes (roughly), then it makes no sense for it to have evolved in pieces.

We don’t want to argue the merits of these creationist arguments here. Our question this morning is different. In his 2015 Cincinnati sermon, Senator Green claimed to be an expert about the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory. On what grounds? Because of his work and training as a medical doctor.

It’s not much to go on, but there certainly seems to be a mini-trend involved here. Senator Green joins other prominent doctor/creationists in politics. Most obviously, Secretary Ben Carson rose to prominence as a young-earth creationist and pediatric neurosurgeon. Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, too, headed the House science committee, hated evolution, and claimed that his “scientific” education as a medical doctor had convinced him of the weaknesses of evolutionary science.

What is going on here? One might think that medical training would weed out creationist thinking. Most medical doctors, after all, study lots of biology. And, as the man said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Again, our sample of only three prominent doctor/creationists isn’t large enough to prove anything, but it does raise the question. Why do so many of our prominent creationists come from the field of medicine?

One answer would seem to be that medical doctors can claim the prestige of science without actually doing any pure scientific research themselves. They can claim to be experts, but they really are more interested in the mechanics of biology than the driving processes.

As anthropologist David Long found in his study of undergrad bio majors, it is very easy to study biology and remain a committed young-earth creationist.

Clearly, as the case of Senator Green reminds us, simply learning more biology will not convince people out of their creationist beliefs. Just like other prominent doctor/creationists, Dr. Green’s creationism is something besides a lack of knowledge about mainstream science.

The REAL Reason It Doesn’t Matter that Ben Carson is a Creationist

Have you seen it yet? Commentators such as Rod Dreher and Jeff Jacoby have opined that Ben Carson’s creationist Seventh-day Adventist faith doesn’t matter. All sorts of leaders, they write, hold kooky religious ideas. But that’s not why Dr. Carson’s faith doesn’t disqualify him. There’s a more complicated reason.

It's always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man...

It’s always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man…

Jacoby argues that Carson would be a perfect surgeon general. He could follow other creationist surgeon generals such as C. Everett Koop. When liberals comment that Carson’s creationist beliefs mean he’s anti-science, Jacoby points out that all sorts of religious people have all sorts of anti-scientific beliefs. Such theology does not mean they can’t perform their scientific duties.

As Jacoby concludes,

Can you regard someone’s religious creed as preposterous, yet entrust the person who is faithful to that creed with public office? Of course; Americans do it all the time. I can’t see Carson as president, but what I really can’t see is why his religion or his doubts about evolution (neither of which I share) should even enter the conversation.

There’s a simpler reason why Dr. Carson’s creationism doesn’t really matter. Like other humans, Carson is not a simple religious robot. We cannot read his denomination’s creed and assume we know everything he believes on every issue.  More important, we cannot read his creed and assume we know much about his lived faith.

As critics have pointed out, Dr. Carson has ranged far afield from his SDA roots in his effort to win votes. Traditionally, for example, Adventists decry the use of violence. Traditionally, too, Adventists insist on a rigid separation of church and state. Recent campaigning seems to have pushed Dr. Carson to put his conservative American identity in front of his SDA denominational identity on these issues. He has argued for more weapons in the hands of everyday Americans and more religion in everyday government.

I disagree with Dr. Carson’s positions on all these issues (for that matter, I also disagree with SDA orthodoxy on all these issues), but I’m glad he is not simply a creature of his denominational beliefs. After all, if someone had only their religious beliefs to guide them, he or she would be a terrifying leader.

What if a surgeon general believed only in faith healing, so he or she canceled government health programs? What if a leader of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed only that non-Christians were evil, so he or she indulged in missionary warfare?

Luckily, that sort of religious extremism is atypical. Most of us have official beliefs that don’t really impact the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are Americans first, and then we are Catholic, or Muslim, or Hindu.

Indeed, it is not only religious people who do this but also anti-religious people. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan personifies in Brothers Karamazov, there are atheists who fail to follow their anti-religious beliefs to their logical conclusions.

And thank goodness they do.

In short, Dr. Carson’s creationist beliefs don’t disqualify him for high office because he seems willing to back-burner them when necessary.

Ben Carson Wants Federal Control of Higher Education

If you’d like to be popular at a GOP event these days, don’t wear an Education Department lapel pin. As they have for decades now, conservative presidential candidates these days are falling all over themselves in their threats to eliminate the Education Department. But not Ben Carson! The uber-conservative neurosurgeon has something he wants the Ed Dept. to do.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing this, but I’ve pointed out in my recent book and in the pages of Time.com that conservatives have not always hated the idea of federal influence in education. Back in the 1920s, cultural conservatives wanted the federal government to pump money into educational programs that would make America more conservative. Some conservative intellectuals these days have made similar noises—if the Ed Dept. can push conservative programs, some conservatives think, then conservatives need to get over their antipathy.

Dr. Ben Carson’s plan for the Ed Dept. goes even further. As he told Glenn Beck, Carson wants the federal government to seize control of higher education.

Here’s the plan: Carson hopes the Ed Dept. will “de-fund” colleges that ban conservative speakers. The department, Carson explained, should “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists” [about 3:41 of the interview].

It’s not clear exactly what Dr. Carson thinks such defunding will mean. Nor can I tell how “extreme political bias” would be defined. But such quibbles largely miss the point.

For us at ILYBYGTH, the remarkable take-away from Carson’s candor is that he wants to assert sweeping new powers for the Education Department. This is a departure from both the past fifty years of mainstream conservative thinking and from the past hundred-fifty years of Seventh-day Adventist tradition.

Adventists, after all, have never been supporters of government power. Not even to push society in ways they might prefer. As liberal pundits have become eager to point out, Carson’s rhetoric about strong Americanism is a marked departure from SDA tradition. These days, Dr. Carson displays a weirdly non-SDA penchant for a powerful, intrusive government.

It’s certainly the case with Carson’s recent comments about the Education Department. I can’t imagine that SDA universities such as Loma Linda or Pacific Union College would endorse more federal control of their activities.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

From the Archives: A Satanic Cult Leader for the GOP

US News & World Report calls him the “evangelical darling.” By some counts, he is the second-most-popular candidate in the GOP scrum. But for anyone familiar with the history of evangelical Protestants in the USA, it can be shocking that a Seventh-day Adventist such as Ben Carson can be so popular among conservative voters. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that conservative evangelicals considered Seventh-day Adventism to be trick of Satan, a cult to lure unwary believers.

Kings Business anti SDA 1For those unfamiliar with the denomination, SDA had its origins in the “Great Disappointment.” In the mid-1800s, William Miller predicted the imminent return of Christ. Some true believers sold everything to prepare for the end of the world. When October 22, 1844 came and went, some folks reasonably concluded that Miller had been wrong.

But not everybody. One splinter group, guided by Prophet Ellen G. White, explained that Christ had come and gone, but it had been a spiritual event, invisible to the mundane eye. White experienced visions of God and angels, creation and the end of time.

Her followers coalesced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unlike other Christian groups, SDA members had reason to believe that creation had been a literal six-day event. They had reason to believe that it had taken place within the past 10,000 years. After all, White had been shown it all.

This is the church from which Dr. Carson comes. Unlike some presidential contenders in the past, he has made no noise about separating himself from the teachings of his church. Quite the contrary. He has publicly and repeatedly embraced them.

So far, so good.

What remains shocking for those who know their SDA history is that Dr. Carson has been publicly and repeatedly embraced by evangelical Protestants. It was not so very long ago, after all, that evangelical intellectuals blasted SDA beliefs in the harshest terms.Kings Business anti SDA 2

Writing in the 1919 publication of the founding conference of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, George Guille described SDA this way:

It is Satan’s stroke against the throne and the heart of God.

Hrm.

And a few years later, in 1921, in the pages of The King’s Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University) one writer described SDA in similar no-holds-barred language. Jessie Sage Robertson warned Biola’s cult expert Keith L. Brooks that SDA was a dangerous cult. As she put it,

Strange, isn’t it, that a whole body of religionists should decry Spiritism as of the devil, and yet accept a whole system of Biblical interpretation received by one [Ellen G. White] in a state of non-self control?

Too many evangelical pastors, Robertson believed, were not aware of these “false religious systems” with “their soul-destroying dangers.”

If I were an SDA neurosurgeon, I might feel a little trepidation at accepting the friendship of such recent enemies. I might not feel excited to be welcomed by people who had so recently accused my religion of such terrible crimes.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look. I am aware that these warnings are all from a long time ago. I am aware that our last round of elections brought a leader of the Latter-day Saints Church (the Mormons) to staunchly fundamentalist Liberty University to speak.

But I am also aware that schools such as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago STILL sell charts warning true believers of the dangers of “cults” such as Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism.

The point, however, is not that evangelicals should or should not embrace Dr. Carson. Rather, the point for all of us is that evangelical belief is always changing.

For progressive secular folks (like me), we need always to remember that evangelicalism is not somehow a product of a past America. Evangelical Protestants are not trapped in time, either from the Victorian 1870s or the Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s.

And conservative evangelicals need always to remember that their religion is changing, no matter what they might hear. It can be tricky in evangelical circles to talk about religious change, since so much of evangelicalism is based on remaining true to God’s Unchanging Word. Smart evangelicals, however, will be the first to tell you that human interpretation of God’s Word is always changing, and always riddled with errors.

Will evangelical voters vote for a member of a Satanic Cult? Time will tell, but it seems most evangelicals have put that past behind them.

Doctor Carson, I Presume?

Conservatives love Ben Carson! But they don’t seem to know one of the most important things about him. At least judging from the utterly unscientific evidence on hand at this humble blog, it looks like people want to know more about Dr. Carson’s peculiar religion.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that we’ve spent our share of time discussing Carson’s ideas and background. As a devout Seventh-day Adventist, Carson has publicly and explicitly supported his denomination’s firm and fairly extreme creationist doctrines.

Unlike most other conservative Protestant denominations, SDA believers have a good reason to believe in a literal six-day creation within the past 8,000 years ago or so. Their founding prophet, Ellen G. White, saw it herself.

Today in the ILYBYGTH newsroom, we got some evidence that suggests people are curious about Dr. Carson’s religion. In this screenshot captured early this morning, we can see a number of people came to these pages searching for news about Carson’s denomination. Is he a Seventh day “aventist?” What religion is he? What church does he attend?

Who is this Carson fellow, anyway?

Who is this Carson fellow, anyway?

Conservatives love him, but it seems some of them want to know more. Would it be a turn-off for some voters if they knew about Carson’s denomination? Historically, as I argued in my first book, some conservative evangelical Protestants viewed Seventh-day Adventism as a dangerous and deceptive cult.

Things have changed, for sure. I wonder, though, if news of Carson’s denomination would hurt his chances with some conservative Christians.

A Socialist in the Liberty Lion’s Den

Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?

For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?

Could he grab some votes?

Could he grab some votes?

First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.

Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.

Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,

A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.

But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.

It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.

The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.

This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:

  • Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
  • And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?

What’s Left? Bernie Sanders on Education

It doesn’t really matter. But it has become a central part of the process nonetheless.

Even though the vast majority of thinking and funding of public schools is still done at the state and local levels, presidential candidates these days spend a good deal of time sharing their plans for fixing America’s schools. On the right, we’ve heard from all the GOP contenders. This week, Forbes Magazine summed up a few of Bernie Sanders’s positions on education. Some of the ideas are predictable, but some are surprising.

...and to my left...

…and to my left…

On the conservative side, candidates have a few hoops to jump through. Whatever their personal beliefs, contenders have to sound at least friendly to creationism. And these days—though as I argued recently this has not always been the case—GOP hopefuls have to denounce furiously any federal role in local schools.

Senator Sanders has a little more wiggle room. As a self-declared socialist representing the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont, Sanders has no real chance of snatching the nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton. So his campaign can be more about ideas than votes.

What does the Socialist Senator say about schools?

First—no surprise—he has denounced the “privatizing” tendencies of vouchers and charter schools. Also, in February Senator Sanders suggested a federal program to cut college tuition in half. The federal government, Sanders thinks, must stop making profits off of student loans. More radically, Senator Sanders wants to make public universities tuition-free. Beyond higher education, Sanders has pushed for better pre-school options for all. And he has decried the fact that “the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.”

It all fits. But there are some ideas that are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other progressive pundits, we don’t hear from Senator Sanders an attack on the dehumanizing standardized tests that have taken over so many public schools. Nor do we see a strident defense of teachers’ unions.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates in the Democratic Party can win votes by adopting those popular positions. It’s still early days, of course, but we can’t help but wonder why Senator Sanders has not made more noise about these issues.

More Proof that Conservatives Won’t Win

Every once in a while a progressive pundit will howl a warning about the fundamentalist conspiracy. Watch out, we’re told, rich and sinister conservatives are organizing a vast army to mount an electoral coup of this great land. We see more proof today that these warnings are more fantasy than reality. The nature of conservative religion tends to work against any insuperable fundamentalist coalition.

The end is near...

The end is near…

From the beginnings of America’s modern culture wars, fundamentalist-watchers have warned of the coming fundamentalist storm. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.”

Yikes.

But these Cassandresque warnings tell us more about Asimov and Shipley than they do about real fundamentalists. In practice, the nature of conservative Protestantism in America has usually made any sort of collective action impossible.

In the 1950s, to cite only the most obvious historical example, fundamentalists split from evangelicals over the question of Billy Graham’s crusades. Fundamentalists refused to embrace Graham’s wildly successful outreach, in spite of Graham’s conservative theology. Why? Because Graham also worked with liberal and progressive Protestants. Instead of making a pragmatic decision to support Graham as the least-bad option, fundamentalists instead clung to a purer separatism.

Conservatives' best hope?  Or biggest threat?

Conservatives’ best hope? Or biggest threat?

These days, too, conservative Protestants often refuse to win. Most recently, we see a protest among conservative Calvinist Southern Baptist pastors against conservative Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson. As we’ve noted in these pages, Dr. Carson is a profoundly conservative religious thinker. And he seems like the best hope of religious conservatives in the 2016 elections.

Yet as Christianity Today reports, Southern Baptist conservatives have dis-invited Carson from their annual meeting. Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, some SBC pastors noted, put him at odds with Baptist orthodoxy.

They’re right, of course. Seventh-day Adventism holds to many peculiar theological doctrines, including those in the prophetic writings of Ellen G. White.

But the refusal of Calvinist Southern Baptists to welcome a prominent Seventh-day Adventist helps demonstrate why Isaac Asimov and Maynard Shipley could have relaxed. Among conservative Protestants, suspicion and even virulent hatred of theological near-neighbors have long roots. The notion that a fundamentalist army—a creationist army—is organizing in conservative colleges and meetings just doesn’t match reality.

Could conservatives win? Sure. But intra-conservative clashes like this show how difficult it is for conservative Protestants to act together.

Conservatives, Evolution, and “The Question”

“Do you believe in evolution?”

That’s the question GOP presidential candidates dread. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is the latest to hem and haw his way through an awkward press conference on the subject.

Of course, some GOP contenders have no need to fear. Ben Carson, for example, is a loud and proud young-earth creationist. But other potential nominees have had to dodge, duck, dive, and dip when the question comes up. Bobby Jindal, a former biology major at an Ivy League college, has confessed that he wants his own children to learn evolution. That doesn’t mean schools must teach it, though. Jindal wants “local schools” to decide what’s right for them. And Marco Rubio famously told GQ magazine that he was “not a scientist, man.”

Walker is the latest GOP notable pressured to answer “The Question.” At a London press conference, Walker did his best to avoid it. In the end, though, Walker felt obliged to clarify that he strongly believed that humanity was created by God, and that faith and science are compatible.

It has become such a staple of GOP press conferences that conservative pundits cry foul. Writing in the pages of the National Review, for example, Jonah Goldberg says these evolution questions are a cheap stunt, a way to make conservative candidates squirm. As Goldberg put it,

To borrow a phrase from the campus left, Darwinism is used to “otherize” certain people of traditional faith — and the politicians who want their vote.

As fellow conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson correctly pointed out, leading mainstream scientists will also insist that they don’t “believe in” evolution. Rather, they simply know it; they take it to be the best current explanation and model for understanding the way species have changed and developed.

Yet no matter how you slice it, “the question” has become a defining feature of Republican presidential candidates. Even candidates who seem personally to embrace mainstream evolutionary science are loath to alienate conservative religious voters. For many of those religious voters, evolution has become a moral litmus test, not just a statement of personal belief.