Why Progressives Should Cheer for Creationism

Good news for science, but bad news for progressive culture warriors: We’ve got a smart conservative voice preaching to the creationist choir. In National Review this week, geneticist Razib Khan makes the obvious case that conservatives should not paint themselves into a science-denial corner.  If conservatives were to listen to Dr. Khan, progressives would be in trouble, but there’s no need for my fellow progressives to fret.

jindal

Why won’t Dr. Khan’s argument get anywhere? Exhibit A:

As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism (more news on that front soon), there is no logical reason for evolutionary theory to be so scary to American conservatives. As Dr. Khan sensibly explains,

evolutionary biology is nothing for conservatives to fear, because it is one of the crowning achievements of modern Western civilization. It should be viewed not as an acid gnawing at the bones of civilization, but as a jewel. The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value. And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.

Absolutely true. Moreover, Dr. Khan points out a strategic truth that should leave progressives trembling. Namely, if conservatives ever got over their evo-phobia, they would have a powerful new weapon with which to fight culture-war battles. As Khan puts it,

the political implications of evolutionary biology do not favor the Left. Today many on the Left reject the very idea of human nature, to the point of effectively being evolution deniers themselves. They assert that society and values can be restructured at will. That male and female are categories of the mind, rather than of nature. In rejecting evolution, a conservative gives up the most powerful rejoinder to these claims.

Khan hopes to turn the culture-war tables. For example, if conservatives could put together credible arguments against same-sex marriage based on science rather than the Bible, they would have a far stronger political case. After all, almost all American voters revere the idea of science (even if they sometimes define ‘science’ in odd ways), but only a minority care about the Bible.

Moreover, Dr. Khan has history on his side. Historically, evolutionary theory has been used politically to fight for a wide range of political ideologies. Back in the 1920s, for example, it was the politically progressive pro-evolution side that used evolutionary theory to fight for eugenics and “scientific racism.” There is no logical reason–theological or otherwise–why today’s conservatives could not use evolutionary theory to fight for their conservative political beliefs.

However, there is one enormous flaw in Dr. Khan’s argument. Yes, conservatives should embrace evolutionary science. They should turn the idea of ‘evolution’ into a battle field instead of merely retreating from it. But they won’t.

Consider the case of former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal is a smart cookie—Ivy League degree, biology major, Oxford graduate degree…the works. There is no doubt that Governor Jindal understands the scientific power of evolutionary theory. Yet when he was asked about his policy on creationism, Jindal hedged. He hemmed and he hawed and he finally agreed that he wouldn’t want to tell anyone that they should learn about evolutionary theory.

What does any of that have to do with Dr. Khan’s argument? Plenty. Evolutionary theory is a simple no-go for American conservatives. It’s a third rail. Conservative politicians will have no more luck embracing Dr. Khan’s suggestion than progressive ones would have with Larry Summers’ ideas about gender.

So for that reason, progressives should celebrate the political power of creationism. In many ways, the conservative coalition’s addiction to fighting evolutionary theory is one of its greatest weaknesses. Progressives’ only hope is that smart conservatives like Dr. Khan remain lonely voices shouting into the anti-science conservative wind.

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Religious Extremists Capture Major Political Party

Old news, right? SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear that the Republican Party is addicted to the political support of conservative evangelicals. These days, though, we have a sad reminder of the fact that both major parties can fall victim to special-interest lobbies, lobbies that put children in a terrible educational position.

yeshiva

Who is watching out for the kids?

For Republicans, this is nothing new. For a long time now, Republicans have been trembling at the thought of angering evangelical creationists. The most egregious example, IMHO, was the waffling of former Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, you may recall, was the popular governor of Louisiana who briefly made a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. No matter what you might think of his politics, Governor Jindal is no dummy. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology. He went on to Oxford, turning down acceptances at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. He may not have made much of a splash in the 2016 presidential race, but we can safely assume that Jindal knows plenty about evolution and many other things.

Yet in spite of all his knowledge, when asked what he thought about evolution in 2014, Jindal hedged. Yes, he wanted his own kids to learn about evolution. When it came to public schools, though, Jindal defended the rights of creationists. If a local school district wanted to teach creationism as science, Jindal argued, that should be up to them.

Bad thinking, but good politics, I suppose.

We see a similar tragedy unfolding these days in Arizona. To win election in the Republican Party, it seems, candidates felt pressed to endorse a bigger role for creationism in public schools.

It’s been true for a long time and it doesn’t seem like it is going to change any time soon. The Republican Party forces candidates to ignore their own ideas and truckle to the desires of radical young-earth creationist supporters.

Recent news from my adopted home state shows that this is not only a problem for the GOP. The Democratic Party, too, seems to have entered into a deal with religious extremists. Just as Republican pandering hurts schoolchildren in Louisiana and Arizona, so too does Democratic deal-making hurt kids in New York.

Here’s what we know: Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of a sordid educational quid pro quo. He allegedly promised prominent Hasidic leaders that he would not interfere with their religious schools in exchange for a vital political endorsement.

If it’s true, it’s more than a shame. Politicians of every party have a duty to safeguard the educational chances of students. The schools in this case don’t seem to do that at all. As a lawsuit this summer charged, significant numbers of yeshiva students in New York aren’t adequately taught secular subjects such as English, history, and science. Their curricula for boys focus almost exclusively on studying ancient religious texts.

As the New York Times reported, the state has promised to investigate these schools.  As they wrote last summer,

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

This month, Governor Cuomo was accused of promising the Hasidic community that the investigation would continue to languish in exchange for the political endorsement of an influential leader in the Hasidic community.

If true, the charges show how difficult it is to protect the educational rights of children. Children don’t vote.  Children don’t meet with governors to insist the law be obeyed. Children can’t promise a solid block of political support in exchange for special favors.

To be fair, I think the GOP problem is worse. But this story demonstrates that the problem is not only a “conservative” one. Rather, any political party risks being held in thrall to special-interest groups, groups that might not have the best interests of children at heart.

The GOP and the God of Hate

Maybe I was wrong all along. My inbox has been filling up with links to a startling article in yesterday’s New York Times. Is the GOP really under the thrall of violently anti-gay extremists?

I’ve argued in the past that my fellow secular progressives need to relax. The chance, I’ve said, of a fractious bunch of fundamentalists uniting to do anything more complicated than hosting an end-times bake sale were slim to none. Pre-tribulationists can’t get along with post-tribulationists. Lutherans can’t stand Seventh-day Adventists. Catholics look nervously at all of them.

More important, each side in our continuing culture-war debates tends to exaggerate the clear and present danger presented by the other side. Leftists point to abortion-clinic bombers. Conservatives warn of government jackbooted thugs. In general, I think we all need to remember that these boogiemen are distortions, fantastic bugbears trotted out to demonize the opposition.

But the news from Des Moines has me scratching my head. Kevin Swanson, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, hosted leading GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee at a National Religious Liberties Conference. Swanson has become infamous lately for his repeated calls for homosexuals to be put to death.

Put to death!

According to the New York Times, Governor Huckabee claimed not to know of Swanson’s scary positions. Ted Cruz seemed unruffled. After all, his own father was a featured speaker of the conference.

Is this a simple case of primary extremism? In every election, the far fringes of each party wield outsize influence. We might say that such extremism will expend itself before the primary campaign gets rolling.

Similar claims, after all, have been made of President Obama’s connections with atheist terrorist Bill Ayers. Ayers was a real terrorist. His radical group really did try to bomb people. But he has long since—kinda sorta—denounced violence as a political tactic.

I’m flummoxed. I find it hard to believe that any serious presidential contender would consent to be associated with such a violent extremist.

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.

GOP Politics and the Educational F-Word

What are the education words conservatives can’t say without spitting and gnashing their teeth?

“FEDERAL CONTROL OF EDUCATION”

History News Network has been kind enough to include an essay of mine about the presidential politics of education among conservatives.

Won't say it...

Won’t say it…

Among the leading presidential candidates in the Republican Party, only Jeb Bush will admit that he likes the Common Core.  And even he denies ferociously that he supports more federal “overreach” in local schools.

Why do conservatives so loathe the federal government’s role in education?  It wasn’t always this way, as I argue in the HNN article.  And there are some signs that thoughtful conservatives are returning to their roots as the party of centralized power.

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.

Heavy Hitters Take on the Common Core, Sort of…

What is a conservative to think? Are the Common Core Learning Standards a threat? A blessing? As we’ve discussed recently in these pages, some conservative intellectuals have argued that the standards are a triumph of conservative activism. But tonight, the Family Research Council hosts a star-studded slamfest to explain all the reasons why conservatives should fight the standards. Yet it seems to me that this group will conspicuously leave out some of the most obvious reasons for conservatives to oppose the new standards.

They Are Coming for Conservatives' Children...

They Are Coming for Conservatives’ Children…

What’s the FRC’s beef with the standards? The name of tonight’s event says it all: “Common Core: The Government’s Classroom.” As have other leading conservatives including Phyllis Schlafly, Glenn Beck, conservative Catholics, and libertarians such as JD Tuccille, the heavyweights at tonight’s event will likely condemn the standards as another example of leftist government overreach.

For tonight’s roundtable, the FRC has assembled folks such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and University of Arkansas scholar Sandra Stotsky. Governor Jindal has taken the lead among conservative state leaders with his endless legal wrangling over the new standards. Professor Stotsky has become the academic leader of the antis. Her work with the standards’ development left her convinced that the Common Core was rotten. As Stotsky argued in a video jeremiad produced by the anti-Core Home School Legal Defense Association, the intellectual weakness of the standards presents as much of a threat as does the sneaky way they were introduced.

What is a conservative to think about the Common Core? Tonight’s video roundtable apparently hopes to convince more conservatives to fight it.

It will raise key questions about conservatism and educational politics. For example, from time to time, the anti-Core fight is tied to anti-evolution. As we noted a while back, Ohio’s now-defunct House Bill 597 pushed IN creationism as it pushed OUT the Common Core.

To this observer, it seems natural for conservatives to use the political muscle of creationism to fight against the Common Core. In some cases, conservatives have done just that, since the Next Generation Science Standards would likely push for more evolution and less creationism in America’s classrooms.

But this FRC event doesn’t mention evolution or creation. It doesn’t mention literature, history, or math, either, for that matter. Instead, the focus of tonight’s event seems to be on the federal-izing dangers inherent in the new standards.

But why not? Why wouldn’t the Family Research Council want to use every intellectual weapon at its disposal to discredit the standards in conservatives’ eyes? Maybe they will, of course.  The different panelists might emphasize different aspects of the standards.  One or some certainly might note the connection between evolution education and centralized power.  I’d love to watch and find out.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to. If anyone has the time tonight to spend with this all-star conservative panel, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Vouchers: The Path to the White House

How can a conservative candidate get elected in 2016?

According to a recent story in the Weekly Standard, the conservative path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. may be paved with school reform.

Image Source: Governor Jindal's webpage

Image Source: Governor Jindal’s webpage

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood side by side at a Washington press conference to denounce federal interference in conservative school reform efforts.

In Louisiana, that has meant a Department of Justice crackdown on the state’s aggressive voucher program.  The federal government has warned that Louisiana’s voucher system may violate racial desegregation laws.  For a while now, left-leaning pundits have warned that the voucher scheme swipes public school funding and gives it to conservative religious schools.  Diane Ravitch has concluded that Louisiana’s privatization program will drive a stake through the heart of quality public education.

Such criticisms don’t deter Governor Jindal.  He has insisted that the program represents the best educational hope for low-income students in his state.

Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard suggests vouchers may also represent Governor Jindal’s best hope for higher office.  As Warren notes,

the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart the voucher program has also been a gift for Jindal, who may run for president in 2016. Since the DOJ filed its lawsuit on August 18, Jindal has been campaigning loudly and publicly against the suit and, more broadly, for conservative education reform.

 

 

Our Creationist President, Part Deux: Bobby Jindal

GOP front-runners are already lining up in support of creationism.

We’ve noted that conservative favorite Ben Carson has emphasized his young-earth creationist beliefs.  Now another 2016 hopeful has joined the pack.

Governor Bobby Jindal told NBC news that Louisiana schools must be free to teach creationism along with evolution and intelligent design.  As Jindal asked, “What’re we scared of?”

Jindal endorsed the creationist interpretation of his state’s 2008 Science Education Act.  According to this law, creationism may be included as part of a rigorous science education.  The state, this law insisted,

shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Does that mean teaching creationism?  Jindal told NBC that it did.  “I’ve got no problem,” Jindal said, “if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about ‘intelligent design’.”

It’s early days, of course, but it seems the 2016 GOP field will have at least two contenders who have firmly established their creationist credentials.

Governor Haley and the Changing Face of Fundamentalist America

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a new book out.  The cutely titled Can’t Is Not an Option may be a bald-faced bid for the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nomination, but it can also tell us something about the ways Fundamentalist America is changing.  The book itself sounds sugary, but Haley’s personal story is compelling.

Haley is an Indian-American child of immigrants.  The fact that a dark-skinned female politician whose father wears a turban can succeed as a conservative Republican politician in a state known for racism and evangelical Protestantism means a lot. 

Haley joins a small but growing list of non-white conservative heavy hitters: businessman/politician Herman Cainwriter Dinesh D’Souza, politicians Bobby Jindall and Allen West, and jurist Clarence Thomas, among others.  Such a showing, especially among African Americans, makes a good deal of sense from a fundamentalist perspective.

Conservative intellectuals, notably those at the Heritage Foundation, have made a concerted strategic effort to overcome fundamentalism’s traditional connection to white supremacist ideology.

But although it may make strategic sense, it is a tall order politically.  African Americans have been tightly linked to the Democratic Party since the 1930s.  Before that, African American voters stuck just as close to the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln.  For most of American history, the vortex of race and race consciousness has overwhelmed all other identity issues, pushing most African Americans to vote first as African Americans, and only second as conservatives, liberals, secularists, religious, etc.

But beyond party politics, African Americans tend toward a deep fundamentalism.  Gallup polls consistently demonstrate this.  For example, one 2005 poll showed that about seven in ten African Americans called themselves “evangelical” or “born again” Christians.  African Americans, according to a 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll are significantly more likely (85%) to support school prayer than are whites (69%).  This conservative religiosity among African Americans has influenced cultural attitudes among African American young people as well.  A 2002 poll found that only 8% of African American teens say they drink alcohol, compared to 25% of white teens, likely due to higher rates of conservative religiosity.  Among non-whites in general, according to a 2003 poll, only 52% think that premarital sex is morally acceptable, compared to 59% of whites.

Race is a tough issue for fundamentalists.  There are plenty of fundamentalist whites who seem to cling to traditionalism in their white supremacist ideology, just as they cling to traditionalism in religion, education, and culture.  But non-whites, in large majorities, are fundamentalists in everything except party politics.  If more non-whites like Nikki Haley continue to emphasize their cultural conservatism, and if they tie that cultural conservatism to political conservatism, then more and more non-whites may continue to embrace all the meanings of Fundamentalism.