2016, Rubio, and the Age of the Earth

Senator Marco Rubio’s comments to a GQ reporter have attracted more than their share of attention lately.  When asked about the age of the earth, Rubio hedged:

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell  you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I  think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of  the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our  economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to  answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple  theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country  where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents  should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.  Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll  ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

This answer certainly sounds like a dodge from a 2016-conscious politician.  Keenly aware of the thinking among the GOP base, and with an eye to the 2016 presidential primaries, it seems, Rubio carefully gave an answer designed not to offend the sensibilities of young-earth creationists.  Rubio’s language here clearly differentiates him from the true GOP creationist politicians like US Representative Paul Broun.  Good science?  Definitely not.  But is it good politics?

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat offered a politician’s answer that might serve the GOP better in the long run.  Aspiring GOP leaders, Douthat suggested, could respond to gotcha questions in this way:

“I’m not a scientist, but I respect the scientific consensus that says that the earth is — what, something like a few billions of years old, right? I don’t have any trouble reconciling that consensus with my faith. I don’t think the 7 days in Genesis have to be literal 24-hour days. I don’t have strong opinions about the specifics of how to teach these issues — that’s for school boards to decide, and I’m not running for school board — but I think religion and science can be conversation partners, and I think kids can benefit from that conversation.

Douthat makes the excellent point that this is more a crisis of Christianity than of the GOP.  The notion of a young earth has only been used as a litmus test for fundamentalist Protestantism in the last fifty years or so.  For centuries before that, Bible Christians could legitimately disagree about the age of the earth without being accused of backsliding away from true faith.

However, for someone like Rubio with his eyes on the White House, Douthat’s suggestion does not fit.  Politicians don’t win national office by moral or intellectual courage.  They win by offering a recipe of ideological notions that satisfy their constituents.  And these days, like it or lump it, the GOP base has strong feelings in favor of a young earth.

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In the News: Paul Ryan and a WASP-free White House

Governor Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential running mate has been heralded by some conservatives as a triumph.  Ryan is known for his commitment to restricting abortion and defending traditional families.  He is also the GOP’s leading voice for budget-cutting, even to the point of earning some censure from Catholic leaders.   But the pick has been seen as a play to conservatives, or, as we say here at ILYBYGTH, to voters from Fundamentalist America.

One unusual aspect of Romney’s decision is that it guarantees a WASP-free White House for at least four more years.  Of course, there’s nothing new about a WASP-free White House.  Barack Obama is African American Protestant, while Joe Biden is Catholic.  But no matter who wins in November, with LDS (Morman) Romney and staunchly Catholic Ryan, there will be no White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant in this race.

This matters for a couple of reasons.  First, it shows the way Fundamentalist America is changing.  Sixty years ago, asking conservatives to line up behind a non-Protestant candidate was political suicide.  In 1928 and nearly in 1960, it was tricky even for the Democrats to run a Catholic candidate.  These days, many different types of conservatives celebrate the Romney-Ryan ticket.  Ryan is seen as the “conservative” choice, not the “Catholic” choice.  Just as with the Protestant-free US Supreme Court, the fact that conservatives don’t seem to care about the non-WASPiness of this election tells us something about the changing nature of American culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this.  We could attack Fundamentalist America for being hypocritical.  Here is how this argument would go: conservatives demand respect for “traditional values,” but they don’t ever clarify what those values are.  Since such things change within even one lifetime, the defense of “traditional values” is meaningless.  What last year’s traditionalist defends as a necessary part of American life, next year’s traditionalist insists was never part of traditionalist thinking.  In this case, traditionalist conservatives could be taken to task for shifting their “traditional values” without ever admitting it.  Sixty years ago, Catholics and LDS members were seen by many as outsiders, owing loyalty to a foreign potentate, in the case of Catholics.

A more sympathetic interpretation, however, is that this change from WASP to a more big-tent conservatism shows the healthy ways Fundamentalist America can change.  Fundamentalist America, in this line of thinking, is not the dinosaur it is made out to be.  It is a dynamic, thoughtful, fully contemporary way to be American.  As American culture broadens to welcome former outsiders such as Catholics and African Americans, so too does Fundamentalist America.