By Alan Bean
Four short years ago, a slim majority (54%) of Republicans believed in some form of biological evolution; now only 43% hold that opinion. You rarely see this kind of dramatic opinion swing in such a small time frame, so what’s driving it?
This is an important question because, in the Pew survey I am citing, the alternative to belief in biological evolution is that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” We can debate the details of evolution–how it happened, whether the hand of God was guiding the process, etc.–but the notion that all living things have existed in their present form since the dawn of time is demonstrably false. To persist in this opinion is to deny the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community–that is, the folks who know what they are talking about.
On Sunday morning, a member of my Sunday school class expressed his amazement that educated people could assert that the universe simply appears to be ancient because God created a world that looks much older than it really is. “The man who signed my PhD diploma believes precisely that,” I informed the class.
Why do highly educated religious leaders like R. Albert Mohler (the man who signed my diploma) and politicians like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal dismiss the scientific community with such casual indifference? Because the people they are trying to impress are comforted and empowered by anti-science rhetoric.; moreover, they are eager to reward opinion leaders like R. Albert, Bobby and Rick who are willing to scratch where they itch.
The more political and religious leaders bang the anti-science drum, the more skeptical their followers become; the more skeptical their followers become, the harder these folks bang the drum. Keith Moon, the brilliantly erratic drummer for the Who, worked so frantically that he needed several sets of drum sticks to make it through a single set. The obscurantist rants of folks like Rick Perry and Al Mohler are approaching that level o thrumming fury.
In short, people cling to young-earth creationism for the same reason they oppose abortion in all circumstances or believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice–it’s all of a piece, a full meal deal. If you want to belong to the tribe, this is what you believe. The conviction that President Obama is a born-in-Kenya Muslim socialist follows the same pattern. True believers are now expected to call for the president’s impeachment, even though no one is sure what high crimes he has committed. It’s all about brand loyalty.
This graph shows the link between evolution and politics:
A closer look at the Pew study reveals that White mainline Protestants are far more likely to believe in evolution than other religious groups. In fact, mainliners are more willing than the religiously unaffiliated to accept the verdict of science:
You will notice that Black evangelicals are almost as inclined as their White counterparts to embrace biblical literalism. But in Black America there is absolutely no political carryover between being conservative views on issues like abortion, homosexuality and biblical authority and politics. The White Protestant mainline has largely resolved the science-religion issue but divides its votes evenly between the two major parties. Blacks tend toward traditional biblicism, but support the Democrats, largely because the Republicans have left them no choice.
White evangelicals, by contrast, are increasingly inclined to embrace every sort of conservatism on offer: theological, political, social and economic. The full meal deal on offer allows no substitutions. To diverge from accepted orthodoxy (political or religious) on a single issue is to find oneself alienated from the “real” America.
Preachers and politicians are feeding the frenzy because it is good for business.
As the graph below indicates, young Americans are far less likely than their parents and grandparents to take issue with the scientific community. This suggests that the odd convergence between political and religious conservatism will probably burn itself out in a decade or so. For the moment, however, conservatives in Canada and Europe can only scratch their heads in wonderment.