Believing in evolution and God is fence-sitting??
Do Positions on Evolution Really Matter in 2008 Race?
By DeWayne Wickham
During a televised debate among GOP presidential candidates last month in California, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was asked whether he believes in evolution. McCain first answered with one word: "Yes." Then he quickly added: "I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also."
That bit of fence walking might remind some people of what comedian W.C. Fields, a life-long atheist, said when he was discovered reading a Bible shortly before his death. When a friend asked incredulously what he was doing, Fields responded: "Looking for loopholes."
But a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll suggests McCain's attempt to have it both ways is not an uncommon view. One-quarter of Americans think evolution, a scientific theory on the origins of life, and creationism, the biblical description of how life began, are both likely explanations. But in the world of politics, reality is too often shaped by what it takes to win over the relatively small number of voters who take part in a political party's selection process — not the thinking of a wider group of people.
Whatever the reason, three of the GOP presidential wannabes standing with McCain that day gave a much different answer. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado answered with a show of hands when a reporter asked, "Is there anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution?"
This month, during a GOP debate in New Hampshire, Huckabee was asked about his rejection of evolution. "To me, it's pretty simple," the Baptist minister answered. "A person either believes that God created this process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own."
In politics, few things are described so simply. But for many members of the religious right — an influential bloc in the GOP's presidential candidate selection process — answers to questions of faith have no middle ground. This is especially so in the long-running debate over the beginning of life.
Faced with such intransigence in 1925 on the eve of the trial of John Scopes — a man charged with violating a Tennessee law that prohibited teaching evolution — H.L. Mencken, a columnist for Baltimore's The Sun, wrote, "Enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed." Mencken would be surprised to know that when it comes to debate over the origins of life, enlightenment is now in greater supply.
Many Americans think the theories of divine creation and evolution can coexist. And why not accept the Bible's story of God's creation of life as a metaphor, and the evolutionist's version of how life started as a more detailed account of the same event? Isn't it possible the "Big Bang" theory of the universe's beginning is just science's explanation of what happened when God said, "Let there be light?" Why worry about where presidential candidates of either party stand on this issue?
At one point in the New Hampshire debate, Huckabee bristled at being asked about his position on the origins of life. "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States," he said.
But with that job comes significant influence over public education, as we have seen with the Bush administration's imposition of teaching standards. The Oval Office job also plays a role in defining the nation's response to harmful atmospheric changes that many scientists say are man-made, and in determining government's response to calls for expanded stem cell research, which could alter lives afflicted with disease.
Putting a religious absolutist in the White House might sharply reduce the role of science in our national life — and distance the next president from the thinking of a lot of Americans.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.