Home > Current Affairs, Politics, Science > “One of the Great Mysteries”: Science and Fath in American Conservative Politics

“One of the Great Mysteries”: Science and Fath in American Conservative Politics

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently gave a casual interview with GQ clearly meant to test the waters for a potential Presidential run in 2016. Rubio took time out from talking about gangsta rap and not comparing Barack Obama to Fidel Castro (while actually doing so) to declare that, although he’s “not a scientist, man”, he feels that “we’ll never be able to answer” whether or not the earth was created in 7 days, as the Bible claims. Well, 6 days, technically, but I’m not a biblical scholar or a mathematician, man.

This is only news to the extent that it’s not really news. American conservatism has become so wedded to the hypocritical theocratic imperatives of Evangelical Christianity that its increasingly non-secular political organ (the GOP) must necessarily pay its outlandish faith-based claims credence or risk a fatal backlash from the hand that feeds it. Rubio is, from most appearances, no fool; he’s even been touted as the individual vanguard of the party’s much-needed outreach to the growing Hispanic-American voting demographic that they have recently lost decisively to the Democrats. There’s reasons to doubt this possibility: Republican policies and the conservative rhetoric behind them have been xenophobically hostile to Latinos for too long and too loudly to be wiped away by a single fresh-faced candidate, who, as a scion of Miami’s staunchly anti-Castro Cuban community, would not necessarily appeal to many Hispanic voters anyway. But whatever his future career prospects, Rubio’s line-toeing on the whole, messy, ambiguous “age of the earth” question reflects the choices made by a continental right wing that is increasingly contemptuous of scientific orthodoxy, seemingly as a matter of tribal allegiance.

Back off, man. I’m not a scientist.

Rubio’s deft framing of his answer, however, is instructive. He never says what he believes, ultimately, although anyone even flirting with the 6000-year-old planet theory is stepping beyond the scientific pale. But he puts a firm onus on education, and on a false epistemological equivalency between faith-based creationism on one hand and evolutionary biology and geological history on the other. This is the slim crack in the door that theocratic conservatives have long sought: the right to instruct American schoolchildren in both science and faith-based theories of creation and development and to “let them decide”. It’s a Choose Your Adventure approach to the none-too-uncertain basis of earth science education that has understandably (and rightly) provoked the resistance of fact-based educational practitioners, especially when the proposed alternative theories are so thinly reasoned and widely debunked.

Perhaps any such cracks are negligible anyway, especially with a high-profile recent court decision like Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District granting the faith lobby little daylight to work with. But the arguments are still out there being made, if mostly fruitlessly. Rubio demonstrates the well-worn trick of setting the terms of conversation in a manner that already gives his nonsensical perspective a fighting chance from the outset. But only because interviewer Michael Hainey cedes him more ground than he ought to with the wording of his question. “How old do you think the earth is?” is an absurd question on its face, and even beneath that level, too. At the risk of coming across as uncompromising or rude, it is not a matter of personal opinion, it is an established and incontrovertible truth. Hainey might as well ask Rubio how hot he thinks the sun is, or how many inches he believes to be in a foot. Opinion cannot trump empirical measurement, no matter how much a group of people might wish it to.

Conservative political operators so often exploit their opponents’ essential liberal tendencies towards equity and fairness to advance their reactionary agenda, and the life support which keeps creationism and its quasi-scientific offshoots breathing is provided by progressive notions of tolerance and justice. The key, as is so often the case, is not to allow that initial foothold.

A related prefacing question of the science vs. religion debate provides a perfect closing example. When, as a science-backer, one is next faced with the ever-thorny query, “Do you believe in evolution?”, try answering, “No.” When the initial surprise wears off, qualify the answer thusly: “I do not ‘believe’ in evolution, any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the Devil or Xenu. But I am convinced by it.” Belief and reasoning are not, in this calculus, inherently opposed. They are different muscles, subject to separate but not necessarily contradictory exertions. But there are some tasks that one muscle or the other cannot be of much use in tackling, and answering fundamental questions about the nature of our physical world is one of them. The sooner that conservatives face up to that, even in the Jesus-mad United States, the healthier their political movement will be from an intellectual point of view.

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