Ever since the Roman Inquisition decreed that Galileo was “vehemently suspect of heresy” for suggesting the sun stood still while the earth revolved around it, the interplay of science and religious belief has been problematic for the church. In the ensuing centuries as the age of reason, of enlightenment, and of rationalism dominated western thought, church folk could either accept or reject scientific data, and Christians inexorably moved into one of two camps.
The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of “liberal Protestantism” which freely embraced science and empiricism … faith seeking understanding. Scripture was subjected to scientific and historical analysis, the so-called “historical critical method.” For this camp, it was “both-and.”
For others, the dilemma was easily solved: If science contradicted traditional, Biblical understanding, science must be rejected. For this camp, it was “either-or.”
The Presbyterians in the 1920s served as proxy for the whole of Christendom in the so-called “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy. Presbyterian scholars chafed under imposed dogmatic “fundamentals.” Emanating from Auburn University, theologians circulated a document proclaiming the freedom of conscience and the right of dissent—the so-called “Auburn Affirmation.” A commission was formed, and the 1927 Presbyterian General Assembly adopted the commission’s progressive report; the modernists had prevailed and the fundamentalists had lost.
- But the rift in Christianity wasn’t healed, and the two camps grew further apart. Historian David Hollinger suggests using the terminology “ecumenical” for the progressives and “evangelical” for the conservatives. The terms imply an outward versus insular attitude. In the Church of England decision this week to preclude female bishops, the “evangelical” camp prevailed. In the recent legislative wrangling within the modern-day Presbyterian Church over LGBT ordination, the evangelicals lost; this was also the recent experience of the Episcopal Church, the Lutherans of the ELCA, and the United Church of Christ. All these “ecumenical” denominations have endorsed gay clergy. Meanwhile, evangelical Christianity continues to loudly defend its non-scientific worldview.
This is the religious background to the political point of this post.
In the last generation, the United States has witnessed the rise of the religious right. More than that, evangelical religionists have come to occupy a dominant position within the Republican party. When presumably intelligent and educated Senator Marco Rubio visited Iowa this week, he professed ignorance when asked a simple scientific question about the age of the earth:
“I’m not a scientist, man … It’s one of the great mysteries … It is a dispute among theologians.”
Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman responds, “What about the geologists?”
Here is the profoundly frightening part. By wedding itself to the evangelicals, the Republican party has embraced ignorance, and Marco Rubio is constrained to play dumb for fear of alienating the Iowa base. Krugman puts it this way:
Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.
Evolution versus creationism and global warming are obvious public policy issues affected by Republican know-nothingism. Less obvious is economic theory: austerity versus stimulus during a down economy or the lack of evidence to support supply-side, trickle down policies. As with their evangelical religionist cronies, the Republican preference is for dogma over empiricism.
Lest we dismiss Krugman as just another liberal Democrat, consider the sentiments of Ross Douthat, one of the handful of Republican commentators willing to acknowledge the emperor wears no clothes.
The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead … it’s still neither politically helpful nor intellectually healthy for a minority political party to pick pointless fights with the nation’s scientific and technical elite.
So much for the vacuous impact on public policy wrought by the marriage of evangelicals and politicians. What about the impact on religious institutions? On religion itself? Evangelicals love to beat their chest and point to declining membership in the ecumenical denominations in a post-Christian America. But it is not just the old mainline denominations—it is Christianity and religion in general. We have previously posted about this issue and quoted a review of the recent book American Grace which:
makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”
And Douthat the Republican agrees:
the goal of Christianity is supposed to be the conversion of every human heart — yes, scientists and intellectuals included — and the central claim of Christianity is that the faith offers, not a particular political agenda or an economic program, but the true story of the world entire. The more Christians convince themselves that their faith’s core is identical with the modern innovation of fundamentalism, and in direct conflict with the best available modern biology and geology, the less attainable that goal and the less tenable that central claim.