08.23.11

Mormon Candidates’ Pro-Science Stand

Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney are the only GOP presidential contenders who accept climate change and evolution. McKay Coppins on how their shared faith has made them science believers.

“To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

For Jon Huntsman Jr.'s fledgling presidential campaign, that was the Tweet heard 'round the world; the bold declaration that finally gave the oft-forgotten candidate a little traction in the 2012 race. But while commentators are gleefully showering Huntsman with congratulatory titles like “the GOP’s truth-teller,” the punditocracy has overlooked the fact that at least one other Republican presidential candidate has staked out similarly pro-science positions: Huntsman’s fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.

During a 2007 primary debate, Romney, who was then competing heavily for the conservative Christian vote, surprised many by declining to join former governor Mike Huckabee and others in denouncing evolution.

“I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,” he said. “And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.” When the moderator pressed him to plant his flag in the “intelligent design” camp, Romney demurred: “I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design. But I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

Similarly, Romney made waves earlier this summer when he said he believes man-made climate change is a threat that must be addressed, bucking conservative orthodoxy and drawing ire from congressional Republicans who have hung their hats on global-warming denialism.

Romney and Huntsman are currently the only two Republican presidential candidates who embrace mainstream science on these issues. They also are the only two Mormons in the race. A look at the relationship between Mormonism and science makes a convincing case that this is no coincidence.

From the very founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders have allowed scientific thought to coexist with their teachings, sometimes in ways that were radical for their time. Modern Mormon scientists, for instance, are quick to quote Brigham Young, who said in 1871, “In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular… whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or as many millions of years.”

In that same spirit, a 1910 statement by the church’s leadership proclaimed, “Our religion is not hostile to real science.” And in 1931, when organic evolution had become a hotly debated topic within Mormon circles, the Prophet and his counselors tried to broker peace between the two camps while still defending science: “Leave geology, biology, archeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the soul of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.”

Of course, not all Latter-day Saints are eager to accept science on the same plane as God-given, capital-T truth.  A 2008 Pew poll, for example, showed that Mormons were among the religious groups least likely to believe in evolution (22 percent said they did, compared with 24 percent of evangelical Protestants, and 8 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses). But, as many have pointed out, the results were likely skewed by the phrasing of the question: “Do you believe that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth?” For many educated Mormons, who accept the science of evolution, the answer to that question is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”

While conservative Christians continue to insist that evolution is an assault on their faith, the LDS church has issued no official statement on the subject in decades, and it is almost never mentioned during church services. Ever the pragmatists, many Mormons tend to eschew the culture war in favor of a “third way,” establishing doctrinal inroads for mainstream science.

According to Summer Rupper, an assistant professor of geology at LDS-owned Brigham Young University, this approach has resulted in a number of science-friendly doctrinal theories. While Biblical literalists contend that the earth was created in six 24-hour periods, scientifically inclined Mormons say there’s room for debate. They argue that the Hebrew word for “day,” as it appears in Genesis, could apply to an indeterminate length of time, and could have even been used to describe the creations themselves. Others point to quotes from early Mormon leaders who speculated that God may have placed humans on the earth before Adam and Eve. These theories help square the Mormon creation myth with scientific evidence that proves the earth is millions of years old, and that humans were walking on it prior to 4,000 B.C.

“We can pull a lot of quotes from both sides of the evolution fence from [past Mormon] prophets,” says Rupper. “But the church’s stance on it is, ‘We know who created us and we know why, but we haven’t been told, through scriptural accounts or revelation, how.’ And we’ve been taught to seek truth, both scholarly and spiritual, so we do embrace good science.”

In general, says John Bell, a professor of physiology and developmental biology at BYU, he and his colleagues teach students that evolution is not a take-it-or-leave-it theory, but rather a fact that can fit comfortably into an orthodox Mormon world view.

Bell puts it this way: “Religion doesn’t make an attempt to explain the mechanisms of how the world works; it tries to give meaning to it. Whereas, with science it’s the opposite; we’re trying to figure out how the world works. You don’t’ have to feel insecure about your faith just because you’re trying to engage in good science.”

While the concept of global warming poses less of a threat to LDS dogma than evolution, Rupper says it is still often viewed among Mormons through a religious prism.

Many Mormons eschew the culture war in favor of a “third way,” establishing doctrinal inroads for mainstream science.

“We’ve been told we’ve been given dominion over this earth,” Rupper says. “These materials—coal, oil, gas—are here for us to use as a blessing to maintain our lives and support our families. But this can contrast somewhat with the commandment we’ve been given to take care of the earth. There’s a little bit of a debate about this within the Mormon community.”

But among LDS scientists, she says, there’s little question about the veracity of climate change and the need to address it. Last year, a number of BYU science professors sent a strongly worded letter of disapproval to the Utah legislature when lawmakers adopted a joint resolution questioning the science of global warming. Ask those professors why they see climate change as such an urgent problem, Rupper says, and you're likely to hear responses both spiritual and scientific.

It may take a bit of theological gymnastics, but it’s through this process of accommodation that Romney and Huntsman are able to reconcile their religious beliefs with science in a way that so much of the GOP field doesn’t. And while Huntsman may or may not be as devout as his primary rival, they have both been exposed to the contemporary Mormon ethic of bridge-building inclusion—one that is made manifest in their politics.

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Romney said BYU faculty members asked him about his belief in evolution when he was interviewed for the designation of highest graduation honors. He said he saw no conflict between what he learned in the classroom and what he heard in church.

“True science and true religion are on exactly the same page,” Romney said. “They may come from different angles, but they reach the same conclusion. I’ve never found a conflict between the science of evolution and the belief that God created the universe. He uses scientific tools to do his work.”

Spoken like a true Mormon.