John Avlon Independent Nation

11.20.12

Republican Politicians Must Stop Pandering to Conservative Populism

Marco Rubio said Earth’s age is a great mystery. Fellow rising star Bobby Jindal’s state teaches creationism alongside science. Both Republicans are preaching reform, but if they and others keep pivoting away from common-sense science, the GOP will remain the Stupid Party—and fail.

Republicans need to “stop being the Stupid Party.” That was a blunt postelection declaration of independence by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism,” continued Jindal. “We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people, and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

Amen.

After being demographically left in the dust by President Obama, conservatives are regrouping, reassessing, and recognizing the need to evolve on social issues if they are going to connect with the millennial generation.

Which is why it was significant to see another of the GOP’s brightest lights for the future, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, go out of his way in a GQ interview to avoid offending the religious right by declaring himself agnostic on the subject of science—specifically on the question of roughly how old the Earth might be.

“I’m not a scientist, man,” said the 42-year-old senator. “I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians, and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that … Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

The specific cause of the creation of the universe may indeed be one of the great mysteries; but there is scientific consensus on the rough geologic age of the Earth—4.5 billion years. That is a mystery easily solved by just opening up a textbook.

The controversy comes when theological opinions are taken into account—and the potential political costs of honestly answering the question. And let’s be honest: that’s the reason for Rubio’s deft hedging.

A forthright fundamentalists like Georgia Congressman Paul Broun has articulated his belief this way: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell … There are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.”

This might be a good time to point out that Congressman Broun is on the Science Committee.

Don’t simply pass judgment as you read this from comfortable coastal perches. Understand that this is sincere, standard fundamentalist belief. And that’s all right.

But likewise, let’s recognize that Senator Rubio’s comments are not a statement of pure principle. They are a political pander—a desire not to offend a specific constituency he might need in the future. Because if Rubio believed in biblical literalism on the subject, he presumably would have said so. This is self-inflicted stupid.

That’s why Rubio’s comments are newsworthy and not just gotcha politics. 

Good people can disagree on theological principles. The deeper question is about the separation of church and state—because the way to square this sincere circle is to set aside questions of science from questions of faith.

But that requires getting beyond the legislative impulse to regulate creationism. This goes back to the epic H.L. Mencken dispatches from the Scopes-Monkey trial almost a century ago—captured in Inherit The Wind and (shameless plug) the brand-new anthology that I co-edited with Errol Louis and Jesse Angelo, Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies & Triumphs.

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After all, as Forrest Gump reminded us: stupid is as stupid does.

Young Republican leaders like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval, and Paul Ryan have a special responsibility to determine whether they will drive the Party of Lincoln back to its roots—to be the party of bold ideas rather than what Jindal called “the Party of Stupid.”

That will require taking on special interests and sacred cows—sometimes close to home. Jindal’s record of reform has, in many ways, been impressive, but he will have to reconcile his rhetoric with the reality of his state. Because Louisiana currently teaches that creationism and evolution are competing theories rather than different disciplines altogether—here’s a great look at their textbooks courtesy of BuzzFeed—that should illuminate the stakes of the debate.

Let’s be clear: the point is not that faith necessarily creates the conditions for what Jindal called the “Party of the Stupid.” But the problem is not just what conservative politicians like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock say—it is a problem of policy, not just politics or semantics.

In the case of textbooks, a simple preamble should suffice: “Different religious faiths have different beliefs about the beginning of the world—and we encourage all students to speak to their respective faiths about their beliefs.”

Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal are the future of the Republican Party in large part because they are young and diverse—two qualities the GOP needs desperately. But they have risen far and fast because—like Paul Ryan—they are operators. They have climbed the greasy pole by telling older operators what they would like to hear. That needs to stop if they are serious about modernizing the Republican Party. 

The Party of Lincoln has a great legacy to draw on—but it will require challenging powerful special interests that require political pivots away from common-sense science. It will require, at the very least, again embracing the separation of church and state as a threat to neither sovereign entity. If that can’t be done in a clear and high conscience, then it is a fool’s errand—on both sides of the equation. After all, as Forrest Gump reminded us: stupid is as stupid does.