Monday, August 22, 2011

What a Creationist President Would Mean

By Mike Dorf

Texas Governor Rick Perry made news last week when, in answer to a question from a child, he said that evolution is "a theory that's out there" and proceeded to erroneously describe biology instruction in the Lone Star State.  Another Republican Presidential hopeful, Michele Bachmann, has also expressed doubts about evolution and said she favors the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. Mitt Romney accepts evolution (although perhaps only in Massachusetts and not at the federal level!), as does Jon Huntsman.  Ron Paul does not.  I couldn't be bothered to Google whether the other Republican candidates accept evolution, but I'll guess that Herman Cain and Rick Santorum do not, while Newt Gingrich changes the subject.  (Okay, I couldn't resist.  After I wrote that, I looked it up and I was pretty much right on all three.  I'd urge you to verify that for yourself except that you'd end up googling "Santorum.").

What should we make of the possibility that the next President could be someone who doubts a bedrock principle of modern science?  I think the answer is probably "not much."  After all, George W. Bush expressed support for teaching "intelligent design" in public schools, without much apparent effect.  So it's possible that there would be no direct consequences for school curricula from a creationist President.

How about an indirect effect?  A President who has serious doubts about evolution would be comfortable nominating judges and Justices who would be inclined to permit the teaching of creationism in public schools.  But given the multivariable nature of confirmation battles, I think it's possible that any Republican President could appoint judges and Justices who would permit the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools.

Consider: As a candidate, Ronald Reagan expressed support for creationism.  His appointees Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia split on the issue when it came before the Court (before Justice Kennedy joined the Court).  So did Nixon's appointees, and Nixon apparently accepted evolution.  A couple of minutes of Googling did not reveal clear evidence of Nixon's views about evolution but I did come across this article on a creationist website, which lists Presidents who were sympathetic to creationism, but omits Nixon.  I assume that if there were any evidence that Nixon was a creationist or creationist sympathizer, the author would have invoked it.  So I tentatively conclude that Nixon was not a creationist.

Thus, my general principle: Republican Presidents, whether they themselves are sympathetic to creationism or not, will tend to appoint conservative judges and Justices (and, as I explained a few years ago, more so now than in the past). Those judges and Justices will tend to be conservative across the board, which will translate into a greater likelihood of permitting public schools to teach creationism or intelligent design.  The support for creationism by Perry and Bahcnmann is therefore more important for what it says about their worldview and politics than for its likely consequences regarding the teaching of creationism/intelligent design should either end up as President.


michael a. livingston said...

My instinct is that most people who believe in creationism believe in it as an alternate spiritual rather than scientific interpretation, in the sense that when a child asks where they came from, the answer "Mom and Dad loved each other very much and God gave you to us" is not scientific but is not exactly false either. If they thought that it was a scientific explanation, or a substitute therefore, that might be more problematic. But as you correctly say, the practical effect is likely to be limited in either case.

Joe said...

Doubting a "bedrock principle of modern science" sends up a red flag on how the person will run things. This was the case with Bush too, as shown by that administration's slipshod handling of evidence and certain pressures on those who provided evidence that went against their beliefs.

The Republican nominees would appoint conservatives etc. more anyway, but it still is a matter of degree.

Publius the Clown said...

I agree that a president who doubts evolutionary theory will be more likely to appoint judges who would permit teaching intelligent design or creationism under the Establishment Clause, and that the president's doubt will make little difference otherwise (because the president doesn't set local school curricula).

It's also important to keep in mind that it's perfectly plausible to think (as I do) that teaching creationism or intelligent design in science class is (a) a very bad idea and (b) perfectly acceptable under the Constitution (because, inter alia, the Establishment Clause is a federalism provision, as Justice Thomas discusses in his Elk Grove concurrence).

Joe said...

It is possible to hold (a) and (b) as stated in the third comment but it is a weak argument overall.

The Establishment Clause was not merely a federalism provision; the 1A as a whole was one in that respect since each provision only applied to "Congress," letting the states have broad discretion in areas such as libel, blasphemy, sexual material et. al.

And, there is usually overlap -- a violation of the EC tends to harm free exercise or is an equal protection issue. Anyway, as applied to federal policy (including funding), that STILL would raise concerns over creationism.

Joline Rose said...

WOW Gold I like to use the example of captivity. It is not a large considering to think captivity is wrong (any longer). But say one preferred to re-introduce captivity. What would you do in the present climate? You would go out and say at the top of your lung region that all persons should be attentive, probably through in a religious purpose or two. Those in contrast to would say, normally, that captivity was wrong. The press would report "both sides" of the trouble.