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.