Sen. Marco Rubio recently touched a land mine in America's culture wars: evolution, creation and the age of the Earth. When GQ magazine asked him how old the planet is, Mr. Rubio's winding response never directly answered the question. Instead, he noted his lack of scientific qualifications ("I'm not a scientist, man"), posited a need to teach the "multiple theories out there on how the universe was created," and settled into the platitude that the Earth's age is an unsolvable "mystery."
Predictably, his response made headlines.
In keeping with Democratic talking points, the answer was framed as
part of the Republican "war on science." His response also highlighted a
divide between evangelical conservatives and the rest of the Republican
Party at a time, in the aftermath of a disappointing election, when the
two sides were already eyeing each other warily. Mr. Rubio's answer
enabled his critics to cast one of the Republicans' fastest rising stars
as an ignorant religious nut. It also provided an opportunity for those
hostile to Christians to lampoon them for trusting their sacred text
more than science.
conservatives, it is tempting to write off the Rubio episode as one more
example of biased media coverage and anti-Christian bigotry. But such a
dismissal would be a mistake. Better to regard the controversy as an
opportunity for introspection.
As a Christian and career scientist, I
see the episode as an opportunity for both Republicans and evangelicals
to establish a more coherent policy on evolution, creation and science,
for two reasons.
First, the age of the Earth and the
rejection of evolution aren't core Christian beliefs. Neither appears in
the Nicene or Apostle's Creed. Nor did Jesus teach them. Historical
Christianity has not focused on how God created the universe, but on how
God saves humanity through Jesus' death and resurrection.
Currently, a debate is unfolding in
theological seminaries and conferences about the correct interpretation
of the Bible's Genesis account of creation. Echoing thinkers like St.
Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Mark Noll and Pope John Paul II, many of the
conservative theologians in the debate believe that a serious reading of
Genesis can be compatible with the scientific account of our origins.
Joining the dialogue are evangelicals
who are also scientists—and with them comes a trend toward recognizing a
"theistic" evolution: the role of God in creating us through an
evolutionary process on a very old Earth.
The second reason that Republicans,
including evangelicals, need to come up with a more coherent stance
regarding the "age of the Earth" question—which journalists will always
be happy to ask—is that there is simply no controversy in the scientific
world about the age of the Earth or evolution. Evidence points to a
The evidence for evolution is just as
strong. In the past, evolution rested on ambiguous fossil evidence, but
now it rests on much clearer DNA evidence that increases exponentially
every month. Fully appreciating this evidence takes a lot of time,
reading and patience. And it is not appropriate to "teach the
controversy" in science class because there is no ongoing debate in the
scientific community comparable to the theological debate.
The evolution debate is not a scientific
controversy, but a theological controversy about a non-central
Christian doctrine. In terms of policy, neither evangelicals nor
Republicans should expect secular schools to litigate doctrinal
controversies in science classrooms. And Christians who try to push
their view of creation through political coercion are misrepresenting
their faith. The "good news" is how God saves us. Not how he created us.
And it is through persuasion rather than force that he brings us to
knowledge of Jesus.
Republicans have a clear path through
the minefield of how-old-is-the-Earth gotcha questions. Let's leave
science curriculums to scientists.
As for Democrats: Please ditch the "war
on science" talking point. It only pushes Americans apart, into their
respective corners. In the two-party system, both sides need to be able
to freely embrace science as a cultural common ground.
Dr. Swamidass is a professor in the Laboratory and
Genomic Medicine Division at Washington University in St. Louis.
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