At an event in London on trade policy, Scott Walker was asked about evolution. “It’s almost a tradition now,” the moderator said, to ask “senior Republicans” if they are “comfortable with the idea of evolution.”
“I’m going to punt on that one as well,” the Wisconsin governor replied. “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.”
It wasn’t a great answer, though there have been worse ones.
But it was also a bad question, even though it’s a favorite among liberal journalists in the U.S., and apparently across the pond, too.
That’s not to say Walker is wrong. It’s a pretty stupid issue to get worked up about when considering a presidential candidate. The number of public policies that hinge on whether you believe in evolution — or which theory of evolution you subscribe to — are few to none. A creationist can be brilliant on economics and foreign affairs, while a secular humanist atheist can be an addlepated nimrod on the same subjects.
That’s because the evolution question really isn’t about evolution at all. On the surface, it’s about the culture war. To borrow a phrase from the campus left, Darwinism is used to “otherize” certain people of traditional faith — and the politicians who want their vote. Many of the same people who bleat with fear over the dangers of genetically modified food, fracking, vaccines or nuclear power and coo with childlike awe over the benefits of non-traditional medicines will nonetheless tell you they are for “science” when in fact they are simply against a certain kind of Christian having any say about anything.
As my National Review colleague Kevin Williamson notes, “Everybody wants to know what Scott Walker and Sarah Palin think about evolution, but almost nobody is asking what Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama think about homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy and the like.” Even though such remedies have been given elevated legitimacy under the Affordable Care Act.
Presidents have become avatars in the culture war being fought across the Internet and the airwaves, and nothing gives secular liberal journalists more of a buzz than exposing the alleged backwardness of those they consider backward. It’s a cultural wedge issue used by the very people who claim they hate cultural wedge issues.
Beneath the surface, the salience of evolution as a political football is ultimately about the status of man. Are humans moral creatures whose actions are judged by some external or divine standard, or are we simply accidental winners of an utterly random contest of genes? If it’s the latter, does that mean we are only answerable to whatever ethical standards we invent for ourselves? Few people argue about astrophysics in the same way, even though it’s as problematic a subject for biblical literalists as evolutionary biology, because astrophysics really doesn’t touch on the question, Who (or What or Why) Are We?
When Barack Obama was asked when life begins, he responded that such questions are above his pay grade, even though a president is in fact paid to make myriad decisions which hinge on precisely that question. But liberal politicians are allowed such dodges precisely because liberal journalists know what the politician really believes. Indeed, as a state legislator, Obama fought against a law that would have offered protections to babies accidentally born alive after an attempted abortion. That may not tell you where Obama thinks life begins, but it does tell you where Obama thinks it doesn’t.
Heck, we now know that Obama lied about opposing gay marriage on religious grounds, or at least that’s what David Axelrod, his most trusted aide, says in his new book. Obama is forgiven by his admirers in the press and elsewhere on the left because they never believed that he opposed gay marriage in the first place and understood that he had to say he did to get elected. Noble lies for me, cynicism for thee.
Politicians have to deal with the press and the electorate as it is, and that means they have to answer bad-faith questions about their faith. Whether they lie is ultimately up to them. Whether they get away with it is up to the rest of us.
Still, I’d rather get the full truth. If you think evolution is wrong or flawed, I’m keen on hearing your arguments. “Punting” simply sounds like you’re afraid to answer, which amounts to the answer the questioner was looking for. My own answer would be something like: “Not that it much matters for the job I’m seeking, but I think the evidence shows that all life evolves. Why is there life, and what are we supposed to do with it? Only God knows.”
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.