A virus has been sweeping through the ranks of the conservative movement in recent years – and it seems to be getting worse with each passing week.
By that I mean that in a number of areas conservatives have been deliberately rejecting widely-accepted facts in order to cling to old, or embrace new, bizarre notions that further their political agenda. In other words, their behavior doesn’t stem from the kind of “ignorance” that is simply not knowing something. Rather, they willfully reject a particular knowledge because they just don’t want to believe it.
For example, last week’s snowstorm that slashed across the northern Midwest and the northeast and, half a world away, the trapping in ice in the Antarctic of a research ship on a mission to investigate climate change provoked some conservatives to claim they represented damning evidence against assertions of global warming.
“‘Global warming’ isn’t so warm these days,” Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming felt compelled to tweet. Erick Erickson, the widely-read conservative blogger, waxed theological: “The difference between people who believe in the 2d coming of Jesus and those who believe in global warming is that Jesus will return.” Donald Trump, with his usual carnival-barker gusto, tweeted, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING (his emphasis) [expletive] has got to stop.”
All three ignored the obvious: that both incidents are the kind of things that usually happen in the winter in the northern United States, and in the frozen expanses of the Antarctic and thus aren’t likely to indicate anything, one way or the other, about decades- and centuries-long climatic patterns.
Last year Paul Krugman, the Princeton professor and New York Times columnist, attributed such behavior to what he calls a “widening ‘wonk gap’ – the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive.”
But Krugman and other political analysts have also noted something else behind this seeming selective stupidity – that the conservative movement’s political actions are being grounded more and more in religious belief.
That development was underscored by the Pew Research Center’s late December release of their new survey of the “Public’s Views on Human Evolution.” What their research showed was that while Americans’ views on evolution as a whole are about the same as four years ago, the proportion of Republicans who reject the theory of evolution and say human beings have always existed in their present form has sharply increased.
The survey found that while 54 percent of Republicans said they believed in evolution four years ago, only 43 percent now do. Nearly half – 48 percent – now express a belief in creationism, compared with 39 percent four years ago.
Those percentage swings differ sharply from the stability of views of the rest of the American public, regardless of how they’re differentiated: Overall, six in 10 Americans believe in evolution; one-third does not. Roughly two-thirds of both those who identify themselves as Democrats and those who identify themselves as Independents believe in evolution, findings essentially unchanged from 2009.
A key answer to the striking movement of Republicans on evolution lies in the fact that nearly two-thirds of White evangelical Protestants – a group that overwhelmingly votes Republican – believes in creationism. Just 27 percent express a belief in evolution.
The Pew study found that by significant majorities Catholics, mainline Protestants, and those who identified themselves as religious but unaffiliated express a belief in evolution. However, it also found that 50 percent of Black Protestants believe in creationism, too. I’ll come back to this finding in a moment.
Following the Pew survey’s release, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank rhetorically asked whether the GOP’s “big tent [has] evolved into a house of worship” and suggested the findings indicate the GOP itself has increasingly become “a narrow group of conservatives who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible – or partisans who regard evolution as a political question rather than science.”
It’s that latter remark that offers a crucial insight. The GOP’s political leadership and operatives, sitting atop a party that is overwhelmingly White and becoming even more so, have become increasingly dependent on the religious fundamentalist group – White evangelical Protestants – in their midst. That’s why, as Milbank writes, the “Republican Party is achieving the seemingly impossible feat of becoming even more theological.”
That un-American development – the injection of an explicit religious creed into the political mainstream – is the opposite of how the 50 percent of Black Protestants who also believe in creationism have behaved. In sharp contrast, they’ve not tried to push their particular theological beliefs into the political realm. Instead, they, along with Black Americans and other Americans, have hewed to one of the pillars of the American political tradition: the separation of church and state.
That’s a conservative principle today’s conservative movement would do well to follow.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.