JR'S Free Thought Pages
Religiosity in the US Presidency
From Francis Wheen’s “Idiot Proof” (2004)
Prologue – American Credulity
A Gallup poll in June 1993 found that only 11 percent of Americans accepted the standard secular account of evolution, that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process"; 35 percent thought that humans evolved over millions of years, but with divine guidance; and 47 percent maintained that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so"—the creation story as told in the Book of Genesis. Other polls at about the same time discovered that 49 percent of Americans believed in demonic possession, 36 percent in telepathy, and 25 percent in astrology; and that no fewer than 68 percent approved of creationism being taught in biology classes. By then, however, few of creationism's advocates actually used the word any more. "Religious America is awakening," Ronald Reagan had announced jubilantly in 1980, shortly before the states of Arkansas and Louisiana passed bills obliging public schools to teach creationism in science lessons. But the laws were struck down by higher courts, which ruled that because creationism was indeed a religious belief it could not be added to the biology curriculum without infringing the constitutional ban on promoting religion, and thereafter the fundamentalists adopted a more scientific-sounding phraseology—"abrupt appearance theory," "intelligent-design theory"—to disguise the fact that their only textbook was the Old Testament.
The Evolution of the US Presidency
During his presidential campaign of 2000, George W. Bush often attacked the relativism that "liberals" had inflicted on America—the idea that nothing was right or wrong, true or false. Yet only a few months earlier, when Christian fanatics on the Kansas board of education voted to remove evolution from the state's science curriculum, Bush paraded his own relativism by arguing that creationism should be taught alongside evolution since "the jury is still out" and "children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started." Some theories, as George Orwell might have said, are more different than others. "Science is about fact," a Kansas newspaper, the Topeka Capital Journal, editorialized. "But it's also about hypotheses; and creationism is as good a hypothesis as any for how the universe began." To judge by the newspaper's letters page, many readers agreed. "I am writing in response to the poor souls out there who believe that the state board of education has taken education back to the Dark Ages," one wrote. "I say it's about time! . . . Take my children back to the Dark Ages, where truth was taught and they received the education they deserved." No wonder some wags wondered if the Kansas board had decided to solve the Y2K problem by turning the clock back to Y1K. "In one pan of the scales," Salman Rushdie wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "we now have General Relativity, the Hubble Telescope and all the imperfect but painstakingly accumulated learning of the human race and, in the other, the Book of Genesis. In Kansas, the scales balance." And not only in Kansas. Even Al Gore, who had acquired a reputation as the "Mr. Science" of the Clinton administration, seemed reluctant to disturb this bogus equilibrium. A few months earlier one of his chief policy advisers had told the Boston Globe that "the Democratic party is going to take God back this time," and on hearing the news from Kansas the candidate said that although he personally favored the teaching of evolution, "localities should be free to teach creationism as well."
Gore thus maintained the ignoble tradition of politicians from Tennessee—the same state that made itself the laughing stock of the civilized world in 1925 by prosecuting a young high-school teacher, John Scopes, for teaching Darwinian theory in biology class. The great reporter H. L. Mencken, in one of his many lacerating dispatches from the Scopes trial, suggested that Tennessee hillbillies "are not more stupid than the city proletariat; they are only less informed." Why, then, were even the most intelligent Tennesseans so reluctant to assist the cause of enlightenment by repudiating the antediluvian nonsense taught in local schools and endorsed by local nabobs? "I suspect that politics is what keeps them silent and makes their state ridiculous. Most of them seem to be candidates for office, and a candidate for office, if he would get the votes of fundamentalists, must bawl for Genesis before he begins to bawl for anything else." The "typical Tennessee politician" was a man such as the then governor, Austin Peay, who sought to exploit the Scopes trial for his own political advantage before it had even begun. "The local papers print a telegram that he has sent to Attorney-General A. T. Stewart whooping for prayer," Mencken reported. "In the North a governor who indulged in such monkey shines would be rebuked for trying to influence the conduct of a case in court. And he would be derided as a cheap mountebank. But not here."
Al Gore, who might best be characterized as an expensive mountebank, was another great whooper for prayer. As vice president, in spite of portraying this pretense as a man of science, had on his desk a placard with the toe-curling motto "WWJD"— What Would Jesus Do? Apparently he never pondered a more pertinent question: What would the founding-fathers think? The American presidential election of 1800, in which John Adams stood against his old friend Thomas Jefferson son, also happened to be a contest between two men who were, at the time, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the president of the American Philosophical Society. The historian Henry May described this as "a coincidence very unlikely ever to be repeated in American politics," and his prediction looks increasingly solid. Exactly two centuries later, the main contenders for the presidency were George W. Bush, a genial chump, and Al Gore, a moderately intelligent liar and influence-peddler — a choice summarized by one British newspaper as "Dumbo vs. Pinocchio."
The contrast between 1800 and 2000 went further than mere intellectual power and integrity. Adams and Jefferson, though flawed and complex characters, were both major figures of the American Enlightenment who believed that what the Europeans had merely imagined was being realized and fulfilled in the New World. Many of the European philosophers of the late eighteenth century thought so too: To the Marquis de Condorcet, America was of all nations "the most enlightened, the freest and the least burdened by prejudices"; Diderot saw it as "offering all the inhabitants of Europe an asylum against fanaticism and tyranny." Tom Paine described the cause of America as "the cause of all mankind," since political or clerical aristocracies would hold no sway in a state founded on secular reason and equal opportunity. Two hundred years later, the candidates Bush and Gore were respectively the son of a president and the son of a senator. The one serious and substantial contender, Ralph Nader, was excluded from the televised debates and largely ignored by the mainstream media, perhaps for fear that he might show up his rivals as a couple of bozos. Liberal Democrats warned potential Nader supporters that unless they voted for Gore as "the lesser of two evils" they would be responsible for letting Bush into the Oval Office, a counsel of despair and desperation likened by the columnist Alexander Cockburn to "a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine."
In this light, Henry May might seem to have been right in arguing that the 1800 election "marked the real end of the Enlightenment in America": Thereafter, the idealistic rhetoric and practice of the 1770s and 1780s adjusted to the realities of popular democracy, and what came into existence was a nation radically democratic in its suffrage but moderately conservative in its institutions. "The Secular Millennium gradually turned into Manifest Destiny . . . There was less and less disposition to dwell on political doctrines, including the political doctrines of the Enlightenment, closely associated with the increasingly different European world."
One could appear to prove the point by marking further distinctions between the presidential candidates of 1800 and 2000. Jefferson hung in his library portraits of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, the English prophets of Enlightenment, hailing them as "the three greatest men who ever lived, without any exception." In his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore described the same Francis Bacon as the greatest villain who ever lived: "Bacon's moral confusion — the confusion at the heart of much modern science—came from his assumption, echoing Plato, that human intellect could safely analyze and understand the natural world without reference to any moral principles defining our relationship and duties to both God and God's creation." Jefferson advised his nephew to "question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than that of blindfolded fear"; both Al Gore and George W. Bush, however, proudly proclaimed their blindfolded allegiance as born-again evangelical Protestants. (At a hustlings in December 1999, Republican hopefuls were asked "what political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?" Whereas Steve Forbes spoke of the enduring significance of John Locke, Bush replied simply: "Christ, because he changed my heart.")
The influence of European Enlightenment ideals on American political institutions may have dwindled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but the Enlightenment had never been a purely or even predominantly political movement in the first place. A more general respect for the secular, liberal humanism of the founding fathers—and for the spirit of scientific inquiry embodied by Benjamin Franklin, extravagantly depicted by the French Enlightenment philosopher Turgot as a liberating hero who "seized fire from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrant's hand"—endured far beyond the lifetime of Thomas Jefferson. "Thank heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley," Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1918, explaining how he became a naturalist. Woodrow Wilson, asked in 1922 for his thoughts on evolution, replied that "of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised." Only three years later, they were propelled onto every front page by the Scopes trial.
The small courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, became the arena for an extraordinary joust between two national figures—William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate who installed himself as "associated prosecuting counsel," and Clarence Darrow, the country's most successful and famous attorney, who volunteered to represent Scopes. Each man saw the trial as nothing less than a battle between light and darkness, and it culminated in a direct showdown when Darrow called Bryan himself to the witness stand "to show the people what fundamentalism is." Although the judge protectively reminded Bryan that he was not obliged to endure this cross-examination, the elderly statesman seemed willing—indeed honored—to appear as an expert witness on behalf of God. "These gentlemen," he snarled, gesturing at the defense team, "did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any questions they please." Darrow duly did so, eliciting a torrent of absurdities. "If God had wanted a sponge to think," Bryan declared, "a sponge could think." He also insisted, to incredulous hilarity from the defense benches, that humans were not mammals. Everything in the Old Testament—from Jonah and the whale to Noah and the ark—was literally true. God really did make the world 5,000 years ago.
"Do you say," Darrow asked, "that you do not believe that there were any civilizations on this earth that reach back beyond five thousand years?"
"I am not satisfied by any evidence that I have seen."
"Don't you know that the ancient civilizations of China are six or seven thousand years old, at the very least?"
"No, but they would not run back beyond the creation, according to the Bible."
"Have you any idea how old the Egyptian civilization is?"
Metropolitan sophisticates all over the U.S. and far beyond sniggered over the reports of Bryan's buffoonery. But metropolitan opinion counted for nothing in Dayton. Since the judge had ruled that Darwinism was inconsistent with the tale of Eve being created from Adam's rib (thus violating the state's law banning the teaching of anything that denied Genesis), and since the jury had to decide only whether Scopes had used a biology textbook explaining evolutionary theory—which he admitted—there could be only one verdict. He was convicted, and fined $100. Over the next few years, as other states copied Tennessee's anti-evolutionism statute, Darwin was removed from most school textbooks, not to return until the early 1960s. The growing appeal of evangelical fundamentalism in America during the 1920s can most plausibly be interpreted as a quest for simple certainty by people who found the pace of change in society both bewildering and alarming. Mencken made the point with typical pugnacity in his article "Homo Neanderthalensis," published a week or so before the Dayton hearings began in the summer of 1925:
The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex—because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plough can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged—and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple—and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.
The popularity of fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.
Mencken was an unashamed snob, and his assumption that truth is beyond the comprehension of all but a small elite overlooks the indisputable fact that a partiality to bunkum is not confined to "the lower orders"—unless one extends the definition of that phrase to include eminent grandees. Mencken himself admitted elsewhere that superstition is often "cherished by persons who should know better." Recalling the surprise expressed by Woodrow Wilson in 1922 that anyone should still question organic evolution, one can imagine his astonishment had he known that Messrs. Gore and Bush, the two men vying to become the first American president of the next century, would both flaunt their sympathy for the militant simpletons who were still fighting the good fight on behalf of the Book of Genesis.
Fortunately, as history confirms time and again, America is not dependent on presidents to protect its intellectual standards and values. It may be infested with flat-earthers and TV evangelists, but it also has more Nobel prizewinners than anywhere else—and plenty of citizens who will strenuously defend the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. For every populist moron such as William Jennings Bryan there is always at least one Clarence Darrow. After the Kansas vote in 1999, while the presidential wannabes were hemming and hawing, the Washington Post struck a Menckenesque note by publishing this spoof memo from God to the Kansas board of education: "Thank you for your support. Much obliged. Now, go forth and multiply. Beget many children. And yea, your children shall beget children. And their children shall beget children and their children's children after them. And in time the genes that made you such pinheads will be eliminated through natural selection. Because that is how it works." Even in Kansas itself, the state's Republican governor, Bill Graves, proved willing to take on the blockheads. "This is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didn't exist," he declared. "I think this decision is so out of sync with reality that in some ways it minimizes the credibility and the oversight that the state board is supposed to have on schools. What are they going to do, hire the evolution police?"
Why was the Kansas governor able to issue a more forthright condemnation than either of the men hoping to occupy the office held by Thomas Jefferson? "It's really not surprising, if you think about it," the governor's press secretary told a reporter. "If you're running for president, you have to be all things to all people. You don't want to alienate anybody." In mitigation one could argue that George W Bush, despite being an alumnus of both Yale and Harvard, was a bit of a goof who sincerely believed what he said about the jury still being out. The same indulgence cannot be permitted to Al Gore (Harvard, class of '69), who proudly paraded his scientific knowledge at every opportunity; nor to Tony Blair, the British prime minister, whose favorite word was "modernization." These two clearly come into the category of "persons who should know better." Yet Blair, like Gore, took refuge in post-modern relativism to justify appeasing pre-modern zealots.
In March 2002 the Guardian revealed that Christian fundamentalists had taken control of a state-funded secondary school in northeast England and were striving to "show the superiority" of creationist beliefs in their classes. 'As Christian teachers it is essential that we are able to counter the anti-creationist position," the vice principal of Emmanuel College, Gateshead, had advised colleagues. Another senior member of staff argued that Darwinians have "a faith which is blind and vain by comparison with the faith of the Christian ... A Christian teacher of biology will not or should not regard the theory of evolution as axiomatic, but will oppose it while teaching it alongside creation."
In Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, creationism has little appeal. Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies have long since accepted Darwin's theory: Even Pope John Paul II said that it was "more than just a hypothesis." But Tony Blair had already announced his intention of building more "faith-based schools," and the news from Gateshead strengthened the suspicion that some of these academies would proselytize rather than educate. Jenny Tonge MP asked if the prime minister was "happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in state schools." A simple "no" was surely the only possible answer, especially as he was due to deliver a speech to the Royal Society a few days later in which he would extol "proper science" and warn against "a retreat into a culture of unreason." But it was not the answer he gave. Blair told Jenny Tonge that the creationists of Gateshead were doing a splendid job: "In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children."
A few Labour backbenchers gasped in amazement as the significance of Blair's reply sank in. Here was the leader of a supposedly secular, progressive government who, on being invited to assert that probable truth is preferable to palpable falsehood, pointedly refused to seize the opportunity—and indeed justified the teaching of bad science in the name of "diversity." He might just as well have trotted out the pernicious old maxim that ignorance is bliss, the last refuge of tyrants ever since God banished Adam and Eve from Eden for sampling the fruit of knowledge or the classical deities unleashed misery on the world through Pandora's box in revenge for Prometheus's heroic disobedience.
Had Tony Blair meant what he said when he told his party conference in 1996 that New Labor took its inspiration from "the ancient prophets of the Old Testament"? A more likely explanation is that he had been infected (however unwittingly) by the cultural, moral, and intellectual relativism of the postmodernists, and by the fashionable disease of "nonjudgmentalism." As if to confirm the modishness of this affliction, his statement went largely unchallenged, even though it marked a new low in contemporary British political discourse. What if some schools informed their pupils that the moon was made of Swiss cheese, or that the stars were God's daisy chain? Would that be officially welcomed as another healthy consequence of Blair's "more diverse school system"?
This is the enfeebling legacy of post-modernism—a paralysis of reason, a refusal to observe any qualitative difference between reasonable hypotheses and swirling hogwash. At a time when countless loopy creeds were winning new converts it gave aid and comfort to the peddlers of nonsense. Even extraterrestrial conspiracy theories were granted some academic respectability, notably through the publication in 1998—by the reputable Cornell University Press—of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, a post-structuralist study of UFO sightings and alien abductions. The author, Professor Jodi Dean, was not an astronomer but a political scientist who specialized in "identity politics," and throughout the book's 242 pages she strenuously avoided any kind of judgment on the likelihood of what she described—unsurprisingly, given her insistence that reality no longer exists anyway. Or, to quote her own professorial prose, "the fact that abduction accesses the stresses and excesses of millennial techno-culture doesn't get to the truth of abduction (as if getting to truth were still a possibility)." Alien narratives, she argued, "challenge us to face head-on . . . the dissolution of notions of truth, rationality and credibility." If notions of truth were disintegrating, shouldn't a professor feel some duty to rescue them from the acid-bath? Not at all: Jodi Dean rejoiced at their destruction, since rational dispute was an instrument of oppression rather than a method of seeking some kind of verity. 'Argument, thought by some to be an important part of the process of democracy, is futile, perhaps because democracy can bring about Holocaust."
While indicting anyone who clung to the discredited methods of reason and critical engagement as an accomplice in genocide, she had no such strictures for the ufologists, who were presented as heroic dissidents opposing the "governmental-juridical discourse" and the "elite, official 'arbiters of reality.'" And, as she noted with pleasure, they were rapidly becoming a mass movement. According to one opinion poll in the 1990s, some 2 percent of Americans said that they had been kidnapped by extra-terrestrials, which would translate into 3.7 million victims. ("Since many claim multiple kidnappings," John Leonard wrote in the Nation, "we are talking about an air-traffic control nightmare.") A1996 poll for Newsweek found that 48 percent of all Americans believed in UFOs and 27 percent thought that aliens had visited the earth. If, as Dean argued, a belief in UFOs and alien abductions was a "political act," since it "contests the status quo," there must have been many more radicals in the United States than one might suppose; and although she categorized them as "the oppressed," they included some of the most powerful people in the land.