The most important fracture line dividing Americans over domestic and foreign policy isn’t the phony “red state, blue state” fracture, invented by those wishing to artificially divide us, and cited by people who don’t want to think. Other possible cleavages do not exist, or lack the force they once had. For example:
- The traditional argument between Democrats and Republicans over fiscal policy and the welfare state ebbed long ago. Democrats during the Clinton years embraced tougher spending caps and welfare reform; Republicans under Bush II have driven up the federal deficit at an unparalleled rate, to a staggering peak.
- Morality is less of an issue for voters than it is for Sunday talk show pundits. Americans may disagree over when, between insemination and birth, the legally protected definition of human life should begin, but a vast majority believes that the answer is largely a judgment call.
- Americans have few fundamental differences over foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks only solidified the consensus about maintaining America’s defenses, and re-focused collective attention on the terrorist threat. Certainly, with the Iraqi occupation, Republican leaders have taken “state-building” far beyond anything the Democrats have contemplated.
The real divide—the one that absolutely separates one group of Americans from another—is science.
A minority of Americans are now actively hostile to both the methods and results of science. There is no compromise position agreeable to them: science is either repugnant, or it’s not. This chasm has deep implications for every aspect of politics, including national security (which is why I feel comfortable talking about it on this blog).
Happily, the percentage of Americans who fall into this camp is not large. However, the nature of their disagreement with everyone else, and the vehemence with which they pursue it, distorts politics to a degree far out of proportion to their numbers. If you buy a watermelon at the supermarket, and stuff it into the bag with the rest of your purchases (a carton of eggs, a loaf of bread, a few tomatoes, etc.), the watermelon will still be only one item among many. However, its effect on everything else is, needless to say, considerable.
How can you measure the size of the anti-science faction? Look at the polls about evolution, the origins of the Earth and the universe, and global warming for a hint. (The number of Americans who think that the moon landing was faked represents the minimum number of anti-scientists.) The effects of these opinions about physics and biology are much larger, seeping into public and private debates over foreign policy, military strategy, and intelligence, not to mention everything on the domestic political agenda.
The bellicose, besieged branch of Christianity that has expanded over the last few decades has swelled the ranks of this faction, but it is not the only explanation for its existence. It’s difficult to separate cause and effect in the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and hostility to science. Do a believer’s pastor and peers change that person’s opinion on science, or do people already uncomfortable with science gravitate towards particular Christian sects?
Pastoral affiliation isn’t an absolute indicator of attitudes about science. A large number of evangelical Christians are perfectly fine with evolution, global warming, the Big Bang explanation for the universe’s origins, and other common targets of the anti-science faction. Some believe that God exists, not in the way described literally in the Bible, but in the proverbial watchmaker who created the universe and set it in motion.
Antipathy towards science is not limited to fundamentalist Christians. People who follow other faiths, or who are not measurably religious at all, share that opinion. It would be misleading and unfair to the large, varied community of Christians to lay all the blame for the rise of anti-science opinions at their feet.
However someone achieves hostility towards science, the position itself is uniquely unassailable. To refute it, you have to use many tools of science—which are a priori rejected by the anti-science faction. To argue the merits of evolution, you have to become an evolutionary biologist—something that this faction refuses to do. Even when this group appears to be playing by the rules, they don’t. The most common example is their citation of polls and studies that point in the direction a member of this faction prefers. Often, the citation is presented as a prima facie case, without regard to the quality of the research behind it, possible ways to resolve the different results among polls and studies, or even if researchers are asking the same questions.
POSTSCRIPT: It’s easy to misread the polls about evolution and creationism. As this Pew study shows, the question that should be posed is, “How did life emerge?” Religious people have varying answers, from, “A demiurge-like deity created the world, and then stepped out of it, allowing the machinery to grind on, eventually creating life,” to, “God created the world, and all life on it, exactly as described in [your religious tome here].” Therefore, the question, “Did God have a hand in the emergence of life on Earth?” is vastly oversimplified, missing many religious people who accept evolutionary biology.
By the way, the illustration for this post, a famous painting by William Blake, is meant to convey how, for many people, religion and science can comfortably co-exist in the same mind and heart.