American Protestantism, Evolution, the GOP, and Our Political Angst
A picture is worth a thousand words:
You’re still going to get the words - yet another Page on evolution and American politics. It seems a bit redundant at this point, but I do think all too often political pundits underestimate the importance of the evangelical/conservative religious experience in this country as key to understanding today’s American society and politics.
I have mentioned before the phenomenon of Worldview Collapse, a process whereby a society must re-invent their image of themselves and their place in the world, after older beliefs fail them.
Religious angst is a characteristic pathology needed to explain what is happening in American politics and the current GOP implosion.
Angst arises because what we have learned in science, in particular Evolution, requires our society to change the collective worldview.
That American evangelical Christianity is highly “conservative” is shown again by another survey, released January 9th by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC):
Pastors overwhelmingly believe that God did not use evolution to create humans and think Adam and Eve were literal people, according to a survey by LifeWay Research.
The survey of 1,000 American Protestant [eds. this is important] pastors, released Jan. 9, also found that ministers are almost evenly split on whether the earth is thousands of years old.
When asked to respond to the statement, “I believe God used evolution to create people,” 73 percent of pastors disagree, with 64 percent strongly disagreeing and 8 percent somewhat disagreeing. Twelve percent each somewhat agree and strongly agree. Four percent are not sure.
In response to the statement, “I believe Adam and Eve were literal people,” 74 percent strongly agree and 8 percent somewhat agree. Six percent somewhat disagree, 11 percent strongly disagree and 1 percent are not sure.
Based on a Gallup poll from December 2010, pastors are more creationist (referring to the belief that all things were created substantially as they now exist as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis and not gradually evolved) than the American public at large.
Forty percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form, 38 percent say God used evolution to develop humans and 16 percent think man evolved with God playing no part in the process, according to Gallup.
In response to the statement, “I believe the earth is approximately 6,000 years old,” 34 percent of pastors strongly disagree. However, 30 percent strongly agree. Nine percent somewhat disagree, and 16 percent somewhat agree.
“Earth’s age is the only issue in this survey on which pastors are almost evenly divided,” Stetzer said. “But to many of the pastors, belief in an older earth is not the same as belief in evolution. Many pastors who believe God created humans in their present form also believe that the earth is older than 6,000 years.”
The only statistically significant difference was that younger pastors are the least likely age bracket to strongly disagree that the earth is 6,000 years old. [Yes, the younger pastors are more literalist.] While 24 percent age 18-44 strongly disagree, 33 percent age 45-54, 38 percent age 55-64 and 38 percent 65 and older feel the same.
You can download a PowerPoint overview of the survey here.
For those who may be questioning what evangelical Protestantism has to do with politics, in particular the Republican party, I direct you to the following as starting points:
Why Theocratic Nationalism Imbues GOP Debates: A Look at American Values
Fox News Poll on Creationism and Prayer - Legitimizing Delusions in American Politics?
Pawlenty Boasts His Creationist, Anti-Gay Credentials In Iowa Tour
The Fundamentalist Threat: Is the Tea Party an outgrowth of fundamentalism?
Peter Enns, an Old Testament scholar formerly associated with Westminster Theological Seminary, and who has been associated with Biologos, gets to the heart of the question on why Evolution is so important to American conservative Christianity:
Why are so many evangelicals on full alert over evolution?
They are afraid that, if evolution is correct, their evangelical heritage is called into question. That means their personal narrative is threatened.
Our personal narratives tell us where we belong in the world. They give us a sense of stability and comfort amid uncertainty. Generally speaking, human beings hate having their personal narratives challenged, especially if that narrative pertains to such things as the nature of the universe and their place in it, God, the afterlife, and so forth–things the evangelical narrative provides.
Evolution threatens the evangelical narrative. And it’s not a joke. The threat is real.
The “personal narrative” is an individual element of the larger entity I label our collective “worldview”, which is the sum of the personal narratives of the population over a period of time long enough to encompass the majority of the creative output and documentary history of that population, a history that indoctrinates the society at large about who they are.
“But”, you might protest, “America is more than just Christianity.”
Today - yes, that might be the case, but that objection is not so true of America’s past.
Dr. Enns also refers to this essay at Biologos by Mark Noll:
In which Noll recounts how the division between those in the US who accept modern science and those who don’t is rooted in American history. Noll’s thesis:
In American history, the attitudes, convictions, and assumptions that continue to shape contemporary disagreements arose during three distinct eras: during the years of the early republic; during the years when the modern universities came into existence; and during the recent prominence of public culture wars.
Noll walks through the early history of the US, describing the tight interconnections between Christianity in the young nation and the social experiment that is the United States.
I fear that too many writers (and blog commenters) today try to interpret the American past as a non-Christian, or at least fully secular, society but America was strongly an experimental undertaking in a new (non-European) form of a Christianized society. American life was dominated by a Christian worldview from the very beginning, a worldview that only became questioned by the masses during the middle of the 20th century.
The institutions of American evangelical Protestantism, that form of religion that dominates the active base of today’s Republican party, are still clinging, desperately, to the old worldviews (as seen in the latest survey above) and the flock does likewise.
That 18th century worldview does not fit into the 21st century world, and that conflict is what we see playing out in the new (online) media and GOP politics.