NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

One interesting note on the Pew evolution survey: The first question asked was intended to be one rooted in science — simply asking Americans whether they believe humans have existed in present form since the beginning or have evolved over time. Those who said they believe humans have evolved were asked a follow-up question with a religion aspect: Was evolution a function of natural selection or did God or a “supreme being” play a role?

A quarter of those surveyed who said they believe in evolution also believe that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

What do we know about the cultural, racial, religious, educational and, yes, political leanings of those residing in that large sector of the American population?

Meanwhile, what really sticks in my craw about this article — and at 968 words, there’s plenty to stick — is the build-up of the evolution/creation “gap” as some kind of issue for, of course, 2016, implying a victory by one political party or another hinges on the question of origins. The economy, war, peace, education, health, national security — none of these will matter as much as this question. Or, will it? Take it away, NPR:

Evolution is to the coming presidential election what the death penalty was to Bill Clinton’s successful run for president in 1992 — a “nonstarter” as an issue. Clinton, as president, expanded the death penalty, anathema to many in his party base.

“Bill Clinton redefined the Democratic Party in 1992 as a very different entity than it was defined in 1972 by George McGovern,” Ayres says. “The Republican nominee in 2016 will redefine the Republican Party for the modern age, and who that nominee turns out to be will have an enormous effect on how the party is perceived on some of these cultural issues.”

Sigh. Evolution, so says Whit Ayres, is a “nonstarter” for the next presidential cycle, which I believe actually began the morning after the 2012 contest was decided. So it’s really a non-issue, but one that demanded not only hundreds of words to build up and tear down, but also one where no creation-friendly voice could be heard, let alone a voice who can discuss the wide variety of beliefs that journalists tend to jam under that one term “evolution.”

To paraphrase a former GOP president’s words to a then-director of FEMA: “Heck of a job, NPR.” While the “evolved” man in our picture up top is nursing a backache, the dull journalistic pain I am experiencing seems to be more at the top of the spine — in the brain.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Thinkling

    Quick, spot the key word in the phrased question in the followup:

    “Was evolution a function of natural selection or did God or a “supreme being” play a role?”

    Obviously this was taken from Pew itself and it cannot be blamed on any journalistic ball dropping. But the bigger story available here was the inept “or”; the reporting bought the false dichotomy hook, line and stinker. A better journalistic effort about this survey would have been to point inept it itself was.

    Another facet of the ineptitude of the survey and its interpretations (and the blind spots that cause folks to overlook this) is found at the Statistician to the Stars site (sorry haven’t figured out Dsiqus hyperlinking yet).

    BREAKING: Archeological finds reveal Moses really was given three tablets but dropped one coming down the mountain. The third one said: “XI. Thou shalt not have false dichotomies. Take it or leave it.”

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    There should have been more looking at the Catholic attitude toward evolution in the PEW survey and story. In general the overall Catholic position is moderate and accepts the possibility that evolution is one “mechanism” God could be using to guide the universe to its end point.. Evolution does not negate God’s role in the universe nor does the existence of God negate the theory of evolution. Those who say it must be one or the other– God or evolution– are the ones of limited perception.
    In fact, the very story of creation in the book of Genesis is one of creation by steps (evolution). Thus some historians even claim the theory of evolution is the book of Genesis re-written in modern scientific theory and is the natural byproduct of a culture steeped in the Bible.

    • Darren Blair

      The theology in place within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is similarly flexible enough to allow for “Old Earth” Creationism.

      • John Pack Lambert

        It is also broad enough for people to fully embrace the teachings and theology of the Church and believe in evolution. Some of this surrounds different issues as to what it means when it says that God formed Adam from the dust of the earth.

    • RayIngles

      If you can design a survey that can report on all the nuances of views of evolution, while still getting enough of a response rate to be meaningful, I think you have another career option available. No survey can gather data on everything.

      (And as an aside, the order of creation in Genesis does not match the order of development as understood by biology and paleontology. It would have to be a pretty substantial ‘rewrite’ to get them to match.)

  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ steve

    Picky, picky. The NPR article was evidently not meant to be the be all and end all on the subject. They asked a Republican who said it will be a nonstarter. Short and to the point. Maybe he is right and that will be the end of this with respect to the next election. If the story has legs they might pursue it more later, I expect. One can always quibble with who, out of the many possibilities, should be interviewed. And, because of time limitation and availability, they may reach further down the usual list or try someone new.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I do not think many people saw Clinton’s position on the death penalty as a break by the Democratic Party. Did Carter oppose the death penalty? What about Dukakis? If you have to go back to 1972, how is this a big brake.
    I have to agree the most under considered group are those who believe that evolution did occur but that God had some role in it. This tells us that accepting evolution does not preclude acceptance of religion.
    It also means that people who accept evolution, may in fact be pro-life, pro-man/woman marriage and so on.
    Considering how thoroughly social Darwinism is denounced by most writers of history and others who bother talking on the subject, the notion that believers in scientific evolution must support the legal evolution of the constitution, the key view of Justice Kennedy and Bill Clinton in overturning DOMA, is flawed.
    Evolution has little political meaning. Most debates about education standards are on the state level, and resistance to more federal control of education from politicians like Mia Love, have little connection with their or their constituents views on evolution. I can say this, because I have followed Mia Love closely, and yet cannot say that she has ever expressed a view on evolution. Many Mormons do disagree with evolution, but Church leaders have not spoken against it much for the last 40 years, BYU teaches it, and gives many of its students a set of writings that show that evolution is potentially compatible with the teachings of the Church. Some of the additional scripture brought forth by Joseph Smith uses wording about the creation that is more open to a longer term view of how much time it took than that contained in the Bible.


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