The embrace of creationism by the Republican candidates for Texas lieutenant governor as the preferred explanation for the origins of humanity generated headlines and provided fodder for yet another round of questions about just how far each candidate will go to demonstrate that he is the authentic conservative in the race.
Strange as some might find the return of the creationism/evolution discussion, the candidates weren’t operating in a vacuum: Data from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that they all have good reason to think that embracing creationism as a personal belief and as a part of their education policy might help their effort to become the natural selection of a winning number of GOP primary voters.
Texas voters should be receptive to such positions; nearly half of our survey respondents report being evangelical or born-again Christians. Between a quarter and a third choose “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” when, in one of our standard recurring questions, they are asked to describe a statement that is closest to their feelings about the Bible. (You can see the wording of these items in the summary of the most recent UT/TT Poll, and in the results of our previous surveys in the Texas Politics Project polling archive.)
We have also asked more specific questions about both beliefs and their relationship to political attitudes that paint an even more detailed portrait of just how skeptical of science Texans become when it is posed directly against religious faith. In the midst of the 2010 debates over curriculum on the State Board of Education, which included science texts and discussion of the validity of theories of human evolution and their status vis-a-vis creationism, the UT/TT Poll asked a short battery of questions about beliefs related to the history of human existence.
The question most relevant to last week’s debate in Waco asked, “Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?” The responses reveal that about half of Texans rejected evolution outright or either didn’t know or didn’t want to express an opinion:
- Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process. (38 percent)
- Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and God had no part in the process. (12 percent)
- God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago. (38 percent)
- Don't know (12 percent)
Republicans in the sample expressed less secular views than the registered voters. Only 7 percent of Republicans chose the option of evolution with no divine role, while 48 percent chose the creationist option without a role for evolution. Another 35 percent chose the God-guided evolutionary process. So when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said at last week’s debate, “I understand there are a lot of people who disagree with me, and believe in evolution,” he probably wasn’t disagreeing with very many Republicans.
Partisan differences in attitudes and beliefs at the intersection of faith and science were in evidence in another battery of questions on science and policy that we asked in November 2012. As Josh Blank wrote at the time, Republicans show much more skepticism toward science in areas that have been politicized in the public arena, such as global warming, birth control, and coal production, than in areas that have been less politicized — for example, natural disaster preparedness and space exploration. (The summary for the November 2012 poll contains all of the items related to science and faith.)
Public school curriculum certainly fits into the category of more publicized issues, though the direct conflict between faith and science presented by evolution may strike an even deeper chord. Texas Republicans generally sided with faith in a question that posed this conflict in general terms, too. As Blank’s piece also observed, 61 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement, “Faith is a better guide than scientific evidence on most important questions”; only 29 percent of Democrats agreed with this statement.
Given these patterns of Republican primary voters’ reliance on religious faith and skepticism toward science when thinking about political questions, candidates bowing to creationism as GOP primary campaigns heat up is as predictable as the marketing of the War on Christmas during the holidays.
Expect more outbursts of faith-based politics, and expect them to keep fascinating the national news media, too, which never seems to tire of covering such stories as some kind of regional novelty. The stories are neither either entirely regional nor unique to Texas. The polarized attitudes about faith and science that make Texas Republicans a party of faith-based approaches to politics and policy are well established, and differ only in degree from national attitudes. Don’t expect the rhetoric in the GOP primary to evolve in a different direction any time soon — or the national news media to stop feeling like every day is Christmas when they’re covering Texas politics.