Just before the vice-presidential debate, one of my more jaded and cynical colleagues proposed this question for Gov. Sarah Palin: "I hope they ask her how old she thinks the earth is."
I’m not sure if asking this question is any fairer or more germane than asking the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, if he really believes in the virgin birth. Or asking erstwhile presidential hopeful Mitt Romney whether he shares the Mormon belief that Native Americans are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.
American politicians talk often about their faith, but the details of their particular brands of religion are usually ignored, which is consistent with our tradition of separation of church and state.
Palin’s case may be different, however, since she was chosen for the Republican ticket largely because of her appeal to the religious right, a segment of the electorate that often advocates an active connection between private faith and public policy.
Palin, for example, during her campaign for the Alaskan governorship clearly stated her support for teaching creationism alongside evolution in public school science classes, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News in 2006. She subsequently softened her position and, as governor, never advocated the teaching of creationism.
Nevertheless, this kind of thinking makes many scientists and educators uncomfortable. Even scientists who have found ways to mesh their faith in God with their faith in science become uneasy at the presentation of creationism and evolution in public classrooms as two more or less equal alternatives which students can choose between.
This isn’t an entirely theoretical issue. Here in Texas, the State Board of Education is currently revising the curriculum standards for all public school science classes. The New York Times reports that 7 of the 15 members of the board are "creationists." The board’s chairman, dentist Don McLeroy, believes in "two systems of science," creationist and naturalist, and he believes that public schools should present them to students as equal alternatives.
The first draft of the new curriculum standards describes in considerable detail the benchmarks that all students should achieve at various grade levels and in various fields of scientific study. For example, high school students should be able to "compare and contrast similarities and differences of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells."
But the standards also include strangely unscientific language about "purported forces outside of nature," as well as provisions that many believe will encourage unscientific attention on alleged "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory. In response to the draft, at least 840 scientists and educators have signed a statement produced by the "21st Century Science Coalition" that discourages the substitution of supernatural explanations for any mysteries as yet unresolved by science.
In short, through the fall and spring a battle is shaping up in Texas over the definition of science and its place in public classrooms. Since Texas is the nation’s second-largest purchaser of textbooks, the implications for other states are significant.
Here’s a reasonable proposition: Science is about understanding the natural world in strictly rational terms; religion is non-rational, and it derives meaning from revelation and faith. Science is a proper object of study in public schools; religion is the domain of the church, the private school, and the human heart.
But many evangelical and fundamental Protestants — more than 60 percent, by some polls — believe that private faith should significantly influence public policy. If Palin shares that view then the precise details of her faith are relevant, including her views on teaching creationism, the connection between the "end times" and state of the Middle East, and the weight of God’s hand on world events.
Maybe someone should ask her.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)