Recently, Paul Krugman began a New York Times column on the anti-science and anti-intellectual stance of today’s GOP by quoting Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, wherein he stated that the Republican Party is quickly becoming the “anti-science party.” Most people haven’t heard of Huntsman, Republican pariah-in-residence. And even if they do, they probably won’t listen to him. Why? Because he’s reasonable, and there is simply no room for that trait in the Tea Party movement’s hellish and destructive crusade within the GOP.
As the Tea Party has gained momentum, reason has evaporated into the ether and has been replaced with polarizing rhetoric often with a religious flair. We’ve seen this with Sarah Palin’s spurious “death panel” remarks during the debate over Obamacare, Rick Perry’s prayer-based solution to a Texas drought, and Michele Bachmann’s more recent claims that, no matter how much she tries to palliate them with shrill and off-putting laughter, God has had a substantial role in the recent earthquakes as well as Hurricane Irene. Digging a bit deeper, former President George W. Bush, the Connecticut-coddled kid with a specious Texan drawl, kindled the polarization flame again with his famous 2001 appeal to the US Congress where he stated, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And then with the nightmare that was the debt ceiling “talks,” we’ve witnessed a party willing to drive its country into the dirt over something more powerful than reason: their beliefs.
In this unfortunate political arena, reason — the pesky little tool that separates us from flea-picking baboons — has no place. What we see unfurling now in the Republican Party and in the remarks of its primary presidential frontrunners is not the result of reason, but rather Christian fundamentalists who pit their God against science and research in a fight they are determined to win. And that, like Krugman said, is terrifying. But it is also something that, for better or worse, is not new in the American story; it is part of our tradition.
When wondering how something in the United States got to be so screwy, it often helps to think back to our beginnings with those nettlesome Puritans. Fleeing England due to religious persecution, they set sail to the future U.S. of A., taking their austere garb and convictions along for the ride. Recoiling at the thought of anything remotely royal (and naturally so given their sordid history with the British crown), they were suspicious of those with authority, and by extension, intellect. For instance, in Puritan John Cotton’s “The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials,” Cotton claimed that “the more learned and witty you [be], the more fit to act for Satan you will [be].” Surprisingly, not all Puritans felt this way, and oddly enough some of those dissenters went on to found prestigious academic institutions like Harvard and Yale, both of which would produce future highbrow heathens like Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy.
In the Puritan quest for that “beacon on a hill,” a canonical concept whose biblical roots have been echoed in political stump speeches for centuries, the implementation of their dogma—secular governors accountable to God, women being born with more original sin than men, and the divine duty to punish wrongdoers—caused the climate of this “ideal” society to be rife with not only cod and barley but also intolerance, largely based upon apocryphal cries of bored tweens, as evident with the Salem Witch Trials. Singling out those who didn’t seem to fit the mold of their provincial norms, it didn’t matter if the claims didn’t make a scintilla of sense, or if the source was legitimate. All that mattered was what they believed to be true. Belief, then, not only superseded reason; it was its enemy. And that antagonistic relationship haunts us to this day.
Fast-forward a couple centuries. The United States defeated that evil British Empire, and we were able bodied. We were one nation under God, and we had the one-two punch to prove it. We were a plucky people whose knowledge was more empirical than theoretical. Who needed philosophy books when you had hands and a heart in the “right place,” anyway? When writing about Indiana, for instance, Reverend Baynard Hall scribed that “we always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one […] and attempts were usually made to ruin the […] smarter one; since smartness and wickedness were […] generally coupled.”
And so, in a typically nonsensical American way, we elected incompetent and wicked jingoes like Andrew Jackson that are remembered largely for their abuse of power and attempts to rid the country of an entire race of people. And why did we do that? We liked their humble, log cabin beginnings. We liked that they seemed like “us.” And so we continued to spread our divine “destiny,” oppress and enslave in the name of God, and ignore the increasingly conventional wisdom in half of the country that the other half was wrong, plain and simple. And largely because the South’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge truths other than their own, the United States imploded and went to war.
Cue the Evangelical Populist Movement. After the Civil War had ended, instead of using reason to reconcile and dig itself out of the rubble, the American South survived on resentment and clung desperately to its archaic beliefs. Manifesting these ill wills in the KKK and Jim Crow laws, this entrenchment only compounded the economic and educational disparities that still make Southerners so angry today. And make no mistake, some GOP leaders know that and capitalize on it.
Now, take a look at the current scene. Not too much has changed, at least with popular faces of the GOP. Michele Bachmann is an Evangelist who interprets the law under a biblical lens, doesn’t seem to care much for history or facts (just ask her about Lexington and Concord), hides from and campaigns against the increasingly empowered and represented homosexual population, and claims that God caused recent national disasters as well as her decision to run for President. And to this I say, if God does exist, he certainly is a malicious one. Hearkening back to our Puritanical roots (oh, how I’d love to see her in a bonnet and collar), Bachmann has also suggested in interviews that a committee inquire into the lives of politicians to determine if they are pro- or anti-American. One might wonder what being pro-American even means. But don’t worry about meaning. After all, Michele doesn’t.
You also have Rick Perry, Eddie Bauer model with a Texas twang, who calls evolution “just a theory” with “a lot of gaps,” despite, as Krugman states, nearly all of the scientific world’s consensus to its veracity. He’s also added that global warming is just a scheme so scientists can get more money “rolling into their projects.” Projects which, given how damning his diatribe is, must be atheistic in nature and therefore God hating. Perry has also been surrounded by a bevy of reason-free radicals in some of his speaking events, these zealots hailing from the neo-Pentecostal sect known as the New Apostolic Reformation. A group that, according to Texas Observer reporter Forrest Wilder, seeks to “infiltrate politics with government” and believes Christians are “destined to have dominion over the government and the ‘Seven Mountains,’” which “[include] media, arts, and entertainment.” And to think we’re afraid of Sharia Law.
And then there’s Mitt Romney, innocuous Mormon male who seems to be in the throes of a perpetual identity crisis, evidenced by the video below from June of this year:
And yet a mere 2 months later, Romney was on the fence on human-driven climate change:
“Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is. I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans. What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”
Similarly, his 2006 healthcare program in Massachusetts was the archetype for Obamacare, and he formerly believed in man-made climate change. Though when questioned recently, as Krugman points out, Romney ducked and covered. But honestly, who can blame him? Reason clearly isn’t popular with Tea Party voters, and you’d have to be either an idiot or the paragon of courage to stand up against an angry Evangelical pointing a finger. And we all know that Mitt Romney is neither.
While none of these candidates have reason or courage going for them, they’ve got (at least Bachmann and Perry) that je ne sais quoi likability factor. And despite America’s founding fathers’ Plato-esque dreams of philosophical types leading the country, these presidential hopefuls realize that it is more important to be liked than it is to be logical. 1988 Presidential candidate and loser Michal Dukakis confirmed that. Long-faced John Kerry did as well. The truth is that if you seem cold to Americans, the bottom of your ballot bin will be, too. And let’s be frank, if it weren’t for Clinton’s “sax” factor and down-home Southern drawl (despite his Rhodes Scholar pedigree), he may not have fared so well in his impeachment. And lest we forget, former President George W. Bush was so charming that he avoided impeachment all together.
From all of this, reason and one’s religion may seem mutually exclusive in today’s tumultuous environs, and perhaps are even eclipsed by one’s charisma. Though there have been many in the past and present that have been successful in balancing them, even resulting in a certain symbiotic relationship of the two. Old names like John Locke, a particular American favorite, come to mind. Or for newer names, maybe even Jon Huntsman. You just don’t hear about them too much today because, shockingly enough, being “fair and balanced” tends to lead to the same kind of thoughts, none of which will land you much time on a network with the same catchy phrase.
Nevertheless, what we see and read in the headlines today is terrifying. Nothing good can come from radical Republican rhetoric and religiosity combined with a drought of reason. And if these ideologues were elected, the things that could come would be even scarier. The resurgence of God as a “decider” in political thought is not the mark of an enlightened and progressive politician, but rather that of a provincial Puritan who would burn others with whom they disagreed at the stake. Nor is it a sign of the future but rather the simultaneous warning and reminder of our dark past; one that we, thanks to reason, science, and intellect, have been somewhat successful in striving against. To be blunt, these candidates would have our founding fathers, ardent lovers of science and reason, rolling in their grave. And if elected, we must make room for a new body in the National Cemetery: the American intellect.
Savannah Cox is a Foreign Languages/International Studies and Political Science double major at Bellarmine University, and has recently returned from the University of Granada, where she studied Spanish and Political Science. She has interned for the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana as well as Congressman John Yarmuth. In her free time, she enjoys reading, strumming a ukulele, and consuming large amounts of salty carbohydrates.