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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 November 2005, 12:07 GMT
Dinosaurs, evangelicals and the state
Justin Webb
By Justin Webb
BBC Washington correspondent

Should the views of the religious right, many of whom are Republican party supporters, be adopted by the US government? In Washington, Justin Webb considers the implications and asks whether politics and religion make a good mix.

T Rex skeleton in the Museum of Natural History, New York
Should dinosaurs and religion mix?
We are having dinner at the house of some friends who are supporters of President Bush.

Their five-year-old son, a classmate of our children, takes me upstairs to see his collection of dinosaurs.

Little Meade is a passionate palaeontologist and this is a land of plenty so the room heaves with prehistoric life.

I am suitably impressed, but unknown to Meade I am not here to admire the bone structure of the dinosaurs.

I am in this room on assignment, because in modern America Meade's dinosaurs are at the heart of the travails of a political party and I need to find out something about Meade's parents which will affect our relationship.

I need to know what they told him about when the dinosaurs existed.

Millions of Americans, most of them supporters of the Republican party, believe that the world was created only a few thousand years ago as per the account in Genesis and the dinosaurs can only date from then, so the Tyrannosaurus Rex romped around with Adam and Eve.

In other words these Americans, heirs to every scientific advance in history, deny rational accounts of how the world came to exist.

And Meade's parents - I know his mum teaches Sunday school - might be among them.

I put the question to Meade: "When did the dinosaurs live?"

Tourists look out at the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park
According to some, the age of the Grand Canyon is open to debate
There is an agonising pause as he considers it. American children are wonderfully earnest and Meade is not going to be rushed.

Eventually he says it is in a book his Dad bought him.

We hunt the tome, find it, open the page and behold a diagram which has been explained to Meade.

It all floods back.

The dinosaurs, he informs me with great authority and aplomb, are millions and millions and millions of years old. I could have hugged him and his parents; we are, after all, inhabiting the same mental planet.

But many modern members of the Republican party, including some in positions of great power, do not seem to be living on that planet.

Central question

As the nation recovers this weekend from the worldly pleasures of the wonderfully inclusive festival of Thanksgiving, a festival which can appeal equally to atheist and Bible-basher, it seems to me that the central political question facing everyone here, far more important than any to do with Iraq or the deficit or Guantanamo Bay, is whether or not the Republican party, after decades of flirting, has finally got into bed with an irrational sect.

Describe an American as a Roman Catholic and you say nothing about his or her political and social beliefs.

In the state of Kansas they have succeeded in getting the science syllabus altered so that teachers can tell their pupils that God made everything in its current form
Left-wing flower-power Democrats can be Catholics, so can right-wing socially conservative Republicans.

American Jews, Hindus, even Muslims are not politically defined by their faith.

But evangelical Christians, operating inside the Republican party, have coalesced their energies and their resources around a set of beliefs on homosexuality, abortion and Darwinism which place them on the authoritarian right of every political question and at odds with science. They are campaigning, for instance, to tell visitors to the Grand Canyon that this wondrous sight is not millions of years old, which it is.

Backlash

In the state of Kansas they have succeeded in getting the science syllabus altered so that teachers can tell their pupils that God made everything in its current form - a change the National Academy of Sciences said "would put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they took their place in the world."

This is serious stuff and Republicans who are not evangelical Christians have in recent weeks been organising a fight-back.

They have noticed two things. Number one, that the zealots are spending more energy fighting Charles Darwin than cutting taxes, and number two - and this is much more important - that the zealots outside Kansas are not receiving the support of the nation at large.

A billboard showing the current Dover Area School Board who were seeking re-election. All eight lost their seats.
Did the board lose the election because they opposed evolution?
In the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, the local school board managed this year to get warmed up, creationism infiltrated into biology classes, and here is what happened.

A couple of weeks ago all eight members of the board who were up for re-election lost their seats.

"If there is a disaster in your area," the tele-evangelist Pat Robertson told the people of Dover, "don't turn to God - you just rejected Him from your city."

Mr Robertson is an important man: the former Attorney General John Ashcroft teaches at his university, and his views are sought on Supreme Court candidates and foreign affairs.

Republican doubts

But should those views govern the Republican party?

Many members think not, particularly since President Bush is himself in such dire trouble now.

He famously told an interviewer that when deciding to go to war in Iraq he listened to the authority not of his dad but of a Higher Father.

And, Republicans are daring to think, if not quite say, out loud: "Look where that got him."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 November, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Evolution suffers Kansas setback
09 Nov 05 |  Americas
A question of creation
15 Aug 05 |  Magazine
Would you Adam and Eve it?
01 Apr 05 |  Magazine
Country profile: United States of America
04 Oct 05 |  Country profiles


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