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Michael Gerson: How Rejecting Evolution Led to Evangelical Support for Trump

Michael Gerson

In an article for The Atlantic that has received considerable attention, Michael Gerson tries to explain the “shame” and “disgrace” he thinks his fellow Evangelicals have brought on themselves in supporting Trump. Considering history, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush turned Washington Post columnist traces this to rejecting evolution and other aspects of modern scholarship, which “drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture” resulting in an “insanely pessimistic” perspective:

Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

Well that’s at least a novel theory. I am not going to go near the politics on this — other than to say if you want to know what one of the prominent Evangelicals criticized in the article, Eric Metaxas, has to say for himself on the subject, you could do worse than to read a long and interesting interview from last week that Eric gave to a hostile Yahoo News! reporter.

Obviously, too, I would not venture to speak for Evangelical Christians. But it seems like an at least equally plausible contention that Gerson’s “elite” discredits itself in their eyes by approaching a subject like evolution from a perspective that is so nakedly uninformed.

There are certain giveaways. First of all, “Evolution is a fact,” he tells us, but what he doesn’t say is what he means by the word. As Stephen Meyer writes in the Introduction to the recent book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, there are several quite different things you can possibly mean by “evolution.” Leaving it vague is a warning sign that a writer has only the most superficial understanding of the subject. This makes everything else he has to say after that — e.g., “It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence” – meaningless. “Overwhelming evidence” for what?

Then there’s this: “There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection.” Of course this leaves out the other pillar of neo-Darwinian theory: random, unguided mutations as the sole source of all the material that “natural selection” has available to work on. There would seem to be a major “theological difference” between direction by an intelligent agent, on one hand, and random churning on the other.

Modern Darwinists understand this, as Darwin did himself. So do some theistic evolutionists who argue that the aspect of being undirected is precisely what absolves God of responsibility for innocent suffering in the natural world. Along comes Michael Gerson and lays down the law about whether “evolution,” whatever that means, can be meaningfully integrated with any traditional idea of theism?

Oh, but he doesn’t lay down the law entirely on his own authority. I offer you what I call the Collins Test (very freely inspired by the Bechdel Test). It’s this: Any scientifically clueless writer trying to present evolution as a “fact” and sell it to his fellow Christians on that basis will, in doing so, invoke the iconic theistic evolutionist Francis Collins.

Test me on this; it is absolutely reliable. And here we go. “Some evangelical leaders, it is worth affirming, are providing alternative models of social engagement,” says Gerson approvingly. Examples, please? He names several including, yes, “Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who shows the deep compatibility of authentic faith and authentic science.”

Here’s the thing. If you are an Evangelical Christian reader, Gerson’s presumed audience, you either know something about the credible scientific controversy around the mechanism of neo-Darwinism evolution and whether that mechanism can account for the diversity of life, or you don’t know much of anything. If you don’t, as Gerson apparently does not, then dropping the name of Francis Collins might be impressive to you.

But if you’ve read, for example, any of writers collected in the massive Theistic Evolution volume — Axe, Meyer, Leisola, Tour, Ewert, Wells, Gauger, Nelson, Bechly, and the rest — then you will have an idea of the seriousness of the modern critique of evolutionary theory and the scientific weight behind the alternative theory of intelligent design. The musings of Michael Gerson are lightweight, laughably so, in comparison. So much for the precious “elite culture” he thinks he represents.

Francis Collins? Please. Here is Meyer on theistic evolution, writing in the chapter mentioned above:

This tangled — indeed, convoluted — view of the origin of living systems adds nothing to our scientific understanding of what caused living organisms to arise. As such, it also represents an entirely vacuous explanation. Indeed, it has no empiric or scientific content beyond that offered by strictly materialist evolutionary theories. It tells us nothing about God’s role in the evolutionary process or even whether or not he had a role at all. It thus renders the modifier “theistic” in the term “theistic evolution” superfluous. It does not represent an alternative theory of biological origins, but a reaffirmation of some materialist version of evolutionary theory restated using theological terminology.

Equally tangled and convoluted, that is the foundation on which Michael Gerson wants to lecture his fellow Christians about the origin of their “shame” and “disgrace” in helping to elect a President. As Evangelicals are fond of saying, this guy has some chutzpah. When I saw how long his essay is, and the nature of it, my first thought was that he is winding up to sell a book, castigating his faith community for its political direction as well as its doubts about scientific orthodoxy. Here’s some unsolicited advice for Gerson: Try that after you’ve learned a lot more deeply about why Darwin skeptics say what they do.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.