GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry is the latest high-profile politician to purposefully and publicly stir religion, science, education and politics into an unsavory stew. The result is an affront to most people of genuine faith, a setback for public education, a sullying of science and an embarrassment to the millions of Americans who believe that politics ought to be about good governance rather than a vehicle for self-promotion.
Perry, the governor of Texas and, according to recent polls, the favorite to win the Republican nomination for president, made it clear during a recent campaign talk that he believes in "intelligent design" -- code words for evolution. He told a young questioner in New Hampshire that evolution is "just a theory" with "some gaps in it." He added that in Texas they teach "both creationism and evolution."
Those statements might serve a vital political purpose for the ambitious Perry, who is courting the right and far-right wing of his party, but they deny the truth on the one hand and defy widely accepted research on the other. A man who wants to be president, though, should stick to the truth. If he does not, someone will set him -- and the public -- straight.
It didn't take long after Perry made his statements about evolution for that to occur. A large number of individuals, including many from his own party and many with deep religious beliefs, quickly challenged his statement that evolution is "just a theory" and publicly contradicted his account of what is taught in Texas schools. In both instances, the challengers got it right.
They pointed out that decades of research into the fossil record and the human genome as well as related studies in other areas had produced an almost unassailable body of evidence to support the principle that all life on Earth arises from a common ancestor or gene pool. Consequently, most scientists now believe that evolution does occur. The only remaining questions are how and why it does. Perry obviously prefers to think otherwise.
His thinking, though, is not always clear and straightforward -- if his statement about what is taught in Texas schools is an example. Though he indicated that both creationism and evolution are taught in his state, the facts do not support his contention. Again, there's prima facie evidence to the contrary.
Texas, it turns out, does not teach creationism. Teachers can talk about creationism, but they can't teach it. David Bradley, a conservative member of the Texas Board of Education, told the Texas Tribune that "it [creationism] is not specifically in the Texas curriculum."
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, agreed. She told the Tribune that "Texas science standards do not call for teaching creationism in the classroom." Reporting by Politfact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website, supports the statements by Bradley and Miller.
If Perry is unwilling to acknowledge the preponderance of evidence that supports evolution and if his statements about what is taught in the schools of the state he governs is incorrect, the question, of course, is why he chose to answer the question in New Hampshire the way he did. The obvious answer is that Perry either is uninformed, or that he is willing to pursue any avenue, questionable as it might be, to promote his political prospects.
His pro-creationism stance should endear him to a significant segment of Republican voters who put what they believe to be political correctness and dogma ahead of national interest. Their votes -- particularly in a crowded primary field -- could turn the election Perry's way. The candidate clearly understands that.
Americans, regardless of their political preference, deserve better from presidential hopefuls. Broad discussions of policy issues, not sound bites that cater to the practitioners of political partisanship, would better serve the nation at a time when a variety of economic and social issues threaten the nation's equilibrium. Perry's grandstanding on evolution suggests that he fails to understand that.