An Apology: Christian Politics and Knowledge Denial

Victories in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries on Tuesday night triggered another round of discussions about Rick Santorum’s religious and political positions and how he’s overcoming unlikely odds despite them.

One in particular, written by Randall J. Stephens and Karl Giberson and published at Religious Dispatches, does an excellent job of explaining how a Catholic Senator from Pennsylvania managed to win over a predominantly Protestant voting population. As Andrew Sullivan and others explained, the mere fact of their Christian association doesn’t explain why Santorum does so well with evangelical Christians. There’s much more to the picture, and that’s what the Religious Dispatches article describes in great detail:

Santorum’s red-hot religious enthusiasm is a big part of his success. Sure, there have been enough gaffes on the hustings to make Dan Quayle blush. But… one person’s gaffe is another’s bold truth. And few have been as bold as the former Pennsylvania senator. When not attacking president Obama for his “war on religion,” Santorum likes to take on so-called secularists, and climate scientists. “I’ve never supported even the hoax of global warming,” he said in February, calling it more “political science” than science.

Anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in American evangelicalism, reaching even into the classrooms of popular schools, like Cedarville University and Liberty University (the largest evangelical university in the world), where students are taught that the earth is 10,000 years old. Millions of evangelical youth grow up hearing that there is a real debate when it comes to human origins. They also come to learn that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle choice that can be repaired with prayer. They are taught that secular historians are suppressing the vision of the Founding Fathers and that America was supposed to be a Christian nation.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is precisely what holds Santorum and his evangelical constituency together, much more than any of their particular economic or international policies, which we hear very little about in debates or on the news. A large portion of the Republican party is glued together by their religious values, not their strictly political beliefs. So, given an issue like birth control, where faith, personal freedom, and economic issues intersect, conservative Christian voters and politicians naturally gravitate toward their beliefs first and put civil issues second. The same is true where climate control and education is concerned. The Bible is so omnipresent in their worldview that they can’t help but interpret everything through a Biblical lens, which is a troubling consequence of reading the Bible literally and believing that it is the sole authority in all matters of belief and salvation.

That doctrine ultimately explains the political views they hold and the anti-intellectualism they exhibit. It unites them in the belief that the literal is the only thing that counts. But, it’s striking to me that an avowed Catholic like Santorum would hold such anti-intellectual positions, or advocate for them. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with saints and scholars who wrote passionately about the harmonious relationship between faith and reason, and the Catechism itself describes the shades of meaning that flow from holy scripture and divine revelation. Contrary to the brand of evangelical Christianity discussed in the Religious Dispatches article, Catholic doctrine does not demand that believers read every part of the Bible literally, nor does it hold that the Bible is the only tool available for analyzing and making decisions about contemporary life.  St. Thomas Aquinas exemplifies this perspective, a perspective that’s alive and well within the Church, today. Santorum might be surprised to find out that the faith he professes is flexible enough to accommodate the theory of evolution and retain the validity of the Bible as a source of divine teaching.

Since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, the Church has debated what evolution says God and the story of creation. Initially met with resistance, the theory has since been accepted with just a few reservations, which I understand to be inconsequential to the theory of evolution itself (both are concerned with materialism). In 1996, Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the issue of evolution, affirming its rationale and explanatory power:

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points…. Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

Even stronger statements about the validity of evolution have been made by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2004, while acting as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) endorsed the following statement made by the International Theological Commission, of which he was also the president:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

Wikipedia’s article on the Catholic Church and evolution is a particularly helpful resource, as it lays out the numerous opinions of different theological authorities, whether they be Popes, Cardinals, or scholars in the Catholic tradition. The issue is complicated, but the overwhelming consensus among theologians is that evolution makes sense, that it is compatible with Catholic doctrine, and that it should be taught to students in science classes.

From here we can guess that if the Catholic Church accepts evolution, it probably also accepts that the Bible isn’t the only source of truth, as the Bible doesn’t say peep about dinosaurs, DNA, or biodiversity. That also turns out to be true, but even if we can guess it, I’d like to spell it out a little.

For this, I want to take a quick look at Aquinas, and then I’ll jump to the Catechism of the Church. Aquinas addresses the interpretation of the Bible in the first part of his Summa Theologica. Question One, Article Ten specifically asks whether scripture may have several senses, which is another way of asking whether or not readers should interpret the Bible in a strictly literal way. Aquinas answers negatively, stating that, in addition to the literal sense, scripture also communicates allegorical and tropological meanings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in 1994, refers to Thomas when it addresses the same issue. Part One, Article Three, Section III states,

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. ‘For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in the other forms of literary expression.’

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church (emphasis mine).

The question of how to read scripture is, again, complicated, but I hope that the emphasis on living reading is appreciated. Given a text like Genesis, it’s a mistake to read the book literally, as though it were a compendium riddled with hidden scientific meaning. Science is concerned with empirical fact, but religion address the living situation of the believer (and perhaps of the non-believer, too). Therefore, the Bible is to be understood as a book that addresses the active and dynamic spiritual life of the person reading it. Pope John Paul II spells this out rather elegantly in his 1981 address to The Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven (emphasis mine).

I titled this overview an apology because I wanted to stress that Catholics aren’t beholden to the kinds of views that Rick Santorum holds, and because I believe such views actually contradict the teachings of the Church. Doctrine itself is not at the heart of the fundamentalist’s world view. Rather, I believe that fear drives them to their conclusions and goads them into political action. And if fear is their guiding light, then they have no guide at all.

Ultra-conservative fundamentalism is as much a reactionary force as it is a product of misunderstanding and ignorance, and it has as its correlative the strong atheist views of scientists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their disrespect for and ignorance of religious doctrine only aggravates the situation, and in reality they’re little more than fun house reflections of what they hate most. My concern is that all debate on the issue of science and faith will eventually devolve, so that the only possibilities for discussion will be those that exist at the extremes. Christians and atheists alike have to realize that they cannot count on the media to provide an open and accurate picture of the scope of this debate. Other possibilities exist, but only to the extent that they are visible and public. My aspirations for this brief discussion is that it will intimate the subtlety of religious belief and show that a spectrum exists between the extremes of radical fundamentalism and radical skepticism about faith. Shared religious convictions do not necessitate defending stupidity, and Christians of every denomination should be alarmed that such intolerant and patently ridiculous views are being espoused in their name.


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