Teaching Scott Walker What it Means to Pontificate

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in London last week attempting to look presidential, he refused to answer even the most basic of policy questions. Although he certainly didn't intend it this way, his non-answer to the query asking about his opinion of the theory of evolution should be long remembered as one of the funniest and most ill-informed statements of all time.

Without even a hint of irony, he explained, "I'm here to talk about trade, not to pontificate about evolution."

Where to start?

As most people, if perhaps not Walker, know, the origin of the word pontificate is tied to the office of the Pontiff or Pope. One sense of the word, therefore, is to orate like the Pope. Why would it be a bad thing to speak about evolution in a manner similar to the Pope?

Indeed, the Pope, in fact, many Popes, have spoken at length about evolution. Dating back to 1950, Pope Pius XII made it clear that the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is not at odds with the theory of evolution. This position was endorsed by St. John Paul II in 1996 and, as recently as this past October, Pope Francis reaffirmed and expanded upon this position when he noted that "evolution... is not inconsistent with the notion of creation." Additionally, the Pontifical Academy of Science has also planted its flag squarely in the evolution camp.

There are two critical but absolutely simple facts about which Walker is either ignorant or has opted to deceive potential voters by pandering to the vocal but small fundamentalist segment of the population.

The first point is that within the scientific community evolution is categorically non-controversial and unequivocally central to all of biology. The second point is that, as demonstrated by the papal comments referenced above and by similar endorsements of evolution by a host of major religions and denominations, religion and science are not at odds with one another. Yes, there are some outliers, fundamentalists at the fringe of every religion, who believe that evolution is as wrong as it is evil, but this is not the dominate view of those who are well educated both scientifically and theologically.

These points were well articulated over a decade ago in Walker's home state of Wisconsin when the school board in the small town of Grantsburg attempted to mandate that the creationism of intelligent design be made a formal part of the biology curriculum in the public school system. The pushback by professionals was as immediate as it was immense. Letters explaining why the policy was scientifically unsound and theologically unwise were signed by hundreds of clergy, biologists, anthropologists, religious studies professors and geologists as well as middle and high school science teachers all across the state. Every liberal arts dean in the University of Wisconsin System signed a letter explaining how the proposed policy would make it highly unlikely that Grantsburg students would be adequately prepared to enter any of the System's 26 campuses.

In the face of this opposition, even Grantsburg's radical school board, a board that had a fundamentalist preacher serving as its vice president and which promoted bible study during the school day, backed away from their extremist position.

The actions that occurred in Wisconsin directly gave rise to The Clergy Letter Project which, to date, has collected signatures from almost 14,000 clergy who promote the teaching of evolution while asserting that doing so poses no challenges to their deeply held religious beliefs. This is the group that just celebrated its Tenth Annual Evolution Weekend, with hundreds of congregations in 13 countries engaging in meaningful dialogue about how religion and science might complement one another. Over the Evolution Weekend events of the past ten years, well over three-quarters of a million people have participated in exactly the kind of discussion and education that Walker so humorously avoided.

As Walker well knows, Wisconsin is attempting to build a biotech industry, an industry that might well bring needed well-paying jobs to the state, increase the state's tax base and halt the brain drain associated with well-educated citizens leaving Wisconsin for high tech jobs elsewhere. Evolution is central to this industry, as it is to so much scientific progress in the 21st century, and Walker's refusal to pay it even a modicum of respect speaks volumes about his understanding of both science and religion.

Even without pontificating, Scott Walker thus managed to demonstrate his ignorance beyond any shadow of a doubt.