This post appears on "Comment is Free".
Conservative commentators have not been universally impressed with the ostentatious piety of governor Mike Huckabee. After Huckabee explained his increased support in the Republican caucuses in Iowa in terms of the workings of divine providence, the columnist George Will asked: "Should someone so delusional control nuclear weapons?"
Yet the most distinctive feature of Huckabee's religiosity is, ironically, one that he skirts around. Huckabee is a creationist. At a debate last May he raised his hand when Republican candidates were asked if they disbelieved in evolution. He now insists that his personal beliefs on the issue are unimportant. At a news conference last month, when asked about his anti-evolutionism, he said: "That's an irrelevant question to ask me - I'm happy to answer what I believe, but what I believe is not what's going to be taught in 50 different states."
Does Huckabee's creationism matter for his claims to the presidency? It matters a lot, but it is important to be clear why. The problem is not that Huckabee is a fundamentalist who believes in the inerrancy of scripture. One of the defining principles of the US polity, and the single most important document of the enlightenment, is the Virginia statute for religious freedom of 1786, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. It stipulates that there be no religious test for public office. Religious adherence, or the lack of it, is a matter of personal conscience in which the state has no business. The corollary is that we secularists should be politically indifferent to those who are religiously observant, even while we resist those who claim to know the will of God and wish to hasten it by legislation or by force.
But Huckabee's assertions are not that kind of conscientious belief. Whether couched as an explicit assertion of divine intervention, or as the ostensibly more sophisticated argument of intelligent design, creationism is a claim about the natural world. As such, it is flat-out false. Evolution is a demonstrated fact substantiated by mountains of data. As a claim to knowledge the rejection of evolution bears the equivalent relation to science as Holocaust denial has to the study of history. These are examples of what the journalist Damian Thompson, in an excellent new book on a perverse phenomenon, terms counterknowledge. They are impossible to reconcile with critical inquiry. The only way to argue consistently for that type of proposition is either to ignore the body of evidence or to fake it.
I see no grounds for respecting religious beliefs and make no pretence to do so. But what a political leader holds to be true concerning, say, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary is a matter of personal belief that I have no political quarrel with. We do not have confessional political parties, and neither am I bound as an atheist to sympathise with the wacky political doctrines of Ayn Rand. Huckabee, on the other hand, holds religiously inspired doctrines that are demonstrably untrue. So does his Republican rival Mitt Romney, who believes things about American pre-history that no non-Mormon scholar would take seriously. It is the claim to knowledge that makes Huckabee's creationism and Romney's Mormonism relevant to their claims to office. At candidates' debates from now till the Republican convention, Huckabee and his fellow creationist Ron Paul should be asked one question before anything else: what did Noah do with all the animal dung?
At the same time, secularists should acknowledge that there is a clear and recent counterexample where a belief in nonsense had benign political consequences. No recent President has held more absurd spiritual beliefs than Ronald Reagan. His personal philosophy was a curious melange of the evangelical and the new age. The former White House chief of staff Donald Regan explosively claimed that the first lady, Nancy Reagan, had used an astrologer to determine the best time for various presidential decisions. Ronald Reagan's belief in a literal and imminent Armageddon was often cited by anti-nuclear campaigners as a danger to world peace. That scriptural belief did indeed affect Reagan's policies, but the influence was in a pacific and not a bellicose direction. Reagan was not the resolute cold war warrior either his liberal critics or his conservative adulators still believe.
The evidence is circumstantial but difficult to gainsay. It is set out compellingly by Beth Fischer in her 1997 book The Reagan Reversal. Fifteen months before Mikhail Gorbachev took office, Reagan purposely cooled down the tension of the cold war, with his saccharine "Ivan and Anya" speech in January 1984. It appears that Reagan was motivated by his eschatological notions and, among other political factors, the closeness of nuclear conflagration after the Soviet gerontocracy apparently mistook a Nato exercise (Operation Able Archer) for the real thing.
If Reagan's spiritual beliefs were ludicrous, his belief in worldwide nuclear disarmament combined with impermeable ballistic missile defences was scarcely less so. A world in which nuclear weapons had been "disinvented" would be highly unstable. In diplomatic crises, there would be a positive incentive for the protagonists to develop weapons rapidly and launch them.
Loaded with fanciful notions both theological and political, Reagan nonetheless evinced the right mix of pressure and then compromise with the USSR that worked for that time. The example ought to be better known. Reagan, however, was a case sui generis in geopolitical circumstances that are long past. There is no wider implication that a president holding crank notions is a tolerable outcome, still less a desirable one.