Even wrong questions need right answers

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker waves while speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

In the last few weeks, Scott Walker has been asked a series of questions about touchy topics, such as evolution and whether he thinks Barack Obama is a Christian. Conservatives are outraged that these “gotcha” questions are being asked. Liberals are outraged by the answers. Both are at least partially right.

I’m going to rile up a large portion of my readership by saying this, but I’m not sure it matters what the president believes about evolution. To the extent that this is a policy matter, it is a policy matter for state and local school boards, where creationists might decide to de-emphasize this portion of the curriculum in favor of content that doesn’t offend their religious beliefs. Scott Walker is not running for his local school board, and as far as I know, they’re still teaching evolution in Wisconsin classrooms. So his beliefs about evolution are probably not very relevant to his current administration or his political future.

No, wait, I know what you are going to say: We need to know if he thinks scientifically or submits reason to theology! Prepare to be outraged again: I don’t think this actually tells us any such thing. I was at a dinner the other night where the very high percentage of Americans who believe in young-earth creationism was submitted as evidence of the failure of the U.S. school system. I don’t think that’s right. People forget most of what they learn in school almost as soon as they learn it. Most of the people who “believe” in evolution don’t have much more scientific foundation for their beliefs than a young-earth creationist does for theirs. I would be slightly surprised to learn that the reporters asking the questions — or, for that matter, President Obama — could deliver more than a few vague sentences about how evolution works, desperately dredged up from the Life Sciences module of their seventh-grade science class. And many such “believers” will conveniently discard their support for evolutionary models if their own closely held moral beliefs are threatened — witness the outrage when Larry Summers suggested that biology might have produced different distributions of mathematical ability between men and women. We’re talking about a process that determined that male black widow spiders should be eaten after they mate. Of course it could have.

Now, I happen to think that the scientific authorities should be deferred to on this question. But knowing which authority people defer to still doesn’t tell us much about how a candidate thinks. First of all, politicians don’t tell us what they think; they tell us what they think the majority of us want to hear, so we’re not so much finding out what Scott Walker believes as which voters he’s most afraid of. And even if he did tell us his truest, innermost thoughts on the subject, the sad truth is that relatively few people on either side have ever thought through their own beliefs about evolution in any important way. We are not really asking these questions because it tells us much about their thought processes; we ask them because we want to know which tribe they belong to.

All of which is a long way of saying that these questions are episodes of political theater, little skirmishes in our long-running culture war rather than serious ways of evaluating a candidate’s presidential fitness. While I am generically in favor of things that make politicians squirm, I do wish that reporters wouldn’t dwell on these side topics, and if they have to, I wish they would spend equal time asking Democrats questions that force them to choose between their base and independent voters, such as “Is it a good thing that technology and legal abortion now mean that 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are terminated?”

All that said, these questions will get asked, and if Scott Walker wants to be president, then he needs to have better answers. Especially on evolution. It’s easy to understand what happened to Walker with the question about Obama’s religious beliefs. For people who don’t go to church and think of religious belief as a form of personal identity, it seems obvious that someone is a Christian if they tell people they’re Christian. But if you’re a Baptist preacher’s kid, the question might seem more important and complicated. If Obama doesn’t come to your Bible study and you’ve never heard his witness or read his spiritual writings, how could you know if this man has actually accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior?

But if you’re a Republican candidate, you have to expect questions about evolution. And abortion in cases of rape or incest. And stem cells and birth control.

If your campaign staff lets you get out the front door without solid, well-rehearsed answers to these questions, they are committing political malpractice. And that does tell us something about Walker’s presidential campaign, as well as the man who’s at the head of it.

Megan McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View.